Instructor Dick Demers of Lewiston has taught hundreds of drummers throughout his career of more than 50 years.

But when Steve Grover first walked into his studio, Demers knew immediately that the 9-year-old from Mechanic Falls was special.

“He started taking lessons from me in 1965,” Demers said. “After his first lesson, I left the studio, went back in and talked to my wife and said, ‘I just started a 9-year-old. The kid is so smart, he acts like he was a senior in high school.’

“He was just a bright kid, and I knew he was going somewhere,” Demers said. 

It wasn’t long before that bright kid — as a high school student — was sitting in with Brad Terry and other Maine jazz greats during Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the former Warehouse Restaurant in downtown Lewiston.

Grover, 60, one of the most influential jazz musicians from Maine, died of cancer Thursday, July 7, in Augusta. Tributes have poured in from throughout the region, mourning Grover’s death and celebrating his contributions to music.

Those contributions include winning the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz/BMI Jazz Composers Competition in 1994 for “Blackbird Suite,” a set of songs based on the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” In addition to being an accomplished musician and composer, Grover was an influential teacher who inspired thousands of musicians.

“I heard his former students who came to visit him at the hospital,” said his brother, Ralph Grover. “It was just one after another, telling how much he (had) impacted their lives. One person said, ‘You have been the single largest influence on my life.’ That seemed to be a pretty common theme with his students.”

“Steve was a gifted musician — drummer, pianist and composer,” said Frank Mauceri, senior lecturer of music at Bowdoin College. “He was a very dedicated teacher. A large number of music professionals in the region had Steve as a teacher at one time or another. Also the Maine jazz camp, he was instrumental in running that for a number of years. He led UMA’s jazz band that would tour high schools in the area and introduce students to jazz.”

“He could be the funniest person in the world,” Terry said. “He started out as a drummer and ended up as a major league composer and piano player. I had enormous respect for him and I feel really honored to have recorded a CD with him.”

Grover was born in Lewiston on Feb. 26, 1956, and graduated from Edward Little High School in 1974. His love of The Beatles, especially Ringo Starr, influenced his decision to become a drummer, according to his brother, Ralph.

In an interview earlier this year with Charlie Gaylord of WBLM, Grover talked about his attraction to jazz at a young age.

“Through osmosis from working with (Demers) and my own curiosity, I became interested in jazz,” Grover said. “In those days, the ’60s and ’70s, I think there was more of a relationship with popular music and jazz than there is now.

“When I heard the real thing like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I felt I was already primed for it,” he said. “It didn’t seemed that unfamiliar to me. By the time I was a teenager, I was pretty deeply into it.”

It was during his teenage years that he met Terry, who would become a lifelong jazz colleague and friend. During his jam sessions at the Warehouse in the early ’70s, Terry would invite kids to sit in and play with the leading jazz players in the region. He remembers Grover politely asking if he could sit in on drums.  

“He then patiently waited for an invitation,” Terry said. “He’d be waiting all week to play his two tunes. It was only about three years later that I received a national endowment grant to do tunes in school. I tapped him to be my drumming mate. It was the start of a remarkable friendship.”

When he won the Thelonious Monk award, “Blackbird Suite” received a special performance at Lincoln Center in New York, Demers said. Sitting at Grover’s table for the performance were dignitaries like Vice President Al Gore and musician Herbie Hancock. 

As talented a musician as Grover was, his role as a teacher gave him great joy. He enjoyed working with all levels of talent. As long as the student was committed, Grover would “be there all night,” Terry said.

“He had an indelible impact on the development of young musicians for decades in Maine,” Mauceri said. “It was clear that he was someone who had really given his life to music.”

Friends and colleagues are planning to celebrate his life with a concert on Aug. 14 at 5 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.

“He touched a lot of people’s lives through the years,” Demers said. “I’m going to miss him terribly.”

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