Fred Norman-Remembered

The quiet piano man plays his final chord


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Just over a year ago, this writer quoted Fred Norman in regards to his failing health and an experience he'd recently had in an area hospital: "They punched it into the computer that I had died. Two seconds before they were going to throw me away, some young surgeon told me, 'I saw a pink spot and grabbed it.' They said I was going to die, but someone forgot to tell me."

In March, after a lifetime of providing people with a full measure of musical joy, Freddy ran out of pink spots.

This coming Sunday evening, Fred's family and friends will commemorate his life in a memorial wake, and a lot there is to commemorate. Born Frederick Norman Ghertler, he was a product of a musical New York family. (Composer Felix Mendelssohn was a noted branch on his family tree.) At the ripe age of 12, Fred was playing piano in a working quartet, traveling the legendary Borscht Belt Circuit in the Catskill Mountains. During World War II, he served in Europe in the dual positions of combat soldier and military bandsman, though it's likely the combat experience left the more lasting impression. As the Allies were pushing into western Germany, Fred took a Nazi bullet in the leg and until being recovered by American forces a month later, he was held prisoner of war by an anti-Semitic enemy which, mercifully, never seemed to notice the "H" stamped onto his dogtag. (In typical Fred fashion, he could laugh about his misadventures as a POW, and made certain to credit a particular German doctor with not only saving his leg, but concealing his Jewish identity from the others.)

During an engagement in Jackson Hole after the war, Freddy decided the mountainous Northwest was where he belonged. He made Boise his permanent home in 1950. When he wasn't performing locally-most notably within the many musical endeavors of Gib Hockstrasser-he was out touring the larger world. At one time or another, Fred's wealth of talents were employed by everyone from Anna Maria Alberghetti to Sy Zentnor-with the likes of Tony Bennett, Lainie Kazan, Jimmy Durante, Guy Lombardo, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Jones, Phyllis Diller, Warren Covington, Cyd Charise... (believe me, the list goes on and on)... filling out the alphabet of his career. To repeat myself from my January '04 profile of Freddy: "His portfolio reads like a history of the American entertainment industry in the mid-20th century."

The last time this writer made music with Fred was at a club venue during the Gene Harris Jazz Festival four or five years back. He had never been asked to play Boise's premier musical event before, largely-I believe-because it is so easy to overlook the talents of our elders in the American rush to always move on. But nothing else I heard that night or any other, before or since, has been any better jazz than what Freddy laid out. He glowed, he was so good. And he was happy. I suspect he could never have been more pleased than to strut his best stuff here, in the town he had loved for half a century.

Even though I came to know Fred only late in his life, I am certain it's not merely his career accomplishments or talented fingers that have compelled his old friends June Schmitz and Jeanie Hockstrasser to put together Sunday's remembrance. Had he never touched a piano key, Freddy would still be a special, marvelous gentleman. Physically, he was one of the smallest men I have ever known, standing not much over five feet tall and probably weighing in at something less than all the songs he composed over his time, combined. But what he lacked in stature, he made up for in grace, humor, courtesy and intellect. Over the last few years, he would occasionally send me limericks or lyrics he'd scribbled on envelopes or napkins, as though his creative nature was still a playful child. Even the last time I talked to him (on the phone, within a couple of weeks of his death), his wit was as quick and sharp as I can only wish mine will ever be, and he stayed funny and gracious to the end.

The memorial begins at 7 p.m. at the Boise Little Theater. Speakers will include longtime friends Bill Rankin, Dick McGarvin, and any number of people who have shared a bandstand with Freddy going back at least five decades. His musician buddies have been invited to bring their horns, which would be a clear indication which direction this memorial will take, and rightly so. It would be absurdly inappropriate to send Fred on without a song or two in his heart.



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