I think that my grandparents believed my father to be a prodigy. They made a big fuss about the way he played the piano and discouraged sports or anything else that might jeopardize his previous hands. His training was strictly classical—but I wonder if the dominant influence on him musically came from his teachers or from the trepidation with which his family regarded his fingers.
John Strauss never quite became a virtuoso of the instrument, though he was good enough to accompany night club singers (including my mother), tour in the music pit with Broadway-bound musicals and, on one occasion, to perform a Beethoven sonata live on New York’s WQXR classical music station where his older brother was an announcer.
When my father came back from World War Two, he studied music and music theory on the GI Bill at Yale University with composer Paul Hindemith. He wrote an opera and a piano concerto but after marriage and two sons, John Strauss turned to television for a steady income. He composed the theme songs for Car 54 Where Are You? And The Phil Silver’s Show though his bread and butter was in the cutting room—first as a sound editor, then a music editor. He eventually became one of the most sought-after editors in New York, working on three of Woody Allen’s early films as well as The Heartbreak Kid, Little Big Man, and Slaughterhouse Five.
When my mother’s career brought our family to the west coast, my father got himself hired onto Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong remake, but local editor’s union politics forced him off the movie. Unable to get hired on a west coast union movie, my father considered his options—work back in New York and separate himself from his family or find something else to do. He was in his early fifties and wanted a career change anyway so he turned back to his first love, music.
He bought a Fender Rhodes and some amps and set about joining a fusion jazz group. He met some guys through the local musicians union and started jamming with them. I think they even got a few gigs in some clubs out in the desert. But my father told me he was struggling with the improvisational aspects of the music.
He took me a Tower Records on Sunset and asked me to guide him through the jazz aisles. I was no expert but I knew a little about the great keyboard players. We listened to some of those records together. Oscar Peterson, my father described as “frightening.” Said he was exhausted just listening to him. Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis intrigued my father, but I could tell he just didn’t think he could pull that kind of soul out of himself. He’d been raised to be a cautious man and it was costing him as an improvisational musician. He didn’t think he would ever get out of the desert, musically speaking.
Then I spun an Ahmad Jamal record. Live at the Pershing Square Lounge, 1958 and together we marveled at the poignant understatement, the implied soul of his music. “But Not for Me,” "Moonlight in Vermont." Ahmad would make you hear the melodic statement without quite playing it. He'd tease rapture out of a few tones. “Woody ‘n You,” “Poinciana.” My father smiled and said, “Yeah.”
“You can play like that,” I said.
“Not like that,” my father said, respectfully. “But I think I understand what I need to do.”
A few weeks after that, on a Friday night, he took me with him to the desert night club where he and his fusion combo were playing. It was a funky little place on a quiet flat stretch of highway. My father and his cohorts called themselves With the Flow and they were pretty good. I watched my father—who was at least fifteen years older than the bassist, drummer, and the very versatile horn player—trying to let loose on the keyboard. He did seem more relaxed than I was used to seeing him. He even, at one point, let out a groan during a solo and swung his head back and forth. He seemed to be letting his hands and his heart find the music.
A month or so later, the club they were playing in went rock and a week after that With the Flow broke up. My father was offered an editing job on a New York-based movie. He sold the Fender Rhodes but kept all the jazz vinyl. He brought the Ahmad Jamal records with him to New York. Years later he told me that those records had inspired him in ways beyond music.