My reputation as a cool dude when playing jazz (pause for ironic jeers) has taken a bit of a hammering recently as I’ve had to start wearing middle distance glasses in order to see the charts. My optician tells me I’ll soon be needing multifocal lenses.
Which brings me to Random Fact Number 742… In the middle of the 18th century, the same eye surgeon – an Englishman called John Taylor to be precise – carried out eye operations on both JS Bach and Handel.
Neither operations were successful; indeed history has characterised JT more as a charlatan than a miracle worker.
I am tempted to add Random Fact Number 743 at this point. Although Bach and Handel were born in the same year (1685) and within 80 miles of each other – and, yes, they were operated on by the same surgeon: they never actually met. One can almost hear Michael Caine muttering: there’s not a lot of people know that.
Anyhow, back to composers and eyes. It is perhaps not surprising that men and women whose job required them to spend hours writing and studying manuscripts in fine detail (especially in the days before electric lights and digital printers) would strain their eyes over the years. In more recent times, Frederick Delius suffered serious health problems in later life – including losing his sight. It is thanks to another Englishman – Eric Fenby – that many of Delius’s late works (e.g. Songs of Farewell, Two Aquarelles) were able to be set down and published.
One thing that the blues musician Ray Charles and the 18th Century English composer John Stanley share is that they both went blind in childhood. They were also pretty remarkable people. John Stanley was the youngest student ever (aged 17) to obtain a B Mus from Oxford; he was also regarded as the finest English organist of his generation and was able to direct long oratorios (including many by his older contemporary Handel) from memory. Ray Charles was notoriously independent (flying his own plane, for example), was outstanding at chess, and achieved mastery across musical genres as diverse as jazz, gospel and country & western.
Another blind jazz pianist brings us full circle back to Bach. Alec Templeton, originally from Wales, had considerable success in America either side of the Second World War – something achieved a few years later by another blind jazz pianist, George Shearing. Templeton is perhaps best known for a piece called Bach Goes to Town, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liUA4cKUsek) a tongue in cheek Prelude and Fugue in swing style. It boasts a formidable range of performers, including the Benny Goodman Band and the English harpsichordist George Malcolm.