By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Like anyone who has reached the threshold of 90 years on this Earth and kept right on going, Johnson City resident Felix Guignard wears the telltale physical signs of his age like a badge of honor.
But when Guignard sits down in front of his piano, his weathered fingers start moving with a dexterity that belies his age. As he plays, the years seem to fall away from him like colorful leaves fluttering down from a giant oak tree on a windy autumn day. What remains is the unmistakable glow of youth as rich, wonderful music echoes off the walls of his home.
Guignard may not be a household name in the United States, but his mastery of the piano is undeniable. The musical gift he was born with allowed him to rise up from the extreme poverty he experienced as a child in Haiti and travel the world before settling into what he calls a “beautiful” life in the United States.
Along the way, Guignard was able to play under the direction of legendary composer Arturo Toscanini in front of thousands of spectators at the Cherry Blossom Festival in the early 1950s. He also played for Richard Nixon and developed an amazing musical versatility while playing professionally in Canada, Cuba and the French Caribbean.
So when did Guignard’s passion for music start? To hear him tell it, he’s been a musician since the day he was born.
“All my life,” Guignard said. “Since I was a child, I was a musician, but we didn’t have money to buy a piano.”
Guignard’s father, Francois, was a trailblazing musician in Haiti. At some point between 1937 and 1938, Jazz Guignard – a band led by pianist Francois – became the first Haitian band to have a recording made of their music.
Felix remembers his boyhood home being a hive of musical activity. Musicians came and went, and his father gave music lessons as a means of earning money. Guignard remembers going out on the porch and drawing piano keys on the steps. Then he would move his fingers across the hand-drawn keys in an effort to get the music inside of him out into the world.
“We were very poor,” Guignard recalled. “Bread was five cents, and sometimes we didn’t have money to buy bread. My mother would make coffee, but there was no bread.”
Guignard caught a break when a man showed up at the house and asked his father to teach him to play the piano. When Francois explained to the man that he didn’t have a piano in the house to teach him on, the man bought a piano and put it in the house.
Felix made a habit of watching intently whenever his father would teach the man during his piano lessons. After the man left, Felix would slide up on the stool and replicate the lesson he had just seen, and that is how he learned to play piano.
“I didn’t learn directly from (my father),” Guignard recalled. “What my father taught him, I was sitting there watching. When he left, I sat down and did what he was teaching.”
Guignard began playing the piano in earnest at the age of 11, and by the time he was 15, he was playing professionally. After growing up in poverty, Guignard finally had a little money in his pocket and was able to help his family financially.
Guignard started out in 1942 with one of the best and most authentic Haitian bands, Super Jazz des Jeunes. His ability to compose musical arraignments for large bands soon set him apart and allowed him to reach heights most of his peers were not able to reach.
By the early 1950s, Guignard had traveled internationally and was able to play the Cherry Blossom Festival under the direction of Toscanini. At that time, Toscanini was serving as the first director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which made him a household name in America. He had also directed the New York Philharmonic and La Scala of Milan in his home country of Italy. Guignard remembers receiving a police escort on the way to the show, which took place in front of an audience of around 3,000.
Back at home in Haiti, Guignard joined Orechestre Des Casernes Dessalines in 1954, a special musical group put together by Haitian President Paul E. Magloire. But less than a decade later, the conditions in Haiti took a turn for the worse after Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier ascended to the presidency.
By 1963, Duvalier was well on his way to consolidating power and naming himself Haiti’s president for life, making life dangerous for anyone who opposed him.
“Everybody got out, especially the musicians,” Guignard said. “I left my country the 29th of December 1963, and I never went back again.”
When you visit with Guignard now, it’s clear he has a knack for making friends wherever he goes. His warm demeanor, sharp sense of humor and ability to spin a good yarn in many different languages are hallmarks of his magnetic personality.
After leaving Haiti for good, he settled in Martinique and led the Tropicana band. During this time, he struck up a fast friendship with the American consul and inquired about the possibility of coming to America.
“He said, ‘Felix, you are a good musician. You would be a real help in the United States. Come and see me and we will talk about that,’ ” Guignard recalled.
But the two men hit a snag when Guignard was missing a crucial paper he needed from Haiti. Luckily, but not surprisingly, Guignard was good friends with the consul to Haiti, and he got the paper he needed and was soon bound for the United States.
Once in the U.S., Guignard settled in Atlanta in the 1970s and embarked on a lengthy career as a union musician. He started at around $200 a week, but eventually was making upwards of $2,000 per week at the Marriot Marquee in Atlanta.
Upon his retirement in the early 1990s, Guignard relocated to Johnson City, where he has lived ever since. The boy who drew piano keys on his porch steps emerges every time Guignard sits in front of his very own antique piano and fills his home with music.
No matter how much time and space fills the widening void between that boy in Haiti and the man he grew up to be, the eternal yearning to get the music that bubbles up inside of him out into the world through those piano keys still burns with the same intensity.
During his travels across the United States, Guignard occasionally happens across a noteworthy piano, and that boyhood excitement emerges. At the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Guignard was intent on playing the late entertainer’s mirrored piano. After negotiating with an employee and then appealing to that employee’s manager, Guignard was permitted to play it as long as he washed his hands first.
Once his fingers began dancing on those keys, people poured into the room from other parts of the museum to hear what was going on. The room filled quickly, and by the time Guignard was done, he was permitted to play another piano once owned by George Gershwin that had previously been off limits to him. Pretty soon, the folks at the museum were trying to book Guignard for a concert.
A similar scene played out at the Waldorf Astoria in New York when Guignard spotted a piano once owned by Cole Porter. After getting an icy reception from the female pianist employed by the hotel to entertain the guests, Guignard waited for her to go on break, slid into her seat and started playing.
As the tip jar began filling up, the irate performer went and grabbed the hotel manager who informed Guignard that only union musicians could play the piano. Without missing a beat, Guignard pulled out his wallet, slapped his union card on the piano and kept right on playing.
“They had nothing to say to me,” Guignard said before doubling over in the throes of laughter.
In a song entitled “What’s To Be Is To Be” from his album Aubade, Guignard sings, “I have the right to stay young.” Even in his 90s, Guignard believes he’s been able to exercise that right, and he credits music for allowing him to do that.
“Sometimes I cannot sleep because music is passing through my mind,” Guignard said. “When I was a child, I was hungry, but now thanks to God everything is beautiful. God bless America, and God bless us.”