BY JEANETTE BENNETT • PHOTOGRAPHY BY KENNETH LINGE
In between photo takes at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, Kurt Bestor looked up from the piano and interviewed me.
“What’s your favorite Christmas song?”
Without hesitation, I said, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”
And so began my private concert by arguably the state’s most
recognized musician — with the most signature hairstyle.
I felt like throwing money in the jar when he finished his feet-tapping rendition of the carol that includes my first name. But instead of coins, my payment will come by way of PR as I count out his life’s harmonies and discords on the next six pages.
Kurt’s musical journey began in Orem, and he’s lived in Utah County all his life except his first seven years in Wisconsin and the past 10 in Salt Lake City.
“Orem was its own little Juilliard for me,” he says as he lists band teachers, composers and piano lessons that still ring true for him.
Although his early career was a bit monotone — his days and nights consisted of music, music, music — he now finds balance by playing squash every morning, working his electronic networks, making YouTube videos with his baby daughter, Ella, and mowing the lawn. But music is still his key signature — even his ring tone is a yodeler.
Now in his 21st year of Christmas concerts along the Wasatch Front, Kurt himself is a holiday tradition. Always the creative one, he adds new songs and stories to his Christmas repertoire each year. And now in this interview, he shares his off-stage holiday happenings, including his theme-based Christmas gift idea. Talk about a hit.
Kurt, here is my concert of words, and it includes your name even more than the song you played for me.
UV: What’s your favorite part of Christmas?
Kurt: This is going to sound a little trite, but I really like the senses of Christmas. I like the smells, the sounds — well, of course I like the sounds! There’s a different feeling for a month before Christmas. People smile more. They go to concerts. It’s the time when a 19-year-old who normally listens to angry music will listen to Christmas music with his 55-year-old parents. It’s a gift of sharing.
UV: What type of gift-giver are you?
Kurt: My wife likes Christmas, but she doesn’t like a month of Christmas. Her country (Kenya) celebrates for like two days. She really detests all the Christmas stuff we do in America, which is ironic because I do Christmas concerts and CDs. For her gifts, I like to go theme-based. Petrina freezes in Utah. So my theme for one Christmas was warmth. I gave her all things that had to do with heat — things that warm the stomach, clothing, gloves. I wrote limericks on the front of every gift to give her a hint of what was inside.
UV: What is your Christmas shopping strategy?
Kurt: I usually do my Christmas shopping in a day and a half. Guys have a bad reputation when it comes to Christmas shopping, and I think it’s bogus. With my theme approach, I don’t need a lot of time — no offense to the gender that does. I may shop with more adrenaline than others, but I find everything I want. I think it’s fun to shop on the 22nd or 23rd. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with couples who do one of those deals where they say, “Let’s not get anything for each other.” That never goes well.
UV: What Christmas memories stand out to you from your past?
Kurt: My most sad and most memorable Christmas was when my brother John, who is four years younger, wanted a banjo. But I don’t think my parents completely thought things through. Christmas came, and my brother saw something shaped like a musical instrument under the tree and assumed it was his banjo. It was actually a guitar for me! This is the whole reason he’s in the FBI and I’m a musician.
UV: What will your schedule be like this Christmas?
Kurt: My last show is on the 20th of December in Wisconsin — just 15 minutes away from where I was born. A lot of my family will be there. Then I will fly to Africa to be with my wife and her family, which we also did last Christmas. It was about 75 or 80 degrees. Kids were jumping on the trampoline on Christmas Day. We had a traditional Christmas meal with figgy pudding and crackers.
UV: How did you meet your wife?
Kurt: She worked on the movie “Out of Africa.” When it was done, Robert Redford bought her a ticket to come to America. She made her way from Los Angeles up to Sundance and ended up getting a job there. I met her three random times through the years. I’m amazed at how many of my life intersections are connected to Sundance. I owe Sundance for my wife and my life — and it’s where I went when I had strife. How’s that for a rhyme?
UV: Speaking of strife, you have been through some challenges publicly. What has that been like?
Kurt: There’s this stereotype that if you don’t look like everyone on the “Families are Forever” sticker that you are scary. Well, I’m taking the “peculiar people” phrase literally. I have an edgier side. I’m sure people wish I didn’t have an earring. They probably wish my hair wasn’t as long. Creative people are creative. I don’t always march in step. I had to stop being a people-pleaser. I went through some tough times. People were writing letters to the editor saying they were never going to buy my CDs again. But I’m just living life. I’m not some perfect guy. I go with my heart and focus on what’s important to me.
UV: And you’re not afraid to speak out on what you believe.
Kurt: Can you really live with yourself if you don’t speak out when you see inequalities? I can’t. Somebody the other day got down on me because I was writing a political op-ed piece about peace. He said, “Why should I listen to what you have to say? You’re a composer! I wouldn’t expect Strom Thurmond to sing!” And I really disagree. I think it’s going to take a creative approach to solve many of today’s issues.
UV: Another primary focus is your three daughters — Kristin and Erika are grown and Ella is a baby. What kind of father are you?
Kurt: Fatherhood is always great, but it’s really a lot of fun when you know who you are — when you are settled and you aren’t worried about getting a job or finishing school. I wouldn’t recommend everyone wait till my age to have a child — becoming a dad again in your 50s is rare — but I’m glad I’m having this experience. Sometimes my older daughters get a little jealous — “You never spent this much time with us.” The truth is, I did spend a lot of time with them. But when they were young it was a manic time. I was starting out, I was finishing school and working for the Osmonds. My baby daughter will get to know her father as someone who is more comfortable in his own skin.
UV: And you’re also a grandpa?
Kurt: I’m a grandpa times two. In fact, one of my grandkids is older than my daughter. Of course, that’s not even newsworthy in Utah.
UV: What is it like for you to be newsworthy in Utah — to be a local celebrity?
Kurt: The whole idea of “celebrity” is pretty goofy. But if I’m a celebrity because I’ve done something of value, then I’ll take that. I have just enough celebrity that I do get recognized, especially in Provo. It’s not like I’m Robert Redford, but people do come up to me. They are usually sweet and nice. Sometimes when I’m feeling grungy while buying potatoes, for example, I think people must go home and say, “I saw Kurt Bestor and he looks like he’s 90 years old.”
UV: Are there advantages to being well known?
Kurt: There’s a little bit of power that comes from people knowing me. The power isn’t for myself, but I can use it to help causes. I do two or three benefit performances each month. For example, in Utah County I donate to the Easter Basket auction with Brent Brown. I contribute to the Alpine Foundation.
UV: And your mom serves on the Alpine Foundation.
Kurt: Both of my parents are really great. My dad is hilarious! My mom isn’t an ad-libber, but if she’s planned out she is funny, too. She and I are writing a book about creativity. She’s written five chapters, and she’s waiting for me to finish my chapters.
UV: How do you determine which causes to align yourself with? I’m sure you get multiple requests every month.
Kurt: We get two or three requests a day. Every cause is a good cause. Somebody needs a kidney. The animal shelter needs something. I feel terrible turning anyone down. My manager said, “For the good of your sanity, let me field those requests.” We pick two or three concerts per month to do for free. It works out to about $200,000 of donations every year. You can’t do everything for money.
UV: What is your philosophy on money?
Kurt: I often say if I could find some rich owner of Novell to pay my bills, I would do everything for free. I just want to make music. Money is obnoxious. I wish I didn’t have to make money with my music. I hate asking for money. I don’t like to talk about it.
UV: One place you do like to talk is online with your blog, Facebook and Twitter. This week, I became one of your nearly 5,000 Facebook friends!
Kurt: Cool! I hit the 5,000 limit yesterday. So I started a sifting process of eliminating some of my “friends.” Sometimes social media feels like being at a high school dance.
UV: I like the videos of you golfing in the snow and playing the trumpet in a swimming pool.
Kurt: I’m going to do more movies like that. Social media is the way people interact.
UV: What are your favorite iPhone apps?
Kurt: I like Shazam. When I hear a song I don’t know, I just hold up the phone and find out the title. I also like Fantasy Lens. (Kurt then snaps a picture of our bald photographer and uses Fantasy Lens to give Kenneth the wild hairdo of Einstein.) This is fun at parties.
UV: Other than using technology, how are you different from what you were like at the beginning of your career?
Kurt: I’m a lot faster, for one thing. I also don’t write music until 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s counterproductive. But when I was first starting I wrote like a maniac. Late nights. All nighters.
UV: What’s your favorite day of the week?
Kurt: Sunday. No deadlines. No concerts. I love reading the paper.
UV: When you look back at your life, do you see chapters?
Kurt: Yes. And every time I have been challenged or scared, it has resulted in something I’m proud of — for example, “The Innovators” CD and “The Prayer of the Children.”
UV: Describe the day of your performances.
Kurt: I used to freak out and be at the performance hall at 8:30 a.m. to setup chairs and sweep the stage. And then I’d practice, practice, practice. Now it works better for me to not do anything like that. I’ll go and sit at the library. I’ll get a scone and tea and relax. At this point I’ve already written and practiced the music, so I’m in a Zen-like state. I trust that I’ll be fine. The only thing I for sure avoid on performance day is skiing.
UV: When you are performing, what is going through your mind?
Kurt: When I’m really into the music, I don’t think — I feel. But of course I’m also thinking through the details of what’s going on with the lights, when do I cue the strings. I’m thinking of what I’m going to say before the next song. I don’t say the same things at all of the performances. I also don’t want to do too much speaking because people come to hear music. But I want to explain the experiences behind the song. So I’ll say, “I was in the mountains, and I had this feeling and here’s what it sounds like.” I want people to feel like we’re all friends. I want them to relax.
UV: Are you relaxed?
Kurt: I am now. I’ve realized that when I screw up on stage — which sometimes happens in a big way — it can be turned into a choice moment. I might even stop completely and do a timeout. It puts people at ease, and we laugh. It’s almost a bit of a moniker I wear — I’m not a class clown, but I’m light-hearted. And I don’t always have a filter on what I say. At times I make fun of our local culture, and some people are uncomfortable. I’m a musical Robert Kirby.
UV: What kinds of things do you say?
Kurt: I was in St. George and said I wanted to dedicate my next song “What Child Is This?” to Colorado City. I get in trouble when I do stuff like that. Lately I’ve been more outspoken politically. I was a delegate for Obama. Some people ask, “Kurt, aren’t you worried about offending people?” And I just tell them that I’m being honest. I’m not just a composer when I’m in concert. I compose and create ideas in other arenas. My wife is English and very prim and proper, and some people think I’m a wild man.
UV: Speaking of wild, take me through your hair routine.
Kurt: My hair routine? It’s funny that my hair gets so much attention. I didn’t sit down and consciously try to find a hairdo. It just feels more creative to have my hair a little longer. I don’t want to have an accountant haircut. There’s also part of me that’s a little rebellious. It seems that around here, there is this belief that if you have a clean-cut hair style you are more desirable. My hair is still clean — it’s just long and clean.
UV: How do you feel when you see your friends and neighbors head off to conservative, steady jobs at Novell or Wells Fargo?
Kurt: I never covet anybody else’s job — unless it’s the guy who works at Baskin Robbins. The only things I covet are pensions and health insurance. And they have a guaranteed paycheck. Of course, after doing this for three decades, my paycheck is decently guaranteed as well. I have about 1,000 employers — clients who hire me to do work. If one guy fires me, I still have 999 other people who might need my services. If my friends get fired, they don’t have that luxury.
UV: How do you decide what to create?
Kurt: It’s not like I sit down and say, “What should I create?” I’m usually on deadline for one project or another — right now it’s 12 minutes of ballroom music for BYU — and that’s what I work on. I sit down, and it’s ready, set, go. I have eight computers all over the place for different musical things. I’m writing music no differently than they did 400 years ago, but I have a groovier pencil.
UV: What new challenges lie ahead for you?
Kurt: I’m working on a television show idea for Discovery Channel that would focus on unique musicians around the world. I feel like it plays on my strengths. I like talking to people, and I enjoy learning about music from everywhere. I am passionate about this idea, and hopefully I’m fun enough to watch that the show will get picked up. It would make me the Indiana Jones of music.
UV: Lastly, how do you feel after the Christmas concert season is over?
Kurt: After I finish my intense concert season, I start thinking, “What if nobody ever comes again?” January is actually a scary time. It’s when I wonder if I’m ever going to have a job again.
UV: I think you’ll have a “job” at Christmas for years to come! Good luck this concert season!
Filed Under: Cover Stories