Tribute to local virtuoso, Bruce Gardiner

At about 3.30pm on November 9, Bruce Gardiner arose from the stool in front of his beloved Shimmel Grand Piano, flicked the tailcoat of his dress suit with the back of his hand, bowed elegantly to his appreciative audience and departed this earthly stage to be reunited with his beloved wife Nell in heaven.

INTO THE SUNSET: East London musician Bruce Gardiner with one of his vintage Cadillacs
Picture: SUPPLIED

Thus one of East London’s and indeed SA’s most accomplished piano keyboard virtuosos now belongs to the ages.

Bruce died peacefully at home a month short of his 89th birthday and leaves behind his medical doctor son, Ivor, daughters Debra and Julia, eight grandchildren, seven great- grandchildren and a multitude of devoted fans throughout the country.

His legacy will be remembered here on the Border for as long as the sound of the great piano classics and lilting keyboard melodies he so flawlessly performed fill the great auditoriums and, more often, the humble church and school halls in which he performed.

Bruce was brought up in an era of music when swing, big bands and jazz were the order of the day and if one listens carefully to his popular music renditions, one can detect the influence of some of the great popular keyboard artists of the time such as Carmen Cavallaro and Dave Brubeck.

He was born in the picturesque little town of Queenstown (now Komani) in the north east part of the Cape to Dr Ivor and Bernadine Gardiner and was schooled at Queen’s College, to which he returned regularly throughout his life to give fundraising concerts for the school and citizens of the town. A severe illness at an early age prevented any meaningful participation in robust sport so his mother, a pianist in her own right, encouraged Bruce to learn to play the piano. He took to it like a duck to water and of course, the rest is history.

As a schoolboy he put his amazing talent to good use by playing at assemblies and at raucous inter-schools rugby matches where he could be found at the keyboard of a honky-tonk piano to the great delight of the crowd.

In those early days, the young Bruce was in great demand too for concerts not only in Queenstown but in the surrounding towns as well.

[His] mother, a pianist in her own right, encouraged Bruce to learn to play the piano. He took to it like a duck to water and of course, the rest is history.

But Bruce Gardiner was not only a performer of the light musical genre, he was a classical pianist of note.

After leaving Queenstown he proceeded to Wits University, where he obtained his music degrees, and then to London where he spent a year acquiring his performer’s licentiate.

Armed with a number of formidable qualifications, Bruce returned to SA and took up a position as head of the music department at the East London Technical College.

In his leisure hours he entertained East Londoners at numerous soirees and at various venues and church halls in the city, often in partnership with long-time friend and a former student Lloy Brent.

A much admired party trick with which Bruce would never fail to wow the audience on musical occasions was to produce a tiny toy piano which he bought at Slater’s Toy Shop in East London, on which he would render impeccable versions of intricate numbers such as tico-tico to the utter amazement and delight of everyone present.

He spent many happy years in East London at this time in his career at his Tainton Avenue home with Nell and his three growing children until Nell fell ill in the early 1970s and the family moved to Cape Town for specialised treatment.

Shortly before the Gardiner family left East London, his friend Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch at the time, unobtrusively solicited donations from the city’s business community to purchase a grand piano for Bruce in recognition of his services to music and education.

On the piano he had inscribed: “To Bruce from the citizens of East London.”

The instrument was presented to Bruce on the last evening of a series of farewell piano recitals at the Guild Theatre. It was still in his home to the day he died and remained a treasured memory for life.

Tragically, Nell succumbed to her illness and in 1976 Bruce took up the position as head of the music department of the University of the Western Cape, where he became a revered member of staff until he retired in 1992.

During his sojourn in Cape Town, Bruce became a South African household name as the featured pianist in the band of Rollo Scott (also a former Queen’s College pupil) on the radio programme Over the Rainbow, broadcast after the 6pm news on a Saturday.

His elegant style and delicate touch enchanted listeners all over the country in the more than 600 shows in which he appeared.

And for more than 30 years he discarded academic formalities when he entertained guests in the beautifully appointed “high tea” lounge in the stately Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town where he chatted merrily with his many admirers while his magical fingers caressed the keyboard with what he called: “the stuff they like best” – a never-ending medley of the great evergreens from way back when.

Bruce became a South African household name as the featured pianist in the band of Rollo Scott on the radio programme Over the Rainbow

And something about Bruce that many people may not know is that he possessed a collection of vintage Cadillac motor cars which were the pride and joy of his life and which he personally serviced and tuned up!

Bruce returned to East London 15 years ago to live in a cottage next to his son and continued until very recently to entertain local audiences and being a highly respected adjudicator for eisteddfods.

Few men can have left his friends with more grace and few can have left them with so many happy memories.

So with incomparable Bruce Gardiner at the piano keyboard suffusing my lounge with lovely old “down memory lane” melodies including the hauntingly beautiful and appropriate evergreen, Ebb Tide, I pen this tribute to a much-loved Border musician.

On behalf of his legion of admirers may I say: “Begone now dear friend and may choirs of angels sing thee to thy rest. May your dear soul rest in peace.”

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