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AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK JOHNSTON

Jack Johnston, next-door neighbour to the Alan Hovhaness/Chakmakjian family at 5 Blossom Street, Arlington, Massachusetts, granted this interview to pianist Martin Berkofsky.

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PHOTO BELOW: Original manuscript page, Mt. St. Helens Symphony, autographed and presented by Alan Hovhaness to Jack Johnston.

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THE JACK JOHNSTON INTERVIEW-1 AUGUST, 2008, ARLINGTON, MASSACHUSETTS

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MB: What a beautiful morning this is. Thank you so much for inviting me to come up here and make this interview. I should state that this is the first of August, is it not?

JJ: Yes it is.

MB: 2008.And we are here with the cars running by outside in Arlington, Massachusetts, which is the home town of Alan Hovhaness.

JJ: Correct.

MB: AndÖthis is Mr.. shall I say Jack or John?

JJ: Jack is fine.

MB: John? Jack?

JJ: Jack is fine.

MB: Jack Johnston. Jack, you were literally the next door neighbor of Alan Hovhanessí Chakmaljian family at #5 Blossom Street.

JJ: Correct.

MB: And from the things you have told me before this,uh,it seems absolutely fascinating and itís probably the closest and most firsthand experience that we can get of the family of the composer in his earlier days. So can I let you take it from there and explain a little bit about Blossom Street?

JJ: Well, I look at it as an accident of birth. My parents came to this country and lived in the city of Boston before moving to Arlington. We lived at #9 Blossom St which was next door to the Chakmakjian family. They lived at #5. Going through the memory bank is a real pleasure because it is easy for me to talk about Professor Chakmakjian. He was an unusual man in our neighborhood not just to me but certainly in the neighborhood. Let me begin by explaining the arrangement of where I lived. We occupied the first floor of a two-and-a-half floor home. Our landlady, Mrs. Downing, lived on the second floor (her husband died in an accident) with her four sons. I had two sisters and both parents. I think it is interesting to bring up the backgrounds. My parents, who came from the Belfast area in Northern Ireland, were Protestant. The Downings were from Cork and were Irish Catholic, staunch Irish Catholic. Even though those were then seen as opposing religions, it didnít make any difference; under this roof we were like one family, literally one family. The four sons were like big brothers to me. The oldest, James, was a West Point graduate who became a fighter pilot and lost his life in World War II. Then came twins, John and Cornelius. Cornelius was an infantry sergeant and lost his life in the invasion of Italy. The youngest, Eddie, was discharged from the Army for compassionate reasons. He later graduated from Harvard University and then attended graduate school at MIT. But we were all very close. Those four sons did errands for Professor Chakmakjian; they would clean up in the yard and so forth. I bring up the Downings because Mrs. Downing was Professor Chakmakjianís housekeeper; she did his laundry, starched and ironed his shirts and dusted occasionally; she made him casseroles and pies and did a pretty good job of fussing over him and nagging him to take better care of himself. When she was a little bit irritated with him she would refer to him as ďProfessor.Ē Otherwise she called him ďChekoĒ! Nobody in the neighborhood would dare call him that except her.

MB: (chuckle)

JJ: And everybody who addressed him called him ďProfessor ChakmakjianĒ or simply ďProfessor.Ē Very few people in the neighborhood went on to secondary school, so when we had somebody who was actually teaching at Tufts, he was really held in awe by most of us. I was constantly being warned by my parents: ďDonít bother the Professor!ď

MB: (chuckle)

JJ: ďDonít intrude on his time!Ē He loved children; I have a picture of my dad and me on the front step with our dog. I think our dog spent as much time in the professorís house as she did ours. When we couldnít find her, we knew she was next door! He used to feed her marshmallows, of all things. Right out of the cellophane bag! She would anticipate his arrival home in the evenings from Tufts and would be sitting on the steps outside his front door. Often she would just go in and lie at his feet. She was good company for him.

JJ: My recollections of Alan: He was a young adult when I was first aware of him--he lived in Boston at the time. I knew he was a musician and would come back to his dadís house from time to time and play the piano. During good weather the three living room windows on the front porch would be opened and the neighbors would sit on the concrete front steps or on the porch and listen to Alan play.

JJ: The house itself is interesting to recall. The living room contained nothing but a grand piano (Alanís piano), a piano bench, a picture of Alanís mother, who I did not know as she died before I was born. There was a metronome and a ceiling light. And that was about it. That was what was in the living room. What we would today call the dining room contained a large, dark oak table--a very substantial table. It was always covered with his papers and work from Tufts, his smoking paraphernalia. He smoked a foul smelling tobacco called ďSensible.Ē What a misnomer! It was sliced plug tobacco that he would crush in his fingers, rub together and stuff into his pipe. He ate at that table, he smoked at that table, he wrote at that table and he talked with whoever was there at that table. A picture of his granddaughter Jean was hung on the back wall.

MB: Jean Nandi?

JJ: Yes, Jean Nandi. It was always within view of the professor. From comments he made throughout the years, I got the impression that he loved her more than anybody else on earth. He was so fond of her. He taught me how to make stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed grape leaves and pilaf. He had a little enamel coffee grinder--a black enamel coffee grinder with a tiny drawer in the front--and he would put in the proper amount of coffee beans and let me grind it. That would make a fresh cup of coffee. He allowed me to come and go more or less as I pleased, except when Alan was around. Alanís time was valuable to him.

JJ: There was an organ up on the second floor. I used to play scales and simple tunes that I had for my piano lessons. I did that on the organ. Sometimes I would pull out a stop and it would make an eerie sound like youíd get on Halloween--a haunted house type effect. But that didnít seem to bother him at all.

JJ: He loved to walk. He and Alan would take walks up Turkey Hill. Once I was invited to go with them, but I got as far as Irwinís pig farm on the side of Turkey Hill.

MB: That doesnít exist anymore does it?

JJ: No. I really had a hard time keeping up with them. Alan was not living at the house, did I make that clear?

MB: Yes.

JJ: He was living in Boston. Years later I learned that some people felt that the Professor was not supportive of Alanís music career; that couldnít be further from the truth. He was VERY supportive, to the point that he bought Alanís food, some of his clothing, gave him money for his needs. How did I know this? Mrs. Downing complained to him that he shouldnít be doing this, that it should have been reversed, that the son should have been taking care of the father in his old age, rather than the opposite. Thatís how we knew this was going on. So she was not a fan of Alan.

JJ: Most of us did not understand classical music. We appreciated the fact that Alan could play the piano beautifully. Sometimes he would play something popular that we could understand. But a lot of times it was his own compositions.

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: Which were alien to us. The Professor WAS supportive. I heard somewhere that his mother criticized Alanís music. But that was when he was quite young and stayed up late at night, composing musicóhe had developed his own notationóhiding under the bed blanket and using a flashlight! That was what she objected to. In fact, Alan himself told our daughter Lynn that in an interview she had with him.

MB: Hmm.

JJ: Thatís what they criticized--the fact that he was staying up late. Not that he was writing music. I want to make that clear.

JJ: They had a beautiful garden with flowers; in season the professor would deliver bouquets to the neighbors on that part of Blossom Street and everybody was so pleased to receive these from him.

MB: Thatís wonderful!

JJ: Yes.

MB: I think thatís part of what we have come to understand as an overriding spirit of generosity.

JJ: Absolutely.

MB: In our researchersí room we found his records from Harvard and comments from teachers there--the incredibly difficult time that he was going through. He came in penniless.

JJ: Yes.

MB: He had to support himself with no support from anyone else and somehow get through school at the same time.

JJ: The family also faced discrimination where they first lived in Somerville. I found that out later. I believe it accounts for their move to Arlington from the Somerville area. I think Alan also mentioned in that interview with Lynn, that he dropped the name Chakmakjian because of the discrimination. I think he says this in the interview.

MB: Hmm.

JJ: And the other point that I wanted to make is that Alanís mother was choir director at the Heights Baptist Church.

MB: This is Arlington?

JJ: Arlington Heights, yes.

MB: We went to see that one day.

JJ: Thatís right--you took a picture of it.

JJ: Later on I became aware that the Professor attended a church in Watertown, I believe it was St. James Church..

MB: Thatís an Armenian church?

JJ: An Armenian Church, yes. I donít think it was any accident that Alan became involved with the choir there and then wrote music for the choirÖ

MB: He became the organ master..

JJ: Thatís right. And I think it was a meeting place for Alan and his dad on Sundays. Because he definitely went there. Thereís no question about it.

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: People wonder how Alan got involved with the church in Watertown--I think thatís why. Looking back over what I remember, Iíd like to mention another significant event in my life before I move on. I lost my own father at age 13 in May of 1946. Times were tough for us financially and so we all had to pitch in. The Professor always tried to find work for me around the house, whether it was putting out the ashes from the furnace, raking leaves or shoveling snow. Whatever it was to justify giving me a dime here or a quarter there. It all added up. I had after school jobs, summer jobs as well but this was his way of helping. I never forgot that. I used to spend a lot of time over there. I wasnít too good in trigonometry or solid geometry, and he helped me with my problems and corrected my lessons. It was also a time when I learned about all of Alanís activities, where he was, because he was travelling extensively.

JJ: I know he went to Switzerland at some point and to Japan. I think he went to Korea. And I remember seeing a card from Hawaii. I think he sent his father a card from there. The other thing I should bring up, too, is that Jean, his granddaughter, and her mother used to come down from New Hampshire fairly regularly--somebody drove them, whether it was Jeanís motherís dad or sister. Somebody drove them down and left them thereÖ

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: Öfor two or three days. They stayed at the house. I would get to play with Jean, who I remember as being a very pretty girl. We would do things that kids do out in the yard. Sometimes we would go over into my familyís yard--we had a kennel in our backyard with dogs. I remember that she was very interested in animals. I think the last time I saw Jean, the Professor had asked my parents if I could accompany him, Alan and Jean down to Cape Cod. I donít remember the community we went to, but what I do remember is that there was a windmill on the property. When we got there, Jeanís mother was already there with another gentleman--I donít know who he was. All of the adults went indoors to talk, and Jean and I ran round playing outside. I think that was really the last time I saw her. Her grandfather, the professor, told me that she was moving away--I think she went to California. I never saw her after that.

JJ: It was a very sad time for him, because he treasured her so much. I know he really loved her a lot--he talked about her all the time. I think her mother kept him informed of what she was doing in school and so forth.

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: But she was very important to the Professor. AlanÖ Iím not sure of the last time I saw him on Blossom Street. I donít remember that. I do remember in later years when he came back to Arlington-- when he came into Boston for a concert, he would call and invite me to go in.

MB: Thatís wonderful.

JJ: Yeah. And another thing that I would mention is that in 1964 the Professor sent a letter to me. In it was enclosed a childhood photo of me. I remember almost verbatim what he said, this was a photo he dearly loved, but ďIím no longer able to see it. And I want you to have it.Ē And he also enclosed a $10 bill for Marcia and me as a wedding gift--that was a lot of money to him as it was to most people back in 1964. A $10 bill. That was our wedding gift. As Marcia said, he didnít have to do these things, but he did it. I always considered him one of the kindest, gentlest loving human beings I had ever met. I know he worshiped Christ, and I think he tried to live to be a model of a real Christian. I always felt that way about him.

JJ: Other little tidbits that come to mind--and Iím taking these out of chronological order. My older sister, Constance, took up playing the violin. Alan was her teacher.

MB: Oh? I didnít know that he did violin also.

JJ: My sister said that she was responsible for driving him to the piano.

MB: (laughter)

JJ: He started off charging her $.25 a lesson, and as she grew worse, he raised her fee to $ .50!

MB: (laugh)

JJ: I think when it reached $.75, my father said enough! It was rather painful. Thereís nothing worse than a misplayed violin! My father would say: ďPut more rosin on that damn thing. Maybe that will solve it.Ē But anyway, her lessons lasted about a year and a half--I think that they mutually gave up on her playing.

MB: (laugh)

JJ: The violin gathered dust in the closet from that point on. I never knew what happened to it. My other sister, Nancy, played piano--played it rather well. Alan gave her a lot of his manuscripts. He went through a period where he destroyed a lot of his work. Did you know that?

MB: Yes. Wasnít that after a very bad experience at Tanglewood?

JJ: With Copland and Bernstein, right. He destroyed--it was in the hundreds. He asked Nancy to return the manuscripts, which he burned. He burned them. Iím not sure why he did that. But I know that he did it. I have spoken with his wife, Hinako, about that, and she confirms that it was in the hundreds of manuscripts. I donít think he saved anything from that time. I remember that part.

JJ: The other things he loved, the Professor, loved to walk.

MB: Always.

JJ: Uh huh. Not only did he climb Mt. Kathadin...he loved the hills, walking the hills around Arlington.

MB: Did he actually go up to the top of Mt. Kathadin?

JJ: Did he? Iím not sure. But I do remember that was one of the destinations. Alan went too. Iím just trying to piece some things together. Oh I started off by saying the Professor was an avid walker. He did it for exercise, no question about it. But he also had an objective at the end his walk. After my older sister was married, she and her husband built a home in Bedford--about a 15-minute drive from Arlington to where they lived. I can recall Connie telling me that she would despair seeing the Professor walking into their driveway--they had a circular driveway. She would see him coming, and she was terrified that he would collapse! He just came that distance, walked that distance to see her, and sit down and chat. And she would fix him tea or something and insist that the drive him back home.

MB: That could be 15 miles from here.

JJ: Easily. And we are talking now about somebody whoís in his eighties. The other little tidbit that I love is that a family by the name of White lived four houses up from the Professorís house. Like the rest of the neighbors, they all had this awe about the Professor. The youngest son, Jack, was an Arlington police officer. At that time the Professor was legally blind, and he could no longer drive. Jack White, the police officer, would see him coming down the main thoroughfare, Massachusetts Avenue, and would stop the all traffic to let him cross the intersections. Jack would then radio ahead to the next officer down the way so that he could clear the deck for the Professor to cross safely. Then the Professor would make his turn around and go back; the process would be repeated until he got back home. I thought that was just terrific. ďHere comes the Professor! Stop the cars!Ē

MB: (Laughter)

JJ: Just a delightful anecdote. Incidentally, I think Bob Mirak loved that because his own dad was a great walker--John Mirak, was a terrific walker. I can see Bobís dad in his windbreaker and his baseball cap walking up Mass. Ave. Probably the same routes that Professor Chakmakjian took. I guess thatís about all I can recall other than the later years when Alan wrote to me. I was so pleased when he sent the page from the Mount St. Helenís Symphony--I have always treasured this.

MB: Thatís actually the original manuscript of page one of the last movement of the Mount St. Helenís Symphony.

JJ: Thatís correct. Page 69. Right?

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: 69. Isnít it 69Ö?

MB: Yes, yes it is.

JJ: 69.

MB: (Hums the music from that page). And autographed ďAlan Hovhaness , March 2nd and 3rd, 1984 premiere, San Jose Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Cleve.Ē

JJ: Right. He was generous enough to send that to me. I made a copy of the page for the Arlington High Schoolóitís in the hall outside the High School auditorium in a display. And also in there, I believe, is a Time magazine article about Alan. Our daughter Lynn wrote a paper based on her interview with himóit was published in the Arlington Advocate and also in the Armenian newspaper published in Watertown--thatís in there, too. Thereís also a picture of 5 Blossom Street there too. Alanís in the High School Hall of Fame. In fact, he was one of the early inductees, I think in the first class of inductees. Alan was one of them.

MB: Thatís wonderful.

JJ: Yes. But we need to do more. More people need to know that Arlington was his home town.

MB: Well, I think they are going to!

JJ: I hope so. I donít know if you have any other questions, Martin?

MB: Well, I was just fascinated to trace what seems to be a stream of kind generosity from father to son to daughter because the Professor is--now Iím calling him that!--came from the most difficult circumstances, and yet was always ready to help other people. I think, as you had told me and then we later found out from Jean Nandi, he travelled all the way to California to giveÖ

JJ: To give her his life savings.

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: So she could go to school. He travelled to California to do that. My recollection was that it was $1,500. That was all his life savings. That really touched her, no question about it. She dearly loved her grandfather. I think she missed him greatly, too.

MB: Do I remember correctly that Alan Hovhaness himselfÖdid he write works for various people as gifts and thank youís?

JJ: Yes. The principal of the Junior High West in Arlington--itís now the Ottoson Middle School--was Franklin Hawkes. Dr. Hawkes looked after Alanís father during his declining years: he did his shopping for him and so forth. I believe Alan dedicated two pieces to Dr. Hawkes.

MB: Thatís wonderful!

JJ: I love that. They recognized something special about these people. Really.

MB: This continued to Alanís daughter, Jean.

JJ: Yes. Very much so.

MB: Even through her terrible disabilities and disease, she turned around to help the disabled.

JJ: She was recognized by the legislature in California for her effortís. Thatís right.

MB: Uh huh.

JJ: Marvelous person.

MB: What a remarkable family!

JJ: Yes. Definitely. And Alanís widow, Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness-- I consider her to be a very kind individual.

MB: Yes.

JJ: She telephones here, probably on average, about once every two months from Seattle, and we talk for a long time each time. I treasure the Christmas cards which she sends, and anytime there is a release on a CD of Alanís music--she sends that, too.

MB: Thatís wonderful.

JJ: Yes. Iím really pleased that this has lasted all these years.

MB: It is a remarkable adventure that started out on Blossom Street.

JJ: Well as I said, it was an accident of birth, really. But it happened. And Iím so pleased that it did. The Professor was almost like a father to us, almost a substitute father for me. Certainly you couldnít ask for a better role model in life than the Professor. He was just a wonderful human being. All the neighbors felt the same way, but I felt especially privileged.

MB: That says everything doesnít it? Then I think on that note may I say thank you.

JJ: Oh, you are very welcome. It gives me pleasure to think back on how fortunate I was to meet these people. Everyone doesnít have that opportunity.

MB: And how fortunate we all are now to learn first hand of these wonderful memories.

JJ: Well, they were unforgettable people. There is no question about that. Incidentally, I sent a copy of that 1964 letter to Alan and told him about the photo and the $10 bill. I think that really cemented the relationship that we had. He was always friendly but when he realized just how much I cherished his father, I think it made it a little bit more.

MB: Really.

JJ: He knew his father was a good man; there was no question about that. No question at all. I think I said that some people have criticized the father for not being supportive. Thatís nonsense! Absolute nonsense! I think it was in 1945 when Serge Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BSO played a whole evening of Hovhaness music at Symphony Hall. The Professor invited some of the neighbors to go. Most of the neighbors were not interested in classical music, so there were only two or three. But at age 12, I was one of them. I sat next to the Professor at Symphony Hall--first balcony, down near the stage. When Alan, as the composer, was called to center stage, the first thing he did was to acknowledge his dad in the audience. The Professor broke down and cried. He was so proud of Alan.

JJ: One of the neighbors drove. I donít think that the Professor would have been able to drive after that night. He was just beaming! But it meant so much for Alan to point out ďMy father,Ē (he didnít call him dad), ďMy father.Ē I had never seen the Professor that emotional before. But he cried. Full house in Symphony Hall. Beautiful thing.

JJ: I think that kind of sums up all my recollections from such a long time ago. As you can tell by the grey hair! Itís quite awhile ago!

MB: Thank you so much for this.

JJ: It has been my pleasure.

Transcribed Sept/Oct 2008 by Jim Ross

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Below: Martin Berkofsky at the Hovhaness/Chakmakjian home, 5 Blossom Street, Arlington, Massachusetts. Photo by Jack Johnston.



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