My friend and fellow band member Richard Legrand passed away January 21 at age 84. Richard was one of he most talented musicians I have ever known, and he played his beloved tenor banjo right up until a week before his death. Two weeks before that, he stated that he was on his way out, and I guess he knew what he was talking about. Richard died suddenly with no long illness that we were aware of. He never complained about pain or his health.
Richard played the banjo from the time he was seven years old. He started taking ukulele lessons at age five, and guitar at age 12. He also played the mandolin, clarinet, and piano. He also sang, in a tuneful tenor. His repertoire included the Great American Songbook, early jazz, Dixieland, country Western, and swing. Richard had a great ear. My guess is he had perfect pitch.
Richard was a virtuoso who played the concert stage for 60 years. He played Carnegie Hall as a member of the Pizzitola Plectrophonic Society, and in 1984, won the U.S. Open Banjo Championship. Richard played for President Reagan during a political rally and for President Roosevelt in 1936 and 1940. He played for New Jersey governors and U.S. senators. His fingers were like lightening when he played, and he never lost that dexterity.
Richard played his tenor banjo with a talent no one could even come close to. He was hot. He didn’t just strum, like some players, and he didn’t play second fiddle to anyone; he played lead. He could back up a singer with intros that just took you where you needed to go. His improvisations were outstanding. Richard was very competitive. He wasn’t shy about his abilities and had no reason to be, as he had the chops to back up his brag.
Richard was book smart to a fault. After graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, he almost completed his doctorate in psychology at Columbia University. After college, he taught British history for a time and became a guidance counselor. Richard was also an avid golfer right up till his seventies and won many tournaments and trophies (par rarely eluded him). But his real love and talent was music.
Richard was accompanied by his wife, Blandine, on guitar for many years. They had a band called The Old Smoothies, and supported themselves playing gigs on the East Coast. Blandine was an excellent guitarist in her own right, a magical back-up player who just plucked at the strings. She was his perfect accompaniment. Blandine still resides in Santa Barbara, as does Richard’s daughter Denise, a very talented belly dancer. Denise is married to Bob Berdan and has two children, Mathew and Jason. Richard’s younger daughter, Jeanne Gant, and her husband, Fred, live in Ashland, Oregon, where she works as a master seamstress at the Shakespeare Festival.
Richard lived in Santa Barbara for eight years. He was a member of the Santa Barbara Jazz Society and he was on the Active Older Adult Committee at the YMCA. He had a regular gig at the James Joyce, and for years, he also played during the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. He and his fellow band members played the Great American Songbook from the 1890s, 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He also played novelty banjo numbers and several original compositions. As the singer in the band, I would rehearse with Richard at his home. He was always kind and generous with his musicianship. He always made me feel at home and welcome.
If he had to go, I guess I can’t think of a better way than the way Richard did, playing banjo to the end. Like most musicians, Richard never got rich, and when he got older, he barely eked out a living, surviving on Social Security. But he got to spend his life doing one of the things he loved the most, and not too many people can say that. Put a banjo in his hand, and he just took off; it was like someone turned on a switch.
A celebratory and musical Jazz Jam Memorial will be held at the James Joyce (513 State St.) on Tuesday, February 22, from 5-8 p.m., and everyone who loves music is welcome. In lieu of flowers, bring a side dish to share with others and make a small contribution to his burial expenses. Richard loved a party, and we want to give him a send-off he would have enjoyed. Richard’s music will be played; there will be a jazz jam, testimonials, and belly dancing.