Farewell, Bob McQuillen

We note with sadness the passing of legendary piano player Bob McQuillen yesterday, February 4, 2014. Two days previously he had a massive stroke from which he could not recover.

Bob was 90 years old and for at least 60 of those years filled the world with the pithy essence of New England contra dance piano and accordion. His playing had such great dynamism, clarity and infectious joy. ‘Mac’ as he was affectionately known by his hundreds of students, music friends and contra dance fans was a featured faculty performer at Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in 1984 with the notable contra dance band of his, New England Traditon with April Limber on fiddle. Their effect on the Seattle dance scene was electric.

Word had already gone out around New England: if Mac was on the piano you knew the music would be good that night. He had returned from a stint with the Marines to the contra dance revival led by Ralph Page, a fine caller and bandleader of the 40s and 50s. He hired Mac to play accordion initially. Mac moved onto piano and after a bit began to compose or as he would quip, “decompose” tunes. He wrote them down in solfege initially, transferred them by hand to ink and paper and named many of the nearly 2000 of them for musicians, students, or friends, he never ran out of those.

Bob continued to appear at Fiddle Tunes, twice with Seattle band The Rhythm Rollers, and made an annual visit to the Folklife Festival. Because of his spirit and generosity he spanned the last generation of musicians to the current one, influencing many younger musicians. He spurned royalties, special privileges, and big fusses. If you wanted to play or record his tune, he gave it to you.

In 2002 McQuillen was honored with a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was Mac’s musicianship and huge heart that captured everyone who danced, heard, or played with him. As a friend and mentor of mine he welcomed me and made time to play with me back when I knew six tunes and he was that way with everybody who loved his playing and could withstand his large repertoire of corny jokes. He remained positive throughout his long life and we are so lucky to have had him and his legacy of great tunes.

~ Cathie Whitesides


Donations in memory of Mr. McQuillen can be made here, in support of The Bob McQuillen Fiddle Tunes Scholarship Fund.

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