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At 81, Ted Alexander has every right to be picky about what sort of piano student he accepts. He is down to five now, and most will stay with him for the foreseeable future. Over the years, though, nearly 800 musical hopefuls have taken instruction from him in the room off the carport of his east Denver home that everyone calls "the studio." One-quarter of the 800 were "professionals," Alexander says. "They had the propensity. Maybe they were some guys who just blew in from Albuquerque, and the trio they were playing with broke up, and they wanted to learn some more about harmony and improvisation. Or maybe their mother or father called me and said, 'Look, I think my son wants to be a professional.'"
The way Ted Alexander says it, professional is a nice word. If you are a piano player, it means this: You sight-read like a dream, know your music theory inside and out, have not just been "taught," but "trained" by a handful of even-more-professionals, and when you are at a gig, even if it's a society evening full of women who smoke cigars, chatter through your solos and rest their drinks on the piano case, you stay serious and thoughtful about the music.
But there are strata even higher than professional. If you practice hard and listen harder, maybe you'll grow into someone like Bill Evans, Alexander's longtime friend and hero. "He was a flat genius," Alexander recalls. "There was no one who played like him." Occasionally, however, another flat genius comes along, so Alexander stays alert.
Kay Ambrose, who teaches piano to kids, is sitting in the studio now, playing Alexander's bright-toned, upright piano. "She is going to be one of the best," Alexander says, after she leaves. A flat genius? Only the next four years will tell.
The student who constitutes the opposite of flat genius--"I think he cares more about football than music," Alexander will say of such a person, or "maybe he just wants to go with his girlfriend or something"--is someone Alexander strenuously avoids. Nor does he have patience for the lackadaisical kids who can't find time to practice, or those who simply lack the propensity. Or perhaps--and in this case there are no hard feelings--their musical interest lies in a genre other than the one Alexander evoked when he wrote his 1950s textbook and called it The Ted Alexander Method of Advanced Perfection in Ultra Modern Piano Playing.
Here's what Bill Evans said about the book, in a scrawled note on its cover: "Ted--you've got the basic vocabulary organized and presented very well here--which is all you can give except for inspiration--perhaps." When Evans wrote this, he was sitting in an after-hours pancake house with Alexander, who had come to see him play at the Senate Lounge on East Colfax Avenue. A few years later, Evans inscribed an eight-by-ten glossy for Alexander: "Ted, you're a genuine artiste!"
Which is exactly according to the plan set in motion by Alexander's mother on the day he was born. Pregnant with Ted in 1918, she saw a vision--"a real vision, not a dream"--of hands playing and heard tantalizing music. When Ted turned five, he began classical piano lessons, which he continued for a decade, until..."I had a job as a busboy," he remembers, "and I went by a nightclub in Boise, and this marvelous piano playing was coming out of it. I went in and saw a black man with a big cigar--he was the one playing--and he said, 'Come on in, boy.' I played him some Chopin, and he taught me some stride piano like Fats Waller played."
More than fifty years later, Alexander continues to practice Chopin every day. "But what I teach," he says, "is improvisation, and that encompasses a lot of things."
Alexander learned this in Hollywood in the 1940s, when he studied arranging and harmony with Spuds Murphy and played with big bands that occasionally made it into the movies. Traveling the country in a tour bus, not sleeping in a bed for nine days at a time, "and getting something like French fries to eat for breakfast, which ruined my health," he played the hot venues in every major town across the country. But his wife, a fellow Greek Orthodox whom he'd met in Denver, was ultimately unimpressed.
"She thought California had too many crazies," Alexander explains. "She didn't want to raise children there. She didn't like the life of a musician--drinking, running around with women, being into dope, which they were, even back then. And I kind of agreed with her, if you want to know the truth. She said, 'You are either going to be a gypsy or a scholar,' and since my forte was teaching, I thought I'd start up a studio back in Denver."
A few months later he was sharing teaching space in the old Tabor theater downtown with "a guy who had everything sewed up as far as society piano playing--though to tell the truth, he was a Liberace.
"I didn't know he was an alcoholic," Alexander says, "but when he didn't show up for lessons, I ended up getting most of his students."