Monday, July 18, 2011
Earl Neal Creque
The final months of the year 2000 were devastating for the West Indian side my family. In October, I lost my mother while in December I lost the last two of my uncles on my mother's side of the family: Marvin and Neal. Uncle Neal passed away around December 1 and it is him I want to remember with this post.
My uncle was born Earl Neal Creque on April 13, 1940, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, the last of eight children born to my grandfather (Cyril Creque) and grandmother (Leonie Sewer). He began taking piano lessons at age five and from around nine to sixteen years of age he studied classical piano with Edris Stakemann. Since there are biographical sketches of Neal that can be accessed on-line, I will not reproduce what is already available. I just want to add that my Uncle Neal was a prolific composer, having composed over 3,000 compositions (not all of them Jazz), and a teacher, having been on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Cleveland State University. Although he didn't leave an extensive legacy of commercial recordings, his compositions have been widely appreciated (and recorded) by top-caliber musicians that knew him, from Mongo Santamaria to Ramsey Lewis, among many others.
What I want to do is commit to writing some scattered memories of my own and combine them with an interview my Uncle Neal granted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer late in his career. First, a bit of personal background is in order.
I have a vivid recollection of my Uncle Marvin and Aunt Marilyn's household (whose entire family I grew up with, you could say, since I visited them with regularity from my early childhood days). The house was filled with music (both live and recorded Jazz Music*), given that instruments were always available, which fellow musician friends of my uncle would stop by to play at any hour of the day or night. My Uncle Marvin had learned piano and could belt out a tune from memory although he never pursued a career in music. In fact, the Marvin Creque household had garnered a reputation throughout Charlotte Amalie as a sort of impromptu Jazz studio.
Those were joyous days for me and, while I did not recognize it at the moment, they would have a profound impact on me later in life. Hence from my early days, I came to "absorb" Jazz (by osmosis, if you will) and associate it with my Uncle Marvin, though I was only able to fully appreciate the genre later in life.
Although all my mother's siblings were musically trained at some points in their lives, the only one (other than herself) to have made a career out of music was my Uncle Neal. While I had met Uncle Neal during my childhood, it wasn't until I went to Oberlin College (from 1977 to 1981) that I got to know and appreciate his talent as a Jazz musician. It was also during that period that I was finally able to fully appreciate the genre of Jazz, to the extent that I consider it my first love above all other musical genres. Uncle Neal, at the time, was firmly established in nearby Cleveland and I (of course) took advantage of the proximity to visit him on occasion.
It was at my insistence (I believe), that Uncle Neal came to Oberlin for the first time. During my student days, there was a cultural activity of sorts being organized by the Black Students Association on campus for which students were asked to suggest artists. I jumped at the idea of having Uncle Neal play since by then I had come to love his music and, with him being in the vicinity, it wouldn't cost much to bring him. He brought a trio and wowed the students, but it wasn't until after I graduated that I learned that he had returned to Oberlin and eventually gotten a faculty appointment at the Jazz studies Department of the famed Oberlin Conservatory. I was so proud for him and for many years thought I had somehow managed to facilitate that job opportunity by inviting him to Oberlin during my student years. Ironically, I had bragged for many a year that my crowning achievement in Oberlin wasn't the fact that I obtained my bachelor's degree, but that I had unsuspectingly hooked Uncle Neal up with the prestigious conservatory of music!). I learned, shortly before his death that it was actually the Director Wendell Logan of the Oberlin Jazz Studies Department that had witnessed Neal (on another occasion) and beckoned him to (eventually) come to Oberlin.
Regardless of how he arrived at Oberlin, we were all so happy for him because it got him off the Jazz clubbing circuit. It is truly heartbreaking to witness the tragic history of many of Jazz's finest musicians and composers, who unable to make much money, are forced to constantly be on the road seeking gigs at (often seedy) night clubs, a lifestyle that leads to early burn-out in their careers and often to an early death. While most musicians don't have it good, the Jazz musician's lot in particular is terrible (although it has changed for the better in recent years). Hence, the steady job afforded Uncle Neal the opportunity to give loose reign to his creative powers without the economic knife at his throat. He also relished the opportunity to teach and was able to go back to one of his great loves - classical composition.
Uncle Neal expressed his outlook in an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer -
He devotes more and more time to teaching at Oberlin College and Cleveland State University and writing classical music. What he tries to convey in his music, Creque says, "is the hope that the kids coming up in music respect the educational system that is afforded them today. A lot of things that are available to them, if they had been present years ago, no telling how far Jazz might have advanced. You can be studying at Oberlin and the talent can come in from all over the country to perform," he says. (…) As for the clubs, Creque doesn't miss them. "I think my interests have grown in a different direction", he says. "My original love was classical music and I'm back to that. Between performing and composing classical works and teaching, you get a chance to see an extension of yourself in terms of the student. When you see what you have accomplished, and pass some of that on, it's a marvelous thing."
Footnote and a requiem: My Uncle Marvin, more than any of us, loved Uncle Neal, perhaps because he saw in him the realization of what he had always wanted to do. We used to anguish over Uncle Neal's aversion to the recording studio. Despite being a prolific composer, Uncle Neal only left a handful of commercial recordings and most of these were made early in his career (which is one reason he is not well known on the Jazz circuit).
Neal did keep us readily supplied, however, with tape recordings of his concerts as well as some studio quality recordings. This would sometimes frustrate us even more because we (especially Uncle Marvin) would listen to these fantastic recordings and lament that they were not available on the commercial market (thus garnering him wider recognition). In an effort at garnering him wider recognition, I once even contacted the host Marian MacPartland of the popular radio program Piano Jazz to try to get him on the show, only to be told (after I mailed up a selection of his recordings) that a prerequisite for being invited to the show was that the artist have made a recent commercial recording. Shortly thereafter, we all learned that Uncle Neal had contracted cancer and I was (we all were) devastated.
I make no joke when I say that Uncle Neal is my favorite musician. I would say so even if he were no relative of mine. The fact that he was related to me was a source of immense pride and joy beyond description. I cherish the tapes and videos he diligently sent us over the years and preserve the copies of the classical pieces he composed late in his career, copies of which he had sent my mother. As a tribute, view the YouTube of Uncle Neal and Howie Smith playing Neal's composition "Slightly Monkish". I have a particular love for this piece because, aside from being a tribute to the all-time great Jazz icon (and favorite of mine!) Thelonious Monk, it has the calypso rhythm of our West Indian heritage in the Virgin Islands.
God Bless You Uncle Neal.