Jan August, famed pianist and former Forest Hills resident
A clipping of "Miracle of Jan August," 1948, Long Island Daily Press.
Forest Hills is historically home to a diverse mix of notables residents, including a Renaissance man by the name of Jan August, who was born Jan Augustoff in 1904.
He was a self-taught pianist who had a touch for merging Classical with Latin rhythms, and founded Jan August and his Rhythm Section. “Malaguena” and “Babalu” were among his most integral recordings, and he played in popular New York City spots including the Strand, Capitol, and Roxy Theatres,
In 1957, he played at Forest Hills High School, guest-starring with the Queens Symphony Orchestra.
He even performed “Misirlou” in honor of President Harry Truman in 1947. Today, his legacy is preserved through his remarkable contributions in the music world, and also through his daughter, a longtime teacher and production director, Maxine August Lindfors of Forest Hills.
August was born on the Lower East Side to middle-class immigrants, and was one of five children. His parents considered fulfilling his request for music lessons, but his older siblings having previously training with minimal results shattered those intentions. That was when his brother decided to teach him a basic left-hand chord on the piano.
“My father would run down to the local movies which had silent films and a piano,” said Lindfors. “He would then come home and repeat it on the family piano. He was a genius at five years of age with no formal training.”
After years of scratching out a living playing piano, as well as saxophone, xylophone, and vibraphone, his chance at stardom finally arrived.
“He was playing piano in a Greenwich village restaurant in 1947 when Irving Gwirtz, the owner of Diamond Records, was told to listen to him play,” Lindfors recalled. “When he played 'Misirlou,' he invited him to his table and wrote on the tablecloth for him to record for Diamond Records.”
After signing an official contract, he recorded “Misirlou” and “Babalu” on a 78rpm record. He was paid approximately $35.
“It skyrocketed instantaneously to number one, and my parents took us to Times Square where we could hear 'Misirlou' from every boom box,” said Lindfors. “It quickly generated three million in record sales. As of 1951, sales numbered eight million.
Living with a father as a a celebrity can lead to many intriguing encounters.
“The Lone Ranger approached him in Texas, saying my father was his favorite pianist,” Lindfors said. “He played the Strand Theatre with singer Guy Mitchell, who came into my father’s dressing room. We told him we loved to jitterbug to his songs, so he grabbed my sister Carol and said ‘I will show you how we jitterbug in California.’ My sister Phyllis and I were so jealous!”
But celebrity life can also pose challenges to family life. August’s manager was his wife.
“While they traveled, we had a live-in housekeeper and were sent to sleepaway camp,” Lindfors said. “At home, he was in a world of his own, always in the music room rehearsing with my mother.”
On the plus side, harmonious sounds would extend beyond the music room, which was situated over the garage. “Mothers would bring their baby carriages to the garage entrance, talk, and rock their babies to the music overhead,” she said.
When the sisters refused sleepaway camp on eyear, they went on their first family vacation, coinciding with August headlining at Miami’s Olympia Theater. At the rehearsal, he was unaware that his family was in the last row, which is when Lindfors came to a realization about her father.
“In the middle of a song, he crashed both of his hands over the keys and yelled ‘Who did that?’ After a short silence, one band member said ‘Sorry Jan, that was me,’” she said. “His ears were so sensitive that he could select one missed note from a band member. We just assumed everybody’s father was a piano player, never realizing how famous he was.”
During that trip, August took his family to famed Miami restaurant Park Avenue.
“The head waiter was in such awe of my father coming to his restaurant, he assigned a waiter for each of us and they stood two feet behind us,” Lindfors said. “When I asked for whipped cream, my waiter left and returned with a bucket of fresh whipped cream.”
Not much of a fan of rock and roll as it ascended in the 1960s, August retired from music. He and his wife moved to Lane Towers at 107-40 Queens Boulevard, and they presumably became the first tenants. That was preceded by a home in Kew Gardens and later Brooklyn. August died in 1976.
Artistic talents were passed down a generation. At age 11, Lindfors began drawing flowers and fruit at the Art Students League of New York. Her career as a 6th grade teacher spanned 38 years, and on the streets of Forest Hills, students continue to talk to her about her time at PS 220 and JHS 157.
She directed PS 220’s afterschool theatre program, as well as musical productions while classes were in session in both schools. “My students never forgot the part they played,” she said.
When asked what distinguishes her father’s music, she replied, “One’s mind cannot keep up with the speed of his fingers, and his signature was a series of melodies in the very high treble.
“No one could ever figure out how he did it, except Roger Williams, who also recorded 'Misirlou' with that special fingering,” she added. “He gave tribute to my father on the back of an album cover by writing ‘Misirlou, as played by Jan August.’”