Karen Strid-Chadwick sits in front of a computer in a quiet back office on the third floor of UAA’s Fine Arts Building. The office is packed full of old song books, loose leaf staff paper and two large pianos. Old photographs line the walls and a mason jar labeled “the ashes of problem students” playfully sits on the window sill.
“Wow, a student actually wrote back ‘looks good Karen’! That’s amazing – the fastest reply ever. He gets an ‘A’,” chuckles Strid-Chadwick. “But he’s an adult, so that’s probably why he emailed back.”
As one of the first music professors at the University of Alaska, Strid-Chadwick has been a mainstay at the Fine Arts Building since its opening in 1986. As the university’s only full-time Jazz instructor, Strid-Chadwick oversees multiple student Jazz ensembles, teaches functional piano and hosts a yearly Jazz Week Benefit series that has brought up the likes of Toshiko Akioyshi, Hal Galper and Greta Matassa.
When asked why Jazz is important, Strid-Chadwick looks puzzled by the question as if the answer were fundamental.
“I am a firm believer that every man, woman and child in this country should be able to sing or play the Blues,” Strid-Chadwick enthusiastically asserts. “It’s not that hard! If I can teach a biology teacher in his 60s who comes to me and has no piano skills, how to play a decent F-minor Blues then anyone can learn it. I always say we gave the world the Blues and Louis Armstrong.”
As a young girl, Strid-Chadwick says that she was the kind of kid you would have to tie down to make them play the piano. Strid-Chadwick’s parents must have found strong rope because she began playing when she was just 7 years old. However, it wasn’t until her family relocated from the mid-west to Alaska after the 1964 quake, that Strid-Chadwick finally found a mentor who ignited a lifelong passion.
“I was lucky enough to have Wendy Williamson as a mentor when we moved to Alaska,” explained Strid-Chadwick. “Most people don’t know this about Wendy but his real name was John Wendell Williamson. He got the nickname ‘Wendy’ because he was an amazing trombone player. You know, my first job at the university was actually his old job.”
Strid-Chadwick who commutes weekly from Homer has become a mentor to thousands of musicians over the years but she coyly claims that her reasons are largely selfish.
“I teach for selfish reasons because it means that I get to learn too. I mean, I don’t care about my students,” Strid-Chadwick laughs. “Maybe they learn something or maybe they don’t, but I’m usually the one that learns the most.”
Despite her tough exterior, Strid-Chadwick’s eyes soften and her inflection takes on a joyful tone when she talks about some of her most successful students.
“Sometimes you see a light bulb go off and it’s clear they’re getting it. Those are the moments that I make me feel good,” Strid-Chadwick says as she smiles and crosses her arms across her chest. “It’s those light bulbs.”
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press