Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpA jazz maestro who honed his rhythms in Arlington found himself coming full circle last month at the Washington Golf and Country Club.

Lennie Cuje, a revered vibraphonist who was raised in Nazi Germany but grew up to perform at special events for three U.S. presidents, spoke May 19th at the Host Lions Club luncheon. The last time he had enjoyed that spectacular view of the D.C. skyline, the 82-year-old noted, was a 1956 performance for the Rotary Club.

The luminary modestly spun tales of his encounters with Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Larry Coryell.
Cuje (the name is Belgian French) was born to musical parents in Giessen, Germany, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. His mother was an opera singer, his father a pianist and symphony conductor, so as a child he found himself in elite Nazi music schools for piano, voice and trumpet.

“I was nine years old in 1942 when I was required to join Hitler Youth,” Cuje said, which meant an oath of being “born to die for Germany” at the height of World War II. By age 12, he was drafted by the SS, training with an “MG-42 machine gun and 100 rounds of wooden ammo,” he recalls.

In April 1945, he became a prisoner of the French and spent two weeks in a convent with kind nuns. In a displaced persons camp, he got his first taste of the strange music called jazz—which he took to be African but learned was American. It became his “music of freedom.”

An aunt at the U.S. Justice Department brought Cuje to the States in the late 1940s, where he settled in the East Falls Church neighborhood. By now a solid English speaker, Cuje enrolled as a junior at Washington-Lee High School, graduating in 1952 with Shirley MacLaine. At the prom at the Shoreham Hotel, Cuje and a buddy brought dates who were black, and, as expected, were turned away; they spent the evening at jazz clubs.

Summoned to the Air Force, he traveled to New Mexico in an atomic unit for the Korean War. Back in Arlington in 1956, he worked for Moser’s Pharmacy in Clarendon. It was the pharmacist who moved him to Johnson City, Tenn., with the business, with Cuje enrolling at East Tennessee State to study harmony, theory and counterpoint.

“I was one of the few whites on the chitlin circuit,” he said, which became an issue when he performed in Washington’s U Street clubs. In New York City, he played for more than a decade with jazz’s best, but became a drug addict. By 1979, “I left all my vices behind, except for women,” said the thrice-married Cuje.

He entered homebuilding. With help from Arlington Cultural and Social Services, he brought music to schools. Soon he was performing with the Navy Jazz band at the Kennedy Center.

He played inaugurations and campaign concerts for George H.W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. But hauling his vibraphone in three large pieces was exhausting, he said, and, with Secret Service rules, preparation involved “six hours to play one tune.”

Today Cuje is semi-retired, living near the Lee-Harrison Shopping Center, performing as he chooses in a much-changed Arlington. As he told the Lions, “The county club is bigger than it used to be.”

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The county board’s frugality push continued May 19, when it voted 3-2 to sell off the long-empty, century-plus-old Reeves farm house. That disappointed some historic preservationists and gardening enthusiasts in the Bluemont Park area.

I recently heard a recollection from Jesse Meeks, my old Yorktown High School football coach, who spent the 1950s through ‘70s managing the nearby Dominion Hills swimming club. “Mr. Reeves’ cows were frequent visitors to my front yard,” he said.

The board drew criticism for what some regard as a rushed decision (one that followed 14 years of county ownership of Reevesland, the last six seeking a renovation partner). But the coming division of lots and sale will protect two acres for the gardens and task any new private owner with preserving the rough-edged home’s integrity.