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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

A melodic marriage made in heaven

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Both of Eric Dickey's parents were musicians, but when they saw their two sons beginning to follow in their footsteps, they offered some words of caution.

"They wanted their kids to learn music, and when they saw how much my brother and I enjoyed music, they told us, 'Whatever you do, don't do it for a living,' " Dickey said.

"So, immediately, my brother and I focused on it for our living."

He chuckled when recalling the way he ignored his parents' heartfelt advice. But he wasn't being disrespectful, he explained. He just felt confident that it wouldn't be as tough a career for him as it can be for some people.

"It became apparent to me that we could be professional musicians and be pretty successful at it and enjoy it," Dickey said.

Today, the 38-year-old musician and composer is one of the leading musicians in northwest Ohio for his work in two different musical fields: as the pianist for the Toledo Jazz Orchestra as well as minister of music at Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg.

There is not much difference between jamming on a Duke Ellington composition and interpreting a biblical Psalm, as far as Dickey is concerned.

"I take a viewpoint that all music comes from the same place," he said. "For me, one of the greatest jazz artists of all time was Johann Sebastian Bach. He took German chorales and improvised on them. The harmonic theory that went into his works, I feel comfortable comparing to the things [jazz saxophonist] John Coltrane did."

A native of Oregon, Dickey's mother was a piano teacher and his father was a violist who also repaired musical instruments. He remembers wanting to learn the piano when he was just a toddler.

"I wanted to play piano like my brother, Marc, who is 10 years older, but the teachers wouldn't take a 4-year-old," Dickey said. "So I started taking Suzuki violin lessons and, at 6, I started playing piano because that's what I always wanted to play."

When he was 12, he added, he also took percussion lessons for the simple reason that "I thought the drums were really cool."

But the piano has been his primary instrument all his life, and he cites introspective jazz pianists Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and Fred Hersch as his main musical inspirations.

When he was 14, Dickey began attending Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan.

"The public school system was more focused on athletics, and I really knew what I wanted to do," he said.

His father worked two jobs to send young Eric to Interlochen, one of the most prestigious training grounds in the nation for young musicians.

"I lived up there for four years, came home during the summers, and graduated from Interlochen in 1984," Dickey said.

After high school, he enrolled at Bowling Green State University and studied with some of the faculty's top jazz artists, including Jeff Halsey and Dave Melle. Eventually, Dickey left BGSU because he was too busy playing piano.

"I just ended up getting work all the time," he said, "in wedding bands, pick-up gigs, playing organ in funeral homes, and I started playing in Lutheran churches in Toledo for worship services."

One of those gigs was playing keyboards in a blues-rock band called the Space Mice, Dickey recalled with a laugh. While performing at a downtown Rib-Off Festival, his musicianship caught the eye of local jazz singer Ramona Collins.

"Ramona thought, 'Well, maybe he can play jazz.' And that's what I always wanted to do," Dickey said. "Her band, Line One, had a steady six-night-a-week job at a club called Steppin' Out, across from the downtown library."

Dickey thought he had found his dream job, playing jazz for six nights a week and getting paid $300.

"I thought I could retire in a few years," he said with a laugh.

So he canceled everything on his schedule to take the job, and the first day he played with the group, they lost their gig.

"I like to think it was just a coincidence," Dickey said.

But jazz artists have a skill for improvising, and Dickey quickly found another avenue to pursue his jazz dreams. This one came when Chris Giles, a local bass player heading to Japan, invited Dickey to join him in a jazz group that was hired to play six nights per week for four months.

"I was 22 years old, footloose and fancy free," Dickey said. "They were offering to pay room and board and a salary, so I picked up and left."

Later, Toledo drummer Ike Allen and saxophonist Mark Lemle, who brought his family along, joined the jazz group in Japan.

Life in Japan required some major adjustments, Dickey said.

"It's very crowded. It's an island nation, of course, and we had to go from a bus to a train to a boat every day to get to our gig, and then back again, because we played on an island. It's a different culture. Everything is structured real low and I kept hitting my head on things constantly. And I wasn't real adaptive to the food at first. I had to find my fried chicken every night. But it was a great experience."

After four months of work in 1987, he returned to Japan for another four-month stint the next year.

Dickey not only found work in Japan; he found love, too.

During his first stint in Japan, he met his wife, Yuriko, who was working as an interpreter. The couple have two daughters, Reina, 13, who plays piano, organ, and violin, and Shayna, 9.

After returning to Toledo, Dickey began working regularly as a church organist and pianist. It was the Rev. Tim Philabaum, senior pastor of Zoar, who took a chance on hiring the jazz pianist as a full-time music minister 12 years ago.

"It was amazing," Dickey said. "I was married with a child and up until then I didn't have a pension or benefits, like a lot of musicians. Zoar went out of the way and it's been a great, great relationship for me."

Today he not only plays regularly for worship services, but he oversees 13 choirs at Zoar, including brass ensembles, classical quartets, handbell choirs, and youth and adult vocal groups.

Dickey also is able to use his composing skills at the church, writing small worship pieces on an almost weekly basis and penning larger compositions for choirs about once a month.

"In the church, it works nicely to work with a lot of amateurs who do it just for the love of doing it," he said. "I can write music based on whatever the Scripture is for that Sunday, and I can put it in the range and the ability level of the people I'm working with. It's instant gratification for a composer to be able to write something and have it instantly performed. That is a real gift for me."

One of Dickey's notable compositions is "The Jazz Passion," a jazz interpretation of the Passion of Christ that he wrote in 1991 while working at First St. John's Lutheran Church in East Toledo.

The Rev. Harold Buenting had asked Dickey to write something for Lenten services, and within a week he came up with a jazz version of the Passion, with its four movements depicting Jesus' final hours.

In 1997, local choreographer Cathy Fifer added interpretive dance to "The Jazz Passion," and the program has been in great demand every Easter season at churches throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Dickey said that working as a music minister has been a natural extension of his jazz career.

"I spent my whole life in the church and I am very comfortable in the church," he said. "People come to church because they want to have hope, they want to celebrate, and they want to be good. What an amazing atmosphere to work in, when you're around people who want to do good things. The people are kind, even when I miss notes."

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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