Remembering Jess Anderson

by | Feb 16, 2021 | 0 comments

  • Photographed in 2018 by Thomas Yonash for Our Lives magazine
  • Photographed by Lukas Keapproth in 2009 with original MAHE members.
  • Jess during his hippie days in 1970.
  • Jess, age 16 in 1951.
  • Jess on the Memorial Union Pier in 1957.

Jess was born on May 17, 1935 in Peoria Illinois and had a fairly typical Midwestern boyhood for the time. Living through WWII, pulling his wagon around the neighborhood for rubber and scrap metal drives, listening to the big B17s droning overhead from their production in Seattle toward the Pacific theater, and eating a lot of bologna because it was the only meat they could get, left him with everlasting fascination with war planes and submarines, a significant inability to waste anything or throw anything away, and a real disdain for bologna! His grueling paper route taught him about hard work, and in his mid-teens he began studying piano, which would have a profound impact on the course of his life. It was also during this time that Jess discovered another true passion that would have an equally profound impact on his life, namely that he was fascinated by, and deeply attracted to, other young men.

Like everything Jess did, he put 100% of his energy and focus into learning the piano, but since his family could not afford to have a piano in their third-floor apartment he got up every morning at 4:00 so he could spend 3 hours practicing on the high school’s grand piano before starting school. He made amazing progress and proceeded to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana to study music. But his freshman year at Urbana, as he called it, was devastating for Jess due to the combination of a failed relationship with a boyfriend and a sour relationship with his major instructor. As fate would have it Jess had gotten a job to support himself and pay for school writing computer programs to solve differential equations for a high-energy physics project (yes, he was extremely smart) and that project happened to be moving to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Jess jumped at the opportunity to leave Urbana, and those two failed relationships, and continue with the project in Madison, so with his heavy, hand-made Heathkit stereo amplifier on his lap for safe passage, he took the train ride to Madison where he continued to work with the physics project, and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Although Jess was a crack programmer and could churn out hundreds of accurate lines of Fortran every day, outside of work he was able to focus on his real passions, music and men.

One person could not possibly chronicle the life of Jess Anderson, so I’ve collected writings from some of his closest, most enduring friends and colleagues, to shed light on specific areas of Jess’s amazing life and contribution. —Ed Wegert

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Friends remember Jess 

My first sighting of Jess Anderson was in 1971. It was late afternoon, and a group of us were gathered together at a birthday party for a man I happened to be dating at the time, an event which Jess remembered as being “a fairly hectic party by our mutual friend Ron McCrea.” In the middle of the room was Jess, sitting at a grand piano, passionately playing a Beethoven sonata. The only thing that could have possibly distracted me from my focus on Jess—and, believe me, I was mesmerized—was the sight of my boyfriend at the time descending the staircase in full drag. But that’s another story.

Jess has been one of the most significant people in my life, and I would like to share with you why he was such an extraordinary man. Jess has been a prominent member of the Madison community since he first arrived. While a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where he also studied piano with Igor Stravinsky’s son, the composer and pianist Soulima Stravinsky), he had been hired as a research applications programmer by a high-energy physics consortium named MURA. He remained with MURA when the project relocated to Madison in 1956.

In 1965, MURA moved again, to create the National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in northern Illinois. The University of Wisconsin purchased MURA’s Madison facilities, creating the Physical Sciences Laboratory (PSL), which retained Jess as a software programmer. In 1969, he joined the campus academic computing effort (now known as the Division of Information Technology) as a technical writer and network engineer, until his retirement in 1999.

Self-supporting since he was 16, Jess worked full-time while in college, at UIUC from 1953 to 1956, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1957 to 1968, majoring in music, mathematics, philosophy, art history, and Russian. He received a BA in Russian in 1963, and did graduate work in Slavic Literatures and French from 1963 to 1968, serving as a Teaching Assistant in Russian language and literature. During that time, he also studied piano with the famed pianist-composer Gunnar Johansen whose mentorship evolved into a deep and transformative friendship for Jess until Johansen’s death in 1991. More on music later.

In the early 1970s, Jess was a pioneering member and supporter of the newly emerging gay organizations in Madison, including the Gay Liberation Front, which was devoted to political action, as well as the Gay Center, a meeting place on Johnson and N. Hamilton streets. He continued to be an active member of the LGBT community until his death.

Jess was at once a musician, a poet, a literary scholar, a reviewer of musical events, a computer genius, and those of you who knew him know that, among many other things, his hobbies—not necessarily in this order or concurrent—include model airplanes and flight simulators, model trains, racing bikes, motorcycles, photography, submarines, camping (outside, that is), working out, weight lifting, tennis, and, of course, computers, and, of course, loving men—although I’m not quite sure that that fits under the category of “hobbies.”

Although I first heard him playing Beethoven on the piano, his real love is the harpsichord, and in 1973 Rutkowski and Robinette in New York City built for him one of the most undeniably beautiful harpsichords ever made. He best describes it on his website as “a late-French double, with a sumptuous Louis XVI case of inlaid mahoganies, satinwood, and ebony, replete with considerable gilding. The egg-tempera paintings on the soundboard are absolutely spectacular. Splendid would be a massive understatement. Most important of all, it is a fine-sounding musical instrument.” He would readily play you some Bach or Couperin if you were to stop by his warm and inviting home on Stevens Street where he has lived for his last 56 years. I have had the privilege of commanding private performances when in town, but I have also heard Jess play in public. I particularly remember Jess’s debut recital at the Elvehjem Museum of Art (now the Chazen) in April of 1974, which featured soprano Bettina Bjorksten. The recital, which launched the series that was to become “Sunday Afternoon Live at the Elvehjem” on public radio, was attended by 1600 people. By the way, Jess studied with Bjorksten, with Rudolph Kolisch, the violinist and founder of the famed Kolisch Quartet and then leader of the Pro Arte Quartet, as well as with Gunnar Johansen, all former and noted members of the UW music faculty. There was also the famous road trip in July of 1974 which involved transporting the precious harpsichord to the Krannert Art Center in Indianapolis where Jess performed in Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor at a festival directed by Igor Kipnis.

In 1971 Jess introduced me to Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata, and 10 years later accompanied me to a joint interview I did with Carter at WNYC radio. Afterwards all three of us walked from City Hall back uptown to 14th Street, and Jess and Carter talked about everything from Renaissance counterpoint to modernism. Jess was in heaven!

Over the past 60+ years Jess—who was always reinventing himself—was also involved in the cultural life of the University and the larger Madison community as a radio announcer, a critic, and a patron. He was an announcer for the local listener-sponsored WORT-FM from 1977 to 1988, and I would imagine that those of you who were living in Madison during that time woke up to Jess’s “Classical Omelette” show which aired 9:00 AM-to-Noon every Sunday. He had also returned to the piano, having recently bought a 1920s American Steinway, and had been revisiting Bach, Schubert, and sonatas by Gunnar Johansen, as well as starting down his own compositional path as an improviser.

He was also a music critic/writer—first for Press Connection and then for Isthmus from 1972 to 2001. He wrote reviews about every musical organization in town, groups that he still supported with enthusiasm, from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera, to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Pro Arte Quartet, the Wisconsin Union Theater Concert Series and School of Music events, and the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival founded by the composer John Harbison. He even traveled to New York in 1999 to cover the premiere of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby at The Metropolitan Opera.

I was fortunate when my own opera, Tight-Rope, was premiered in Madison in 1985, and Jess was at hand to not only design the libretto written by Henry Butler, but also to write pre-production articles and post-production reviews of the work—favorable, I must say. It’s nice to know the critic!

Jess was one of my best and closest friends, who, early on, helped me deal with the ebb and flow of personal relationships, and he continued to be a mentor and source of both inspiration and support, musically and humanistically, until the end. —Chester Biscardi

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I was 21 years old in Madison, Wisconsin and had just come out as a gay fellow. The person who helped me figure that out was a dark-haired beauty, David, who played the recorder as an undergraduate in the music school. Not long after we met, he brought me to visit his friend and the friend of many, Jess Anderson at Jess’s home. I had never met such a charming person so filled with life and a deep joy for classical music. A small-town boy, I was enchanted and intimidated. It became clear after a couple visits to his home that Jess was at the center of a large and energetic group of gay men. My world and my comfort level grew as I got to know many of his friends. What Jess discovered in me was a young man who was very impressionable when it came to his true love—classical music. Especially harpsichord music. I had always loved classical music even though my parents forbade me from ever bringing those records home again from the public library. I can see Jess now, sitting in his living room with me and playing a Bach Sonata on the record player. His eyes would nearly close and his whole body would move, his arms especially, in ecstatic harmony with the music. I felt the music deeply too, often near tears when he would introduce me to a new work or a new composer or a new pianist, and Jess loved that he had an eager student in all things musical. He took me to Indianapolis to see a performance by Gustav Leonhardt, the incredible harpsichord player, during which trip I fell ill and Jess took care of me.

We had a loving but stormy friendship. He was in love with me and I loved him, but not in the way he wanted. We had long periods of deep friendship punctuated with disagreeable periods of strife. But it was mostly lovely. Wherever we went in Madison, which was mostly the Wisconsin Union, Jess would attract his followers and regale them with tales and brilliant responses. Jess was brilliant. Everyone knew that. He seemed to know everything. Anytime I had a medical question Nurse Anderson was there with an informed answer. During one of the periods when we were on the outs, I went with a friend to the Wisconsin Union for a ticketed piano performance. I walked in to find my seat and was miffed that in the assigned seat next to me sat an equally miffed Jess Anderson. A complete accident. As the performance went on I began feeling bad and it got worse. I jumped up to head out of the auditorium and made it past three people before I threw up in the lap of a complete stranger. Jess followed me and helped me collect myself, accusing me with a smile on his face of being melodramatic.

Jess’ passion for the harpsichord led him to two old friends in New York City, Bob Robinette and Frank Rutkowski, renown makers of French-style harpsichords. He commissioned them to make an instrument for him that was all the way out. Anything they wanted to lavish on this one-of-a-kind they could add. When it was finished Jess and I drove a van from Madison to New York City’s Chinatown in the mid-70s to pick it up. Up some very tall stairs to their second-floor loft studio, I led and Jess followed. We came around the corner and through the door, and there stood the proud makers beaming, and then we saw the most incredible harpsichord I will ever lay my eyes on. Jess’s dream was fulfilled. The entire instrument was covered in incredible rare woods and ebony inlays in geometric patterns. Rutkowski was an accomplished lepidopterist and had painted exotic butterflies and other insects from an African trip. The instrument was shocking to see in its perfect beauty. That says something about Jess. His was a life devoted to beauty.

I moved from Madison to New York City, where Jess visited me. I then went on to accept a faculty position at The University of Alabama. We stayed friends with few gaps over the years. When I turned 50 years old, a heavy birthday package arrived. In it were dozens upon dozens of music CDs that Jess had copied for me to enhance my musical education. In my RV for getaway trips are some of those CDs that remind me every time I listen to them what a lifetime mentor and deep friend I had in Jess Anderson. —Steve Miller

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Jess Anderson and I were students together in the music school at the University of Wisconsin during the mid-50s. Jess was a very handsome, flamboyant student of pianist Gunnar Johannsen. He made no secret of his deep admiration for his teacher, and imitated him in the choice of works he played: Liszt, Busoni, Brahms. And I think Gunnar loved Jess. It was the perfect Grand Master scenario and must have been the pinnacle of Jess’ life as a cosmopolitan student of all things during those years.

I heard Jess play in the Old Music Hall, when it was still beautiful, before the renovation. He was incredibly glamorous in his blue blazer at the grand piano. He was probably playing a Liszt etude and enjoying himself to the maximum—as his classmates we were all very intimidated!

It was an incredible time to be at the University, what with the Pro Arte Quartet under Kolisch, and Gunnar of course, and also the soprano Bettina Bjorksten. That period in the mid-50s was a high point in the evolution of the music department. It was a perfect environment for Jess.

As a pianist, as a student, Jess very much allowed himself to represent the grandness of Gunnar, and it was quite a spectacle. You almost couldn’t decide who was the more impressive! Jess was formidable—he played Brahms’ Handel Variations, Liszt, Chopin, pretty much everything in the virtuoso repertoire. Even when he played a simple piece you could hear the real artistry there. When you’re young, 25, in the company of fancy flamboyant artists you can do a lot you might not otherwise ever do. It was amazing, watching Jess be his grand self. They all dressed like Dickens!

Jess also let it be known that he was spending a lot of time with this new gadget, the computer. So he was a double-edged sword. He always knew he wasn’t going to be a great professional pianist, but he had a great time with the whole thing, threw himself into it with passion, had a tremendous time visiting it.

Jess was an utterly unique person. He was opinionated and outspoken. What some found brash in his presentation was really just sheer exuberance. He was a good guy. —Rose Mary Harbison

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All of us at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival are very saddened at the death of our longtime friend and board member Jess Anderson. Jess was a crucial part of our festival, a constant voice for quality, idealism, and clarity of purpose. 

He was a knowledgeable musician, a pianist who enlivened our meetings with impromptu renderings on the Steinway—perhaps some Schubert or some Bach—who reacted strongly, emotionally to elements of our program. 

We had known him first as a distinguished music critic for Isthmus, drawing on his experience as a student of Gunnar Johanson, and a witness of many significant UW performances in the Rudolf Kolisch era. 

We always valued his astute comments on repertoire and personnel at the Token Creek Festival. He always advocated artistic adventure and the highest standards. In his later years, we all appreciated his continued engagement with us, in spite of increasing health challenges. 

Musical citizens like Jess Anderson are the lifeblood of a city’s musical life. Jess’s fine judgment and deeply felt love of music helped make the Token Creek Festival the kind of Schubertian community it has always aspired to be. We will miss him. —John Harbison

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Jess drew on his many years of experience as a music student and a performer to become an important, go-to critic in Madison. He knew music from the inside, and using his talent as a writer, he served for many years as the classical music critic for Isthmus. He liked all eras and his taste was universal, although he most favored Baroque and early music. He loved opera and symphonic music; choral and vocal music; chamber music; and of course solo keyboard.

Jess did his research when writing a review. He developed strong opinions and never shied away from sharing them in person or print.

After retiring, he continued to attend concerts and turned his criticism into activism. He worked with such groups as the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, WORT-FM, and the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos as well as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera.

Jess was a true “amateur” in the etymological sense of the word. He was someone who did something out of love for it. True, at times he was given to excess in both his praise and criticism. But he never failed to impress one with his knowledge and his generosity of spirit. He both respected and contributed to the hard work that goes into making the performing arts in Madison successful. —Jacob Stockinger

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He was always true to himself; I admire that. And, he was one of my favorite humans on earth! —Jess’s niece Theresa

I think many of us would echo a similar sentiment. Madison has lost a True Great, he broke new ground and helped blaze the trail that has eased the lives of a great many souls. We will continue to miss him, and feel his loss, for a long time.

 

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