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Gene Solon Helped Make Hartford A Jazz Mecca

Extraordinary Life

By OWEN MCNALLY | Special to The Courant

November 09, 2008

As the ebullient, omnipresent Zelig of Hartford's arts world, Gene Solon seemed to pop up everywhere on the local scene, at art gallery openings, classical music concerts or jazz events, at established or obscure venues for the most accessible or the most arcane, avant-garde visual and musical genres.

No matter what, Solon was there.

An advocate for the arts, a former president of the Hartford Jazz Society and a senior programming manager for the former Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the Hartford native was 83.

Despite battling cancer in recent years, Solon, who moved to Arizona in 1997 after retiring from the state arts commission, continued, in a somewhat diminished manner, to promote the arts in Tucson as he had done with such zeal in Hartford for many decades.

Perhaps best known for his role as a supporter of jazz in Hartford, Solon for many years served as the master of ceremonies for Hartford Jazz Society concerts. With their amusing mix of the grand and the grandiloquent, the learned and the puckish, his affable introductions became legendary.

At the height of the popularity of Paul Brown's Monday Night Jazz series in Bushnell Park, Solon cut a dashing figure decked out in his signature pith helmet, khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirt, schmoozing with the crowd.

With his thick, curly gray hair, professorial-looking eyeglasses and beamish smile, Solon bore a resemblance to Mark Twain or Albert Einstein.

As the sun set during intermission, Solon, armed with a few scribbled notes, would scoot backstage.

There, with saxophonist Sue Terry, then a young protégé of jazz great Jackie McLean, he would interview the evening's headliners on WWUH-FM's live hookup from the park.

Blessed with a golden-toned "radio voice," Solon made frequent guest appearances on WWUH, the University of Hartford's radio station, and on Connecticut Public Radio as a guest on George Malcolm-Smith's show "Gems of American Jazz."

For Solon, jazz was not just the great, original American art form but also a unifying social and cultural force.

It made no difference to him whether it was the Bill Evans Trio rhapsodizing in Bushnell Park or saxophonist Marion Brown free-associating at Real Art Ways' Bohemian digs in a spartan loft on Asylum Street.

And, of course, he was a devoted patron of the old, smoke-filled, cramped but gloriously picturesque 880 Club, showing up religiously to hear classy New York imports like saxophonists George Coleman or Houston Person jamming with the Donnie DePalma Trio, the 880's in-house rhythm section for the stars.

Over the years, Solon became so closely associated with jazz that many people never had a clue that his first great loves were classical music and the visual arts.

One of his proudest yet perhaps least remembered accomplishments was the distinguished weekly classical music program that he presented years ago on WWUH, playing and commenting on LPs from his own extensive classical and opera collection.

Perhaps his greatest abiding passion was for the visual arts.

His mother, Bella, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who firmly believed in education, arts, culture and social justice, stimulated his love for the arts in his early childhood.

Bella, who lived to be 103, sowed the seeds for her son's lifelong affair with painting and sculpture by dragging little Gene, or Yeinkel, as he was called, regularly to the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Solon grew up in Hartford's North End in the 1930s and early '40s. After graduating from Weaver High School in 1943 and serving a hitch in the Army during World War II as a sergeant and radio mechanic, Solon attended the University of Connecticut, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Instead of going straight into the arts, as he would have loved, Solon, the ever-dutiful son, went to work in his father Max's curtain shop, becoming a co-owner of the Hudson Curtain Shop.

After his father's death and the sale of the family business in 1975, Solon, who was by then edging into his 50s, began his professional career in the arts world. His became general manager of the Hartford Chamber Orchestra.

He headed several area art galleries before landing his dream job with the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, where he worked for nearly 20 years, retiring in the mid-1990s.

His insatiable hunger for knowledge was never just for art and music but also for politics, philosophy, history, religion and sports (including the Red Sox, Celtics and UConn women's basketball).

His Connecticut and Arizona digs looked like a marvelously cluttered library annex, a cozy reading room spilling over with his enormous collection of classical and jazz CDs and LPs.

Tragically left a single-parent dad with three kids after his wife's untimely death many years ago, Solon, through a frustrating but necessary trial-and-error process, transformed himself from a cuisine schnook to a first-rate cook.

Solon left his hometown for a new life in Tucson in 1997 to be near his beloved daughter, Jessica, who has since died from cancer, and his son-in-law Moshe Issaharov.

He found a productive life in Tucson by participating in local arts groups. He died peacefully on Oct. 6, 2008, in Tucson Ariz. at the age of 83, with his two sons, Kendall and Jeffrey, and his son-in-law, Moshe, by his side.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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