Star Spotlight 31: Jackie

Anyone who’s seen Jackie walk onto a stage knows he’s special, immediately. He is an absolutely mesmerizing performer, from that first eager stride and crinkled-eye smile, to his exultant and triumphant final chord where he often, as his sister lovingly coins it, “goes airborne.”

Jackie’s been sitting on my list of people to chronicle for this entire past month, and I’ve had the darnedest time finding the right day to share a little piece of his brightness with the world. I attribute this mostly to the fact that Jackie isn’t just “a little bit bright” — his brightness is expansive, magnificent, bursting at the seams. To try to distill that down to a few lowly paragraphs feels not only impossible, but somehow egregiously unfair. HOWEVER: here I go. Because this series truly wouldn’t be complete without him.

The majority of my relationship with Jackie has been from the age of 18-onward, but I can’t help but share the story of how we first met, nearly 10 years before. (Jackie, I’ll bet a large lump of cash that you don’t remember this!) Jackie was featured soloist with the Seattle Symphony, playing a Mozart Piano Concerto (#27) that I was learning. I’d brought my musical score with me, and at intermission, we asked an usher if we could peek backstage to meet the guy who’d just given such a masterful performance. The resultant exchange far exceeded my expectations: Jackie gave both my mom and I a gigantic bear hug, and upon hearing I was in the process of learning the piece he’d just played, pulled us back into his dressing room to show off his version of the score. It was decked out brightly and wildly with colored-pencil marks, sticky notes, and broad scribbles with musical directions indicated. Clearly, I was struck immediately – and deeply impressed – by this random crazy musical genius, for a whole slew of diverse reasons.

Little would I know that I’d end up studying as a private student of Jackie at Rice University, and forming a bond that would last far beyond the walls of the Shepherd School of Music. I really truly can’t conceive of a better person to have guided me through four years of music school, and who has continued to serve as a powerful role model for me throughout my adult life.

Jackie is an amazing storyteller. Granted, he has some pretty epic experiences to draw from. These are mostly related to being onstage at some of the finest concert halls in the world: performing alongside the finest musicians, or as soloist with the finest orchestras. He’s toured the continents, and has engaged in all sorts of amazing sensory delights: sights, sounds, tastes, you name it. But it takes a specific personality to be able to flesh out these stories — with such verbal finesse that listeners feel they’ve journeyed with him. Jackie’s your guy if you want to travel the world vicariously, meeting some of the most amazing people you’ll ever encounter along the way. He shares his tales exuberantly, freely, and generously, and grants many people an inside view into experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Jackie is also a great listener. In fact, one of the things I admire most about him is his capacity to really deeply listen. Listening of this type requires so much more than just having a finely-tuned set of ears (though admittedly, he’s got that, too); it entails tuning in on a physical but also an energetic level. This invaluable skill is perhaps most obvious when Jackie is a part of a chamber music group: he’s able to be so utterly focused on his fellow performers that he can respond to the subtleties of their cues (from bowing to breathing) in a way that seems effortless. This allows for the musicians he’s co-creating with to feel truly supported, and able to explore nuanced musical terrains knowing they are being held (this is a metaphor, folks, we’re not talking literal) by Jackie’s competent hands. Through his fierce attunement and lightning-quick responses, he sends cues of safety, of “Guys & gals, I’ve got this. I’ve got you. Let’s play!”

This deep listening is also clearly palpable when Jackie is playing solo piano works: he has a remarkable ability to be in the midst of a involved performance, and simultaneously “zoom out” and listen to himself while he is playing. He is then able to adjust his approach to the instrument, if necessary. He plays with nuances in articulation and pedaling and voicing: contingent upon the room he’s in, the acoustic soundscape being created, and the intricate dynamics of the stage, audience, and particular piano. His ability to make these adjustments in a matter of seconds leads to what many tout as one of the most compelling performances they’ve ever heard. Partially this is simply because Jackie is such a charismatic and brilliant player. But when I distill his abilities down, his active and involved abilities to listen fully and respond accordingly really put him over the edge. At its essence, this listening demands – and demonstrates in Jackie – a presence that not many performers are able to achieve.

There are several things that make Jackie such a dream musician to play with, and I see these attributes as applicable and admirable and astonishing, both on the stage and off. Listening is one, as I’ve already detailed (with, erm, quite unbridled zest) above. Sensitivity is another: this is related to his listening abilities, and also to his abilities to phrase and nuance both music and personal relationships with kindness and compassion and care. Communicating is another: the guy can communicate! Sharing and receiving information (musical or otherwise); presenting a compelling story (musically or otherwise); truly and authentically and whole-heartedly listening (betcha know what’s coming: yes, he can do THAT musically and otherwise, too). In all of these areas, Jackie has an amazing ability to convey a message, and a message that I feel so lucky to receive.

And I must mention that Jackie’s got a whole slew of lovable aspects that have no relation to his prowess on the concert stage. He is a devoted and incredibly good father — mainly to his own daughter, but also to his conglomerate of university students (yeah, yeah, being a piano professor isn’t usually compared with a dad-position, but Jackie somehow pulls off a high level of professionalism while also incorporating a warm, welcoming, loving studio environment). He has the most fantastic laugh. His is an enthusiastic lover of life, I feel that in Jackie so much. He works hard, but is also up for playing and pleasure. He’s a total music nerd, a lover of all things classical but also rock and jazz and, most recently, Hamilton. He has a framed & signed Elton John Yellow Brick Road album cover up on his studio wall — one of his idols. His diverse taste in music extends also to a diverse taste in food: he’s a voracious eater and refined drinker, a fabulous cook, a charismatic and warm entertainer.  He’s impossibly caring, generous, thoughtful, playful.

And boy, does he care about – and care for – the people in his life. Even if he only has 24 hours between gigs, he’ll fly home to give his wife and daughter a hug, teach 5 or 6 lessons, perhaps fit in a good meal or a few snatches of sleep. This would seem outrageous to some, but for Jackie, I kid you not: he does this dozens of times a year. Jackie’s passion and commitment and enthusiasm can sometimes be a challenge: he loves so much, commits so deeply and enthusiastically, that he often has a hard time passing up an opportunity that might bring him, or others, satisfaction and delight and fulfillment. As a result, he’ll occasionally, ahem, spread himself a little thin. How he still manages to be so present in so many areas of his life is a miracle to me! From my humble vantage point, I see in Jackie a desire for harmony (with work, travel, family, friendships, etc), while he’s instead generally achieving a somewhat tenuous balance. There’s a scale that can easily be upended – or even toppled over – when life throws #allthethings #allatonce at him.

I have never encountered anyone like Jackie. His magnetism is unique and unquestionable, and his ability to put people at ease unparalleled. He is expressive, and engaging, and so friendly. That anecdote about me being in middle school and meeting him for the first time? It so beautifully encapsulates Jackie’s sincerity, generosity, and boundless kindness. Jackie, everyone you wrap in a giant hug — either metaphorically through your performances, or quite literally, with that big bear of an embrace — is blessed with the reverberative benefits. I certainly am. And I couldn’t be happier.

Here’s to many more years of bear hugs!

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