Sunday Profile: Jack Lanning — a known businessman and bass
When Jack Lanning was growing up in Chicago, where he was born and raised, his mother wanted desperately for him to take singing lessons. At the time, Lanning wanted nothing to do with it.
If you had asked him as a teenager if he thought he would eventually sing with members of the Metropolitan Opera, travel to Germany to be offered three singing contracts or perform among world-class professional singers at the Aspen Music Festival, he may have just laughed. He was quite content playing football and preparing to nurture his entrepreneurial spirit at Northwestern University.
But life rarely works out the way we think it will as teenagers, and Lanning’s is no exception.
A PERSISTENT MOTHER
One cold November day during Jack’s senior year of high school, he was walking home from a particularly tough football practice when he saw the family car coming toward him.
“I thought, ‘That’s nice, I get a ride,’” he said. “And I noticed we weren’t going home. My dad was driving, and I said, ‘Where are we going?’ And my mom said, ‘Oh, we’re going to see Mrs. Bucke.’”
Mrs. Bucke was the singing teacher Lanning’s mother had been pressuring him to see. Now, he was trapped.
“So I went and met this woman,” he said. “I sang ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ or something like that. And when I finished, she said, ‘You sound like a combination of Vaughn Monroe and somebody else,’ and I said, ‘Oh, c’mon, I sound better than them.’ No, I didn’t say that. But I did say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be a potbellied opera singer anyway,’ and she said, ‘What makes you think you’re good enough?’ And I like challenges. She was a smart cookie.”
A few months went by, and during Lanning’s last semester of high school, Mrs. Bucke called him and asked him to join a quartet she was putting together. He thought it sounded like it could be fun. It wasn’t like singing lessons; he was going to get paid.
When he met the other three singers, he couldn’t believe how good they were — especially the baritone and first tenor.
“After a few rehearsals, I thought, ‘I should take some lessons and learn more about this,’” he said. “And that’s how I got into it. I never told anybody, none of my friends. My best friend now, I didn’t tell him in high school. When I got to college, it was different.”
IN THE NAVY
After graduating from Northwestern with a bachelor of science and spending a significant amount of time in theater and speech classes, Lanning was accepted into Navy Officer Candidate School (OCS). He served for more than three years and spent part of his time as a navigator bombadier on a carrier-based nuclear bomber and another part as a commanding officer at a Chinese nationalist air base in Tainan, Taiwan.
Even his time in the Navy played some part in his path to singing. The experience itself was one of the most formative of his life, especially relating to his later business career, but it also created a strong connection to the Broadway musical “South Pacific,” which tells a story set in World War II.
“I related to that story so much because of my naval experience and because it was written for a bass voice,” Lanning said. “There’s hardly anything written for my voice on Broadway — smaller roles, but hardly anything like that where the old guy gets this beautiful young woman. It’s kind of fun. I’ve done the role in a couple of productions.”
COMING TO COLORADO
After the Navy, Lanning returned to Chicago to find work and study voice again. He worked for a major photographic and audiovisual manufacturer as a sales and management trainee, a job that took him all over the country. His first territory was Denver, and he traveled through the Rocky Mountain states: half of Montana, all of Wyoming, the western Dakotas, all of Colorado and western Kansas and Nebraska.
He continued to sing when he could during this time. He studied with a teacher at the University of Denver who kept telling Lanning about a voice teacher in New York. It turned out Lanning was promoted to regional manager and moved to the East Coast, and his Denver teacher moved to New York at around the same time.
“So I began taking a lesson or two from him again, and he said, ‘You’re beyond me, Jack. I want you to meet Olga [Ryss],’” Lanning said. “So I went to her place with him, and she was a little Russian Jewish woman who absolutely went nuts about my voice because she likes a deep voice. I began studying with her, and that was quite an experience. This gal was something.”
Lanning eventually changed careers to the textbook business, and he was transferred again. He moved to Atlanta, then Dallas, then to the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer of 1972 after hearing about an opportunity to buy the Buick Pontiac GMC dealership in Glenwood. After six months of working for the dealership, he became its owner.
The first half of 1973 was going great, but then the OPEC crisis hit, and big American cars weren’t selling. He lasted about another two years before bringing the first Volkswagon, Porsche and Audi dealership to the valley.
As fate would have it, Lanning ran into Ryss, his New York voice teacher, again during this time because she was working with the Aspen Music Festival and School. He studied with her every summer for the five years he was in the valley in the ‘70s, and he even sang in the Benedict Music Tent alongside world-class singers for the music festival.
In 1977, Lanning sold the dealership and moved back east. He continued taking lessons with Ryss, and he met James Conlon, who was at the time preparing to make his debut as conductor of the Met. Conlon heard Lanning sing and set him up with some coaches and agents in New York City.
“That’s how I got back in the swing, and I studied with people at the Met,” Lanning said. “You stick with people like that, and you start to think, ‘Maybe I can make it.’ But it’s pretty tough. You’ve got to really have the money and the time. It didn’t work out, but I’m not unhappy about it.
“One of my dearest friends is a tenor who sings at the Met. He’s in Santa Fe right now. He’s gone all the time. That’s kind of rough.”
Lanning had a family to think about throughout all of this. He was married twice and had one son from each marriage, both of whom now live on the East Coast. His son Jack played football at Glenwood Springs High School during the beginning of the era of Kevin Flohr, Mike Vidakovich and Bill Bolitho. Lanning’s second wife, Wendy, was one of the biggest reasons Lanning returned to the valley in 2011.
“We came out for a family reunion in 2010,” Lanning said. “My sister had just sold a home they’d been living in, and she said, ‘We’re going to be looking at houses. Do you want to look with us?’ I said, ‘Sure, where?’ and she said, ‘New Castle.’ We went out and saw it, and it looked pretty nice, and my wife wanted to move.”
Lanning ended up buying a unit in a duplex and moving to New Castle in May 2011. A few months later, he became a widower, but he has stayed.
LIFE IN THE VALLEY
Lanning continues to sing in the community, often for private events or with Symphony in the Valley, for which he is a board member.
“When we came out here in May 2011, the symphony was having their Mother’s Day concert,” Lanning said. “So we went to it, and afterward I walked up and introduced myself, and all of a sudden I’m on the board. It’s such a blessing to have, I think, to have that orchestra out here.”
When asked what he likes about living here, Lanning simply says, “Everything.”
“I’ve met some really great people,” he said. “The Rotary Club has been great for me because there are some really fantastic people in there.”
Lanning and local singer Stephanie Askew will be singing together Sunday at the Sopris Historical Society Shindig.
Lanning said, “We’re going to do a little ‘South Pacific.’”
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