Music: A Language of Compassion
“They called themselves the Velvetones…like velvet,” said my mother, Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59, as she reminisced over her 1958 photo of my father, David Van Nostrand ’58, singing with Herbie Hancock ’60 and two other students at the piano. Dave was a biology major enthusiastically singing in vocal ensembles and listening to jazz LPs, and Herbie was spending every possible moment at the piano and studying jazz. Over the years, my family religiously listened to every new Herbie Hancock release with pride, but it took me half a lifetime to discover that the photo captures one of the most precious moments in our family’s lore.
A clue surfaced in 1989 when my boyfriend (now husband) Byron Ricks ’87 mentioned Dave to Herbie after a concert in Philadelphia. Herbie said, “Ah yes, Bun and Dave!” (my mother’s nickname was Bunny).
More than 20 years later, Herbie performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. I contacted his agent with news of my father’s passing (November 2014) and was granted two backstage passes. When he saw my daughter Julia and me, he said again, “Ah, Bun and Dave!” Then I showed him the picture. “We were best friends,” he said. Though their paths had taken them in different directions — Dave had gone on to be a surgeon and humanitarian (and much more), and Herbie a 14-time Grammy Award winning jazz pianist, UNESCO Ambassador (and much more) — their Grinnell experience had created a lifelong bond.
Herbie was even more generous this past March (2018) when he told Byron, Julia, and me backstage in Seattle, “All you need to say is ‘Dave Van Nostrand,’ and you are in.” This turned me into a family ambassador. I expressed gratitude for the way his creativity continues to influence my family, and for his collaborations that bring people together around the world. In turn, he gave us his undivided attention on everything from my work in music to Julia’s electronic compositions. He impressed me with, “We had a group! What was the name of it again…something like the Mellotones?”
I finally asked my mother to reach deeper into her memory. “It seems there was a piano near the dining hall, and they would hang out at it and run through a few numbers, perhaps after waiting tables together,” she recalled.
As the story goes, she transferred to the University of Iowa, and told Dave that she would accept his South Younker pin if he were serious — pinning being a symbol of true devotion. This gave Dave something to think about. Meanwhile, the romantic twist inspired Herbie to arrange a couple of songs for them. Upon a return visit, she recalls hearing the Velvetones harmonize on “How Can I Tell Her” by the Four Freshman, and an improvised number by Herbie which he introduced as, “This one is for Bun and Dave!”
They were pinned, had a marriage that lasted 54 years, and three musical daughters, the oldest one being jazz pianist Laura Caviani.
This memory grew sweeter and more precious with time, the meaning crisper in retelling. It formed the foundation of a friendship that mattered — regardless of status, profession, or time. Herbie and Dave delighted in not only finding another fellow who could simply swing an eighth note, but in sharing the universal language of music, a strong and creative form of compassion for their unknown futures.
Photo from left to right: Herbie Hancock ’60, Janice Pearson ’58, David Van Nostrand ’58, and (we think) Anne Moore ’59. Photo from the collection of Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59.