The main lobby of the University of Utah Hospital is a study in chaos — with the foot traffic of visitors, patients and staff in colorful scrubs, the doors to the main elevators pinging as they open, and the caffeine seekers cluttered around the Starbucks.
Those who walk a bit further, if they pay attention, will notice a Steinway piano. For two hours on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons, that’s where Edward “Ed” Lueders can be found — usually in a red volunteer polo shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers — making music that provides a welcome sense of calm amid the cacophony.
He plays with an ease that comes from a lifetime — 99 years of it — of love for jazz. His feet are gentle — one on a pedal, the other tapping along rhythmically on the floor. He glides his fingers thoughtfully across the keys. He crouches over the keyboard gingerly, creating a tenderhearted air.
Lueders is many things. He is the author of 14 books. A retired English professor. A veteran of World War II. A recording artist.
He’s also legally blind and wears a double pair of glasses.
For that reason, Lueders doesn’t use sheet music. He does keep a list with him during his volunteer shifts, with the titles of more than 500 jazz standards and showtunes from the 1920s through the 1950s — such classics as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Stardust.”
He has each of them memorized, he said, and he doesn’t find that fact remarkable.
“I don’t memorize them, they’re just there,” Lueders said. “It’s [how] you know people’s names or what they look like. You take things in that are repetitive somehow and you repeat them by memory.”
He compares it to concert pianists who have memorized several concertos. “They’re playing from memory and people don’t think that’s extraordinary,” he said. “The memory factor is natural to me.”
Lueders called himself a “macular degenerate,” referring to the eye disorder — common to people over 50 — that affects and reduces central vision.
It’s a good thing, Lueders said, that he can’t see the sheet music, because he prefers to play without them. “I couldn’t play if I had to read the music,” he said.
Lueders lives at Friendship Manor, a retirement community at 500 South and 1300 East, and takes public transit to the hospital. He can’t read or write, because of his blindness, so he has electronic equipment that reads to him.
Except for two sons in their 70s, Lueders has outlived his family. His daughter, Julie — who was well known in Utah’s music scene as a drummer for numerous bands — died in 2004, at age 47.
“I never feel more like myself than when I’m identified as Julie’s father,” Lueders said.
It was through Julie that Lueders met James Anderson, the audio engineer behind the four albums Lueders has released — most recently, “Ed Lueders@99,” recorded on the Steinway in the hospital lobby.
Lueders has been musically attuned from a young age. There was always a piano in the house when he grew up in Chicago, he said. He also knows how to play saxophone and metal clarinet.
“My mother taught me three chords,” he said. “She said I used to ‘plink’ the keys. Kids usually pound [them] to make noise, but [I] plinked them to see how they sounded.”
He said he’s been “fooling around” ever since, and has learned by playing and listening to his favorite pianists from the jazz era — such as Teddy Wilson of the Benny Goodman Trio and George Shearing, who also was blind.
Lueders said he put his love for music to work when he was drafted into the military during World War II. He served in the Air Transport Command of the U.S. Army Air Corps, moving supplies at Allied bases in China, Burma and India. He was a sergeant in the Special Services division, which entertained and provided recreation for the troops.
“We had orders to go to any base that had ATC personnel and entertain them, check on the morale and see that they knew what they were fighting for,” he said. “We were in-uniform entertainers.”
In his 1988 novel “The Wake of the General Bliss,” Lueders’ three central characters are a trio of jazz musicians, entertaining troops being shipped home at the end of the war. The story is fictional, but Lueders was in such a trio during his service.
Lueders, who is also a professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah, said of his many talents, “I have a number of ways to be myself.”
‘Not perform, but provide music’
Lueders said his favorite song to play from his list is “From Time to Time,” because it’s one he’s having difficulties playing, as he tries to find harmonies that are distinctive. When he’s playing, he said, every song is his song.
When he’s playing in the hospital lobby as a volunteer, Lueders said, he plays what he calls “hospital jazz” — a cheeky equivalent to elevator music, or, as he put it, “jazz improvisation at a slow or medium tempo.”
“It’s tuned to people in motion and this is [in the] background for them,” he said. “Never too loud or too fast.”
Part of his delight at playing at the hospital, he said, is that he’s not playing for money.
“Here I can play for a general audience, not perform, but provide music,” he said. “I understand here, particularly, how music is an element without which this would be a more severe kind of atmosphere.”
When it’s time to play, Lueders’ fan club also shows up, like clockwork. Staff and patients alike stop to listen to him play. Some schedule their breaks and trips just so they can see and hear him.
Many of the people who stop by, Lueders said, comment on the music — saying their fathers, and more recently their grandfathers, love the songs he plays.
“Best of all are people who come and talk about it, and I sit and don’t play for a while and have a meaningful conversation with them about it,” he said.
He downplayed the idea that he’s a celebrity to those who listen to him, or to the staff that manages the hospital’s volunteers. “It’s just a matter of staying around long enough to do something worthwhile,” he said.
Lueders makes new friends at the hospital, and meets old ones. Some are colleagues and students from his 24 years as a professor in the U’s English department — teaching American literature and creative writing.
On this day, two former students, Laurie Bray and Beckie Bradshaw, came to see Lueders. (They were alerted that a Tribune reporter would be writing an article about him.)
They took a class from him, “The River in American Life.” It was “a good exercise in critical thinking,” Bray said. It brought together students from all majors, to study history, architecture and literature. And, of course, Lueders brought music into the mix here and there.
Knowing that Lueders was going to be interviewed, Bradshaw said, made the hair on her arms stand up. “I have such amazing memories of him as a teacher and our adventures,” she said. “He had his expectations but he was easygoing and loving.”
At 99, Lueders continues to have an impact on those around him. When people leave the hospital, his music is often the last thing they hear, and it leaves them smiling.
Of all the things he’s done in his varied and fortunate life, Lueders said, “it’s playing piano here, under these circumstances, which is a capstone of a long life and career.”
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