As artists, none of us just evolves under a cabbage and then suddenly enters into the world fully formed like Zarathustra emerging from his cave. Most of us undergo (and endure) years and years of training at the hands (or at the knees) of those who have gone the way before. Some are teachers, but a select few become our true mentors. In my life, I was lucky enough to have three mentors who stand out above the rest. They’re all dead now, God love them. After a reminder about one of them by way of a chance conversation with an old friend on Facebook last night, I thought I should spill a little cyber ink on all three of them.
In the mid -70’s – the time of disco and long before the advent of digitization, I put down my basketball and decided to study music at the University of Regina. This led to one of the most unlikely pairings in the history of education, when I was taken under the tutelage of Thomas Manshardt, pictured here.
I was a raw unsophisticated kid from the old north end of Regina. I don’t know that we really use the term “good ol’ boy” in Canada, but that would give you an idea. Tom was easily the most sophisticated and cultured person I have ever met, which is a polite way of saying he was a total snob, and not always a very nice one. But he was exotic, unlike anyone I had ever met before, and before long I came totally under his spell.
He was the last pupil of the legendary pianist Alfred Cortot, which put him, and by extension me, in a lineage once can trace directly back to Chopin. To learn how to play Chopin from Tom was to learn if, a few times removed, from Chopin himself. (I’ve included a somewhat surreal video of Cortot at the end of this post.)
How he found his way from les grands salons of Europe to mid-70’s Regina is beyond comprehension, really. I can’t even imagine what the place seemed like to him. I’m sure he went to his grave with no awareness at all of the Roughriders or any of the rest of it. But It was a job, one that paid him well and allowed him to spend his days playing the piano, probably more wonderfully than anyone else I have ever heard.
I don’t know that I had ever encountered an actual gay person before I met Tom, although the fact that my best friend growing up, Roy, was gay was common knowledge, although never talked about. (Roy eventually came clean years later in a gay bar in Toronto, but that’s another story.) It may be that Tom was attracted to me. Certainly we spent many an evening sitting on the carpet of his Regina apartment (he possessed no furniture), drinking huge tumblers of Pernod with water, listening to Cortot and other masters of a bygone age. Maybe it was at times a tad potentially promiscuous and I was just too naïve to recognize it, I don’t know. But those evenings spent listening to Tom talk about art and music and life in general probably shaped me as an artist and even as a human being than any other person or situation ever would.
It was Tom who said again and again that art is a way of life. That may not seem like an earth-shattering notion now, but to a young man from a working class neighbourhood, it was news indeed. He showed me there was another way to live my life than the one that was expected of me. If I am an artist today, it is due to Tom’s influence.
The most obvious and persistent influence Tom had on me concerns my enduring love for fountain pens. He used a Montblanc Meisterstuck 149, which is still in my estimation one of the most beautiful objects on the planet. Tom kept a daily journal, as I do to this day. In fact, it could be said that my interest in keeping the journal grew greater than my interest in music, and so there came a day when I had to bid Tom adieu and get on with my life.
I would be a writer, it seemed, and not a musician. But either way, I would be an artist, trained not so much in the piano but in life studies by one of the finest artists I ever had the chance to meet and work with.
Tom came to a senseless end a few years ago. His legacy of music excellence lives on through his long time partner Lawrence Amundrud.
Adieu, mon cher ami . . .