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Raising Caine continued

 

 

Uri Caine’s relationship with the piano dates at least as far back as the mid-1960s, when his parents—Burton Caine C’49, a professor of law at Temple University, and Shulamith Wechter Caine, a poet and professor of English at Drexel—enrolled him in lessons. He was eight years old.
   
“I was moderately into it,” Caine recalls, “but when I was about 13 I met Bernard Peiffer, who was a French pianist who lived in Philly. He influenced a lot of the musicians who were coming up in Philadelphia. And he stressed the importance of studying classical music as a way to get towards a certain facility on the piano, in order to improvise. So I would say he was really the first big influence that I had.”
   
Two years later, while still working with Peiffer, Caine began an informal apprenticeship with the noted composer George Rochberg G’49, who had won renown within the academic classical realm in the 1940s and 1950s for his considerable contributions to serial music. At the time, serialism—the cerebral, atonal compositional method conceived by Arnold Schoenberg and refined by his pupil Anton von Webern—had just begun its reign of influence. Rochberg not only composed serial, or 12-tone, music; he also published the first study on the subject. But by the end of the sixties, Rochberg had become disenchanted with the movement, and gradually embarked upon a reevaluation of tonal music. This decision, perceived by most modernists as a defection, alienated the composer from the classical music establishment. Nevertheless, Rochberg chaired Penn’s music department from 1960 to 1968, and served on the faculty for another 15 years.
   
Now emeritus professor of music, Rochberg remembers the adolescent Caine for his intuition, his talent and his “very large flexibility of mind and nature.” He gave his young protÈgÈ weekly assignments in composition. Caine explains: “Basically he would take a form—like a Chopin prelude or a Bach chorale—and say: ‘Study examples of this.’ And we would study, and he would say: ‘Write one or two, and bring them in.’ So every week I would be writing pieces in different styles. It forced me to really break things down in terms of understanding—harmonically and formally—a lot of different pieces. I wasn’t really sure how that was going to connect with a lot of the jazz stuff that I was doing in terms of playing. But it was more a general music understanding; especially of harmony and form.”
   
Caine was also honing his craft on the bandstand. Philadelphia has always had a well-deserved reputation as an incubator for emerging jazz talent. In those years, the city boasted a haphazard network of clubs, bars and neighborhood joints. Caine dove into this scene headfirst. The jazz sound occasionally identified as the “Philly style”—a rhythmically aggressive branch of bebop exemplified by (but certainly not limited to) such musicians as Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Philly Joe Jones—impressed itself upon the aspiring pianist. By the time he came to Penn as a student in 1977, he was playing at a professional level.
   
Caine notes that the University was not exactly a haven for jazz musicians. “Penn was the type of place where they didn’t even have a jazz program,” he says. “It was taught by the folklore department; they would come in and teach it because the music department didn’t feel that it was a valid form of music. A lot of the professors were really very academic and closed-minded.”
   
After entering the music department’s graduate program early (via a specialized University Scholars curriculum), Caine had more encouraging exchanges with the faculty composers—notably Rochberg, Richard Wernick and George Crumb (with whom he often played four-handed piano).
   
A hallmark of the program was its rigorous master’s exam, in which students were expected to identify individual pieces of music—from the Baroque period to the present—by hearing the briefest of passages or seeing a fragment on a page. Caine remembers this ordeal with masochistic fondness. He trained by way of marathon sessions in the music library (then a new arrival on Van Pelt Library’s fifth floor). “I went into this thing of listening to 20-second excerpts of different pieces, for hours every day,” he reminisces. “It had another really weird effect on how I was hearing.”
   
So did the aesthetic of avant-garde jazz musicians, many of whom visited the western reaches of campus, thanks to a concert series in the basement of St. Mary’s Church. There Caine saw Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, and Sonny Rollins for the first time.
   
Some aspects of Caine’s stint at Penn provoke no trace of nostalgia: the pretensions of the academy and the still-overwhelming dominance of serial composition. “A lot of the people that I was dealing with were totally into 20th-century music—which I was into also—but they weren’t really instrumentalists,” he explains. “So they had almost a bias against instrumentalists as being somehow just the tradespeople of music, while they were the great theoreticians. And I wasn’t relating to it that way. My gig at Penn was to play for the choirs. I just had so much fun playing, in all these different experiences, that I never really understood that attitude.”
   
While a student, Caine essentially supported himself as a musician. After moving across the Schuylkill River to Center City in his second year, he had begun playing with local tenor-saxophone mainstay Bootsie Barnes. Through Barnes he met (and played with) virtually every Philadelphia-based jazz luminary—from Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones to Grover Washington Jr.
   
Jan Galperin C’78 G’79, then a sculptor, remembers seeing Caine play in a Center City club. “He already had a name in Philly,” she remarks, smiling at the memory of her own rock ’n’ roll proclivities at the time. Galperin and Caine, acquaintances at Penn, were married in May of 1999.
   
Few of Caine’s peers in the music department were receptive to his gigging; many regarded jazz with clear disdain. “Different people would tell me: ‘You should really watch what you’re doing. This is not the path to go down,’” he recalls. On the rare occasions his fellow graduate students ventured out to hear him perform, it had the air of a delegation visiting a foreign shore. “We’d go out to some bar like the Watutsi, and they’re sitting there, and on so many levels that was bizarre to them.” He pauses for a moment, then adds: “They were scared, too.”


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 1/2/01