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Wednesday, December 4,2013

Adventures in Karl Haas

Jeff Haas pays tribute, and talks back, to his father

by Lawrence Cosentino
Sunday afternoon’s tribute to the 100th birthday of Karl Haas, the urbane host of Detroit-based “Adventures in Good Music” who died in 2005, is no stiff retrospective. The Haas story, the good music and a few lingering father-son is sues are far from finished.

His son, Jeff Haas, is a Traverse City-based jazz pianist and composer who carries the torch with love, respect and a more expansive idea of “good music” than his father’s. Haas will bring his jazz quintet, recorded snippets from his father’s show and bridge-building music that weaves classical, Hebrew and jazz threads in patterns that braid two very different spirits.

Karl Haas is the only classical music host to be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He is one of only two broadcasters to receive more than one Peabody Award; the other was Edward R. Murrow.

“A week does not go by without at least two or three people telling me, ‘Everything I know about classical music, I learned from your dad,’” Haas marveled.

But Karl Haas was blinkered when it came to other forms of music. Arriving in Chicago for the Hall of Fame ceremony in 1997, he saw banners honoring both

him and Wolfman Jack. Haas said his father turned to him quizzically and asked, “Who is this Wolfman Jack?” “Adventures in Good Music” was broadcast live on weekdays on WJR in Detroit from 1959 to 1974. It was syndicated worldwide to more than 600 stations, including 75 in Australia, with an estimated 3.5 million listeners a day.

In the 1980s, an Australian radio network threw a bumper sticker contest that drew more than 18,000 entries. The winner: “Bach Off — I’m Listening to Karl Haas,” from a truck driver who slapped it on his 18-wheeler.

Tucked in a box of fan letters was a note from a farmer in Idaho who listened in the barn while doing his morning chores. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, but I love the way you say it,” he wrote.

It took a long time for Haas to take a voyage around his father. When Haas was young, his father shut the door to his study and worked constantly to maintain a man-killing daily schedule. Each program developed an original theme with carefully picked recordings and his commentary at the piano.

Haas inherited his father’s passion for music and work ethic, but not his dogmatism. The long-running “Building Bridges With Music” program has taken Haas’ jazz combo into hundreds of inner-city, suburban and rural Michigan schools to show them what a multi-ethnic lovefest looks like. They talk with the kids about bullying, prejudice and leaving room in their heads for all kinds of music.

At Sunday’s concert, Haas will combine a loving tribute with his own expansive spirit. As a youngster, he spent a lot of time in the organ loft at Detroit’s Temple Israel, where his father was organist. There he soaked up Jewish melodies Karl Haas brought from his years as an organist in southern Germany. By now he’s turned several of these tunes, including “Sabbath Song,” into richly textured vessels for jazz improvisation.

In Haas’ bag of songs from his father there’s a special place for “May the Words,” a setting of the 19th Psalm and the only collaboration between father and son. Karl Haas wrote a melody for the psalm in the 1950s while on a family vacation at Walloon Lake. His son added a straight-up jazz middle section in the late ‘80s “without being asked.”

“Whenever I play it, I’m struck with how organic the arrangement is and how natural it feels to play it,” Haas said. People often tell him the section he wrote feels darker than his dad’s. Shortly after he wrote it, he played the arrangement for his dad who liked it. “It was probably a pinnacle moment of him recognizing what I was trying to do in developing my own musical voice,” Haas said.

But he still struggles to pin down his father’s level of approval.

“He related to what we were trying to do,” he said. “Let me rephrase that — he understood what we were trying to do.” He stopped again. “Maybe even that’s too strong. He began to recognize what we were trying to do in terms of the improvisation related to the melody.”

Later in life, Karl Haas visited Traverse City and went to his son’s jazz gigs.

(He liked it when the combo played Tin Pan Alley tunes from George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and the like.) Father and son spent a lot of time together listening to music before Karl Haas’ death.

“Even after he had his stroke and his memory wasn’t the same, after he was dealing with dementia, we would sit on the couch and hold hands,” Haas re called.

“When he couldn’t articulate it any more, he would squeeze my hand just moments before a key change, a tempo change or a modulation, as if to say, ‘listen up.’” Karl Haas’ mellifluous voice will be heard throughout the tribute, via tape, sometimes to explain melody, harmony, or diminished chords, and, in one case, to enable his son to keep the dialogue with his father lively.

In one snippet, the elder Haas declaims, “Music must have a rhythmic component, but it needn’t be too loud and too repetitive.”

“I use that as an introduction to a tune that has a loud and repetitive rhythmic component,” his son said.

Jeff Haas Quintet

Tribute to Karl Haas 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 Wharton Center Pasant Theater $15-27

(800) WHARTON, whartoncenter.com

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