Byron Janis has a charming laugh. Maria Cooper Janis loves her husband. As a couple, the Janises are warm and inviting. I was privileged to spend 2.5 hours with Mr. and Mrs. Janis on Thursday afternoon following their appearance on a local radio show in Washington, DC. to discuss their new book, Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life Through Music and the Paranormal (J.Wiley, 2010), which contains Byron Janis’ memoirs.
Byron Janis, the classical pianist of world acclaim, continues to perform and compose music after 80 years at the keyboard, after developing psoriatic arthritis in 1973, and after joint surgery in 1990 which left him with a shortened left thumb.
- “We learned that they could have done the procedure two different ways which would not have resulted in a shortened thumb,” says Maria Cooper Janis, artist, wife of concert pianist Byron Janis, and daughter of Gary Cooper.
The unspeakable rage which Byron felt upon this discovery is unimaginable. But despite the challenges of pain and arthritis, recovery from five surgeries, and a bout of severe depression, Byron Janis states that he has spent only 2 to 2.5 years (collectively) away from the keyboard throughout his career. That is impressive regardless of illness as Byron performed his Carnegie Hall debut 63 years ago at the youthful age of 20.
As spokesperson and Ambassador of the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation since 1984, Byron performs at fundraisers and speaks to children living with arthritis and other disorders about following your dreams. It is apparent that encouraging children has become one of Byron’s passions.
- “Anybody who loses the child in him has a less interesting, pitiful life. Because all the great artists I’ve known - I’ve known Picasso, painters, all kinds of people - they are children. They grow up, mature, whatever. But the child remains,” says Byron Janis, concert pianist and composer.
Byron: “In 1973 I was in London recording and developed a little patch on my fourth finger that was very painful and didn’t go away. I couldn’t understand what it was cause usually those things go away but this didn’t. It was very slightly swollen. Of course playing would exacerbate the problem because the key hitting [the finger] would make it worse.
So I went to a doctor and it took a long time for him to tell me what it was. He told me what I had was psoriatic arthritis. I asked what exactly is that and his remark was enough to send me to bed for a month. He said, ‘It doesn’t get any better.’ That was his remark, and of course it didn’t. Eventually it went to all my fingers. The joints, the so-called last joints or distal joints, on all my fingers were inflamed. I sort of learned when I was playing which finger was less inflamed than the other one and I would change fingering on stage to compensate for the difficulty.