SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
June 07, 1971
Organist Jane Jarvis brings both tact and taste to the once-dubious art of between-innings play. But best of all she gets the fans...
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June 07, 1971

In The Mood—for Baseball

Organist Jane Jarvis brings both tact and taste to the once-dubious art of between-innings play. But best of all she gets the fans...

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Baseball has never looked as good as it does from the organ loft at Shea Stadium, and has never sounded better. From her seat at her new Thomas organ, Jane Jarvis peers directly down at home plate and into the Met dugout—so she can see who is coming to bat and play something appropriately encouraging—but she also has a superb view of the diamond, the widening wedge of bright green grass in the outfield, the glitter of the lights along the stadium roof, the flags flying above them and the hazy buildings in the blue industrial distance. Only Mrs. Joan Payson, the owner of the Mets, whose box is just to the left of Jane's, has as good a view of the field as the organist. Jane usually stands at her big picture window while a team comes to bat. As soon as two men are out she takes her place at the organ, her thin hands poised over the keys, and the instant the third out is made she lets fly with the nice loud opening bars of some suitable song, such as Hallelujah! if the Mets have come from behind, or Wait 'til the Sun Shines Nellie if things remain a bit cloudy.

Counting last week, Jane has played the musical accompaniment for 1,120 major league baseball games. Since Shea Stadium opened in 1964 she has missed only one game there, and that was because a deluge put the organ out of commission. Before that she played for the Milwaukee Braves. In all, she has been heard—live—by 26,746,711 paying customers, not to mention those who got in free, which makes her one of the most listened-to musicians—live—in history.

The baseball record books do not show a single victory credited to an organist, and Jane does not claim any share in the success of either the Braves or the Mets. But she does believe that the reactions of baseball crowds can be a factor in team performance and that the music played in ball parks can contribute to the mood of the crowd. Her work when she is not playing for Met home games is a continuation of the music-sets-the-mood theory, for she is a program and recording director for Muzak, the music-merchandising firm that pipes melodies into offices, factories and almost anyplace where there is room for a speaker. The Muzak office in New York is a cavernous expanse of recording studios and endless batteries of tape recorders. It operates 24 hours a day turning out music intended to boost employee morale, increase productivity or make waiting in an airport more pleasant. Subscribers can get any kind of music they want—classical, semiclassical, pop, hard rock, medium rock, dinner music with overtones of old Vienna, country music, Latin American music—virtually everything except yodeling. Subscribers to the 24-hour program get approximately 500 tunes every day. These are not chosen at random but with the aid of consulting psychologists and are selected to make you feel better after lunch, the low point of the American day, or happier than you would otherwise be just before dawn.

Jane's musical recall is just short of total. Each Muzak program is divided into 15-minute segments, with jolly, vigorous airs to brighten the dull afternoons, or, in the early morning, something like Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? at 2:45 and Rose Garden at 4:48. Jane's work includes choosing the appropriate songs for the right mood for the right time, writing arrangements and lining up musicians for the recording sessions.

Baseball's most-heard organist is a slight, adroit, dark-haired little woman with a superb musical education. This she combines with a breadth of interest that extends over the whole field of popular music, and while piped music these days is often disparaged as corn, the inviolate rule seems to be that it must be well performed no matter what it is. So there is an atmosphere of highly professional concentration around Jane's working quarters, mixed with the unreality that comes with packing and merchandising a commodity so insubstantial as a tune.

The atmosphere at Shea is at the opposite extreme, being loud, noisy, informal and filled with requests. These come from ushers, gatekeepers, electricians, reporters in the press box and occasionally from the players. Mrs. Payson is an authority on ragtime and knows the words of many turn-of-the-century sentimental favorites, some of which she occasionally sings after a rousing Met victory. It is nice when the organist knows the tune. Haifa dozen technicians concerned with the lights and scoreboard inhabit the far end of the loft that Jane shares with the field announcer. Reporters and visiting celebrities stop at the open door to listen, keeping up a conversational accompaniment to the music—"Hello, Jane!"—and wanting to know: "What was that number you played night before last?" Jane keeps a logbook of every tune she uses at every game, noting the time as well. It would be possible to write a Ph.D. thesis correlating the songs with the number of hits the Mets got their next time at bat.

One of the curiosities of baseball history is that music to be played at baseball games was composed and published for nearly 20 years before baseball began to be regularly reported in the newspapers. The first composition devoted to baseball, The Base Ball Polka, was copyrighted in 1858, and there was a musical library of half a hundred such pieces before Henry Chadwick published the first baseball handbook in 1869. The early amateur teams had their own songs and their own bands. But by the time Jane and a few others began to play for big-league teams, the rich musical tradition of bands at ball parks had almost disappeared. The only sound effects were provided by mechanical record players or organists who regarded the instrument essentially as a means of commenting on the game. (One exception was at Ebbets Field, where Gladys Gooding was the organist, but Miss Gooding had been hired primarily for her rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.) The trouble with recorded music at ball parks was that it could not be changed according to the fortune of the game or the mood of the crowd. On the other hand, the organist-commentators were plain corny, sometimes belting out mocking melodies such as Three Blind Mice or Would You Like to Take a Walk?

Jane was anything but corny. She brought to the business of playing at ball parks an immaculate musicianship, innate good taste and a total ignorance of the game of baseball. She was born in Vincennes, Ind., a pleasant, tree-shaded town that was probably the only place in the state where it was possible to grow up without ever seeing a baseball game. She always intended to be a concert pianist. As a girl she played with the Indianapolis and Milwaukee symphony orchestras, and she once had a concert tour through several Southern cities. The critics were approving, but they also volunteered kindly advice to the effect that she was too slight and frail to meet the rigorous life demanded of a concert pianist. Next Jane began playing in Chicago dance bands and at cocktail lounges, but she found this more tiring than the concert stage. "People drank too much," she says, "and talked too much. You heard too much and saw too much and you knew too much and finally you wanted some other kind of life."

For her this turned out to be marriage, a home in Oconomowoc, Wis., two children and a job as staff pianist at a radio station. Meanwhile, the Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee—complete with a house organist, the funny type. But by this time baseball was tired of musical gagsters, so the Braves went looking for a more classical organist. When Jane applied she was hired at once, despite the fact she knew nothing about the game.

"When there are three strikes on a batter, he's out," said John Quinn, the Braves' general manager, "and when there are three outs, that's when you play."

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