by Tucker Petertil
Oct 5- Oct 19
The Japanese have a nice tradition of making artists living treasures. If we had such a thing here in Olympia, Joe Baque – who turns 90 in March – would be on the shortlist.
“For someone my age I’m amazed that I get all the work I do. I get sometimes 3, 4, 5 jobs a week.”
Joe, who thinks his main talent is as an accompanist, admits, “I play pretty good.” The list of the bands Joe has accompanied over the years is long indeed and includes: Seattle’s Tuxedo Junction, Aberdeen’s Electric Park Dixieland band, the New York Trio, and various trios and duos with the likes of Steve Luceno, Michael Olsen, Dave McCreary, and Holly Graham, as well as Sour Owl, the local blues rock band which he has been a member of for the last two years.
I interviewed Joe in his southeast Olympia home where most of the living room was occupied by two back to back grand pianos set up for lessons and jamming.
Joe, who grew up near Queens, New York, started piano lessons at age six and credits his supportive parents for his interest in music.
“I got that piano,” he says, gesturing to one of the pair, “when I was thirteen years old. It was brand new.” He also still owns a vibraphone his parents gave him, and learned xylophone which he played in a Lithuanian polka band.
His German family had beer with meals, and Joe says “it was no big deal” when at 14 he started playing piano in New York City gin mills.
It wasn’t till he entered college that he discovered that he didn’t really play piano that well, and rectified the situation by studying privately with a concert pianist.
He then quit college and began playing music in clubs with various bands, and became a vocal coach to many musical theatre students.
His early career consisted of playing “many, many Bar Mitzvahs” and the Manhattan high society circuit. “The pay was good – the music was awful, they didn’t dance, they walked around talking to each other.” It was what he calls “music by the pound, we’d play for two and ¾ hours, no breaks, take fifteen minutes off and then do the same thing again.”
He and his bandmates would play till 4 in the morning and then go to Harlem to jam at after hours joints where Joe met his heroes.
It was the 1940s and he had many fleeting encounters at jam sessions with jazz greats like Louie Armstrong and Lena Horne. He also saw innumerable shows by people like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.
During this time he played a lot of recording dates, did plenty of advertising “jingles” and performed on many cruise ships.
It was during a 1983 cruise from Alaska to Florida that he met his wife. Joe recalls performing one night, “my wife to be stayed until the end, everybody else left, and so it wasn’t long before I got the message. She was my groupie.” And so in 1984 he moved from New York to Olympia to set up house with his new wife.
These days Joe plays piano a couple hours a day: “I contribute my good health to music.” And his favorite music to play for himself is Bach, which coincidentally is also the way his own name is pronounced.
“I have a great life, I’m 89 I’m gonna be 90 soon, I’m very active, I walk, I swim, I do archery.” He continues, “I found out that negative feelings do nothing but tear down protoplasms, so I get rid of negative feelings.” When I ask about this negativity Joe says, “I did not grow up in a fascist state…we have one now.”
I was curious what his advice would be to a young person who wanted to spend their life creating music.
“Make every note count, be present in every note you play.” He also confides, “Marry a rich lady.”
While he was never dependent and had his own money he feels that for a musician these days “the work is disappearing.” The business he had playing weddings now goes to DJs and karaoke has also taken a lot of work from live musicians.
I ask about his thoughts on the current state of music. “Pop music is where it’s always been, kind of nondescript.”
And when I note that his website seems to be blank Joe says “I’m a terrible businessman… I’m a little too old to hustle”.
In Concert: Catch Joe live October 8th at Ben Moore’s with his trio which includes guitarist Steve Luceno and Tom Russell on clarinet and flute.