Pianist reflects on playing for jazz great Anita O Day

By Dick Mason, The Observer October 17, 2012 01:57 pm

Pianist Bill Duane will be part of a six-member jazz ensemble that will perform Saturday at an annual fundraiser for the Grande Ronde Symphony. DICK MASON - The Observer
Pianist Bill Duane will be part of a six-member jazz ensemble that will perform Saturday at an annual fundraiser for the Grande Ronde Symphony. DICK MASON - The Observer

Bill Duane of La Grande took countless commands while serving in the U.S. Marines in the 1950s, including one from an unlikely source — legendary jazz singer Anita O’Day.

Duane found himself taking a good-natured order from O’Day while with a U.S. Marine musical group, which provided accompaniment for star performers on the television program “Dress Blues.’’ The show, put on by the Marines, ran in Hollywood on a CBS affiliate. Duane, a jazz pianist, helped provide accompaniment for many stars appearing on “Dress Blues”  including O’Day.  

Duane described the dynamic O’Day, then in her late 30s and at the peak of her career, as a delight to play for. O’Day was far from demanding. But she did give an unmistakable order, the likes of which Duane never heard again. 

“She told us, ‘Don’t give me too many cool chords,’” Duane said. 

O’Day did not want the musicians accompanying her to play too many chords because this would divert the spotlight from the lyrics of her songs. 

Duane and his fellow musicians were glad to grant O’Day her request, and O’Day’s televised performance gracefully hit the airwaves of Hollywood.

A jazz pianist, Duane played with “Dress Blues’’ for three years, helping make 60 programs. Others he provided accompaniment for on the show included famed jazz guitarist Barney Kessler and legendary blues trombonist Jack Teagarden. 

Playing for such stars inspired Duane in a big way.

“It was a wonderful experience. To be involved with such musicians was so inspiring, it was motivating,’’ said Duane, who will perform in La Grande Saturday at the New Town Square building at a fundraiser for the Grande Ronde Symphony Association. 

Duane, now a youthful 78, liked being associated with the Hollywood music scene but worried that the wild lifestyles of the people in it was having a bad influence on his efforts to lead a Christian lifestyle. Duane left Southern California in the early 1960s to enroll in a Christian school in the East where he would study to become a pastor. Duane was not allowed to play jazz at the college because this music was frowned upon in conservative circles. He explained that jazz was then associated with the drug culture. 

Duane, however, did not let his college’s jazz ban deter him. He played secretly at his own risk at a remote end of campus.

“I was very careful. If you got caught, you could be kicked out of school,’’ he said. 

Nobody ever caught Duane playing jazz, and he was ordained as a minister in 1962. Fifty years later he is still a minister. 

 He and his wife of 51 years, Beth, moved to La Grande from Central California 16 months ago. They came here to be with their oldest daughter, Kathy O’Neal, and her husband, Trent, the parents of their granddaughter Chloe, 3. 

Bill and Beth Duane, who had lived in Southern and Central California since the early 1970s, welcome the slower-paced lifestyle in La Grande.

“This is a wonderful place. Something here has been preserved as far as the kind of humanity that is here. People work hard, are responsible and respect others. This is a big contrast to California. I’m enjoying the culture.’’

Duane said his love of jazz is now greater than ever.

“There is an essence and art form to jazz which prevails. People of all different ages relate to jazz.’’