4 December 2016, Melbourne, Australia
Twenty years ago I met a man. A most unusual man. A musical genius, playful, wild, intellectually powerful, a musical treasure, a legendary composer. Allan Zavod cut a powerful figure: tall, strong, wild curly black hair. But one thing dominated everything about him – music! When Allan played, either in a concert hall on a Steinway grand piano, or in his sickbed on a toy keyboard, Allan filled the room with music that resonated from the walls and through our bodies.
Born in 1947, Allan found music young. His mother Anne took him to his piano lessons and his Eisteddfod competitions – he won them all. His father Eddie, a superb concert violinist whose repertoire ranged from Gypsy to Classical, took him to symphonies and gave him his musicality.
Allan went to school at Brighton Grammar and from there to the University of Melbourne Conservatorium on an Ormond Scholarship, to be classically trained in Rachmaninov and Gershwin. While on tour in Australia, Duke Ellington discovered Allan Zavod and sponsored him to go Massachusetts to the acclaimed Berklee College of Music, where he graduated and became a music professor.
But Allan’s passion was performance so he left academia and went on tour playing keyboard with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He spent 30 years in the US performing, recording and touring with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Herby Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sting, George Benson, comedian Robin Williams, actor Chaim Topol and Australia’s James Morrison. He performed for Her Majesty the Queen of England, His Royal Highness Prince Norodom of Cambodia.
Back home he married Chris and fathered Zak. But Allan’s real strength was as a composer. He wrote the scores for over 40 films, including my favourite melody from the movie The Right Hand Man. Of all his many awards, the one that brought Allan most pride was the Doctor of Music in 2009 from the University of Melbourne, only the fifth time it was granted since the University was founded in 1853.
Allan was famous as a pioneer of the jazz-classical fusion genre, but I truly believe that there was nothing that Allan could not play, enhance or compose. I got a glimpse of Allan’s musical life about 15 years ago when I visited him in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was staying alone in the house of Geordie Hormel, heir to the SPAM fortune, back in the days where spam was a kind of food, not unwanted email. Geordie was away and Allan was the only person in the house, with 32 bedrooms, six kitchens, a squash court, and most important a fully equipped sound recording studio where Allan and Geordie could play and compose. Next morning, a Sunday, Allan’s friend George Benson, famous for such smash hits as Breezin’ and The Masquerade, picked us up in his Rolls Royce and took us, wide-eyed, to his evangelical church.
Allan, I shared more than a church service with you. We ate and drank at restaurants, we reminisced on the Jon Faine Conversation hour, we jogged the back beaches of Rye and swam the front beaches of Portsea, but most important to me was the Environmental Symphony. Sometime around 2008 you decided you wanted to write a major orchestral piece. You had enjoyed an earlier success when you won an international competition to compose a jazz-inspired symphony that was performed by the St Louis Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans. But now you decided you wanted to do something even bigger. And it had to have meaning beyond the music.
We lunched many times, we talked many topics. I suggested it could be about the threats and opportunities for our global environment. You were sold, you were on fire, a full symphony in five movements was sprouting in your mind. But it was not enough. I had to give you a narrative, which I did. But it was not enough, I had to give you a narration, which I wrote. But it was not enough, I had to find you a narrator, which I did – Richard Branson. But it was not enough, I had to give you an outlet, which I did. Last year I found myself as the executive producer for your Environmental Symphony, played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall. I learned what it meant to call in the favours, to nourish and to cajole. It was not me alone. The support for this concert was huge, because it was for you Allan, and because, by your choice, it was a fundraiser for brain cancer research.
Letting me be part of your success is the greatest gift you could have ever given me. I thank you. I share my love with you. Rest in peace.