The extraordinary life of the Estonian cellist Jüri Täht.
A true story of persistence. Losing one’s homeland to Communists and seeing the horrors of World War II could not stop one determined man from fulfilling his heart’s desire.
The cellist was a long-time Don Shirley Trio member; however, this book is not about the trio, focusing instead on Jüri’s life and historic background.
Exceptional news of the Russian Invasion.
When 91-year-old World War II refugee Jüri turned on his TV on the morning of February 24th, instead of festive Estonian Independence Day celebrations, he saw a video of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He felt light-headed and if he hadn’t already been seated in a wheelchair, he would have lost his balance. Not in a million years would he have imagined seeing Russia attacking a free country again.
Especially distressing was the fact that it happened on his motherland’s independence day. Estonia is only a tiny nation of 1.3 million people located right next to Russia, and without the protection of NATO, it would be easy prey, he thought. For many of his compatriots, this day took on an additional meaning – independence shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Jüri saw his life flashing before his eyes. In 1941, when he had to escape the Russians and leave Estonia behind, he was ten years old – the same age as his grandson is today. He experienced the destruction of the war and witnessed people suffering. He lost his motherland to communists for nearly 50 years.
Estonia was closed to him during that period and it suffered greatly under the communist regime. He had to start all over again in a new country, unable to return. The feeling of being homeless has accompanied him his whole life.
The fear of the Russians catching him was planted deep into his consciousness and thus he even didn’t have the courage to visit Estonia before it regained independence in 1991. Finally, in the twilight of his life (2015), he returned to the country where he was born.
And now, in 2022, when the threat to the autonomy of the Baltic States has been the gravest since the countries regained their independence, he would be too old to leave his homeland behind once more.
The Early Years and Education.
Jüri Täht was born on 26 May 1930, in the city of Tartu, Estonia (As the English alphabet does not contain the letters ü and ä, after emigrating to the United States his name was changed to Juri Taht). He knew already at the age of six that he wanted to become a professional cellist. He was considered a musical prodigy with perfect pitch but his dreams were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. No matter the difficult life circumstances, he still pursued his dream.
After the war, he studied at the State University for Music Stuttgart (Staatliche Hochschule für Musik) in Germany, though he left for America and his studies were not completed. He graduated from Dana College, in Nebraska, in 1952, with a Bachelor of Arts degree and received his Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music, in New York City, in 1958.
A career outside the Don Shirley Trio.
He was a long-time member of the Don Shirley Trio and travelled across almost the entirety of the United States in the framework of concert tours and performed on big stages all over the land with the trio. More about it can be found here. Still, he had a career outside the trio.
He played in the Radio City Music Hall symphony orchestra and had the honour of playing in the accompanying ensembles for Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Paul Anka. He also had a successful career in Broadway orchestras, being a regarded substitute.
Although luck was on his side (many of his friends said he was born under a lucky star), a big role in his success was played by his unwavering and decisive personality—once he made up his mind, nobody could make him change it—and profound love for the instrument: his willingness to practice, learn and grow as a cellist. It was a combination that brought him success in his professional career.
After the professional musician’s career, he worked for the Voice of America. In his retirement years, he was in charge of a foundation that issues scholarships to young achieving students in Estonia.
The Don Shirley Trio. Juri Taht, Kenneth Fricker and Donald Shirley.
Picture by Al Frederic.