Xylophone virtuoso Ian Finkel died on November 16, 2020 at age 72 as a result of COVID-19.
Ian (pronounced “eye-an”) Lawrence Finkel was born in 1948 into a show business family. His father, Fyvush Finkel, was a prominent actor in Yiddish theater and portrayed the cantankerous lawyer on the 1990s TV series Picket Fences. “Everyone in my family is a musician, actor, entertainer, writer, etc.,” Ian told Nancy Zeltsman in an October 1999 Percussive Notes profile. “I had to audition to become a Finkel.”
When they were still children, Ian and his brother Elliot, a pianist, would join their father onstage. “They called us the Jewish von Trapp family,” Elliot said, adding that he and Ian performed comedically as the Finkel Boys and spent their childhood devouring musical scores borrowed from the public library.
Ian attended the Mannes School of Music at The New School, where he studied with New York Philharmonic principal percussionist Walter Rosenberger. Ian learned to play xylophone in a wide variety of settings. “I did every kind of job there is,” he told Zeltsman. “I’ve played swing, bop, free jazz, all the different Latin bags, funk, R&B, Yiddish theater music, Klezmir, I played in a concert band where I did all the piccolo parts for Sousa marches, Viennese waltzes, club-date dance music of every shape and form, shows, jingles, record dates, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, ethnic—now they call them world music—Irish, Swedish, Romanian, anything. I performed hundreds of violin concerti from Vivaldi to Tchaikovsky and beyond. I was the xylophonist at Madison Square Garden for years—did all the ice shows, etc. I did film dates of all kinds and paid my dues at numerous contemporary chamber music concerts. I also played with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.” He added that those were just some of the gigs he played. Ian often played recitals, concerts, and recording sessions with his brother Elliot, with Ian’s son, Abott, on drum set. He also worked as a composer and musical arranger for such stars as Sid Caesar, Tito Puente, and Ginger Rogers.
Jim Saporito met Ian when Jim needed a sub for the original version of the Broadway show La Cage aux Folles in 1983. Jim was primarily playing a “mallet book,” and the contractor recommended Finkel. “That began our friendship,” Saporito said. “Ian then asked me to play percussion in his band, and we played a lot of concerts through the years. We played percussion together on the TV soap opera All my Children and with the Xavier Cugat orchestra. We recorded as a section together for many TV shows and records. Ian would always play the majority of the mallet parts, and I would play whatever else had to be covered. A typical session would have the music on the stand as we arrived, and Ian would look through the book and say, ‘sight-reading’ dismissively, and then he would close the book. He would then proceed to tell jokes and stories and not look at the music again until the conductor started the recording date. He was a prodigious sight-reader and musician. I never heard a mistake by Ian in a recording session!
“He was the last of the generation of New York mallet players who made their way in the business because of their great reading skills—a skill that, sadly, is not so much in demand these days,” Saporito said. “Times have changed, but the memory of the real thing lives on in my mind with Ian.”
A New York Times profile noted that in his performances, Ian would combine music with comedic patter, conduct his band theatrically, and accentuate rhythmic punches with a vaudevillian flair. He tackled intricate patterns and complicated polyrhythms while mugging for the audience. “He was a true entertainer,” his daughter, Dara Finkel, said. “He would tell other entertainers that it’s not just about playing the most difficult piece of music. You have to entertain the audience as well.”
His humor was on display at a PASIC clinic several years ago. At the end of his session he thanked people for attending, and then he said, “If you liked what you heard, my name is Ian Finkel. If you didn’t like it, my name is Bob Becker.”
He advocated specializing on one instrument rather than trying to master multiple instruments. “I practice at least five hours a day and have been doing that for thirty years,” he said. “If you’re a percussionist, there’s no way you can do five hours on the mallets, another five on timps, and another five on snare, toys, Latin, etc. You can’t be Gary Burton, Ian Finkel, Louis Bellson, etc., all at the same time. Can you imagine someone wanting to be a well-rounded brass player? He practices trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba. Oh, please!”
Timpanist Jonathan Haas, with whom Ian played in the band Johnny H and the Prisoners of Swing, said, “Mastering the xylophone, which by Ian’s standard had to include the ability to improvise, sight read, and understand music theory, was Ian’s commitment and way of life, much like any world-class professional would approach and dedicate themselves to their craft. You could pass by his street-level apartment most any day of the week at most any hour of the day and he would be practicing—for a minimum of four to six hours a day—often times after he had played with the New York Philharmonic, a night club act, recording session, or had spent days/nights composing or arranging for musicians who knew of Ian’s incredible musical knowledge and expertise.”
According to vibraphonist David Friedman, “Ian’s passing leaves me with a feeling of considerable loss. We mallet players represent a relatively small population in the big wide world of instrumentalists. This means that the ones who manage to carve out a niche for themselves—either by their extreme talent, artistic uniqueness, outlandish technical ability, or perhaps all of the above—have created a world for themselves, around which their peers and fans orbit. Ian was one of those rare musician personalities. When we were both quite a bit younger, we would occasionally meet and have brutal sight-reading sessions, accentuated by a noose hanging from the ceiling of his studio! It served as a ‘gentle’ reminder of what awaited the looser. Luckily for me, he waived my symbolic execution, and we would move to the kitchen or living room to enjoy his incredible homemade cheesecake!
“In a world where fitting in, being politically correct, avoiding extremes, and exemplifying the ‘middle ground’ are held up as well-bred virtues,” Friedman said, “Ian embodied a refreshing diametrical opposite. I'm confident he has inspired his students and others in his orbit to do the same.”
Mike Balter was friends with Ian for over 50 years, and Mike Balter Mallets manufactures two models of Ian Finkel signature mallets. “Many people would refer to Ian as a throwback to the days of George Hamilton Green, Harry Breuer, and Teddy Brown,” Balter said. “Ian took that as a compliment to a day when musicians would dedicate themselves to mastering an art form to the highest level. Ian did exactly that—mastered the art of xylophone playing, arranging, and becoming a musician’s musician by raising the bar to a level for all to strive to achieve.”
According to The New York Times, “Finkel lived for nearly 50 years in the same Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. He would walk out of his home stylishly dressed in a jacket, tie, and hat—with, up until a year ago, a fat cigar in his mouth.” Dara Finkel described her father as “the quintessential New Yorker and Upper West Sider. He would go for long walks and talk to everyone.”
Among all his other activities, Finkel found time to teach aspiring mallet players. “When I started playing xylophone on the subway platforms in New York, I went to Ian for a lesson,” recalls Jonathan Singer. “First, he would threaten to destroy whatever hard rubber mallets you brought, then listen to something prepared, sight-reading, standards with two mallets, four mallets, improvisation, more sight-reading, etc. He didn’t believe in an hour lesson; the lesson went until there was no sense in continuing. Then, he’d wonder why nobody ever took weekly lessons anymore! I always thought Ian was some sort of self-taught genius, but the more we spoke the more it became evident how much he studied and listened. He just did it on his own terms. There wasn’t much compromise involved. Integrity was the most important aspect.
“I frequently hear people describe Ian as ‘old school’,” Singer said, “when in fact he drew from all sorts of traditions and created his own versions of things that were exciting and, more often than not, entertaining. He didn’t want to talk about old xylophonists from a bygone era. He urged me to talk about what was happening now, to live in the present. The golden age of xylophone may have ended in the 1930s, but Ian gave it an addendum. He took music from every decade, from the Baroque era to garage punk, and arranged it for the xylophone and his various ensembles. He gave the xylophone a new life.”
Nancy Zeltsman also studied with Finkel. “It’s not easy to put into words what Ian Finkel meant to me,” she said. “During my last two years of high school, at the recommendation of my percussion teacher Bob Ayers, I additionally took two-hour lessons with Ian every other week at his apartment in New York City. I don’t know how he had the chutzpah to put a 15-year-old girl through the regular, mammoth, always-new assignments he gave me. But, through their breadth, he showed me the rewards of approaching music voraciously, throwing caution to the wind, and developing the skills to hang on for the ride. He was an eccentric, salty character who often projected (or feigned) impatience; he would curse and rail! But even at my tender age, I knew he was a genuine sweetheart who wanted to teach me everything he possibly could. He once said, ‘Nothing against “well-rounded” percussionists, if that’s what you love to do. But if you want to truly advance an instrument, you need to play it exclusively.’ That struck a chord with me and set me on my life’s path with the marimba.
“Ian’s influence was so foundational for me, it’s difficult to imagine my joyful career in music minus what he gave me,” Nancy said. “He loved to entertain and make people laugh. He had many talents, played a million gigs, and had a million crazy stories. But above all, he had a boundless love for music and for the xylophone, and he played it brilliantly. It was his voice, and he gave a singular voice to it. I could listen to him roll softly on one note forever. Ian, there will never be another You.”
View a performance by Ian Finkel.