My first sighting of Jess Anderson was in 1971. It was late afternoon, and a group of us were gathered together at a birthday party for a man I happened to be dating at the time. In the middle of the room was Jess, sitting at a grand piano, passionately playing a Beethoven sonata. The only thing that could have possibly distracted me from my focus on Jess -- and, believe me, I was mesmerized -- was the sight of my boyfriend descending the staircase in full drag. But that's another story.
Jess has been one of the most significant people in my life, and I would like to share with you why he is such an extraordinary man. Jess has been a prominent member of the Madison community since he first arrived. While a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had been hired as a research applications programmer by a high-energy physics consortium named MURA. He remained with MURA when the project relocated to Madison in 1956.
In 1965, MURA moved again, to create the National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in northern Illinois. The University of Wisconsin purchased MURA's Madison facilities, creating the Physical Sciences Laboratory (PSL), which retained Jess as a software programmer. In 1969 he joined the campus academic computing effort (now known as the Division of Information Technology) as a technical writer and network engineer, until his retirement in 1999.
Self-supporting since he was 16, Jess worked full-time while in college, at UIUC from 1953-1956 and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1957-1968, majoring in music, mathematics, philosophy, art history and Russian. He received a BA in Russian in 1963, and did graduate work in Slavic Literatures and French from 1963-1968, serving as a Teaching Assistant in Russian language and literature.
In the early 1970s, Jess was a pioneering member and supporter of the newly-emerging gay organizations in Madison, including the Gay Liberation Front, which was devoted to political action, as well as the Gay Center, a meeting place on Johnson and N. Hamilton streets.
He continues to be an active member of the LGBT community. His personal web site (www.jessanderson.org) includes discussions about gay life in Madison. He also oversees the Soc.Motss Document Collection (www.soc-motss.org), a lesbian and gay internet discussion group that has been in existence since 1983.
Jess is at once a musician, a poet, a literary scholar, a reviewer of musical events, a computer genius, and those of you who know him know that, among many other things, his hobbies -- not necessarily in this order -- include model airplanes and flight simulators, model trains, racing bikes, motorcycles, photography, submarines, camping (outside, that is), working out, and, of course, computers, and, of course, loving men -- although I'm not quite sure that that fits under the category of "hobbies".
Although I first heard him playing Beethoven on the piano, his real love is the harpsichord, and in 1973 Rutkowski and Robinette in New York City built for him one of the most undeniably beautiful harpsichords ever made. He best describes it on his website as "a late-French double, with a sumptuous Louis XVI case of inlaid mahoganies, satinwood, and ebony, replete with considerable gilding. The egg-tempera paintings on the soundboard are absolutely spectacular. Splendid would be a massive understatement. [Sound like Jess?!] Most important of all, it is a fine-sounding musical instrument." He would readily play you some Bach or Couperin if you were to stop by his recently-remodeled, warm and inviting home on Stevens Street where he has lived for the past 41 years. I have had the privilege of commanding private performances when I'm in town, but I have also heard Jess play in public. I particularly remember Jess's debut recital at the Elvehjem Museum of Art (now the Chazen) in April of 1974, which featured soprano Bettina Bjorksten. The recital, which launched the series that was to become "Sunday Afternoon Live at the Elvehjem" on public radio, was attended by 1600 people. By the way, Jess studied with Bjorksten, with Rudolph Kolisch, the violinist and founder of the famed Kolisch Quartet and then leader of the Pro Arte Quartet, and with the amazing pianist-composer, Gunnar Johansen, all former and noted members of the UW music faculty. There was also the famous road trip in July of 1974 which involved transporting the precious harpsichord to the Kranert Art Center in Indianapolis where Jess performed in Bach's D minor Triple Concerto at a festival directed by Igor Kipnis.
Over the past forty-five years Jess -- who is always reinventing himself -- has also been involved in the cultural life of the University and the larger Madison community as a radio announcer, a critic and a patron. He was an announcer for the local listener-sponsored WORT-FM from 1977-1988, and I would imagine that those of you who were living in Madison during that time woke up to Jess's "Classical Omelette" show which aired 9:00 AM-to-noon every Sunday.
He was also a music critic/writer -- first for Press Connection and then for Isthmus from 1972 to 2001 (see his Madison Music Reviews website). He wrote reviews about every musical organization in town, groups that he still supports with enthusiasm, from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Opera, to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the Pro Arte Quartet, the Wisconsin Union Theater Concert Series and School of Music events. He even traveled to New York in 1999 to cover the premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby at The Metropolitan Opera.
I was fortunate when my own opera, Tight-Rope, was premiered in Madison in 1985, and Jess was at hand to not only design the libretto written by Henry Butler, but also to write pre-production articles and post-production reviews of the work -- favorable, I must say. It's nice to know the critic!
Jess is one of my best and closest friends, and he continues to be a mentor and source of inspiration and support, musically and humanistically. I am delighted that the Wisconsin Alumni Association has identified Jess Anderson at this particular moment with the distinction of receiving one of this year's GLBT Distinguished Alumni Awards, and it gives me great pleasure to present Jess to you.
-- Chester Biscardi, July 17, 2005