Tacoma native, pianist-composer Norman Durkee spanned genres

The Seattle TimesJanuary 19, 2014 

When Patrick Orton met pianist-composer Norman Durkee in the early 1970s, Durkee said he had to finish writing a review of a new album by Barry Manilow before they could go out to lunch.

“Then he pulls out this .38-caliber pellet gun and starts shooting it,” Orton recalled.

Irreverent, iconoclastic and brilliant, the Tacoma native — known recently as musical director for 15 years of the zany cabaret theater Teatro ZinZanni — died Jan. 12 of a blood infection brought on by complications from a 21/2-year battle with heart disease.

An enormous, imposing man with a gnomish beard and a mischievously creative mind, Durkee was born in Tacoma in 1948. A piano prodigy before graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School (where he sat next to serial killer Ted Bundy in trigonometry), Durkee was head pianist at his church and had performed the “Warsaw Concerto” and written and performed his own symphony for piano and orchestra.

Durkee is survived by his mother, Barbara Durkee; brothers Mark, Alan and Brian; sister Debbie; son Jason; daughter Elektra; and three grandchildren.

A private memorial is scheduled for Monday.

Originally set on becoming a minister, Durkee soon shifted gears to music, winning a scholarship in 1967 to the prestigious Berklee College in Boston. The next year, he came back to the Northwest, where he married contemporary dancer Louise Salisbury.

Over the next four decades, Durkee served as musical director for local productions of “Hair” and “Tommy” (featuring a young Bette Midler); wrote music for experimental films; and created a comic opera for children, “The Magical Marriage,” for Seattle Opera.

He also taught at the Bush School, The Evergreen State College and Cornish College of the Arts; and in the 1980s developed an electroacoustic theatrical form he called “binaural,” in which audience members wore stereo headphones, working at On the Boards with performance artist Ping Chong.

Durkee was adept at all genres, a perfect fit for the Chait-Day agency in Los Angeles, where in the 1970s he wrote music for wiseguy ads for Apple, Honda and Yamaha, among others.

He also wrote ads in Seattle, working at the now-defunct Kaye-Smith studios, where one night he was spontaneously recruited to play on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s megahit, “Takin’ Care of Business.” (Durkee was not delivering pizza, as urban legend has it.)

In 1998, he helped establish ZinZanni’s whimsical flavor, which mixes medicine show hokum with highfalutin European cabaret. His calling card was wit.

“He was about as clever and funny a guy as you ever met,” recalled longtime associate Michael Levin. “Once, we were leaving someplace and somebody was riding in a grocery basket. I’m Jewish and Norman looked at this kid and said, ‘Surfin’ Sephardic.’”

“His big thing was to live now,” said Elektra Durkee. “He didn’t have savings. He didn’t own property.”

When he was flush, Durkee loved to take friends out in his Lincoln Continental for extravagant meals.

“I never saw the guy eat a vegetable,” Levin said. “He never exercised.”

Durkee married three times and was a notorious ladies man.

“He had an amazing way with beautiful young women,” said Levin. “… A lot of his friends (wondered) how does he get these women?”

Yet, said his daughter, he was a great dad.

“We talked for hours,” she said. “He would pick me up after school. We were very close.”

Said his longtime friend and film collaborator Marvin Albert: “He changed everybody he touched.”

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