2013 Phoenix Awards: Classical guitarist finds life certainty in music


Lawrence resident and classical guitarist John Jervis has won a 2013 Phoenix Award for musical arts.

2013 Phoenix Awards

This is the third in a series of five stories highlighting winners of this year’s Phoenix Awards. Watch the Journal-World’s A&E; section for profiles on the other awardees.

The Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission bestows the awards annually to local artists and art supporters. The public is invited to a free reception recognizing the winners at 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.

John Jervis claims to have taught himself classical guitar because of the poetry he heard in the art of it, but it seems the music brought out the poetry in him.

“I heard the timelessness,” Jervis says. “It was the hearth of vesta. It was the teaching of all humanity. It had an answer in it. It was not equivocal. It was like a mother’s heart.”

Winner of the Musical Arts Phoenix Award, Jervis is fluent in classical guitar, and well-known in Lawrence for his precision performances in coffeehouses, restaurants and other public spaces that welcome musical expression. He has reproduced and transcribed works by Bach, Weiss, Tarrega, Debussy and others, as well as created 3,000 original works.

“An elegant figure in silvery-white hair, blazer jacket and his aged and well-traveled guitar case, John Jervis has made of his time in life not only a musical career, but a musical way of life,” reads a nomination letter from Jeff Watson, operations manager of Kansas Public Radio.

In both letters of nomination he received, Jervis was described as an amazing raconteur. This became clear as he enthusiastically dug up memories of his charmed life as a performer. It’s his certainty that drove the great success of his musical career.

“Everyone thinks they’re a mole hill and they are all a volcano,” he says.

Jervis made music his way of life starting at age 15, in 16-hour disciplined sessions mandated by himself.

“I put the 3-foot pile of music on the floor and pointed down at it with a vengeance and said to the bottom of the pile ‘every day, period,’” Jervis says. “And it wasn’t out of militancy. It was out of knowing that there was a choice between making distillation or splaying into a dilution. There it was. How’s that for a deal?”

He is referring to the world available to those who really invest themselves fully into music. The “absoluteness beyond words.”

One year later, Jervis knew music would be a lifelong career. He moved to Cape Cod when he was 17 just to get away from home in Cambridge, and ended up living in playwright and nobel prize winner Eugene O’Neill’s house.

How he ended up there is, of course, a good story.

When he arrived in Cape Cod without a direction in mind, he went to the woods with dehydrated food and water to cook up a meal. Someone called the police, and he was picked up for vagrancy. They drove him to Provincetown and told him he had to find a job in three days.

“So as they were saying this, there were five youngsters sitting in the garage with the door open to this big house and they whistled and yelled, ‘hey, is that a classical guitar?’ And I jumped my head above the police’s car and yelled, ‘yeah!’ And when the police let me go with my duffel bag and my guitar, I went to the garage and they commanded me very strictly, ‘play two pieces for us.’ So I did. And they said, ‘you are now our teacher and live here.’ Now that’s a story, right?”

One of those “youngsters” was Peter Tork, and became a great friend to Jervis. He later moved to New York with him, and was soon on the entertainment circuit surrounded by any musician worth knowing, and playing with or for all of them. Richie Havens, Kris Kristofferson, Tiny Tim, Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry were all close friends of Jervis’, and the list goes on and on. In some cases, like Mel Bay, he was teaching these remarkable musicians.

“They would take great interest in my virtuosity and my solo sing-y-ness of my music,” Jervis says. “I could put the music on the notes.”

Jervis is thankful for the recognition with the Phoenix award, and grateful that his art, among all of the other arts, is still getting attention.

Having lived in at least 50 cities in the U.S., and never for more than five years at a time, Jervis speaks highly of Lawrence, especially with the 16 years he has put in here. He finds it much easier to live here than anywhere, credited to the lack of frantic commercialism he has witnessed everywhere else.

“It’s still got the civility, the decency and steadiness that has been compromised in the other larger cities, he says of Lawrence. “The other cities have gone robotic.”

Look out for upcoming published works of Jervis, both musical and written. After taking a sabbatical, he is currently recording in multiple video and audio studios, both transcribed and original works. By the end of this year, he says, the memoir he has been writing leisurely will also be completed. He says it’s a rich, but condensed, collection of his life stories.

“It’s all pleasant and good and really wild.”


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