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United in love & music

By on March 29, 2018 in Arts with 0 Comments

Mary and Steve Sanders: The camaraderie of a good combo.

By Susan Lagsdin

She came from classically-trained musical parents who, from her first piano lesson at age five, craved the concert stage for her; to help out a combo that needed him, he spontaneously decided to buy a first string bass instead of a first guitar, too big for the car, and his mom was irritated.

She taught piano as a teen, having grown beyond two teachers of her own already; he didn’t play any instrument until in his sophomore year, then went from country to rock ‘n roll.

She played the piano whenever and wherever she could for decades in and out of schools, before and after part-time jobs; he gave up music for a long time and worked at UPS — the delivery company, not the college — to raise a family.

She’s small and lively, a firecracker of word and gesture; he’s tall and slow-talking, smiling eyes doing it all.

But Mary and Steve Sanders make beautiful music together. All over town. They play Pybus a few times a week and the PAC foyer before shows (“We’re lobbyists,” Mary said.) They play in retirement homes, at private house parties, at small concerts, for fundraisers and gallery openings and local musicals.

They play in their East Wenatchee condo’s spacious living room, cutting eyes at each other and laughing a lot of the time.

There’s a love story in all of this. Standing next to each other playing bass in their Roosevelt High School orchestra, they became friends. “I played the timpani, and while I was running around to the chimes and the drums, he’d hold on to both of our instruments ’til I came back,” said Mary.

After one date (their 1960 Senior Prom) they parted ways and didn’t keep in touch. Their early marriages to others blessed him with a boy and her with a girl.

Mary put herself through Central Washington University with an MBA in Music Education and over the years taught everything from marching band (taking Wilson Creek High School’s first one ever to the 1982 Apple Blossom Parade) to jazz vocalists (her Bellevue groups won big at the Lionel Hampton Competition).

All the while, whether living in Ephrata or Seattle, Mary sang, arranged music and played piano in clubs. Music has filled most of her life; it’s a constant, but it keeps changing. She’s played in a symphony, she taught jazz choir at WVC one year, now she works three days a week at Foothills Middle School arranging choral music.

Steve’s career took off early — a chance encounter during a jazz bass lesson sent him to study with the Oscar Peterson Trio school in Toronto where Ray Brown — Ella Fitzgerald’s almost-as-famous husband — was his mentor. He flirted with fame and fortune in Los Angeles, always seeking the next big engagement, and then came home to Seattle.

Steve spent the 1970s making a name for himself and making good money, making good music.

“I bought a house, a new Datsun. But the music scene changed,” said Steve. “Disco took off, the jazz clubs weren’t as popular…”

When his trio started playing commercially popular tunes, disillusionment killed the joy. “It was uncreative, sterile music,” he said, and in 1981 he gave it all up for job security at UPS and health insurance.

Steve didn’t play or listen to jazz again for 15 years until one day, he said, “It was right before I retired. I was just driving to work, and I heard some old jazz tune on the radio… and I started to cry.” Shortly after, he bought himself a big string bass and got into the game again.

Here’s the “and the rest is history” part: In 1995 when Mary accompanied a jazz-singing friend on piano at a little club in Kent called The Jazz Café, she learned that her high school bass partner, Steve Sanders, would be playing there the next week.

She went, they met, both single, a dinner date, a phone call… they fell in love and married four years later. Mary jokes about her three marriages, “I think I get credit for 50 years total — that seems fair.”

They moved from Seattle to Wenatchee almost eight years ago, “after we realized it took us three hours to go three blocks in a traffic jam,” said Mary, and they soon found themselves plenty of places to play and folks to play with in a community that seems to be developing a taste for jazz.

Miles Davis, Andre Previn, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Dave Coltrane and a dozen more greats have influenced them, and tunes, riffs and lyrics spin out in conversation.

One of their favorite jazz songs is Sister Sadie, a down ’n dirty song with gospel origins or, Steve’s choice, any variant of Over the Rainbow. (For this interview they did an acappella vocal scat, quick but stage-worthy, on Bye Bye Blackbird.)

Jazz is their favorite musical genre, with its almost conversational call and response, the no-rules freedom to improvise, the camaraderie of a good combo.

In their long careers, apart and together, Steve and Mary have learned to play well with others. They accompany vocalists or whole play casts and eagerly collaborate with drummers, guitarists and horn players. Steve said, “Boy, when there’s a lot of really creative interplay and a group of musicians is cookin’ — there’s nothing like it.”

Their own harmonious personal relationship, however, shines through best when it’s just the two of them — she seated at the keyboard, he standing up with the bass, their combined decades of music-making breathing new life into old familiar tunes.

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