THE MUSIC OF FRED ROGERS, THE MASTERY OF KEVIN BALES

When the day turns into night, and you’re well beyond my sight, I’ll think of you, I’ll think of you. I hope you will remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like, it’s you yourself I like, it’s you.

As published on artsatl.com

When the day turns into night, and you’re well beyond my sight, I’ll think of you, I’ll think of you.

I hope you will remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like, it’s you yourself I like, it’s you.

They were the words of a friend, who helped you as a young child understand and feel good about yourself, who made sense of a troubling world and taught you values that could see you through the rest of your life. They were the lyrics of the songs of Fred Rogers, the “Won’t you be my neighbor?” pioneer who set a standard for children’s television that remains unequalled. 

Children tuned in to their public broadcasting station for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, “each day a special day,” from 1968 to 2001. He talked to them about kindness, loyalty and responsibility. He taught them how to deal with anger and divorce. He told them they were loved and filled them with self-esteem. 

But there was something more to those songs than teachings for toddlers. There was brilliance in the music and how it was played. For Kevin Bales, who stumbled across the show at age 16, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the inspiration for a career, a lifelong pursuit that has the 50-something Atlantan recognized today as among the world’s premier jazz pianists.

Kevin Bales Jazz pianist, touring and recording artist
Kevin Bales

Kevin started watching – and listening – when he was sick and home from school, which was often, as he was prone to migraines. 

“I also hated school,” he confessed to us on break from the first week of June’s Joe Gransden Jazz Camp in Alpharetta where he was introducing some of the area’s music students to the fundamentals of jazz. “With just three channels and the public station to choose from, I was bound to find Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – and I was immediately captivated by the music, the sounds of the trio that accompanied Fred Rogers on his songs. The pianist, Johnny Costa, was doing amazing things.”

Kevin was a student of classical music at the time, a talent already recognized in Atlanta’s classical circles as up-and-coming. He was also turning heads as an early-day computer programmer. But Johnny Costa and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stole him from all that – and for good.  

“I couldn’t tell what Costa was doing, I couldn’t hear it, but I knew I wanted to play like that. There was a kind of freedom, an abandon in how he played. We had a VCR and I bought some VHS tape and recorded them. I got maybe 30 or 40 shows, and I’d sit and listen to what Johnny Costa was doing. I fell in love with jazz.” 

Jazz grown to an obsession, Kevin enrolled at North Florida University, a jazz hot bed at the time. 

“There were so many great players there in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” he recalled. “That’s really unusual. Centers of jazz have always been urban areas, like New Orleans, New York, Chicago.”

Good players learn most from other good players. Just as Kevin had been inspired by Fred Rogers and Johnny Costa, he was developing under the mentorship of the likes of Rich Matteson, Bunky Green and Jack Peterson, and playing around the Southeast with such notables as Ben Tucker, Nathen Page, Buddy DeFranco and Ira Sullivan, just a few of the many, according to Kevin. It led to national recognition, his first, in 1996, for a Blue Note recording, Nocturnal Traces, with trumpeter Marcus Printup, another Atlantan, with whom he toured for five years.

“We were playing one night at Rollins College in Winter Park, in a hall they said was the Rogers Center,” Kevin said. “I thought they meant Richard Rodgers, the giant of the American Songbook composers with classics like ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘My Favorite Things.’ But they said, no, it was Fred Rogers. He’d earned his master’s in composition there.” 

keri-johnsrud-kevin-bales-quartet-caf-paradiso-16
Keri Johnsrud

Fast-forward to 2016 and a meeting with Chicago vocalist Keri Johnsrud to select songs for a next album. Kevin has averaged three to five albums a year over the last 25 years, some of his own, more with other artists as his virtuosity and versatility have kept him in demand. 

“Somehow we got to talking about Fred Rogers. She, too, was a big fan.”

It was a long, enthusiastic discussion: the famous jazz musicians who were on the show, how Fred Rogers just let them play how they wanted to play, how Rogers had written all his own music and while the lyrics might be childlike the compositions were subtle and sophisticated, and most importantly, about the messaging, how every note and every word had purpose. Enthusiasm led to a commitment to an entire album of Fred Rogers’ music, which materialized as Beyond the Neighborhood, released March 20 of this year, the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and what would have been Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday. 

“We started our research, and it was a lot of work. It was hard to find his music. We located a couple of albums, but they were no help, not true to his songs. We found a songbook, but it was terrible – notes missing and chords that weren’t right. Amazon had released a set of episodes, and we got some material from those.”

“It was also challenging to find songs that were universal, not just for children, like one song called ‘Tree, Tree, Tree’ that had a great melody and interesting harmonies, but the only lyric was the word ‘tree,’ over and over again.”

So they landed on pieces like, “When Day Turns to Night, I Think About You,” a delicate rendering that capitalizes on Kevin’s uniquely innovative lines and voicings, Johnsrud’s alluring tone and Rogers’ unusual approach to melody.

“There’s nothing common about how his melodies move,” Kevin pointed out. “We added the arrangements, substituted some interesting chords at places, but never made a change to a melody. We wanted to respect the work. If we had to change a song too much, we abandoned it.” 

“The level of composition is incredibly high,” he continued. “So many subtleties, many only a musician would notice. Like the song, ‘Look and Listen,’ where there is a chord at the end of the bridge that doesn’t fit the key – like a bebop musician would do. It was to emphasize the word, which is so Fred Rogers, the music married to the meaning of the words. Or ‘It’s You I Like,’ where at the end of the bridge there are 10 bars instead of eight. It’s clever, yes, but it’s also beautifully natural.” 

What Kevin and Johnsrud didn’t realize was how much ado there would be about the show’s 50th anniversary. At a time in America characterized by division and hostility, a weary populous reflects longingly on the simple man in the cardigan zipper sweater who taught kindness and civility. Celebrations abound, in Pittsburgh, where the shows originated and the Fred Rogers Foundation’s meager collection of three of Rogers’ songs has been enriched by Beyond the Neighborhood, but also in hearts, minds and locales across the U.S., and famously now in a new documentary and movie in the making. 

Aside from the happy coincidence of the timing of the release, Beyond the Neighborhood is testimony to how palatable the most sophisticated jazz can be to the most unsophisticated ear. Make no mistake, the treatment is jazz, pure and – a lot more than some jazz – simple. From the trio’s opening salvo on “It’s You I Like,” to the final pianissimo strains of “The Weekend Song,” Kevin, Bassist Billy Thornton and Percussionist Marlon Patton gratify with their flights in support of Rogers’ marvelously unconventional melodies and harmonic structures. The players’ virtuosities are clearly on display, as are Johnsrud’s grace and sensitivity. Moreover, Beyond the Neighborhood honors what was most important to Fred Rogers: a sense of purpose, bringing substance and meaning to every note played and sung. 

Kevin expects a regular schedule of performances of Rogers’ music for at least the next couple of years. He and Johnsrud have already added more of Rogers’ music that didn’t make the album – and other musicians beyond the neighborhood of those on Beyond the Neighborhood. An initial “trial run” tour in April included a Chicago jazz club and arts centers in DesMoines and Omaha. The first Atlanta-area performance is June 23 at the Velvet Note, the intimate Alpharetta club establishing itself as a premier jazz venue in a city Kevin says can claim status as a jazz town. 

“Atlanta is one of the best cities in the U.S. now for jazz. Any night you can go to ten or 12 different places to hear some of the finest jazz musicians in the country.”

Kevin is rightfully proud of the album. It is a wonderful collection that does justice both to Rogers and the art form that so inspired him when he tuned in to those shows as a teen. 

“I want more people to know that he was this amazing composer, but set all that aside to pursue this advocacy because he was worried about the effects of television on children. He used his music for them rather than stardom.”