Small victories

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-4-54-17-pm Outside the town of Moab, Utah, nestled between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, is a lovely canyon, perpendicular to the Colorado River, that since the 1960s has officially been called Negro Bill Canyon by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Before that it was called something much worse.

Negro Bill was, in fact, a man of mixed race named William Grandstaff. A freed slave, he was probably a soldier in the Black Brigade of Cincinnati during the Civil War, after which he migrated west and set himself up in Moab in 1877 as a successful farmer, rancher and trader. Some years before, white settlers had founded the town, but after ongoing conflict with the Ute and Paiute Indian tribes, they abandoned it. When Grandstaff arrived all that was left of the settlement was a ruined fort. The canyon that eventually bore his name was ideal for herding cattle. It was a slot canyon, meaning there was only a single egress and the cattle could be easily contained. And it was the only canyon in the region that had a permanently flowing stream.


When the white settlers returned in 1881, armed skirmishes with the Native Americans quickly reignited. This time they accused Grandstaff of inciting the Indians, having sold liquor to them. More likely, they wanted his canyon. Grandstaff, in fear of his life, left his herd of cattle and headed to Colorado. He spent much of the rest of his life in and near Glenwood Springs, where he was both a respected saloon owner and a prospector. Though he died in hermit-like conditions in 1901 his death was mourned by the entire town.


There is no known photograph of William Grandstaff, but there were many black cowboys in the 19th century.

In recent years there has been an ongoing effort to rename the canyon. As part of that effort I composed two vocal pieces generously commissioned the Moab Music Festival. The text is based upon the few tantalizing details of the life of Grandstaff that we know about. Happily, the push to change the canyon’s name has finally borne fruit, as reported in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

I invite you to listen to my 2014 composition, William Grandstaff, and an interview about it on KSL-TV. With the explosive racial turmoil we’re currently experiencing in our country, it’s gratifying when there are positive steps forward, however small.

“Snagged,” Revisited

Last night at a book reading I gave at King’s English in Salt Lake City, one of the guests reminded me about a (very) short story called Snagged that she really liked, which I wrote a few years ago as part of a contest and which she asked me to reprint. The contest required that the story had to be 500 words or less and have the following components: A mounted swordfish, a jug of moonshine, a 1959 ZIL-III Soviet-made armored limousine, and a dead gyspy. Here it is:


c. 2013 All Rights Reserved

Shielding rheumy eyes from sea-reflected morning sun, Old Pavel strained to see what had snagged his line. For as long as he had fished off the long-abandoned pier he couldn’t recall the water so low. Impatient, Pavel yanked too hard and his ancient pole snapped in two.

Cursing, he traced his ruined gear to a thin cylinder gleaming just above the surface. An antenna, of all things! Dropping the butt end of his useless rod, Old Pavel hopped over rotting planks to the tobacconist’s where there existed a functioning telephone. Now that no one was a communist anymore he wasn’t so afraid to call the police.

Victor Maravich, Krinitsa’s police chief and a week from retirement, thought he had seen everything, but his shoulders sagged upon recognizing the muck-covered Soviet-era ZIL armored limousine that the crane sucked from the seabed. He had no need or desire to look inside the rusted wreckage, but to make it official he did. After, he trudged through the drowsy resort town and up the hill toward Sergei’s tree-shrouded dacha with its commanding view of the beach, hoping he would die first.

General Sergei Borshevsky awaited him at the door. Still tall and powerful, tufts of gray curls escaped his armpits and the collar of his white T-shirt. Red suspenders held up baggy, wool pants.

“Come and sit, Victor,” he said.

The table was bare but for the dusty jug of Kentucky moonshine that Castro had laughingly bestowed upon Borshevsky as a parting gift. As an emissary sent personally by Chairman Khrushchev, the general had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Castro to stare down the trigger-happy Kennedy who threatened to blow up the world. By the time of his recent retirement, the medals pinned to Borshevsky’s chest would buckle a weaker man’s knees.

He poured two glasses.

“We started this jug in ’62 and now we empty it, together,” Borshevsky said. His mouth smiled but his eyes remained sad.

Maravich, studying the incomplete eight-foot-long fish, iridescent blue and silver, mounted over the fireplace, ignored the glass and the comment.

“I always wondered why that swordfish had no sword,” he said.

After some time a buzzing fly punctuated the silence.

Borshevsky drained his glass.

“I risked my life, my country, the whole world. And what do I find the night I return from Havana? My wife in my bed with a gypsy.”

Maravich gestured sympathetically.

“Neither of them saw me—they were copulating like dogs. I broke off the fish’s bill and skewered the pair of them, together, piled them in the limousine and drove to the pier. Lights off, in neutral. I pushed them over the edge. The sea was much deeper then. The next day I declared the pier off limits.”

“We heard rumors that Tanya absconded with someone and your limo, but we never found a trace.”

“Never listen to rumors, Victor.”

“You started them, Sergei. But…wouldn’t it have been easier to just shoot them?”

“And dishonor my pistol?”

The afternoon sun grew uncomfortably hot.

“So, what are you going to do, Victor?”

“It’s not my decision. It’s yours. As is your pistol. Good-bye, Sergei.”



The Return of Daniel Jacobus

With U.S. release of Playing with Fire on September 1, I am delighted to announce the official return of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series!

“When an anxious phone call from obscure violinmaker Amadeo Borlotti disturbs Daniel Jacobus’s Christmas Eve festivities, he and his dear friends Nathaniel and Yumi make light of it. A seemingly humble practitioner of his craft, Borlotti preferred the quiet life in the country away from the limelight. He even found love at an advanced age. But his larceny, which began as a typographical error in a bill for a violin repair, grew like a malignant tumor. In the end he became a helpless captive of his past indiscretions and was consumed by it, and it is up to Jacobus and his team to find out how, and why.

Playing With Fire, the fifth book of the Daniel Jacobus mystery series, delves into the multimillion-dollar sleight-of-hand of violin dealing: forged instruments, counterfeit documents, manipulated valuations, and insurance fraud. In the real world, countless unsuspecting and trusting musicians have been burned by devious dealers. In Playing With Fire, that figure of speech becomes more than a metaphor.”

“…wonderfully and imaginatively conceived, written and plotted, and is a joy to read. The action never flags; its fast pace and crisp dialog make this tale of murder, arson, power and lost/hidden loot a real page-turner.” Stephen Dankner,



Book Launch!

Please join me for the launch event for my newest Daniel Jacobus murder mystery!

In Playing With Fire, a humble violin maker goes missing in the dead of a West Stockbridge winter and his shop is burned to the ground. How will cantankerous, blind violin teacher, Daniel Jacobus solve the baffling mystery?

Where: Shaker Mill Books, 3 Depot Street, West Stockbridge
When: This Sunday, July 31 at 7:00

Trade secrets will be revealed! Classical musicians, bring your own stories of shady instrument dealings to share with the unenlightened!
There will be music of Vivaldi (“Winter” from the Four Seasons to cool you off), food, and drink on the book store deck–weather permitting–overlooking the mighty Williams River. It doesn’t get better than that!
See you Sunday.

A tribute to Joey

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.02.12 AM  Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, is a very special place. Every weekend the orchestra performs three different programs with the world’s greatest conductors and guest artists. During the week there are chamber music concerts and recitals with the most accomplished artists and ensembles. This evening, however, was an event that was special among the special. It was a concert admirably organized by Tony Fogg, Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony in memory of, and as a tribute to, Joseph Silverstein, who died in November, 2015.

It would take too long to write out the complete list of Joe’s accomplishments, so I’ll just mention a few of the highlights. As concertmaster (and assistant conductor) of the Boston Symphony he is widely regarded as one of the greatest concertmasters of the 20th century. He played the violin with an unparalleled combination of virtuosity and musical integrity, and performed around the world even into his 80s. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the classical music repertoire and was a highly respected conductor, including his long tenure as music director of the Utah Symphony. As a dedicated teacher at such renowned institutions as the Curtis Institute, Yale University, and the Longy School, Joey had the ability to communicate the complex mechanics of playing the violin in a concise, effective, and humane way which made him one of the nation’s most sought-after teachers.

Joey’s photographic memory was legendary. He could play any of hundreds of obscure etudes–let alone any concerto–without music at the drop of hat. There is a famous section near the beginning of the suite from Daphnis and Chloe by Ravel where the two violin sections are each divided into four parts playing three pages of speeding chromatic 32nd notes. It takes most mortals hours of practice just to be able to play one of those lines accurately. Joey could demonstrate each of the eight parts perfectly from memory and not break a sweat.

So it was fitting that yesterday’s concert in his honor included some of the world’s great musicians: Yo Yo Ma, Hilary Hahn, Peter Serkin, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, and Garrick Ohlsson headed the field. A few who couldn’t be there, including Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Andre Previn, sent touching video messages. I had the honor of participating as principal second violin in an ensemble of string players that opened the program with the first movement of the Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky. Comprising mostly Boston Symphony members, some of whom, like Sheila Fiekowsky, Jennie Shames, James Cooke, Ronan Lefkowitz, and Victor Romanul, had been his students; and also including musical luminaries Peter Zazofsky and bassist and Edgar Meyer who had graciously volunteered their time and efforts, the ensemble was ably led without a conductor by Ralph Matson, longtime concertmaster of the Utah Symphony and also a former student of Silverstein.

Without doubt, though, the highlight of the concert was Joey himself. The full house at Seiji Ozawa Hall watched—teary-eyed and in awe—to a video montage of his life while listening to the recording of his jaw-dropping performance of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The evening ended with his on-screen performance of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Colin Davis conducting the Boston Symphony in 1972. The standing ovation it received must have been a source of great pride for Joey’s family, including his dear wife Adrienne, who were in the audience.

There’s only one person who can claim the honor of having been Joey’s student and his colleague in the Boston Symphony and a Utah Symphony musician during his tenure as music director. That’s one reason why tonight’s tribute to Joseph Silverstein made Tanglewood even more special than usual for me.

You always know it’s Tanglewood when…

This morning I whacked my way through a few sets with three of my Tanglewood tennis pals. Tom Gauger, former BSO percussionist, is our gang’s organizer. Charlie Schleuter is the former BSO principal trumpet player, and Jay (who probably has a last name like the rest of us) is a music lover and retired businessman from Houston who comes to the Berkshires every summer to attend the concerts.

We’ve been playing Monday morning doubles for more years than I care to remember and my guess is we’ve slowed down considerably. Our overhead slams look more like drop shots these days. But we do manage to get some good aerobic exercise, even if most of it is from retrieving errant balls, and the camaraderie makes up for any lack of athletic expertise. Charlie has a new joke for us every week, most of them unprintable, so there’s always something to look forward to.

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A relaxed moment.

This morning was cool and dry with just enough cloud cover to make it possible to serve without being blinded by the sun. I mention the weather because over the weekend all three of the Boston Symphony’s concerts suffered from the fate the gods had ordained: being dumped on by intermittent deluges. After three weeks of almost no rainfall, last Friday morning started out suffocatingly hot and muggy. By the time the evening concert ended, it was chilly enough to make the fingers sluggish and wet enough to make a flounder smile. (Whether flounders can actually smile is anyone’s guess since their mouths go sideways.) By Saturday morning’s open rehearsal it was downright cold. Jennie Shames, my colleague in the violin section, reminded me of the punchline about the baby polar bear who wasn’t sure he really was a polar bear. ‘Why not?’ asked the mother. ‘Because I’m f—ing cold!’ said the baby.

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Tanglewood in the rain, ca. 1955 (from Yankee Magazine)

Rainouts seem to be the BSO’s summer calling card. If the folks in California were really serious about solving their drought problems they would call the Boston Symphony and book them to play an outdoor concert. Fortunately, the Tanglewood Shed stage is covered, as are seats for about 5,000 devotees. The brave folks on the lawn have to manage with umbrellas and, on rare occasions, snorkels.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, we’re paid to play, and to play well. This past weekend was highlighted by performances of Prokofiev 5th Symphony, Saint-Saens Violin Concerto #3 with Josh Bell, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and Carl Orff’s ever-popular Carmina Burana,which anticipated video game music by well over half a century. Sunday afternoon was a Boston Pops concert for which I had not been hired to play. But all was not lost. I got to watch Portugal beat France 1-0 in extra time in the UEFA soccer final, while outside my window it rained cats and dogs. With Tanglewood as with France, there will always be a next time. Yet the last time I checked, the weather forecast predicted sunny skies for the next three days, then on Friday…you guessed it.

The Return of Daniel Jacobus!

OK. The holiday weekend is over. Time to get back to work.

I don’t normally use this blog to indulge in shameless self-promotion, but who am I to deny the convenient axiom that the exception proves the rule?

My new murder mystery, Playing With Fire, the fifth in the Daniel Jacobus series, has been released in the UK and will be on US bookshelves on September 1. Jacobus, that “you gotta love him” cantankerous, blind violin teacher, is up to his old tricks, solving baffling mysteries in the music world in spite of his better judgement to stay cooped up in his Berkshire hovel with his uselessly affectionate bulldog, Trotsky.

If you recall, the first four Jacobus mysteries were based upon pieces of music with stories that had to do with death. Starting with Playing With Fire I’ve chosen music with a different kind of story: the evocative music of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and his own sonnets that accompany the four concertos. Playing With Fire, for example, takes place in the dead of winter–and I do mean dead. And each book of the new set will take place in a venue where people in the classical music field have traditionally been prone to want to kill each other, in this case a violin shop.

To celebrate the revival of the Jacobus series, I’ve planned several book signing events from the east coast all the way out to Utah. I’ll not only be talking about Playing With Fire, but will also have my trusty fiddle with me to play some of Vivaldi’s Winter, and show you how the music helped inspire the book.

I hope to see all of you at one of these events, and even though the official release is not until September 1, you can pre-order your copies from Severn House or from one of these fine book stores as soon as the spirit moves you.

Sunday, July 31@7:00pm: Launch Event at Shaker Mill Books, West Stockbridge, MA. (Appropriately enough, Daniel Jacobus’s adopted hometown, and the setting for much of Playing With Fire.) Wine and light snacks, and a lovely deck overlooking the charming Williams River, weather permitting.

Tuesday, August 23@6:30pm: Stellina Restaurant, Watertown, MA (Where, in the Boston area, the plot of Playing With Fire reaches its nail-biting climax). Enjoy author’s night with tasty hors d’oeuvers, and of course, it’s a fantastic place for a great Italian dinner.

Tuesday, September 20@7:00pm: King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City (where I happen to live much of the year). King’s English has always been incredibly supportive of local authors, and it will be a pleasure to be back after Jacobus’s extended sabbatical.

Tuesday, October 4@6 or 6:30: Southwest Library 2039 West 4000 South, Roy, Utah.
Reception sponsored by the Ogden Symphony Ballet Association in lobby/gallery. Music, light refreshments, display of OSBA activities to honor of the succession of directors from Sharon MacFarland to Emily Kunz will be followed by my presentation and book signing, supported by the Queen Bee Bookstore and sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council, in the blackbox theater.

I’d like to give a special shout out to my new publisher, Severn House Books, and its founder, Edwin Buckhalter, for enthusiastically supporting Jacobus’s return to the bookshelves; to my new editor, Faith Black Ross, with whom it has been a pleasure to collaborate; and, as always, to my intrepid and tireless agent, Josh Getzler of HSG Agency.

Here’s a review of Playing With Fire from Kirkus for your perusal.

Playing With Fire rev
Pre-order here or by contacting your local bookstore!