About Philip Orr

Pianist-composer Phil Orr improvises a life in music aimed at growing the art, the artists, and the audiences.

News & Upcoming appearances

  • Nov 1, 7:00, Birdland Jazz, NYC – “Off the Top!” w/ Jason Kravits & special guests, Richard Kind, Jimmy O’Connell

In Memoriam: J. Seward Johnson II (April 16, 1930 – March 10, 2020)

Because of the pandemic, it has taken a year or more for many of us to memorialize or otherwise acknowledge those whose lives moved from our sight during lockdown. Such is the case with iconic artist, Seward Johnson, whose private and public celebrations materialized this summer, more than a year after his death. In Oct 2013, I entered into the fairly aerobic pleasure of making music with Seward in weekly sing-alongs he initiated at the sculpture park he created, Grounds For Sculpture. These were public affairs, free of charge, and stemmed from the joy he felt in boyhood, gathered with family around his grandparents’ parlor piano. This joy in singing carried through his life in informal ways of everyday life, I learned, until the idea for a public sing-along struck him. People came from near and far for these happy hour “Sing Along with Sculpture” events, while park visitors from other states and other countries happened into them serendipitously. Everyone sat with everyone, very egalitarian, wherever there was a seat around the tables in the outdoor pavilion, waitstaff weaving in/out/between with food and drinks provided by Rat’s, the hosting restaurant. (“Rat’s,” after the Wind in the Willows character, not “Rats,” after the health inspector’s report.) Folks called out color-and-number pairs from the supplied songbooks’ tables of contents: “Blue 22!” someone would holler. “Blue 22 is what we’re going to do,” intoned Seward in reply, and we’d begin. Sometimes he’d tell a tale of this or that bit of his history, an association he made with a lyric, how such-and-such sculpture came to be; or don a wig and sing a funny solo, slip on his tap shoes for added percussion, draw his wife from her chair for an impromptu romantic dance. Sometimes individuals or even small groups would spontaneously join him up at the mic, such was the joie de vivre he exuded. Sometimes trained voices, singly or in ensemble, would join unseen from different corners of the room to harmonize or provide counterpoint unannounced. Friend and colleague Adam Weitz joined us in our second year as an emcee, comic foil, and occasional stand-in when Seward was traveling or otherwise occupied; but even if Seward was absent, the room and the hours were still all about him and the music he loved. I used the term ‘aerobic pleasure’ earlier regarding my playing because the piano accompaniment of 50-70 people singing unselfconsciously pretty much required ten fingers, molto force-o, across the 88 keys of the upright piano for two hours – I loved it.

I have many memories, of course, but my favorite “Seward singing” story is actually from his nephew who, with his wife, shepherded Seward through his NYC cancer consultations. Michael has told a story of going to lunch at a midtown restaurant after an early doctor’s visit. While at their table, Seward leaned forward and spoke sotto voce, “I’m going to sing now,” and launched his deep baritone into an American songbook tune from 70-80 years ago. The full restaurant’s other guests responded to this a cappella outburst with a blend of amusement, bemusement, and Big Apple apathy. Seward, for his part, was pleased – more likely, exhilarated. As this scene repeated itself over succeeding weeks, he began receiving tips on his table from waiters with a murmured, “Thank you, Mr. Johnson.”

How do you keep the music playing, in your life, in your community, among communities? Maybe sing like Seward Johnson, wherever you find yourself.

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