And I Never Knew
When I was a student at the Junior School of the The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre back in the early 1980s, one of my teachers was Irma Jurist-Neverow. We called her Miss Jurist. She taught singing and performance, and I enjoyed her classes very much.
Occasionally, Miss Jurist would mention some of the things that she was working on at the time. I still remember how she demonstrated how the actor playing one character in her play should call out the name of another. But when I asked her for more information about the play, she wouldn’t give any. That was understandable because the play wasn’t yet published. Still, I sensed that there was more to Miss Jurist than met the eye.
It wasn’t until many years later, thanks to the Internet, that I found out that Miss Jurist was a noted composer, had had a television and a radio show, and released, together with Leonard Elliot, a novelty record album, Fuzzy Peach Pie and Other Lunacies, an erudite parody of classical music.
Here’s the review from Billboard, dated November 30, 1959:
There’s a takeoff on Menotti’s operas here that alone is worth the price of this disc. Many of the other musical satires included are also hilariously successful, and even those that don’t quite make it are good fun. One needn’t be a musical sophisticate to enjoy the broad takeoffs on German lieder, canonic music, show tunes, etc. Leonard Elliot and Irma Jurist render this mad mish-mash with no holds barred.
But Miss Jurist composed serious music as well, as I recently found out. Here is Nina Simone singing “The July Tree,” (lyrics: Eve Merriam; music: Irma Jurist):
I recently found out that Miss Jurist died approximately three years ago at the age of 94. (Some years ago, I tried, unsuccessfully, to make contact with her.) I don’t know whether she would have remembered me, since she taught thousands of students at the Neighborhood Playhouse, from which she retired in 2001 at the age of 89.
I have so many memories of Miss Jurist from our classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse: how she spoke about performing, how she accompanied us when we sang, how she told stories, and the Hanukkah play that she wrote about Hannah and her seven sons (I still have vivid memories of my schoolmate, Andrea, who was in the class above mine at the Neighborhood Playhouse, in the role of Hannah). Miss Jurist also composed one of the most beautiful Christmas carols that I have ever heard in my life. It’s a shame that the song isn’t out there; I feel that it ought to be.
(And in case anyone out there is willing to help make it so, I still have the four-part arrangement that I created for it in my senior year of high school, when I was studying music theory. When I asked Miss Jurist whether I could attempt the arrangement, she said, “If you want to.” When I showed it to her the next week, she said, “I didn’t think you could do it – but you did!”)
I wish I’d had a chance to ask Miss Jurist how it felt to set Eve Merriam’s lyrics to music and have Nina Simone record the song. I’d been right about her all those years ago: there was so much more to her than met the eye. But back then, it was just a guess.
Miss Jurist was so much more than the teacher I looked forward to seeing every Saturday morning... and I never knew.