For some, retirement offers a chance to pursue new experiences and move back-burner projects to front and center. But Ewing resident Jerry Rife left his position as professor of music and nine-year chair of the fine arts department at Rider University because, he says, “it was time; you just know.”
Since his retirement, Rife has not had to look much beyond his continuing involvement in music as a clarinetist and conductor. But the extra time does enable him a daily regimen that includes walking, followed by breakfast, then practicing clarinet.
“If you do that,” he says, “you keep improving, and I’m getting better and better.”
Both heredity and environment propelled Rife into music. His maternal grandfather was a trumpeter, but it was his mother who insisted that each of her three children not only take piano lessons, but also that choose a band instrument. Rife wanted to play his grandfather’s trumpet, but that became impossible when he got braces.
So in second grade in Millington, he asked his band director, Irv Fenner, what instrument he should play and was handed a clarinet.
Rife’s parents met when his father, Harold, worked as a cowboy on his future father-in-law’s farm, where his mother’s job was to bring water to the cowhands on her pony. Rife was born in Manhattan, Kansas, where his father was studying entomology at Kansas State University.
Rife moved to Scotch Plains when he was 18 months old after his father got a job in Cranford with Black Flag Insecticides.
After graduating from Watchung Hills Regional High School in 1967, Rife returned to his Midwestern roots. “I always loved Kansas. I always thought Kansas was where I grew up,” he says, recalling his family’s summer visits to his grandparents’ farm.
Not such a great high school student, planned to forego college and instead work for McDonald’s—until his father suggested that he apply for college. He did and ended up at Kansas State, his father’s alma mater, where he assumed he was a legacy student.
To Rife’s surprise, he “completely blossomed” in college. He declared entomology as his major but found himself “getting a D in botany and an A in music theory.” He sought advice from his father, who suggested he switch majors, and said to his son, “I trust you. Whatever you want to do, I’m sure you will make a career of it.”
For Rife, that was like telling him: “You’re old enough to decide; you’re a mature person now.”
Rife says, “That was so energizing for me—it was his stamp of approval. I thanked him on his deathbed for that.”
Looking to teach high school band, Rife earned a bachelor’s degree in music education. But he decided to stay on to work with on a master’s in applied clarinet performance.
At Kansas State he also met his wife, Leslie Davis, his “girl from Kansas” and a flautist, pianist and organist.
For five years Rife taught band at junior high and high schools in small Kansas towns. Despite learning a lot and having many successes, he says, “the time came to decide if you wanted to stay and be a marching band concert conductor in Kansas or not, and I decided it was time to go back and get a doctoral degree.”
While he was working on his PhD in musicology at Michigan State University, he was assigned to a professor teaching a music history class as part of his graduate assistanceship.
The first day of class the professor told his 90 first-year students, “On Monday you are going to have a test on the Greek musical modes [the musical scales of the ancient Greeks].” The students filed out “with terror on their faces.”
That Sunday, while the professor was playing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” as a bride and groom marched down the aisle, he had a heart attack and died on the keyboard. The dean asked Rife to take the Monday class.
The first thing he told the students was that the test on Greek modes would be moved to Wednesday, and Rife proceeded “to explain what the modes are.”
The next thing he knew the dean had asked him to take over all the professor’s doctoral-level music history classes. Rife agreed, but asked in exchange that he be given the title of assistant professor rather than instructor. The dean agreed.
“That was the biggest event of my life. Michigan State was Big 10,” Rife says.
An assistant professor of musicology, teaching baroque music at the doctoral level, with experience directing bands, teaching musicology, and playing clarinet, Rider University was happy to hire him in 1984.
Characterizing his tenure at Rider as “a golden time,” Rife says he developed connections with area musicians, taught students in classes like music of the theater and history of opera and musical theater; and created new classes. One was titled “arts abroad,” where students would travel between semesters to study the arts and culture of London and one other European city. He also combined his loves of music and movies to create his favorite class on film music.
Rife was also involved in welcoming the faculty from Westminster Choir College after it became the School of Music of Rider University in the early 1990s, and he taught graduate-level musicology courses to Westminster students.
In 1985 Rife and his wife joined the 129-year-old Blawenburg Band, the oldest continuously performing band in New Jersey, which he says “is from the era when every town had their own band.” Back then, when the band included 18 people and met in Blawenburg, he played clarinet and his wife flute. A half-year later, the conductor retired and Rife was invited to take his place.
Today the band has 80 musicians, Rife says, “at all different levels of ability, but we are all one wonderful, beautiful family—we love to play and make music together.”
Having learned to improvise as a child, even before he could read music, Rife says he has always played jazz. “In the early 60s when everyone was excited about Elvis and the Beatles, I was interested in traditional Dixieland jazz.” In high school he formed a jazz band with trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm that competed live on the nationally broadcasted Ted Mack’s “Amateur Hour” in a television studio in New York City. Five or six acts would compete over a half hour, but even with the help of votes from Rife’s Kansas relatives, a “flaming twirler” won the contest.
Jazz has continued to be part of Rife’s life. At Kansas State he joined a band of “adults”—faculty, adjuncts, and townies—replacing a sick clarinet player.
At Michigan State he formed six-piece traditional Dixieland band, the Great Lakes Rhythm Kings, which played for six summers at Fish Creek, in Door County, Wisconsin, a little peninsula and summer tourist destination that separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay.
The band played six nights a week, four hours a night, for 11 consecutive weeks. “If you talk about the 10,000 hours you need to become an expert, there they are,” Rife says.
Recalling those summers, Rife says band members lived together in a farmhouse in the country—“a little commune thing”—and during the day would hike, swim, go sailing, or join clients on their big yachts.
When Rife moved to New Jersey, he gathered the best musicians he could find and in 1984 formed Jerry Rife’s Rhythm Kings. “They are all alive and are fantastic musicians,” he says. “I’m so lucky to stand next to them because they make me sound good.”
Rife’s daughter, Whitney, 33, definitely got the music gene, although she works professionally as a marketer in Philadelphia. At age 3, Whitney, referring to a neighbor who was taking piano lessons from her mother, told Rife’s wife, “I’m going to take my piano lesson today. My name will be Katie.”
Then Whitney proceeded to go outside and rang the bell. When Leslie said, “Whitney, come in,” Whitney insisted she was Katie, and wouldn’t come back in until her mother said, “Katie, come in.”
For Whitney, that started piano lessons with her mother that continued through high school. Rife also taught Whitney to play the clarinet. But when Whitney went to college and was asked whether she would be a music major, Rife recalls her saying, “Are you kidding? I’ve seen what a music major can do.”
Life has treated Rife well. “I am happy in Ewing; I have my Blawenburg Band family, deep ties with Rider, wonderful musicians to make music with, and great neighbors,” he says.
But a big surprise really put the cherry on top of his contented retirement. He got a call from the father of two children who had taken clarinet lessons from him, inviting Rife to be a lifetime Bell Fellow at the John Bell Institute for the Foundations of Physics, which he was forming in Croatia. The idea was that Rife, along with a guitarist, “be the face of culture” at an institute of internationally known physicists and mathematicians.
Rife thought that call “would be the end of it”—until he got emails inviting him to the first meeting. He flew first class to Zagreb, all expenses paid, and stayed at the Hotel Esplanade, which hosted travels on the Orient Express. He and the guitarist played in the Esplanade dining room and, Rife recalls, “The physicists were blown away,” Rife recalls.
His lifetime appointment means he can visit the new institute building on the island of Hvar off the coast of Croatia any time and is also paid a yearly stipend. Rife says, “I thought when I retired, ‘I won’t be going to Europe anymore.’ Life is so exciting. You just stand still with your ears and eyes open, and it just presents itself. It’s a beautiful thing!”