Santa Clara Magazine

Wrangler and the Jazzman

Wrangler and the Jazzman

By Jesse Hamlin

Dancer and senior lecturer Kristin Kusanovich side steps Wrangler as he cozies up to Bill Stevens during rehearsal in the Music Recital Hall. Along with bassist Ryan Lukas and guitarist Chip Newton, the group put on a free show in January. Photo by Joanne Lee
A dog with millions of fans. And Bill Stevens, a blind jazz pianist, teaching students to do more than they imagined possible.

It was just last fall that Wrangler joined Bill Stevens, the vibrant, double-fisted jazz pianist and SCU music lecturer. If you don’t already know Wrangler, odds are one of your friends does. The yellow Lab became a star on NBC’s Today show, where he appeared daily for more than a year with a trainer from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Wrangler won hearts around the nation before leaving showbiz to start six months of rigorous training at Guiding Eyes in Yorktown Heights, New York. Last year, he and Stevens were the subject of a Today segment filmed on and around the Mission campus.

“He loves the work and is doing really well,” Stevens says of Wrangler, who likes to be where the action is. “Because he grew up on the Today show, he thinks everything is about him. He’s definitely a ham. When the Today show was here trailing us around, he was in his element, just loving it.”

Bill Stevens teaching
Bill Stevens performed his master’s recital in total darkness to avoid the buzzing sounds of overhead lights disrupting the final dissipating note. “I wasn’t willing to compromise,” he says. “Without deep listening, I never would’ve keyed into that.” Photo by Joanne Lee

At SCU, Stevens is very much in his element, too. He loves to swim, bodysurf, and practice the intuitive dance form called contact improvisation. He brings the same joyous energy and spirit of discovery to his classroom teaching and his SCU concert performances. His fluid playing, with its bracing block chords and long, melodic lines, draws on a wide range of sources, from Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett to Oscar Peterson and Earl “Fatha” Hines. His most recent album, A Blues By Any Other Name, was recorded live at SCU in 2014 with bassist Ryan Lukas and drummer Frank Wyant, who also teach in the music department. Since his new dog arrived, Stevens has been writing some Wrangler-themed tunes.

“GUIDE THEM ON THAT JOURNEY”

Wrangler is the pianist’s third guide dog. His first, Doris, was also a yellow Lab. So was his second, Tighlman, a trusty companion familiar to the campus community who’s now enjoying a well-earned retirement with Stevens’ folks in North Carolina. Unlike Tighlman, who was content to stay in Stevens’ office while he taught in the adjoining room, Wrangler prefers the classroom, napping in a corner while the pianist moves about the space and engages with his students.

“I teach sight-reading—ironically,” Stevens says as he sits in his apartment not far from campus, wearing a pale green polo shirt and a rakish Indiana Jones fedora. The fifth-year instructor also teaches melody, harmony, ear training, and improvisation. He loves teaching, and his big goal is to get students to understand how to learn effectively, to realize that they are capable of doing more than they imagine and to have confidence in their ability.

“If I don’t know how to do something, it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, if I know how to learn,” Stevens says. “Be comfortable with partial progress. Keep showing up on good days and bad days ... I’m there to guide them on that journey. Music skills are the occasion for teaching that.”

DEEP LISTENING

After the pianist learned he was getting Wrangler—whose name was chosen by Today show viewers—he listened to a few of the show’s clips and was stirred by the outpouring of love for this dog. “I’m hoping it’s an opportunity to do more outreach about blindness,” Stevens says, “and create more empathy in our culture about guide dogs and blindness and about diversity and difference in general.”

The pianist and his new dog collaboratively negotiate their day-to-day world, getting to know each other better and refining their communication. Having a TV-famous dog isn’t a big deal, and most people don’t recognize Wrangler. But Stevens was impressed to learn that the dog who now shares his life appeared in a commercial during Super Bowl 50.

Stevens grew up on the East Coast. He has been legally blind since birth and almost completely blind since age 14. He earned a degree in music composition at The Oberlin Conservatory and a master’s in piano performance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He also studied deep listening with Pauline Oliveros, a noted avant-garde composer with a holistic approach to music.

“Deep listening is the practice of listening to all sounds, all the time,” he says. “Her goal was to listen to all the sounds that are happening in the world as if listening to a piece of music. For me, that opened up doorways into meditation, using listening as meditative focus.”

This in turn informs Stevens’ approach to improvisation, allowing him to be more in flow. “What is the music impulse in this moment? Can I hear that? Can I reflect that? Can I have that come through?”

JESSE HAMLIN is a Bay Area journalist who has covered arts and music for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read more about Bill Stevens and Wrangler, and listen to Bill’s music, at billstevensjazz.com.

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