When Arnie Carruthers sits down in front of his Baldwin upright piano, he makes magic happen.
“What I just played there is something I just made up,” said Carruthers, explaining his improvisation. “Now here’s Duke Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll.’ No matter where you go, this is something people want to hear.”
Carruthers, a 67-year-old jazz pianist, slides over the keys with ease.
He’s so lithe, in fact, you wouldn’t know he plays with only one hand.
Carruthers spends a few seconds warming up, stretching his hand and demonstrating jazz scales. He lost the use of his other hand after a stroke in 1974.
“With any sort of physical activity, you have to keep in shape,” said Carruthers. “You have to practice.”
The Valley resident has been “practicing” now for 62 years.
Carruthers, who grew up in Kalispell, Mont., started taking classical piano lessons at age 5, with the support of his mother. By the time he was in high school, his favorite composers were impressionists Debussy and Ravel. “I like their harmonies,” Carruthers said.
But eventually jazz won out, because of its flexibility and creative emphasis.
“I preferred to make my own music,” Carruthers said. “To me, that’s what jazz is - the improvisation.”
Carruthers’ musical career was a bit of improvisation, too.
He tried college at the University of Montana, but dropped out because he was “always going to jam sessions.” So Carruthers joined the service and attended the Navy School of Music in Washington, D.C., later playing in Boston.
After coming to Spokane in 1957, Carruthers worked for Pacific Fruit for three years. But when a supervisor asked him to choose between music and career advancement, Carruthers left.
“I asked him, ‘Do I get a raise?’ and when he said no, I gave him my 30 days notice,” said Carruthers.
Carruthers suffered a stroke in 1974, after which he was unable to use his left hand to play.
“The first time I played the piano I was still in a wheelchair,” said Carruthers. “I just sat there and cried, but feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help.”
With the help of a physical therapist, Carruthers learned to play the piano with only his right hand, and now he doesn’t miss a beat.
He later earned his undergraduate degree from Eastern Washington University, at age 45, followed by a master’s degree in 1978. He even directed the stage band at Gonzaga University.
Carruthers played the hotel circuit for many years, including the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, the Olympic Hotel in Seattle and the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
He almost got to play with Dizzy Gillespie.
“It was the day of the Mount St. Helens eruption,” Carruthers recounted, “Dizzy was playing at the Opera House and I was the pianist.”
But clouds of ash began darkening the sky, so the rehearsal and concert were canceled.
Carruthers was married twice and has six children. His daughter, Charlotte Carruthers, sings often with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, which Carruthers helped establish.
He is also active as a composer. Last year, he wrote a piece entitled, “Jazz for Yazz” for the Washington State University Jazz Ensemble. That piece is being considered for national publication.
Next February, he’s joining lifetime friend Joe Kloess to play at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.
Carruthers remains busy, playing gigs around Spokane. Twice a month he appears at Hobart’s Jazz Lounge at Cavanaugh’s Fourth Avenue.
Jazz help keeps him young.
“You’re making something original,” Carruthers said, leaning on his gold-cushioned piano bench. “It’s a very exalting feeling.”
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