Jeff Pearlman

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Josh Kantor

#195
The Fenway Park organist isn't as famous as Taylor Swift, as beloved as Pearl Jam. But if a man has the guts to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s "Innervisions" by playing every song on the album for 37,000 rabid Red Sox fans, he's nothing short of a superstar. POSTED February 24, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 9.23.10 AMBack when I was growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., I had an enormous crush on a girl named Teresa McClure.

Was Teresa cute? Sure. Personable? Absolutely. Smart? Yup. But what made me really want to date Teresa was her role as the keyboardest in Illusion, the high school rock band.

Alas, she rejected my offers, and we never hooked up.

Sigh.

Even with that scorn, I’ve never lost my love and respect for musicians. There’s something about the ability to play an instrument that impresses me. And when one plays it at a high level, for tons and tons of people? Well, it’s magical. Just magical.

Josh Kantor, Quaz No. 195, isn’t your typical musical star. He’s neither the lead singer for Rush not Taylor Swift’s guitarist. He doesn’t tour the nation, doesn’t sell millions of albums, doesn’t evoke screams from lustful fans. Nope, he’s just the Fenway Park oragnist.

Which is absolutely, amazingly, supremely … awesome.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Josh, so you’re the organist at Fenway Park. Which leads to a pretty obvious question—How the heck does one become the organist at Fenway Park?

JOSH KANTOR: I went in for two rounds of auditions at the beginning of 2003, having gotten the first audition through a recommendation by a friend who was working for the Red Sox at the time and who knew about my baseball fandom and organ-playing abilities. The auditions primarily tested my knowledge of popular music genres, my ability to generate lots of short musical ideas quickly, and my sense of how those ideas could best be incorporated into baseball games. As a popular music fanatic who’d studied the work of long-time White Sox organist Nancy Faust and who’d done lots of musical accompaniment for improvisational theater, I was fairly well prepared. A high-level Red Sox staffer who was supposed to be listening to the first audition was stuck in a meeting, and his conference room had a window facing the ballpark, so he opened it and had the audio engineer turn on the ballpark speakers so he could listen during his meeting, which made me a little extra nervous to have my audition echoing throughout an empty Fenway Park.

J.P.: I wrote a book about the Showtime-era Lakers. When Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979, one of his early moves was canning the organist and replacing him with lots of piped-in rock music. Why? He considered the organ uncool. In baseball, however, it seems like the organ brings something to life. Matters. How do you explain the long marriage between a somewhat obscure instrument and ballparks?

J.K.: It’s ironic that recorded music taking the place of organ music is commonly said to be “piped-in,” but that doesn’t answer your question. During the organ’s initial era of prominence at sporting events, it wasn’t obscure at all. It was (probably) the most common in-home musical instrument in the U.S. during the decade prior to the explosion in popularity of the electric guitar (which began with the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan). And the organ remained a staple of rock music (albeit in more of a supporting role) throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, it’s gone mostly out of favor in the NBA, remained largely in favor in the NHL (as a companion to an increase in recorded music), and gone alternately in and out of favor around Major League Baseball. Technological advances have allowed stadiums to present recorded music more crisply, and most stadiums have taken advantage of that (some more effectively than others). I can understand why Dr. Buss and others would see “traditional” instrumental organ performance as anachronistic in the context of a team and a sport and a town and an era that were emphasizing a “razzle-dazzle” presentation, though it feels a bit short-sighted to me to dismiss the organ altogether rather than modernize the repertoire. Why do people tend to feel that the organ is more vital in baseball? I’m not entirely sure, but the iconography of the sport is more pastoral, and maybe there’s currently an association with the organ as being part of that. I think that, for the most part, the baseball organ tradition has been able to remain rooted and simultaneously to adapt; my favorite sports organists these days are the ones who include contemporary song selections and who take requests in real time from their teams’ fans via Twitter. At Fenway, a lot of the vibrancy of the organ music comes from a shared ability between our skilled DJ (T.J. Connelly) and me to play off of each other and build a presentation together.

J.P.: I would love to hear the memory of your first game as the Red Sox organist. My guess is you were pooping large organ bricks from nervousness. How did you feel? What were you thinking? Did you make any mistakes?

J.K.: Certain memories from that day are still pretty vivid. Prior to April 11, 2003, I was very accustomed to playing for crowds of 50 to 100 people, and I’d occasionally played for crowds as large as 500 or 600 at the most. As if suddenly jumping to a crowd of well over 30,000 (not to mention a substantial radio and television audience) wasn’t terrifying enough, I hadn’t yet learned the extent to which I would always need to be ready for any number of last-minute changes or surprises. The day before, I’d been told by a boss that I would be eased in gradually over the first few games in order to help me get comfortable; when I arrived on game day, I was instead told that I should play for 90 minutes straight during team warm-ups. That’s the kind of change that wouldn’t even register on the nervous-meter in more recent years, but on that first day, it was a hard assignment to prepare for on short notice. After getting through those 90 minutes, I was hoping for an uneventful remainder of the day. It was at this point during the opening ceremony that my boss said, “OK, Josh, here’s what’s going to happen. Lou Rawls is going to come onto the field and sing the National Anthem. After that, Ray Charles will come out to a grand piano and perform his iconic version of ‘America, The Beautiful.’ Then, I’m going to need you to play something.” My first day on the job, I’m being instructed to follow two legendary performers, both of whom are among my inspirations for pursuing a career in music. My memories of the rest of the day are hazy, and I don’t remember what I ended up playing in that spot. Again, these types of late developments at games no longer faze me, but back then, I didn’t feel entirely ready for it. In the long-run, the good part about that first day (aside from getting a fun story out of it) is that I began to feel like if I could get through that, then I could get through anything, and I’ve very rarely been nervous in any performance situation since then. My other memory from that day is that the game ended up getting rained out.

J.P.: I just read that, on the 40th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s amazing Innervisions, you covered the entire album—on the organ, during a game. Um … how the hell did you pull that off? Did people get it? And … why?

J.K.: How? I figured there were nine songs and nine innings, so the math was easy (I didn’t play the entirety of each song, but I played roughly a minute of each tune during various breaks in the action). Did people get it? As best as I could tell from Twitter feedback, some got it pretty early on, and then some more got it as the game progressed. Why did I do it? Well, why not; I mean, it might be the best album I’ve ever heard … that (along with its strength of melody of recognizability) is a good enough reason for me. As I was on my way to Fenway that day, I saw a tweet from Matthew E. White (a great Richmond-based musician whose songs everyone should listen to) about the 40th anniversary, and I thought, “I know I’ve heard that record 200 times, but I wonder if I know it well enough to cover it.” I did a quick mental run-through of the album and decided I would try to pull it off if it was working within the flow of the ballgame. If memory serves, it was the fifth or sixth time I’d covered an album at a game (though the prior instances were all during batting practice).

J.P.: I know you’re from Chicago, knew you grew up a big White Sox fan. But how did this happen—womb to now? When did you develop your love of music? Learn to play the piano? Know you were good enough to play for thousands of people?

J.K.: The deep love of music has always been there; it’s also evolved over time. Until I was 13, I lived mostly in Athens, Georgia, rooting for Dale Murphy and the (mostly lousy) Atlanta Braves teams of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The proliferation of great Athens-based rock bands at that time (R.E.M., the B-52’s, Pylon, etc.) had somewhat of a role in my interest in music, but I wasn’t old enough to go see them play. I started taking piano lessons at age 5; I liked some aspects of it but not others, and I was good at some aspects of it but not others. My parents had a large (and mostly great) collection of soul/R&B/pop/rock records, which I dove into deeply and frequently as a youngster. I moved to the Chicago area for high school and adopted the White Sox—partly as an act of teen rebellion against my Cubs-loving parents, partly as affinity for my older cousin who took me to games, and partly out of admiration for Nancy Faust (the best stadium organist there’s ever been). Some of my more lasting musical tastes were forming, I was taking some music classes, a lot of musical concepts were starting to coalesce, and I was developing a knack for being able to listen to a recording and then mimic it on piano. I played occasionally at the neighborhood synagogue and had a great musical mentor there. I played in some garage bands and for some theatrical productions. At age 17, I moved to the Boston area for college; my first week in town, I made my inaugural pilgrimage to Fenway and saw Mike Greenwell hit the first Red Sox inside-the-park grand slam in 29 years en route to a 15-1 victory over the Yankees and the ninth win of a 10-game streak, and I’ve been hooked on the Red Sox ever since.

During college, I got involved with more bands and more theater. Near the end of college, I got particularly interested in the organ. For a few years after college, I very rarely performed or recorded, but I played at home every day; I was starting to get good without knowing it. Then I spent a few years playing semi-regularly (mostly with friends) at small clubs and black-box theaters before being hired by the Red Sox. During the first few years of playing at Fenway, I continued sporadically doing club shows. Over the last four years or so, I’ve been more active in pursuing the kinds of shows and recording sessions that I most enjoy being part of; sometimes that yields desirable outcomes and other times it leads to rejection. I’ve always been pretty aware of what my sources of inspiration are; what I’ve tried to focus on more in recent years is being equally aware of what I’m learning (technically, artistically, practically and interpersonally) from each musical experience and encounter. I’ve always tried over the years to be dabbling (mostly in self-taught fashion) with some instrument other than piano and organ (i.e. clarinet, oboe, guitar, banjo, upright bass) … I’m currently on a big accordion kick. When did I know I was good enough to play for thousands of people? I was probably eight or nine years in with the Red Sox before I reached a point of feeling that way more often than not; I’m often my own harshest critic.

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J.P.: I say this as a compliment—you strike me as a pretty big baseball geek. You’re in a band, The Baseball Project. You’re in another band, the Split Squad. What is it about the game that you love? Why the devotion?

J.K.: I am a pretty big baseball geek, and I take your remark as a compliment. The Split Squad actually has nothing to do with baseball; it’s just a name that a friend of ours suggested, and everyone in the band liked it. The Baseball Project, on the other hand, is a band full of baseball geeks who have written roughly 70 songs that are all about baseball; that may seem gimmicky, but I think we execute the concept in a genuine and interesting fashion (though I admit my bias on that opinion). I’ve always loved watching baseball and playing it and reading about it and looking at (the fronts and backs of) baseball cards; I don’t know exactly why. I like that any player can be the hero in any given game; that seems much less true in other sports. I’m interested in baseball’s relationship with civil rights issues. I like that there are different ways in which I can enjoy watching games: whether I watch passively or actively (though I always watch actively when I’m on duty), whether I pay more attention to pitching or to hitting, whether I focus more on statistics or on situations, it’s always stimulating to me. And that’s something that has always been that way, despite the technological and cultural changes that alter how we watch and follow sports over time. There have been times and places in my life where it was considered un-cool as a rock enthusiast to admit to loving baseball; that’s no longer the case, and I actually think (again, with bias) that Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey’s songwriting for the Baseball Project has contributed to that positive shift.

J.P.: What’s the biggest musical screw-up of your career?

J.K.: I’m not certain; whatever it is, it’s probably something that I’m not (and may never be) insightful enough even to have realized. That said, I do wish I’d been confident enough to think of myself as a “real musician” prior to my ninth season (or even my first season) of playing for three million people per year; I feel like that would have helped create some additional opportunities that would have been rewarding and instructive.

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J.P.: I’m always fascinated by mental approaches. What’s yours at Fenway? What I mean is, do you think about playing for thousands? Are you, mentally, playing for yourself? Do you consider the tastes of fans? Does that even matter? And, while you’re playing, what runs through your head? Anything besides the song?

J.K.: The tastes of fans matter tremendously … probably more than anything else. They pay good money to be entertained, and even though my contribution is secondary to the game itself as a form of entertainment, I owe it to them to play as well and as thoughtfully as I can. Because I’ve done this job for a long time, I can allow the thoughts about how many people are listening to flutter in and out organically without them being disruptive to my overall focus. What runs through my head while I’m playing? It depends. If I’m playing a song that I don’t know very well, then I’m focusing as much as I can on listening to my playing to make sure I get it right. If it’s a song that I know well, then it’s a lot easier to think about all the other things that help me adjust my “game plan” on the fly, like who’s coming up to bat, how long is this relief pitcher going to take to get ready, is this hitter likely to be intentionally walked, is this pitcher about to be pulled, how long is the videoboard going to show this guy in the stands dancing like a madman, is this game more of a family crowd or more of a boozing crowd, what is this fan who just walked up to me saying, what is this fan on Twitter saying, what is the ballpark’s AV producer saying in my earpiece, when is the ideal moment to hand off to the DJ, does it look like it’s about to start (or stop) raining, what tempo should this song be played at in order to fit the entire chorus into this pitching-mound visit, how conclusive does this replay review appear to be, how long will it take for these 200 Little Leaguers being honored during the pregame ceremony to exit the field before the game starts, is this game nationally televised and thus subject to slightly longer inning breaks (and music breaks), what’s the duration of this trivia segment on the scoreboard, how and when do I best articulate a heads-up about something to the DJ or the producer or the technical director or a camera operator… and the list goes on and on. There’s a lot of multi-tasking as far as everything that I’m looking at and listening to, and that can be both challenging and exhilarating. I’m playing for myself only insofar as I’m trying to apply a relatively simple (and occasionally evolving) set of guidelines that I think will help make my playing enjoyable to the greatest possible number of people. Among those guidelines:

• Don’t repeat: aside from playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch at each game, I try not to play any song more than once during a homestand (including during batting practice, pre-game ceremonies, and the post-game exit), and I try not play any artist more than once per day.

• Related to the above, play songs at each game that represent a diverse array of genres, eras, tempos, and keys: too much of one type within any of these elements will start to bore people (I get a little stubborn about keys; if the song I want to play next is in the same key as the song I just played, I’ll sometimes try to transpose it quickly in my head. It’s kind of like those swordsmen in “The Princess Bride” who are only satisfied by the added degree of difficulty that comes from dueling left-handed).

• Don’t be mean: it’s OK for a song to jab lightly at the on-field exploits of the opposing team; it’s not OK to be cruel about it or to draw attention to any off-field issues.

• Emphasize melodies and hooks: I’m trying to evoke lyrics for listeners without the use of lyrics, so the component of the song that people will be inclined to sing along with (either aloud or in their own heads) has to be in the forefront. The rhythm and bass line and chords matter, but the vocal lines and riffs have to be the things that shine through.

J.P.: You’re a musician. You work in sports. I know many parents who want their kids to one day play at Lincoln Center. I know even more parents who want their kids to start at second base for the Yankees. Which do you consider a more admirable goal? More attainable?

J.K.: My work in music and in sports has always been primarily avocational; my various day jobs in libraries over the years are the thing that enables me to pay the bills. That said, I’m sure that more people have played at Lincoln Center than have started at 2nd base for the Yankees, so that would make the former more attainable. But as far as comparing elite concert musicians with major league athletes more generally, I don’t know which is more attainable or more admirable. Most top musicians can perform at a high level for a greater number of years than most top athletes. As a kid, I dreamed more of being a ballplayer than of being a musician, but neither of those is as admirable as being a great teacher or firefighter or doctor. My wife works in homelessness services, so I’m regularly reminded that the heroism of my favorite athletes and musicians is relative.

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J.P.: I would love, love, love for you to play Tupac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby on the organ at a Sox game in 2015. Serious question: What has to happen for that to occur?

J.K.: Serious answer: I appreciate your enthusiasm about this very much, and I love receiving and accommodating requests. My general criteria for requests are:

• Send me your request via Twitter; it’s the easiest way for me to keep track of requests and to reply with a dumb joke. Asking nicely will often get you bumped up in the queue.

* You should be at Fenway when I play your request; what’s the point of me playing your request if you’re not there to hear it?

* The song should fit at the game. If you request “Moon River” during the late innings of an intense, tied game, I’m probably not going to play it. As for “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” I like the song, and it would sound good on an organ, though I feel that a couple of the themes are dark enough to render the song possibly not fitting for a ballgame.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOSH KANTOR:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Shea Hillenbrand, Billy Dee Williams, organic orange juice, Oliver Stone, Third Eye Blind, Luciano Pavarotti, chicken burritos, Pan Am, Atlantic City, Milk Duds, Lauren Bacall: 1. Milk Duds: my favorite candy of late. Not the least bit lost on me is the horrible irony that, on more than one occasion, I’ve used my Rite-Aid Pharmacy “Wellness” card to buy them at a discount; 2. Organic orange juice: a close runner-up on this list and perhaps even a winner if you’d asked me on a different day; 3. Luciano Pavarotti: Points for bringing opera to a wider audience. By many accounts, he wasn’t great at reading music; I identify with that (not saying I’m remotely in his league as a performer, just acknowledging one similarity). Bonus points for his duet with James Brown are offset by points deducted for his duet with Bryan Adams; 4. Billy Dee Williams: At this stage of my life, I could take or leave “Star Wars,” but I love “Lady Sings the Blues” and the “Bingo Long” movie. And without delving into malt liquor advertising controversies, I’ll just say that his Colt 45 spots make me think of Houston’s MLB franchise from ’62-’64; 5. Shea Hillenbrand: Points for hitting a walk-off home run for the Red Sox as a rookie against Detroit in the 18th inning on June 5th, 2001. Bonus points for having a knack for getting hit by pitches; 6. Lauren Bacall: I’m only familiar with her in “The Big Sleep,” but what a movie!; 7. Atlantic City: I’ve never been there, but I give them points for hosting two professional baseball teams: the (African-American) Bacharach Giants from 1916-1929 and the independent Atlantic City Surf (cool name) from 1998-2008. Man, I really hope there’s a Burt Bacharach tribute band called the Bacharach Giants that plays at one of the casinos down there; 8. Pan Am: I assume you mean Pan Am Airlines, in which case I give them points for flying the Beatles to America in ’64, but otherwise, I’m moving this to the bottom of the list if you’re referring to the Pan Am Expo of 1901 where President McKinley was assassinated; 9. Oliver Stone: the only film of his that I’ve seen is “The Doors.” By the way, isn’t it remarkable how kind history was to the Doors for so long and how that seems to have changed dramatically in the last couple years? I still like them OK, but a lot of rock people whose tastes I respect have come to loathe them; 10. Third Eye Blind: I like the way they sing “Doot doot doot.” The rest of it isn’t particularly my cup of tea; 11. Chicken burritos: You had me at “burritos,” but you lost me at “chicken”

• Three memories from your senior prom: 1. I didn’t go. I thought then (and still think now) that skipping it was the right choice; 2. Instead of going to prom, I went to a café that night with my friend Keith, a terrific singer with whom I’m still occasionally in touch, but not as often as I’d like to be; 3. One of my conversations with Keith that night was about recent musical discoveries that we were excited about.

• Who wins in a 12-round thumb fight between you and Archie Manning?: If we go left-handed, I think I’m strong and dexterous and nimble enough to take a slim majority of the rounds. If we go righty, I would expect his mighty thumb to triumph with ease.

• One question you would ask Christine McVie were she here right now?: Since I’ve never met her before and she certainly has no idea who I am, I’d probably ask some polite variation of, “What brings you here?” If, however, we’re in an alternate universe where it’s socially acceptable to ask a probing question of a stranger, then I’d ask the following multi-part question about her self-titled solo album from ’84: “What did you like best and least about how it turned out? Were you satisfied with its level of commercial success? And how much thought did you give at the time to the possibility of doing more solo releases?” Out of curiosity, I posed your question to my friend Patrick Berkery (an awesome Philly-based drummer and writer who’s probably the biggest McVie fan I know), and he replied, “I know EXACTLY what I’d ask her: ‘It’s great to have you back [in Fleetwood Mac], Chris, but how the fuck are you NOT playing “Hold Me” on this tour?'” That’s the kind of passionate answer that your question deserves and that I couldn’t provide without an expert assist.

• All-time favorite song lyric?: When I listen to songs with an ear for how they might sound on the organ at a ballgame, I’m thinking (at least partly) about what the lyrics convey, but when I’m listening more leisurely, I’m thinking more about how the words sound than about what they mean, so I’m often drawn to things like nonsense lyrics (“la la la,” “na na na,” “shama-lama-ding-dong,” etc). I know I’ll never get tired of hearing Paul Curreri sing the word “carillons” in his song “Greenville.” Vocal delivery can turn a bad lyric into a great one, or vice-versa. When Nat King Cole sings, “I love you for sentimental reasons,” it’s quite nice, but when Sam Cooke takes the same song and sings “I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you for sentimental reasons,” by the time he gets to “for sentimental reasons,” I’m completely awash in the love that he feels for the person he’s singing to and also completely enchanted by how the repeated phrase gradually morphs into something that starts to sound like some beautiful, made-up language.

• Rank the Boston groups: Letters to Cleo, New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Buffalo Tom: It’s a three-way tie for first between New Edition, Letters to Cleo, and Buffalo Tom. I might have given a slight edge to New Edition, except that Kay and Bill have both offered a lot of encouragement for my song selections at Fenway. Either way, New Kids are a distant fourth. Your question led me to think about who would be on my Mt. Rushmore of Boston bands; I’ll need to ponder that some more, but I can say with certainty that the Modern Lovers are on there somewhere.

• In 23 words, tell me why organists get all the hot chicks: I’m re-wording the question so it’s more palatable: why are organists so attractive? Not sure; I haven’t always found that to be true.

• I always found Nomar incredibly rude and unlikeable. Am I wrong?: I’ve only met him once; he was really nice.

• What’s the world’s grossest food?: I’m not especially worldly when it comes to food (or to most things), so I’m sure there’s plenty of gross foods out there that I’ve never heard of. Something like haggis or Spam would be an easy answer, but it’s a cheap one since I don’t think I’ve ever tried those foods. So I’ll go with beets; I’ve never liked those things. There’s also certain kinds of fancy cheeses that seem pretty inedible to me.

This is one of my all-time favorite songs. Your thoughts?:  With Hall & Oates, I confess to knowing pretty much only the hits, so I don’t think I’ve heard this one before. It’s a bit wimpier than all those hits that followed in later years, more in line with the sensitive singer/songwriter vibe of the early ’70s (nothing inherently wrong with that). It’s almost too earnest for me, though, both structurally (the peculiar 3-bar phrases in the verses, the extra beats when he says “locket,” the significant changing of musical gears three separate times in a 162-second song) and lyrically (it feels like a pretty heavy-handed/unsubtle tale). And why would a singer specifically mention the sound of an accordion twice yet not allude to the instrument musically (maybe that’s my own accordionist’s bias asking that question)? “The next thing she knew, she died” is a dreadfully bad lyric on multiple levels, but “peal of a bell” is a pretty terrific lyric. Overall, the writing isn’t great (I’m not saying I could do better, and obviously those guys later went on to become very skilled and accomplished songwriters). The playing and singing on this song are generally very good, and the arranging is pretty strong, too (though all those root parallel octaves in the string part when he says “preacher was a sorry mess” are surprisingly unimaginative by Arif Mardin standards). If I’m missing what it is that makes you love this song as much as you do, feel free to fill me in. And thank you for inviting me to do this interview; I enjoyed it.

  • Cd1515

    another winner Jeff, great find!!
    Longtime Sox fan and I had no idea this guy was their organist….also had no clue how much preparation and thought goes into doing that job each day.

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