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Golfer Vincent Johnson, Nike's Eric Lautenbach are musicians, too

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Pro golfer Vincent Johnson and Nike senior director of college basketball sports marketing Eric Lautenbach share of love for the piano as well as sports.Sports and music often intertwine, and when done right, the results can be splendid.

That’s the way it was on July 25 with Michael Allen Harrison’s “Ten Grands on the Green” at The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club.

Harrison is a pianist extraordinaire and a golf aficionado, so gathering some of the country’s premier piano artists on stage at a golf course as a fundraiser for music education in Northwest schools represented a personal synergy.

But the tie to sports was even stronger than that.

Trail Blazers broadcasting icon Bill Schonely served as master of ceremonies, and the 86-year-old Schonz even sang, quite appropriately, “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

Sports people also may have recognized two of the artists or musical groups tickling the ivories — pro golfer Vincent Johnson and Eric Lautenbach, the former George Fox University basketball player who has served as senior director of college basketball sports marketing at Nike since 2000.

Harrison’s goal for his “Ten Grand” series is to provide a blend of big names in the piano world with others who can more than carry a tune.

“We always weave in a community aspect, whether with young people or folks who are under the radar,” says Harrison, a Parkrose High graduate. “These are people who play music in a very professional way, but it’s not their profession.”

With 2,500 spectators gathered around on a pleasant summer evening, Johnson and Lautenbach more than held their own with solo performances that enhanced the show.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Vincent Johnson, from David Douglas High and Oregon State, tees off in the 2012 Umpqua Bank Challenge Golf Tournament.“Ten Grands” was something very new for Johnson, a Southeast Portland kid who grew up on the golf course at Glendoveer and was playing piano to the largest audience of his life.

“I couldn’t look at the crowd, or I’d forget what my name is,” jokes Johnson, 29, a David Douglas High and Oregon State graduate. “But it was a really good experience ... just an awesome spectacle.”

Pro golf has been Johnson’s career, though it’s been a struggle. For seven years, he has played mini-tours and regional pro tournaments with only minimal success.

“This last offseason, I was at the point where I was ready to transition into something else,” Johnson says. “I haven’t made it yet. It’s so hard to stay on the mini-tours this long. Anyone I know who came out (as a pro) when I did, they’re either on tour or they’re not playing anymore. Funds are such a hard thing to come up with.

“I’ve not had any kind of stretch of golf that I know I’m capable of. I’m trying to keep the faith alive. I have a lot of people who have been supporting me, which has helped keep me pushing forward.”

Last October, Johnson attended a fundraiser with Oregon pro Brian Henninger that turned out well. With help from friends and supporters, Johnson organized a fundraiser in March at Oregon Golf Club, designed to help him with travel expenses on tour.

“We had a 70-degree day, and it couldn’t have gone better,” Johnson says. “About 140 people played in the golf event, and we had a dinner afterward. We raised more than $40,000. I didn’t think we could come close to a number like that.”

Local broadcasting legend Paul Linnman, who served as emcee, suggested that to spruce up the affair, music be featured at the dinner. Linnman is friends with Harrison and asked him to play, and Harrison obliged.

“To have him play, it’d be like asking Brian Henninger to do a golf exhibition,” Johnson says. “Michael was so gracious to show up. He had no connection with me, but a connection with music. It was the coolest thing.”

But Linnman invited Harrison on the condition that Johnson play the piano at his fundraiser, too. Johnson had played a couple of weddings, but nothing in front of a large group of people.

“Vincent played a solo piece,” Harrison says, “and he played it beautifully. He has a great touch. He was just wonderful, plus he was a heck of a nice guy.”

After the event, Harrison asked Johnson to be a part of “Ten Grands on the Green.”

“I said, ‘We’ll have a pro golfer on a golf course, and use the golf and music together and have you play a beautiful solo,’” Harrison says. “And he did. The crowd absolutely loved him.”

Johnson began piano lessons at age 6 — “I loved playing Christmas carols,” he says — and has stuck with it, but not with primary focus.

“With golf, other sports and school, piano was always third or fourth,” Johnson says. “I enjoyed it. I played it OK. If it had really clicked for me and I had been really proficient, I’d probably have put more into it. But with sports and friends and school, I liked it, but not as much as the other things. There are only so many hours to the day.”

Johnson performed in the state high school competition three of his four years at David Douglas, “but I was squeezing it in,” he says. Since then, his time with the piano has been sporadic.

“I probably practice an hour a week, maybe a little more,” Johnson says. “I might not touch a piano for two months, then I’ll sit down and play for six or seven hours. That only gets you so far.

“As I was getting closer to (his fundraiser) performance and before the ‘Ten Grands’ show, though, I practiced the piano more than I did golf that week. I love practicing, trying to improve. You have these little breakthroughs and it’s like, ‘There it is!’”

Johnson had a surprise at the “Ten Grands.” His mother, Marguerite, drove to Rockaway to pick up Winnie Mercer, Vincent’s piano teacher as a boy. They watched him perform together.

Mercer “is in her 80s now,” he says. “To have her there was a really nice moment. It made it all come together.”

Johnson draws parallels between golf and piano.

“Physically, piano is a little easier, but with either one, it’s challenging to do well,” he says. “With both, once you learn your strengths and put your time in, you get better. With the piano, are you willing to be alone for five hours a day for a lifetime? Some people are, and they do great at it.”

The 5-8, 160-pound Johnson leaves on Sept. 8 for a crack at European Qualifying School with boyhood friend and former Oregon State teammate Nick Chianello, a two-time Oregon Amateur champion. They’ll attempt to gain their European Tour cards together.

Johnson doesn’t have a piano at his Portland home, but his mother does, and he’ll be using it when he gets back.

“I sent a note to Michael” after the “Ten Grands” show, Johnson says. “It was such a great opportunity, meeting him and seeing how passionate he is. He has that ‘it’ thing. You can’t describe it, but when you run into it, it hits you like a hurricane. The presence he has, just being around him, has inspired me to have music continue to be a part of my life.”

Lautenbach is a much more experienced, accomplished piano player than Johnson. He has five albums to his credit and, in 2005, was nominated for a Dove Award (the Gospel Grammys) for best instrumental record of the year (“Songs of December”). He has played store openings and in front of crowds, but it’s fair to call “Ten Grands” the gig of his life.

“I’ve been called out of a crowd at a concert to play in front of more people, but I’ve not had a moment like that, that I owned,” says Lautenbach, 49. “It was really exciting, but I was a little anxious. You want to play well. It’s a naked feeling when you’re playing an instrument and there’s nothing to hide behind. But it was very invigorating, and an honor to be thought of by Michael to be good enough to do it.”

Lautenbach’s first experience with the piano was something less than a success. His introduction was arranged by his mother, Maurine, who comes from a family of pianists and singers in the church.

“Took a few lessons as a third-grader,” Lautenbach says. “Never practiced. Every session was a nightmare. The teacher should have kicked me out. It was a failed experiment.”

Lautenbach was a jock, a fine basketball player who starred at Sunset High and was a three-year starting small forward at George Fox from 1984-88. The 6-6 Lautenbach considered himself on a path to pro basketball in Europe until he suffered a serious knee injury as a college junior. “That changed everything,” he says.

During his college years, Lautenbach’s interest in music heightened. It led him back to the piano.

“I took one music class my entire four years,” he says. “If there were one thing I could do over about college, it would be doing more with music.

“But I’d sneak into Bauman Auditorium — wouldn’t tell my teammates where I was going — and bring my Walkman. I’d sit by the piano and listen to Chicago or Lionel Ritchie and pick the notes out. I was drawn to doing that. I started honing a craft.”

Once he graduated, “I could play songs,” he says. It was all by ear. His parents had a piano, and he would occasionally practice.

“I had no musical mentor,” Lautenbach says. “I can’t read music. Now when I look at music, I can read chord charts, but if I don’t know the song and have to read the music, I can’t do it. I have to teach myself naturally.”

Meanwhile, Lautenbach had begun his career at Nike, first as a customer service representative under eventual company President Charlie Denson, “a great mentor,” he says.

Soon Lautenbach was running the college basketball department, servicing major programs throughout the country, influencing product design and building relationships with players and coaches. All the while, his interest in the piano was building, too.

In 1990, his wife, Deanna, bought him three lessons with Harrison.

“But it was never ‘lessons,’” Lautenbach says. “I never sat with Michael and got a book, and this week worked on that, and came back the next week. He is such an unbelievable human being. Very kind, very generous. He saw something in me.

“We struck up a friendship. I would schedule something with him. I’d watch him play. It was a mentorship more than (Harrison being) a piano teacher. And I got better.”

Lautenbach began to compose songs. In 1996, he played one for Harrison, who proceeded to help him put together his first record.

“Ten of my compositions and one of his songs, all-instrumental,” Lautenbach says. “I’d love to do that record with what I know now. I had no concept of production and beat and rhythm and all those things. But I’m super proud of it. It meant the world to me.”

In 2004, Lautenbach built a recording studio in the back of his house by Westview High. He had made contacts with professionals throughout the country and began to visit Nashville, leading up to his second record.

“I was truly exposed to all the genres and styles of making music that weren’t in Michael’s wheelhouse,” Lautenbach says. “They loved that I worked at Nike. I loved that they worked in music. I was feeding their soul; they were feeding mine. We started collaborating.”

Lautenbach has made some money selling albums, but his avocation is a labor of love.

“I’m liberated from ever needing to pay a single bill with music money, but it’s a meal for my soul,” he says. “When I travel for Nike and I’m gone 10 days and I haven’t played the piano, my hands feel different.

“I don’t end up playing every day, but I play when I can. I have a TV in my studio, and with the TV on mute, I’ll watch SportsCenter or a game with a keyboard in front of me. I might write. I wouldn’t call it practicing; I’m messing. I’m playing along with things. It makes my heart race. It makes my palms sweat. I get goose bumps hearing something I wrote become bigger.

“There are pros who listen to me and say, ‘You play with soul.’ I’ve had a lot of very-trained people say they wish they weren’t trained. I think 11 years of lessons can make people not want to play.”

Lautenbach has Harrison’s respect.

“He’s not like a trained classical guy; he’s more of a pop, new-age type of pianist,” Harrison says. “He has really good technique, but Eric’s greatest strength is his writing. He writes beautiful music with great melodies. And with his own studio, he has developed into a great programmer and engineer.”

Lautenbach has a grand piano in his house, but finds he spends more time in his studio.

“My main area is centered around a console that has a keyboard and gear and a TV,” he says. “There are a lot of songs I’ve written while I’m watching the Masters or the NBA finals or SportsCenter with the TV on mute.”

Lautenbach already has his 50th birthday bash planned for next May in his backyard.

“I’m going to bring in professional, world-class musicians and we’re going to do a show,” he says.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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