Wes Nagy was blessed with some chops.
That’s what he told me one afternoon a couple of weeks ago as we sat chatting in one of the offices at Grace Church. “Chops …” I contemplated before I asked. “What are chops?”
He jumped out of his seat and shifted to another one in front of a piano by the window. “I’ll show you,” he said, and his fingers glided over the keys with striking power and effortless precision. My jaw dropped.
Wes Nagy is a rock star, and you get that by just looking at him. His hair is long, and he wears it in a ponytail. He has a gold hoop earring in his left ear, and wears a leather jacket with silver buttons down the front. You look at him and think, “Now this guy’s been places.”
Nagy was 6 years old when his piano teacher ran out of things to teach him. “She told my mom, ‘Your son is better than me at this point,’” he said.
Nagy played in the Cleveland Orchestra until he was around 14 years old, and then taught himself trumpet and joined the Army band. He left the service and studied electrical engineering for a semester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before enrolling at Berklee College of Music, where he started connecting with some “heavy cats.”
A roommate at Berklee led Nagy to a band on Martha’s Vineyard looking for a keyboard player. He visited the Island in 1977 and met Alex Taylor, whom he’d end up playing with on and off for the next 13 years.
Through Taylor, Nagy connected with big names like Lou Rawls, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Bo Diddley. He toured with Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, met Bruce Springsteen, and performed at a Pink Floyd laser show. He moved to NYC and dabbled on Broadway, playing keyboard for touring shows like “Dreamgirls” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“There’s moments you remember that are absolutely spectacular. Playing at Madison Square Garden, or at an Olympic stadium for over 200,000 people. It was insane. I’ve been friggin’ lucky,” Nagy said, knocking on wood.
By the early ’90s, Nagy developed a particularly bad case of carpal tunnel, and took a break from touring. He had enough college credits to get into a master’s program for film scoring at the University of Southern California in 1995. He moved up the ranks, and started writing and producing music for TV shows like “Drew Carey,” “West Wing,” “Felicity,” and “Spin City.” He learned from famous composers like David Raksin, who wrote the score for the 1944 film “Laura.”
“There was always this rivalry between L.A. and NYC,” Nagy said. “I always thought New York was awesome, but Southern California handed me my ass in a basket.” He wrote music in L.A. for a number of years, moving at a pace you wouldn’t believe.
“I averaged two all-nighters per week during the first seven years I wrote for ‘West Wing,’” he said. “I’d write all day Monday and through the night, record all day Tuesday and through the night, and hand everything to the music editor to air on Wednesday.”
Nagy and his former wife spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard and winters in L.A. until health issues brought them back to the Island year-round. “This is my home, my center. My energy lives here,” Nagy said.
His work pace has slowed down, but not by much. He’s picked up other hobbies. Nagy has a part-time construction business called Turtle Tongue Construction. “I love working with my hands and doing woodwork,” he said. “I also love playing with my big tractor. It’s like the world’s biggest video game.” He said he’s Bill Murray’s “guy,” caretaking his summer property on Squibnocket. Nagy also spends his time fishing, practicing yoga, playing golf, and of course, making music.
For the past 10 years, Nagy has been the music director at Grace Church. He’s gearing up for the choir’s annual Handel’s “Messiah” performance on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 8 pm at the Old Whaling Church. Nagy is also busy performing with Island musicians like Rick and Jerry Marotta, Johnny Hoy, and Willy Mason. “I think music keeps you young; I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” he said.
Nagy describes his life as bizarrely strange and blessed, and a gift he doesn’t take for granted. In fact, he’s seen the light a few times. His heart stopped in a friend’s kitchen, he was run over by a truck in a motorcycle accident, and in March 2007, he fell through the ice while saving two dogs at Long Point Pond. “These experiences really change your perspective,” he said. “I gained a new respect for nature and spirituality. I learned how to stop and appreciate things. It was a game changer.”
He said community support and group prayer played a huge role in his healing and recovery after falling through the ice in 2007. After one year, he was walking again. “There’s some higher power looking out for me,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Brushes with the white light also brought Nagy closer to music. “I can play and cry because I become overwhelmed,” he said. “That never happened before. I play much more deeply than I once did. There’s an emotional aspect. It’s weird how these experiences changed the way I relate to music.”
Nagy is a firm believer in karma, and tries to do right every day. He has an appreciation for the small things, and wonders if anything is more beautiful than a Menemsha sunset, or the dead calm after a heavy snowstorm.
“I could die tomorrow and be completely happy with my life,” he said. “I’ve done everything I’ve ever really wanted to do. Except have a kid, that’s the one thing I would do.”
A conversation with Nagy is a conversation about gratitude, simplicity, and the power of music — a conversation that’s a blessing on its own.