Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Feliz cumple, Dr. Francis H. Baxter

Sometimes when I mention that I grew up in East L.A. people will make a comment that feels a little too full of compassion.  

Yes, there was poverty.  Yes, there were gangs, but there were also folks who shared riches that I, and others, still enjoy.   Comida, color, a will to make the best out of what is at hand.  The ability to enjoy irony and to not take yourself too seriously.  

I loved where I grew up.  The diversity of folks, and what we now call their lifestyles, was all around and profoundly enriching.  

After graduating from Garfield, I was at E.L.A.C.for a short while and then transferred over to what was Cal State L.A.  I became a music major with a vocal focus.  I had a big voice, was genetically musical, and could count to 3 or 4 as was needed.

But, I'd had no formal training in vocal music.  In some respects singing classical music is similar playing sports well.  You need a certain degree of inclination, you need to develop muscular techniques, and you need to learn the art of the craft.  A swell teacher can help you with so much of this.

I had the good fortune of studying with some of the exceptional staff that was at Cal State.  Esther Andreas, Mona Paulee, Dr. Robert Fowells - all immensely talented, each with a biography that could could merit at least a small book.  Thanks to Dr. Fowells and Ms. Andreas, we voice students (in 1971), saw some of the earliest footage that had been shot using a camera at the end of a laryngoscope.

We also had the pleasure of singing under the direction of Dr. Francis H. Baxter.  He was an elegant man, with steely midwest blue sky eyes, a sincere heart, and a passion for music.  Profoundly spiritual, with being "holier than thou", he would approach the music with great reverence - great musicians can't help but do this.  During the week he was with us, on Sunday he led his church choir, and during the summer's he would spend time teaching choral music on cruise ships.  He was a busy, busy man.

No matter the genre, no matter the language, no matter century it was written in - he appreciated great music.  Then as a director he was able to act as a conduit; he shared and led at the same time.  There could be great power that emanated from his down beat or the softest diminuendo demanded by almost minute gestures of his hands.   

We sang in German, Latin, French, Japanese.  Under his direction we sang in so many forms:  lied, chant, aleatoric, spirituals.  We met the great Jester Hairston and dined with him at Trader Vic's.  We sang at Little Tokyo, at Hearst Castle, and once we sang when we were one voice.  All of us channeling the presence of the muse.  We looked at each other and looked at Dr. B in awe of the moment.    With his eyes he let us know to not think about it, but that we should ride it like a grand musical wave.  

I will treasure that moment until I remember no more.

Dr. Baxter was also a composer.  He and his wife, Pollyanne, would have a gathering at their house around the holidays to which all Chamber Singers and their significant others were invited.  We would make music, enjoy old jokes, and the blessing of each other's company.  We would also sing his annual Christmas composition.  

I'm looking forward to this Saturday.  Dr. Baxter's family has invited all of us to spend time with him in celebration of his 100th birthday.  In the first photo Dr. B. has a birthday card from his grandson that shares the sentiment of so many of us Chamber Singers.  

I don't know if he'll remember me, but perhaps I'll have enough memories for the both of us.  
And at the very least, I know we'll both be smiling when we see each other.


  1. Have a wonderful time at the birthday party. What a privilege.

    I know that moment. You can rehearse all you want, study all you want, but you can't make it happen. Of course it won't happen if you don't rehearse and study. What a joy when the wave comes.

    There's a (probably apocryphal) story about two great English actors. I've heard it told as Lawrence Olivier and Christopher Plummer. Could be anyone. Plummer goes to see Olivier perform Hamlet, or some such, and it's the most brilliant Hamlet ever. Olivier and the entire cast soar the heights and take the audience with them.

    Afterward, Plummer goes backstage and finds Olivier in deep sadness. "Why are you sad?" asks Plummer. "That's the most brilliant Hamlet I've ever seen." And Olivier says, "But...I don't know how I did it."

  2. I hope Dr. Baxter remembers you, and I hope he knows you remember him.

    More about the Hearst Castle recital, please.

  3. Thanks. I'll be happy if he smiles, his oh, so charming smile. I haven't high expectation, but the hopes are great. More about Hearst Castle another day. It's a short tale, but best not to start at this time of night.

  4. Received this post via email from Mr. Robinson -
    "Not blog literate. Tried to tag a comment on your story about Dr. Baxter, but don't know if you got it-- trying this.

    Ran into a woman in a plane yesterday and we chatted as we taxied. Turns out we both went to LA State. She told me Dr. B was happily still with us and we talked a bit about singing with him.

    I looked him up and found your blog -- thank you for that.

    I remember auditioning for him in 1963. Ended up in his a Capella choir for 5 years at school. What a wonderful teacher and good friend to all.

    I was not a music major - noon on M W F in the base section was my only contact with him. We sang new compositions by Te Desco (sp?) and Jester Harrison. They came to hear them.

    He was witty, energetic and a ready counselor on any topic. God bless him for he surely blessed us with his presence. If you get this please say happy birthday from me".

    Ron Robinson
    AS President 66-67
    Philosophy major, BA 1968

  5. A P.S. of sorts. The birthday celebration was a huge success. Lots of stories shared, hugs given, and a bit of signing. Dr. Baxter was amazingly with it. He did remember me, oh joy, and we had a fun exchange of humor. Charming friend sat next to him for a while - she was a youngster of only 99. Later I mentioned her to James, we looked to see where she'd been seated, didn't see her and assumed she was gone. No, she was still there - mingling. Couldn't distinguish her from the other guests. Perhaps this singing is not only good for the soul.