At age 3 he would perch at his grandmother’s old upright Kimball piano, picking out from memory the various melodies he had heard.
The boy had found his calling. He practiced so much his mom sometimes would send him out of the house with orders to go have fun with the kids in his Kalispell, Mont., neighborhood.
By age 13 he could perform all of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a lush, complex masterpiece that has daunted many musicians with far more years and experience.
He was playing in joints six nights a week as a senior in high school.
By the time he showed up in Spokane, he was a jazz master whose blazing chops and genius for improvisation wowed patrons of our swinging 1960s nightclub scene.
Anybody who knew anything about music soon knew the name Arnie Carruthers.
In his prime he could play at such formidable speeds “it was a challenge to keep up with him,” says drummer Tom Schager, who figures he logged some 4,000 gigs with the pianist over a 40-year period.
“Just when you thought we had peaked for the night, when you thought it was all done, he’d take it louder, higher, faster.”
Carruthers died Monday from complications of bladder cancer and other health issues. He was 81.
Arnie was one cool cat, and I count myself lucky to have known him.
I think it would please him greatly to know that the Arnie Carruthers tribute will go on without him.
The March 19 event was scheduled weeks ago as part of the 2011 Spokane Falls Community College Jazz Festival. (Call 509-533-3711 for ticket prices and details.)
The life of Arnie Carruthers has the drama of a Hollywood comeback movie.
The first half is about virtuoso. Carruthers in his heyday backed every hotshot jazzer who breezed through town.
He was on top of his game, a fixture at the Davenport Hotel and the Spokane House, where he recorded a terrific duo-jazz piano album with Joe Kloess, another master of the keys.
The second half of the saga is about survival. It’s about how Carruthers re-taught himself to play after a massive stroke robbed the piano player of the use of his left hand.
The year 1974 was as inconceivably awful for Carruthers as it was historically wonderful for Spokane.
Carruthers once told me about it.
He had finished playing a fairgrounds gig for Expo ’74, drove home and went to asleep. Three days later he woke up in a hospital bed with his entire left side gone.
Doctors said “if Dad had another five or seven years it would be a blessing,” said Charlotte Carruthers, one of Arnie’s six children.
Returning to his career as a pianist?
What planet are you living on?
No one could have known how tough and tenacious this man really was.
The Carruthers comeback began this way: He managed to roll his wheelchair over to a piano while recovering at a VA hospital.
“I just sat there and cried,” he said during our interview. “Then I got mad.”
It took two years for the seemingly impossible to happen.
Carruthers taught himself how to use the piano’s sustain pedals to hold bass notes while building chords and complicated solos with his still-lightning-quick right hand.
His mind was unaffected by the stroke. He was still the same Einstein when it came to exploring the harmonic universe of music in uncommon and unexpected ways.
The wizardry was wondrous to behold, and even jazz giant Dave Brubeck took note.
“I can’t believe how much piano you play with that amazing right hand!” wrote Brubeck in a 1985 letter Carruthers cherished.
“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 will never see another Arnie Carruthers. Hopefully, we will never forget him. Not only was Carruthers one of our greatest musicians, he was one of our greatest inspirations.
This raspy-voiced piano player from Montana touched as many lives by overcoming his adversity as he did through his enormous ability to make music.
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