It was just a few months ago that Wrangler first joined Bill Stevens, the vital double-fisted jazz pianist and SCU music lecturer.
If you don’t already know Wrangler, odds are one of your friends does. The dog became a star on Today, the NBC morning television 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, N.Y. He and Stevens are the subject of a segment of Today recently filmed on and around the Mission campus.
“He loves the work and is doing really well,” Stevens says of Wrangler, an energetic yellow Lab who likes be where the action is. “Because he grew up on the Today show he thinks everything is about him,” Stevens says. “He’s definitely a ham.”
Stevens has been working with Wrangler to develop a rapport, which normally takes three to six months. “When the Today show was here trailing us around, he was in his element, just loving it.”
At SCU, Stevens is very much in his element, too. He loves to swim, body surf, 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. Stevens has a new CD out, A Blues By Any Other Name, recorded live at SCU in 2014 with bassist Ryan Lukas and drummer Frank Wyant, who also teach in the music department.
On January 26 in the Music Recital Hall, he plays a free concert at 5:15 p.m. with Lukas and guitarist Chip Newton, an old colleague from North Carolina, featuring the new Wrangler-themed tunes Stevens has been writing. Dancer Kristin Kusanovich of the SCU faculty, who improvised with Stevens last year when he performed Wayne Shorter’s music, will join them for a number.
“I’m there to 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. Tighlman is now enjoying his 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.
Stevens 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.