arletta o’hearn

Arletta O’Hearn: Oregon icon of Christmas cool

Oregon composer, teacher, and jazz pianist empowers thousands to play the music they love

by RHONDA RIZZO

Editor’s note: We’re republishing last year’s popular story about playing holiday music — an Oregon ArtsWatch perennial. You’re probably already hearing the holiday tunes blaring from speakers at the malls, in lobbies of businesses, even when you’re on hold. But if you want to actually play holiday tunes yourself at a holiday gathering, rather than passively enduring the same old same old recordings, you might turn to an Oregon icon of Christmas Cool. 

“I love ‘Christmas Time is Here,’ but I can’t play it.” This, from my beginning adult student who was super motivated, but realistic. Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown sound is difficult to master, even by advanced players. Luckily, a plugged-in piano teacher turned me on to Arletta O’Hearn’s jazz arrangements of Christmas carols. They’re easy to master, easy on the pocketbook ($3.95 to $4.95 per book!), and beautifully poignant in a Guaraldi kind of way.  


As poignant as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here,” Arletta O’Hearn’s wistful version of “Up on the Housetop” is very playable and from her easiest book of Christmas arrangements, the pink
Christmas Seasonings.  © Neil A. Kjos Music Company. Used with permission 2016.

While the feisty Arletta O’Hearn is admired world-wide for her jazz compositions and arrangements, she’s been hoarded within the piano teaching circles… unintentionally. In fact, O’Hearn lives right here in Portland, Oregon! I’ve used her smart, accessible jazzed-up Christmas arrangements for beginning to intermediate students who wanted to play something that sounded Count Basie tasteful without requiring the Art Tatum chops. For advanced players, sight-reading through these books makes even a Grinch like me grin through the holidays.

Arletta O’Hearn playing Ellington.

The well known (but only in certain circles) jazz composer and arranger of Christmas tunes came in through the back door, eschewing the traditional path toward becoming a beloved icon. Former Portland pianist and teacher Rhonda Rizzo interviewed Arletta O’Hearn in 2013 for the Oregon Music Teachers Association. With her permission, we present an edited version, along with my annotated score excerpts and sound files I recorded so you can see and hear how easy it is for pianists of all skill levels to learn, just in time for the holidays. Click on each track below the score excerpt to play. 

O’Hearn’s music is available through Portland Music Company. Oregon’s own Christmas gift to music has made the holidays a little happier for thousands around the world! — Maria Choban.

Arletta O’Hearn’s first experience with college piano instruction didn’t go well. The teenager came to the University of Oregon to study with renowned teacher Aurora Underwood. “The first year I was there, Aurora was on sabbatical,” O’Hearn recalls. “The substitute didn’t know how to teach anyone but advanced students. He was there for graduate work and was too young. He couldn’t see the yearning in my soul to play. He couldn’t teach me.”

The experience of working with that teacher was so unpleasant that O’Hearn did not re-enroll. But it must have left an impression, because O’Hearn went on to create a career that made music accessible to anyone — not just piano professionals — who loves it.

O’Hearn’s creative journey has been filled with study, discovery, and an open-minded embrace of many styles of music. Her solid classical training combined with real-world jazz playing experience produced well-crafted, pedagogically sound compositions that are doorways through which classical piano students can enter the world of jazz.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Revel without a Claus

Commedia Christmas, O'Connor & Ives, Nutcracker, Imago's new Belle, Milagro's Posada, more "Messiah," Kurosawa Dreams, and more

This year’s dragon, not red as in the picture here from 2014 but a bright scaly green, was sitting in a little storage corner outside Portland Revels’ offices in the Artists Repertory Theatre creative hub one day last week, waiting patiently for assembly. It was in two pieces: a hind portion stretched over a large backpack, with room for levers, and a gangly top, again with movable parts, which when occupied by puppeteer Shuhe Hawkins will stretch giraffe-like perhaps 12 or 15 feet above the stage. It is a lovely creature all in all, and that fabled dragon-slayer St. George really ought to be ashamed.

Taggin’ with the dragon, in the 2014 Revels. Portland Revels photo

It’s Revels time again – this year’s Christmas Revels runs for eight performances Friday through December 21 at St. Mary’s Academy downtown – and for Bruce Hostetler, newly settled in as artistic director after about five years of working with and directing the annual winter solstice show, that means settling into the hundreds of details at hand while he’s also thinking about bigger things. If you don’t know about Revels – which is in its 22nd year in Portland, and began in 1975 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – it’s a grand and genuinely family get-together of singing, dancing, storytelling, mumming, and playing old-time instruments that is rooted in Celtic customs but regularly roams the earth, making connections with other cultures’ solstice traditions. Santa Claus? That’s somebody else’s tale.

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