Ran Blake

When Ran Blake sits down at the piano every day for an hour of practice in his Brookline basement apartment, the lights are always off. When he makes an appearance on the stage of the Regattabar, usually in a solo setting, sometimes in a trio, he has the lights turned down as low as management will allow. “I really love the dark,” he says. Blake, who turns 80 on April 20, 2015, has felt that way since he was a kid. He was born in Springfield, moved to Connecticut, then New York, then Boston, then Brooklyn, and has been in Brookline since 1980. His love of the dark came from discovering the noir movies of Robert Siodmak and Alfred Hitchcock. But his love of music had been instilled long before that. He remembers being fascinated by the Gospel music being sung in church in the 1950s, then hearing Mahalia Jackson records. Before long, his musical curiosity drew him in one direction to Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky, and in another direction to Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles. “I was told that I started playing piano when I was 3 or 4,” he said. “We had three uprights and a little grand in our Springfield house, and I would play what I heard on the radio, something like a combination of Debussy, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. But not necessarily jazz. Maybe some R&B and blues.” Though he eventually became what most listeners would refer to as a jazz artist, Blake had early aspirations to be a classical pianist. “But by 8 or 9 I knew I wouldn’t cut it,” he said. “So much of the music I played was early 20th century classical, I began to think it was jazz. Now I guess I’m labeled jazz because I do the roots and the repertoire, but there are too many different harmonies and aspects.” Blake’s life changed on the day he met New England Conservatory president Gunther Schuller. Blake was studying music in New York, and was at work sweeping floors at Atlantic Records when Schuller came by. They talked, and not long after, Blake started studying with Schuller, and later was invited to move to Boston where the two men formed NEC’s Third Stream Department (now known as the Contemporary Improvisation Department). Blake still teaches at NEC, still loves film noir, and still gives concerts. He has a dream about his Regattabar gigs: “What would be great is if the room could be one-eighth its size, and I would be given a week there, and only 20 people could get in.”

(By Ed Symkus)

Published on April 5, 2015