March 17, 1998 in City

Pianist Creates Musical Magic With One Hand

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The snow-haired gentleman sat hunched over the piano, creating complex chordal improvisations that washed over the jazz festival crowd.

Kuni Mikami, pianist for the Lionel Hampton Big Band, listened in impressed silence from the wings of the University of Idaho’s Kibbie Dome. At the urging of a friend, he crept behind the piano for a gander at the old man’s technique.

That’s when his jaw dropped.

Like jazz great Dave Brubeck before him, Mikami was confounded by a staggering realization: Spokane’s Arnie Carruthers conjures his musical magic with one stubby-fingered hand.

“Kuni came up to me after I finished and said, ‘Man, I gotta start practicing again,”’ says the raspy-voiced hipster of his festival appearance last month.

Carruthers, 68, has never tired of the disarming nature of his one-armed virtuosity. A brilliant two-handed pianist, his musical career was pronounced DOA in 1974 after a stroke.

How he retaught himself to play without his left hand - arguably to a higher level than before - is the stuff of legends.

Thursday night at Hobart’s Lounge, 110 E. Fourth, music lovers will get a chance to repay Spokane’s Ambassador of Jazz for some of the joy he’s spread. “Put a ‘poor’ in front of that ambassador part and you’ll have it right,” says Carruthers between fits of wheezy cackling.

Billed as Arnie Carruthers Appreciation Night, half the $5 cover will go to help ease the musician’s financial blues.

Driving to a gig in December, he blew the engine in his ‘72 Buick. There isn’t much room for such disasters within his $770 pension.

Carruthers is the real meal deal. What a shame there aren’t more jazz venues in Spokane to support a player with such big city chops.

“I can’t believe how much piano you play with that amazing right hand!” Dave Brubeck wrote to Carruthers in 1985. “I can imagine what you did with two, but I don’t see how it could have been much more than what I hear from the one, now.”

Spokane saxophonist Gary Edighoffer, Hobart’s booker, calls Carruthers a harmonic genius.

“Musicians who play with him don’t even think about his” playing with one hand. “‘We just respect what he plays.”

Carruthers is the product of non-musician parents from Kalispell, Mont. How does a jazzer evolve from this? “With great difficulty,” snickers Carruthers. “You gotta be a weirdo.”

He found his calling early, taking classical piano lessons at age 5. Take note budding musicians: Carruthers practiced so much his mother had to order him out of the house to play.

As a high school senior, he was playing six nights a week in some dive. Besides developing incredible dexterity, Carruthers was blessed with a wonderful ear. He can play most tunes after a single hearing.

Settling in Spokane, he became a fixture at the old Spokane House. Carruthers backed every name act that came through town. The closest he came to fame of his own was in the 1960s. After recording an album, he and Joe Kloess went to Los Angeles as a duo jazz piano act.

It fizzled. Carruthers limped back to Spokane and relative obscurity.

Enjoying steady work on the Expo ‘74 grounds, he went to bed one night and woke up three days later on a hospital bed. The stroke ruined his left side.

Recovering in a VA hospital, he one day rolled his wheelchair to a piano. “I just sat there and cried,” he says. “Then I got mad.”

Over two agonizingly slow years, he reinvented his playing and earned a college music degree, later adding a master’s in composition. Carruthers artfully uses the piano’s sustain pedals to hold bass notes as he builds his uncanny solos on top.

The effect is seamless. Inventive. Ever cool. It’s just not very profitable.

“You know the old joke,” says Spokane’s Jazz Ambassador. “If you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy…

“With my luck, you’d be my sister.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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