A piano prodigy carries on a Big Sur International Marathon tradition.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
The jagged topographical map of the Big Sur International Marathon provides the outline of this story: A gentle downward sweep for five miles, a gradual incline followed by a short dramatic descent for another five, then, smack in the middle of the 26 heartbreakingly beautiful miles is a head-jerking 45-degree mountain that climbs 600 feet over two miles to the top of Hurricane Point.
“When you reach the top of Hurricane Point you’ve pushed yourself to the edge of your endurance, you can’t think about your legs, and your heart is pounding,” says Janet Lesniak of Big Sur River Inn, who ran her first marathon in 2002, the same year that she became music director of the race. “And just at the point you actually know you’ve finally made it, you round that bend and are encompassed by this glorious, soothing, haunting piano music that fills the air for miles—it makes you want to cry.”
Little wonder that thousands of runners have added precious minutes to their time in order to stop at the side of Bixby Bridge to greet the tuxedo-clad man sitting at the gleaming Yamaha grand piano.
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For 17 years Jonathon Lee was the Grand Piano Man of the Big Sur Marathon. His extraordinary annual three-hour concerts were his marathons—for which he trained, pushed himself, suffered and soared, knowing that on this rocky coast he was doing exactly what he loved to do.
Lee mostly played his own music. Self-taught, he composed to soothe, to calm, and played in a gentle outpouring that wasn’t classical, nor jazz, perhaps closest to New Age. He presided over the lounge piano at the Highlands Inn for over a decade, and met celebrities and mucky-mucks from all over the world. There he met Hiroko Kamayama, director of a huge technology conglomorate in Japan who began to market Lee’s music in Asia. There also he met the owners of the Pebble Beach Resort who then sold his CDs in their gift shops and gave them to visitors as part of the hospitality package. Lee was that rare musician who made a great living playing precisely the music he wanted to play in beautiful and prestigious places close to home.
Home was in Pacific Grove, where everyone knew him—at first because he played at Favalaro’s Restaurant, and at a free outdoor concert every year on another dramatic ocean cliff at Lovers Point. But from the late ‘90s on he became more easy to recognize as the smiling man on the electric scooter taking packages of his CDs to the post office. “He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 4 years old,” says his stepfather, Roger Rompel, “and spent virtually his whole life dependent on insulin, with all of its consequences. Both of his legs were amputated, so he traveled around on a scooter for the last five years of his life. We wanted him to be in a more sheltered environment, but he didn’t want to be restricted, he wanted to be out in the world doing what made him happy.”
The Grand Piano man died December 3, 2004, but his CDs are not his only heritage. In the last year of his life he found someone to carry on.
“About three years ago I was sitting in Favaloro’s restaurant in Pacific Grove,” Lesniak recalls. “I knew that Jonathon wasn’t doing well and was just thinking about what would happen with the grand piano tradition of the marathon when I suddenly realized that the music I was hearing in the restaurant had to be a CD of Jonathon’s. What a coincidence. But then I realized there was this kid at the piano, playing. He looked like he could barely see over the top, but he was playing Jonathon’s music Jonathon’s way!”
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Michael Martinez was 13 when he met the Grand Piano Man. His grandfather, Salvatore Canepa, used to ride the local bus with Lee and they became friends. Canepa had a CD of Lee’s, which Martinez really liked, so the two piano men met for lunch and Martinez played.
“Jonathon had been looking for someone who could continue to play at Bixby Bridge,” Rompel says. “He became Michael’s teacher and mentor.”
“He was just recovering from a stroke, but he seemed to get a lot of energy out of the idea of passing on his legacy,” Martinez says. “I learned so much from him, I copied his style, he taught me his technique. I listened to his CDs and learned his songs.
“He had lost the feeling in his hands so couldn’t play anymore. He decided that I would play the concert he always gave at Lovers Point that year. He was so happy. He died three months later.”
This year, as the music of Jonathan Lee and Michael Martinez again greets runners who top Hurricane Point, the Grand Piano Man lives.
THE BIG SUR INTERNATIONAL MARATHON starts at 6:45am on Sunday, April 29. Visit bsim.org.