Woog's World: Music takes local violinist around the world

It was the schools, and Westport’s open, accepting atmosphere, that brought Heather Hardy’s parents here from New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1967.

But it was pure coincidence that the Woods Grove Road home they bought was right next door to the Westport School of Music.

The sounds of piano lessons were irresistible. In 1971 — when she was 6 years old — Heather had her first lesson.

She fell in love with the instrument. Her mother had played a bit. Her father was not musical, but he was creative in another way. An award-winning medical illustrator, Neil Hardy became an important part of Westport’s thriving arts colony.

In fourth grade at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall, and just around the corner from Woods Grove), Heather was introduced to the violin.

It was a turning point in her life.

She continued to study piano under the tutelage of Richard Gregor, an “amazing musician” and the head of Westport School of Music. But violin had a hold on her too, one she can’t shake even today, more than half a century later.

Heather played all through Bedford Junior High. At Staples High she joined the orchestra, chamber orchestra, and Players’ pit. She also sang with Orphenians. Her private violin teacher, Richard Errante, gave her a “killer foundation” in the instrument.

Heather thrived at Staples. After graduation in 1983, she entered the Manhattan School of Music. She continued piano, but concentrated on violin. “It suited me better,” she says. “I liked working with other people in an orchestra.”

Tendinitis in her wrist forced her to take a leave of absence, but she kept playing, this time in New York subways. Always a classical violinist, she now began improvising. The switch involved a “different brain,” she says. Many classical musicians can’t improvise; they feel every note must be “perfect.” She embraced the challenge.

Subway stations are places of “human heartbreak,” Heather says. They have “sad colors.” Many riders walked right by, as if she did not exist. But others stopped, listened and enjoyed her music. For them, and her, the subways were “pure joy.”

Heather met a network of musicians on the platforms (her favorite station was 14th Street; her favorite line, the L). They supported each other and sometimes played together. It was an opportunity to learn, and she seized it.

Heather also played in a Led Zeppelin cover band and a punk rock group called The False Prophets. That group toured throughout North America and Europe. At the same time — “like so many other people in the ’80s,” she says — she began using drugs.

A substance abuse program in Tucson helped her get clean. During her time there, people who knew she was a musician told her she had to meet Sam Taylor. A blues artist and songwriter who worked with Otis Redding, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, Sam and Dave and the Isley Brothers, he’d come to Tucson for the same reason she had.

When Heather finished the program, she called him up. They met, they jammed, and he asked her to join his band.

Heather had been a B.B. King fan, but she’d never known how to play music like that on her violin.

No matter. Sam mentored her well. “Blues is an honest music,” she explains. “It can make you feel heartache, or good. It suited my personality, and me. I found my niche. I felt comfortable.”

The violin is not a blues instrument, but Heather says, “it can be used in any way. I never wanted to be a ‘blues violinist’ or a ‘punk violinist.’ I wanted to play music on my violin.”

For more than 30 years, she’s done exactly that. She did it first with Sam Taylor — a man who “played from the heart,” and whose songs “got you right in your gut.” She sang too, at Sam’s insistence.

He nicknamed her Lil’ Mama. After he died, Heather formed the Lil’ Mama Band, and they’ve recorded and toured around the world. She just returned from Norway, where she played and sang backup vocals in Norwegian.

She loves Tucson. “It’s the new Austin,” she says. “The quality of music here is insane.”

But she returns often to New York to record, and her mother still lives in Westport in the same Woods Grove home Heather grew up in.

Last month, Heather was back in town and gave a free concert at the Senior Center. Her dad had been active there; her mom still is.

Music has taken Heather Hardy around the world. Metaphorically, she has journeyed from classical to punk to the blues.

Yet none of it might have happened, if not for a happy accident: growing up next door to the Westport School of Music.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.