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Arletta O’Hearn: Oregon icon of Christmas cool

December 23, 2017
Featured, Music


Editor’s note: We’re republishing last year’s popular story about playing holiday music — an Oregon ArtsWatch perennial. You’re probably already hearing the holiday tunes blaring from speakers at the malls, in lobbies of businesses, even when you’re on hold. But if you want to actually play holiday tunes yourself at a holiday gathering, rather than passively enduring the same old same old recordings, you might turn to an Oregon icon of Christmas Cool. 

“I love ‘Christmas Time is Here,’ but I can’t play it.” This, from my beginning adult student who was super motivated, but realistic. Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown sound is difficult to master, even by advanced players. Luckily, a plugged-in piano teacher turned me on to Arletta O’Hearn’s jazz arrangements of Christmas carols. They’re easy to master, easy on the pocketbook ($3.95 to $4.95 per book!), and beautifully poignant in a Guaraldi kind of way.  

As poignant as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” Arletta O’Hearn’s wistful version of “Up on the Housetop” is very playable and from her easiest book of Christmas arrangements, the pink
Christmas Seasonings.  © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

While the feisty Arletta O’Hearn is admired world-wide for her jazz compositions and arrangements, she’s been hoarded within the piano teaching circles… unintentionally. In fact, O’Hearn lives right here in Portland, Oregon! I’ve used her smart, accessible jazzed-up Christmas arrangements for beginning to intermediate students who wanted to play something that sounded Count Basie tasteful without requiring the Art Tatum chops. For advanced players, sight-reading through these books makes even a Grinch like me grin through the holidays.

Arletta O’Hearn playing Ellington.

The well known (but only in certain circles) jazz composer and arranger of Christmas tunes came in through the back door, eschewing the traditional path toward becoming a beloved icon. Former Portland pianist and teacher Rhonda Rizzo interviewed Arletta O’Hearn in 2013 for the Oregon Music Teachers Association. With her permission, we present an edited version, along with my annotated score excerpts and sound files I recorded so you can see and hear how easy it is for pianists of all skill levels to learn, just in time for the holidays. Click on each track below the score excerpt to play. 

O’Hearn’s music is available through Portland Music Company. Oregon’s own Christmas gift to music has made the holidays a little happier for thousands around the world! — Maria Choban.

Arletta O’Hearn’s first experience with college piano instruction didn’t go well. The teenager came to the University of Oregon to study with renowned teacher Aurora Underwood. “The first year I was there, Aurora was on sabbatical,” O’Hearn recalls. “The substitute didn’t know how to teach anyone but advanced students. He was there for graduate work and was too young. He couldn’t see the yearning in my soul to play. He couldn’t teach me.”

The experience of working with that teacher was so unpleasant that O’Hearn did not re-enroll. But it must have left an impression, because O’Hearn went on to create a career that made music accessible to anyone — not just piano professionals — who loves it.

O’Hearn’s creative journey has been filled with study, discovery, and an open-minded embrace of many styles of music. Her solid classical training combined with real-world jazz playing experience produced well-crafted, pedagogically sound compositions that are doorways through which classical piano students can enter the world of jazz.

Arletta (Wendel) O’Hearn was born in Cresco, Iowa—a town she says no one has ever heard of— located about thirty miles from the Mississippi River. She grew up on a farm and was eleven years old when the family moved into town and she was able to start taking piano lessons. At age sixteen, the family moved to Eugene, where O’Hearn met the teacher who would be one of the most important guiding influences in her career.

Just about anyone can play this version of “Silent Night” and sound like Count Basie! Out of the easiest book, the pink Christmas Seasonings.  © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

After O’Hearn’s offputting initial encounter with the UO grad student, Underwood returned from her sabbatical. O’Hearn went to study with her at her home. “Aurora was wonderful,” O’Hearn remembers. “She knew immediately what I needed: corrective surgery. She immediately corrected my technique. She insisted on good technique and she developed it. She whipped me into shape. She had faith in me. When you were in a lesson with her, she made you feel you were all she was thinking about.”

In addition to her piano studies, O’Hearn took a job. It was right after World War II and the University of Portland hired Underwood to be part of the new music department they were creating. In 1947, she had one of the priests call O’Hearn and recruit her to the new program, including a full ride scholarship.

“I quit my job, enrolled in the program, and I went to work in a job they gave me typing up index cards for their library,” O’Hearn remembers. “I stayed for four years, graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree.”

Along with “Silent Night,” Arletta O’Hearn’s “Jingle Bells” from the pink book Christmas Seasonings is my Vince Guaraldi-loving student’s favorite arrangement because it’s peppy and jumpy with all its staccatos. © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

While in the music program, O’Hearn became an active accompanist, giving her the opportunity to work with string students, voice students, and the choir. Her favorite class was composition; she had a flair for writing in the classical style. She also made lifelong friendships with the five other women who were fellow music majors.  While at university, O’Hearn also got into the drama department, where she learned the importance of being able to transpose music.

“We were doing The Drunkard,” O’Hearn recalls. “One of the singers had been singing with jazz bands in the army. He wanted to sing ‘The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ but he couldn’t sing it in the key written and asked me to transpose it. I couldn’t do it. In our theory courses we did progressions and analysis. I thought I had to transpose every note. I didn’t know there was another way. Had I had more jazz experience, I would have gone through quickly and turned it into a lead sheet. I felt so sorry that I could not transpose a song for this singer, and he was forced to sing it is a key that was not comfortable for him.”

Performing Pianist

O’Hearn met her husband Pat, a saxophonist, at the University of Portland. They got married after graduation and joined a theatre company Virginia City, Montana, because her sister was a lead in it and they needed an accompanist for their shows. The company performed all period plays—very serious productions and variety shows. O’Hearn’s husband became the male lead and she was able to create background music for these turn-of-the-century shows.

I love the back and forth between serene jazz waltz and exuberant gospel sound in Arletta O’Hearn’s arrangement of “What Child is This?”  from her slightly more difficult green book Christmas Jazzed Up. © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

A different kind of drama spelled the end of that act in O’Hearn’s life. “When we got to Phoenix to do our winter stock,” O’Hearn says, “the wife of the director fell in love with one of the actors. The director was so upset, he went back to Montana and the theatre program folded. We were trying to figure out what to do next. We went to the next big city: Los Angeles. I got a job as a typist. The boys sold several pints of blood for money for groceries until they got jobs!”

Once settled in Los Angeles, O’Hearn’s husband wanted to play dance gigs and do theater work. He had an old fake book by Warren Black and sat Arletta down at the piano and had her learn all the tunes. “He could tell me if the chords were right or wrong,” O’Hearn says. “He got me started playing from lead sheets and he would play sax along with me.”

Arletta O’Hearn impromptu performance of Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.”

Eventually, the family’s love of the Northwest led them back to Portland, where Arletta tried to find an agent right away and get some gigs. Her third child, Robert (now a Portland pianist/composer) was born, Pat had another day job, and O’Hearn did some playing around town. One of the first old friends she called was her old piano teacher.

“I looked up Aurora right away,” O’Hearn says. “I was overjoyed to see her; she had this great sense of humor. I was playing a gig at a hotel over near Lloyd Center in a lounge called the Kon Tiki Room. I told her I was going to be working a single over there and she said, ‘Oh, we’ll come and see you.’ They got a table right in front of the piano, ordered martinis, and had a great time!”

From Performing to Composing 

O’Hearn’s son Robert gravitated to the piano, and when he turned eight years old, she called Aurora, who immediately took him as a student and he developed great technique. One day after his lesson, Aurora said, “Robert loves to improvise; why don’t you write something for him?” “I thought, ‘I guess I could do that,’” O’Hearn recalls. “So, I did. I wrote a little piece. Aurora liked it a lot. So I wrote a couple more.

“After while I thought, ‘If people like them, why don’t I try to get them published?’ I put about ten of them together and I printed up a book of my own. I did it all by hand. I went to the art supply store and got rub-on transfer notes. Every page took me about a day. I published a little book with a blue cover.”

My favorite title and a fantastic yet doable walking bass, from Arletta O’Hearn’s green book, Christmas Jazzed Up: “Hark, the Herald Angels Swing.” © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

Motivated by positive responses, O’Hearn copyrighted her pieces herself and mailed them to several of the major publishers. For six months or more she never got a response from Kjos. Finally she picked up the phone. “It is interesting that you called,” the keyboard editor said. “We are going to go ahead and publish it.”

“After that they took most everything I sent them and I wrote quite a bit: solo, two-piano, Christmas,” O’Hearn says. “I think I have about 17 collections out there. Then I kind of ran out of ideas.”

Fortunately, she had another creative outlet. O’Hearn was playing at St. Pius Catholic Church, and wrote several pieces of liturgical music for the church choir. “Hearing my music sung by a choir the first time” in 1998, she says, remains her peak professional moment.

When O’Hearn wrote music, sometimes the melody came first; other times the chord progression sparked a melody. “Arletta, creating a melody is a gift,” wrote William Gillock, a board member of Clavier Companion, once wrote her in a letter. “You cannot contrive it; it has to be intuitive. You have that gift.”

It’s a gift as much earned as bestowed. “How do we get a gift of melody?” O’Hearn asks. “I played so many jazz tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s that had all those gorgeous melodies. As a kid I sang in choirs. I was exposed to jazz standards.”

From Arletta O’Hearn’s slightly harder green book, Christmas Jazzed Up, comes this tender cowboy western arrangement of “Away in a Manger.” © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

O’Hearn has paid that gift forward in her own teaching and writing music for the next generations of music makers and music lovers, perhaps planting similar seeds for their own creativity to blossom as hers did. “When creating jazz pieces for students, I relied most on melody,” she explains. “For choir pieces, I started with the lyrics. It all goes into that creative pot from childhood.”

Through hard work and moxie, training and exploration, and the unwavering support of a mentor teacher, O’Hearn’s gift of melody has been appreciated by teacher and students everywhere. It is a gift passed on to our students every time we teach her pieces. And now, O’Hearn’s piano compositions have propagated via new pathways. “A lot of piano students play my piano pieces on YouTube but some of them are so badly done that it is painful to hear,” she admits. “One kid on YouTube played my Prelude #3 so well, however, that I emailed him and said, ‘you play that better than I do!’”

For those seeking a challenge, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” arranged by Arletta O’Hearn in her most advanced blue book, Jazz Seasonings for Christmas is my favorite in this collection. © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

Christmas Seasonings
ISBN 0-8497-9328-9 Kjos Publishers: WP158 $4.95
The easiest of Arletta O’Hearn’s three books of Christmas arrangements for solo piano.
Deck the Halls
First Noel
Good King Wenceslas
Jingle Bells
O Christmas Tree
Silent Night
Up on the Housetop
We Three Kings
We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Christmas Jazzed Up
ISBN 0-8497-9577-X Kjos Publishers: WP368 $3.95
Slightly harder than the pink book.
Away in a Manger
Hark, the Herald Angels Swing
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
Joy to the World
O Come All Ye Faithful
What Child is This?

Jazz Seasonings for Christmas
The most advanced of Arletta O’Hearn’s three books of Christmas arrangements.
ISBN 0-8497-9734-9. Kjos Publishers: WP595 $4.95
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
Go Tell It On the Mountain
Angels We Have Heard on High
Little Town of Bethlehem
He Is Born, The Divine Christ Child
Still, Still, Still
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs and appears as both a soloist and a collaborative artist.  Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines. www.rhondarizzo.com. An earlier version of this profile appeared in Oregon Music Teachers Association Journal.

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