Most music-readers play instruments that require only one line of music, and they don’t complain. It starts getting complicated for piano players, who get two lines – one for their left hand and one for their right. As if two lines aren’t enough, organists take it a step further, adding their feet to the mix for three-line sheet music. This challenge is one part of what drew Juneau resident T.J. Duffy to the organ at age 13.
Duffy loves the complexity of pipe organs. While growing up in Indiana, he practiced on church organs, discovering how to work the pipes together to produce the timbre he wanted. He also learned how to avoid sounding the pipes that wouldn’t work well together. Playing the organ is more about the big picture, he says, rather than just melodies.
Contrary to the criticism of pipe organ purists, Duffy chooses to remove his shoes before sitting down at the organ. He says it makes him feel closer to the instrument, in addition to serving practical functions. It also serves to protect the instrument, since the organ he plays is an extremely rare museum piece.
Also a piano player since age 5, Duffy has now retired from his professional music career after a lifetime of “pianist-in-a-tux gigs.” One of his most memorable performances was in 2005 in his former home of Nashville at a fundraiser for the Tennessee Democratic Party. Al and Tipper Gore were the guests of honor, and Duffy had a chance to meet and play for them.
These days, he has traded in his tuxedos for a more authentic look: a silly hat, a punk hairstyle or brightly colored clothing. He likes to elicit smiles from his audience members, and creative attire is one way to do that.
“I’m a rule breaker, just like Beethoven,” Duffy said.
This rule breaker is one of two regular rotating organists who perform on Juneau’s State Office Building’s 90-year-old Kimball Theatre Pipe Organ. Concerts are held year-round at noon on Fridays.
Duffy also performs for residents at the Juneau Pioneers Home on Thursday nights, silly hat and all. He was instrumental in securing grant funding used to purchase the home’s studio grand piano, which he and others utilize to provide meaningful entertainment to the residents.
When he isn’t behind the keyboard, Duffy loves to play poker. He likes the meeting of the minds and the challenge of outsmarting his opponents. He has travelled to Las Vegas and Dawson City for tournaments over the years, although most of his games have been played in private settings in Juneau.
Many of Duffy’s games are penny ante games played at Fireweed Place, where he has worked as the night manager for almost 10 years. He has hosted poker nights with the residents, who he said look forward to the regular social event.
“Poker helps keeps seniors’ minds sharp,” he says. “We play with pennies. On a good night, you could win $1.15.”
Duffy has played enough poker that he has achieved the rare hand of a royal flush not once, but twice in his life. One was at a home game last year, and his first was 19 years prior.
Around the same time in the late 1990s, Duffy enjoyed a stint in a heavy metal band, complete with big rock and roll hair. While the band was short-lived, Duffy continued to integrate rock music into his life as an organist. Last summer, he performed a medley of classic rock songs during one of his organ concerts.
Many of Duffy’s performances have been recorded and posted to YouTube, eliciting compliments from organ enthusiasts from all over the world. Nonetheless, Duffy said he receives plenty of feedback from those organ purists who can’t believe he would prefer a costume to a suit and tie, and criticize his music choices.
“Name one other organist in cyberspace that plays Twisted Sister,” he said.
Duffy said he’s glad to live in Juneau, where his decision to perform in socks and sans black tie is supported by a genuine community. Duffy’s next organ performance will be at noon on May 25.