Remembering Jay Flippin: Friends and students share memories of the late pianist, professor, composer
By Kim Thomas
“Pianos, unlike people, sing when you give them your every growl. They know how to dive into the pit of your stomach and harmonize with your roars when you’ve split yourself open. And when they see you, guts shining, brain pulsing, heart right there exposed in a rhythm that beats need need, need need, need need, pianos do not run. And so she plays.”
― Francesca Lia Block, Love Magick
“Jay was our pianist for nearly four decades; with so many memories, where do I start?” asks Cora Hughes, an alto for 30 years with Lexington Singers, who remembers Jay Flippin for his infinite patience and confidence in their capacity to create harmony. Flippin died October 16th at the age of 68 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Hughes adds, “Jay was the Lexington Singers’ accompanist for 39 years and was hoping to make it 40. Many times, we would get a piece of music from Jay, and with 8-part arrangements, as only Jay could do, never doubting that we would be able to learn it in record time! Sometimes he would say, ‘Just find a note in the chord to sing,” and many times, that’s exactly what we did!”
Hughes remembers that Flippin remained eternally and unfailingly cheerful and “was the most humble person that I have ever known, never bragging about all of his accomplishments and many never knew the depth of his triumphs. He loved the rehearsal process and was ‘always’ the teacher, patient and kind, even though many of us could have tried anyone’s patience, but not Jay’s. He WAS the ultimate optimist….always finding something positive in everything and everyone. No wonder his favorite song was ‘What a Wonderful World,’ and it truly was with Jay and his music. We will miss him!”
As a pianist, Flippin accompanied the likes of Count Basie and Rosemary Clooney, and as a teacher, he mentored hundreds of musicians hoping to mimic his piano stylings, his patient nature, or his optimism. As an organist and minister of music, Jay Flippin led the faithful at First Baptist Church in Morehead through countless Holidays and presentations; taught for 45 years at Morehead State University, and was an accompanist for the Lexington Singers and Lexington Symphony Orchestra. The devoted teacher and artist was admired by all who met or learned from him, and the Singers performed a tribute concert to him, All That Jazz, on October 18, just a few days after his death.
Professor Jay Flippin
There is something intriguing and mesmerizing about the piano. When a pianist sits down for a virtuoso performance, he is in a technical sense transmitting more information to a machine than any other human activity involving machinery allows. As a child, we might see the piano as imposing, but we are curious about this odd piece of furniture, wondering why some keys are black, some white, and what those pedals are for, anyway? Then we grow older, and our feet can reach the pedals. If we’re lucky, our parents ‘force’ us to take piano lessons; and we soon realize that Joy to the World begins by simply from playing downward from one C to the lower C. We learn songs we like, and some we don’t, but those who become proficient and share their keyboard talent by teaching, accompanying, performing, and composing are glistening diamonds in our treasure chest of musical memories.
Professor Jay Flippin taught courses in music literature for the Morehead State University Department of Music for decades, and as musical director, keyboardist, and arranger for the Patsy Meyer Band. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree in piano performance from Mars Hill College and a Master of Music degree in piano performance from Morehead State University. He was active as a soloist and accompanist throughout the U. S., Europe, and Africa. Flippin performed with the Count Basie Band, Rosemary Clooney, the Platters, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Ricky Skaggs, and many more. He also enjoyed an active composing career, penning radio and TV jingles, arrangements for all kinds of musical ensembles, and numerous film scores, including the score for the 1998 documentary “Hearts of Glass.” For his varied accomplishments, Flippin received the Morehead State University Distinguished Faculty Creative Productions Award, the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Man of the Year Award, and, “for outstanding service to the Southern Ohio Jazz Society and the cause of jazz in Southern Ohio,” the key to the city of Portsmouth, Ohio.
WUKY’s Curtains at 8 host Nick Lawrence devoted a recent program to Flippin. He emphasizes Flippin’s affinity for vocal music and astonishing array of experience around the globe. “Jay loved working with singers. For singers, it is great to know you can nestle-down in your vocal comfort zone and maximize the magic of the moment. I’ve had the honor of introducing Jay to audiences many times with, ‘Any style, any key, any keyboard!””
Lawrence adds that Flippin performed in some of the world’s greatest halls with spectacular artists. “To name a few, Jay toured and played venues like Carnegie Hall, Cathedral Notre Dame [with esteemed artists like] the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Charles, Boston Pops.”
Manuel Castillo, D.M., recently completed his doctoral studies in music at UK, but studied at Morehead before coming to Lexington. Dr. Castillo finds it difficult to narrow his feelings about his beloved friend to only a few words. “I’ve been sad about Jay’s passing, he meant so many things to me. He was bigger than life and touched so many of us not only because of his music but because the amazing human being that he was.”
“I met him in the fall of 2006 at First Baptist Church in Morehead, where he was the pianist. I was lucky enough to sing several times accompanied by him, and it was always a pleasure to do so. I sang in the chancel choir and he is the one that paid me out of his pocket because there was no budget for an extra singer. He invited me to lunch and dinner so many times after church services, concerts, special events, etc…I joined the Lexington Singers at his invitation and not only that, I rode in his car to rehearsals from Morehead to Lexington with him, Nancy his wife and Susan Mantooth. He always had a conversation to share about anything and everything, he would tell so many stories and jokes, and share his musical and not-musical experiences with everybody, you just had to ask and he would happily say something that besides being entertaining it would be constructive and educative. I never saw him angry or upset at anyone, he was always working and keeping busy whether he was playing gigs, jazz, composing, accompanying all sort of ensembles and events. He would tell his stories of playing and accompanying in the piano for the pageants, his times as student at UK, his beginnings in music and being a child prodigy without him really knowing. I admired him for so many things and many reasons and I was always happy to hear him or seeing him. One of my favorite moments that I always looked forward was to hear him improvise after the anthem at church into the ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow…’ it was always an amazing experience listening to his music-making this way, I could hear the piano speak the best music I have heard in my life…uplifting, with feeling and zero selfishness; Jay was not showing off [at] the piano, he was praying and I was blessed by it.”
“It hurts me knowing that I was not able to be around him more, but I know I learned all I could at every chance I got. His teachings went beyond music…even through his sickness he showed up to the world how to face problems with the best attitude, he never quit with his life’s mission, blessing all of those around him.”
“I will remember Jay’s laughter and sense of humor, his smile and all his stories, an amazing human being that God called to his side, because perhaps He got jealous that us humans were having too much fun with him on earth.”
“May God give his family peace and may Jay rest in peace. I pray I get to see him once again…until we meet again, dear Jay…you are greatly missed. It is not easy to make sense of someone like him, not in a paragraph, not in a whole life.”
Pianist, composer, minister, father, husband, faith-abiding Jay Flippin was known for his ability to comfort others, his willingness to serve God and fellow man, and his nurturing nature as a teacher and music minister. He leaves behind his loving wife, Nancy, their daughters, Victoria Snyder, Emily Maruna, his choirs and singers, and legions of students who became lifelong fans.
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