"Happy at the piano"
"The Myths of Alkan"
Interview with Gibbons
"Gershwin and Ivory Towers"
BBC Music Magazine
Archive material on
Gibbons' life-threatening car accident
Internationally renowned as a classical pianist and Gershwin expert, Jack Gibbons is rebuilding his career after a near-fatal car crash
Nicola Lisle meets this exceptional musician
('Piano Magazine' (UK) interview with Jack Gibbons, November 2002)
This has been an extraordinary year for Jack Gibbons. After suffering multiple injuries in a head-on collision in March 2001, he fought his way back to fitness and, as I discovered when I met him in Oxford recently, has since been busy renewing his acquaintance with the major concert halls of Britain and America. To the delight of his audiences, he has returned with his incredible virtuosic skills intact, along with his refreshingly informal style of presentation and the broad grin that has become his trademark.
He was born south of London, but grew up in the north of England, before moving to Oxford at the age of nine. "That's when my music really took off," he recalls. "When I was about 11, my teacher said to me, 'Have you ever thought of becoming a concert pianist?' I was so excited at this, I can remember skipping down the road singing, 'I'm going to be a concert pianist!' So, from the age of 11 I was really hooked on what I was going to do."
This early dedication resulted in the development of a virtuoso technique that is largely self-taught. "I learned more from listening to pianists than I did from teachers because it's hard teaching music; a lot has to come from within. There were two pianists I really adored. One was Horowitz - I became hooked on everything he did. Then, when I was about 16, I discovered Michelangeli, and I thought he was incredible."
Jack went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music, but admits - with a flash of that famous grin - that he was far from being a model student. "I won all their prizes and everything, but I argued with my teachers. I was a very rebellious student. They were glad to be rid of me!"
Shortly after graduating, Jack won the Newport International Pianoforte Competition, a triumph that effectively launched his career. His debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall swiftly followed, as well as numerous engagements with various BBC orchestras. Then, in 1988, he discovered Gershwin. "The City of Oxford Orchestra needed a soloist for the Concerto in F, so I contacted them and got hold of the score. I didn't know the piece at all, but fell in love with it immediately. So then I wanted to know everything else he'd written. But the music is very hard to play - I found it impossible at first! The left-hand skips around, and if you're brought up as a classical pianist you're not used to that style of playing, with Gershwin you're trying to hit so many notes at once there's no way you can be careful! But it's part of the fun of the music."
Jack's international reputation as a Gershwin expert has been enhanced by his authentic reconstruction of the composer's improvisations of the 1920s and 30s. "Gershwin had this incredible ability to improvise; he was an amazing musician. Luckily he recorded some of these improvisations, so I began transcribing them, and released them on a 4-CD set."
Jack has retained his love for classical composers, and is renowned for his special interest in French music. "I still play Chopin, and I've always loved Debussy and Ravel. It's interesting though, because Gershwin loved those composers, and was especially influenced by Debussy's harmony. If you listen to Porgy and Bess, it's filled with Debussy-type harmonies. What's wonderful about Debussy is that he can create so much with so few notes - like that wonderful prelude, Footsteps in the Snow. That opening is so simple, yet it creates this incredible atmosphere."
I had expected Jack to shudder when I asked about the crash that nearly ended his career, but he just smiled patiently. "Luckily, I don't remember the accident, and luckily no one else was seriously injured. But it was a terrible smash. I was lucky to survive the first night because I had very serious injuries - I had a punctured lung, lost my spleen, and had other internal injuries, as well as broken bones. My left arm was smashed into 15 pieces - the surgeon said I was a millimetre away from severing the main nerve. If that had happened I wouldn't be playing the piano at all. And yet here I am, just over a year later, playing the piano the way I was."
After two weeks in hospital Jack was allowed home, but was rushed back in soon after for emergency abdominal surgery. "That was a bad moment for me, when I didn't know if I'd ever fully recover. The surgeons told me I had about six months before I could play the piano again. But I worked and worked, and started performing at private concerts sooner than the six months. I was actually faking it a bit - my left hand couldn't quite do the things I wanted it to do, so I was messing around and hoping no one would notice! It was another few months before I could really get the strength back and get it doing exactly what I wanted it to do."
Jack admits that the accident has changed his outlook on life. "I think I'm more selfish now. I don't worry so much about what I should be doing, I just do the things I really want to do. I started composing songs when I came out of hospital because I couldn't play the piano much, and now I'm quite passionate about that. I've written lots of songs, and now there are performers in America who want to sing them."
In the meantime, though, Jack is continuing to rebuild his piano-playing career, with concerts planned in Oxford, London and New York. A new CD is also in the pipeline. "Before the accident, I was about to record a CD of encores, so that may happen quite soon. And I'm going to have some of my songs performed in Oxford. So watch this space!"
Back to Top