Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mulac masters the processes for jazz, poetry and life

Originally printed June 26, 2012, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

About six years ago, I started to notice a flier whenever I went into Eble Music in Iowa City. Featuring the photo of middle-aged man, it announced "Jazz Piano Lessons" being offered by a teacher who specialized in adult students. All but one of the phone number pull tabs had been taken.

I had been playing piano off and on since I was a child. And after decades of chording along with various groups, I finally decided I had learned everything I could learn on my own. If I ever wanted to learn to play solo, I needed someone to teach me a new system.

When Jim Mulac arrived for my first lesson, I had no idea I was in the presence of a local legend.
I didn't know that he had spent a few years as a reporter in the Quad Cities and Muscatine areas.
I didn't know that he had spent an intense two years in Chicago studying under the jazz piano guru Alan Swain.

I didn't know that his poetry had been featured in "The Actualist Anthology" published in the 1970s on Morty Sklar's The Spirit that Moved Us Press.

I didn't know that he once owned a used bookstore that became an intellectual and spiritual center for many alternative poets in town.

All I knew was that he was willing to give me lessons at my home and that he charged only $25.
And for that first year of lessons, I wasn't even sure I had made the right decision.

After all, I also played guitar, so I already understood chord structure. And the exercises in the book we were working through — Swain's "The Four-Way Keyboard System" — seemed to focus on re-teaching me things that I already knew and making me re-learn them from a completely different perspective.

"The four-way process," the description on Swain's book explains, "teaches you visual, tactile, aural and intellectual control of chords so that you can be creative with harmony."

By the second year — when Jim and I started working up arrangements for tunes like "Autumn Leaves" and "I Remember April" — I realized that I was improving.

By the time we got to "Song for My Father" and "My Funny Valentine," I knew that — even if my fingers didn't always make it to exactly the right note — I was learning the chords by ear, by sight and by intuition.

And by the time we'd moved on to "Monk's Mood," I started to figure out that Jim and I had much more in common than just music.

When I told Jim I was helping to edit the Press-Citizen's literary and art journal, "In Situ," he told me about his experiences co-editing the anthology "Editor's Choice: Literature & Graphics from the U.S. Small Press, 1965-1977."

When local historian Joe Michaud sent in a review copy of his "Booking in Iowa," I learned much more about the important role that Jim's bookstore — and the piano he kept in it — played in Iowa City's literary history.

The more I learned about Jim, the more our weekly piano lessons drifted away from working through arrangements for "I Thought About You" or "The Night We Called It a Day" and into conversations about the history of the Actualist Poetry Movement.

A few months ago, Jim, who was never heavy, started losing a lot of weight very quickly.
A few weeks ago, Jim called to say he had "some really bad news." The doctors said he had cancer in his liver, lungs and lymph nodes, and he'd have to "postpone our lessons indefinitely."

On June 20, Jim died at age 69.

During his last few weeks of life, Jim basically held court from the Cedar Rapids home that he, his wife, Heidi, and his son, Peter, moved into back in 2000. And during my last visit, I playfully asked him, "So, was music distracting you from writing, or was writing distracting you from music."
"That's the story of my life," Jim said. "I knew I should focus on one or the other. But I had such a passion for both that I just couldn't decide."

Jim seemed to think he was describing a great failure in his life.

But I'm confident that Jim's greatest lesson was in showing, by example, the control that comes with learning to keep jazz and poetry in creative harmony with every part of your life.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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