Published June 14, 2020 in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
A true gentleman and renowned educator finished his journey on this earth Thursday, June 11, 2020, when James Caldwell Carlsen passed away peacefully at the age of 93 at the Odd Fellows Home in Walla Walla. He was Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Washington, from which he retired in 1992.
James was born February 11, 1927, into a farming family in Sunnyside, Washington, the youngest of three children. He learned early the value of hard work; his father once said he was the fastest asparagus cutter he knew. Even in the midst of the Depression, his parents bartered farm produce with the local music teacher so James could study violin. Later in high school, he and some friends formed a gospel vocal quartet, touring up and down the west coast and performing on the radio at home. Drafted into the army after high school, James was sent with the occupation forces to Japan. While there, he immersed himself in Japanese culture, learning to speak and read the language.
On his discharge, with the aid of the GI Bill (and a promise to give more attention to his academic work than he did in high school!), he entered Whitworth College as a music major, the first of his family to attend college. One day while wandering the music building he heard Debussy’s “Pagodas” coming from one of the practice rooms. It reminded him of his time in Japan, so he went in to see who was playing. The talented woman at the piano was named Mary Baird. They went out. Within three weeks they were engaged. Married at the end of their junior year, they celebrated their 64th anniversary in 2013, just two months before Mary’s death.
James started teaching at Almira High School in the middle of Washington state, later took a position in Portland, Oregon for a year, then embarked on his college teaching career with a return to Whitworth. A successful band conductor in each of these positions, he also founded and directed the Spokane Symphonic Band and was the choir director at Millwood Presbyterian Church where Mary was the organist.
With the aid of a Danforth Foundation grant, James and the family (by now with four young children) moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Evanston, Illinois, for two years while he worked on his Ph.D. at Northwestern University. His dissertation, on a new method of programmed instruction for learning music, was later published as “Melodic Perception,” a text that found its way into many college classrooms.
His doctoral work led James away from conducting to research in the areas of music education, perception, and cognition, first in a position at the University of Connecticut. As founder and director of the systematic musicology program at the University of Washington, he mentored many students who went on to become leaders in the field themselves. He lectured and did research, often with foundation grants, in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Hungary, Bulgaria, Argentina, and Japan, where he was sponsored by the Japanese government. He was active in the International Society for Music Education and served as editor of professional journals.
On retirement, James pursued a new interest in silversmithing, applying to his study the same meticulous care and research that characterized his teaching career. He loved the challenges of design and engineering, crafting beautiful pieces that often involved creative solutions to jewelry-making problems.
James was known for his humility, his sense of humor, his generous support for others, and his commitment to family and friends. Outgoing, with a love of laughter, he engaged fully with everyone he met, and never seemed to forget a name. He cared about thoughtful conversation, honest and ethical behavior, and the unique qualities he discovered in each of us. Much loved by those who knew him, he will be sorely missed.
Dr. James Carlsen is survived by his children, Philip Carlsen and his wife Jeri Theriault (South Portland, ME), Douglas Carlsen and his wife Mary Cleveland (Walla Walla), Susan Carlsen (Eugene, OR), and Kris Frost and her husband Chuck Frost (Fowler, CA); his grandchildren, Koren Vining and her husband Michael (Denver, Colorado), Darrel Frost (New York, NY), Melsen Carlsburg and his wife Nicole (Boston, MA), and Eric Carlsen and his wife Melanie (Maynard, MA); and great-grandsons, Max and Colton Vining, and Miles Carlsen.
The family requests that donations be made in James’s memory to the Walla Walla Symphony, where he served on the board, or to a charity of the donor’s choice.