Riverhead lost a piece of its musical legacy when beloved resident Edna Vail passed away on December 15 at 98.
Vail, who owned Ninow’s Music on West Main Street in Riverhead with her son Ralph, has long been instrumental in bringing music to the area for decades.
Ninow’s Music was founded by Otto Ninow and his wife Lisa in 1956, Ralph Vail said. Vail’s mother, Edna Vail, known as “Edde,” played accordion with Ninow in a wedding band, and taught piano lessons in her pupil’s homes. The Ninows wanted to open a store and asked her to start teaching there, Vail said.
“He was in a concentration camp and music saved his life,” Vail said of the store’s founder.
Vail’s mother bought the store about 10 years after it opened; he sold the building a couple of years ago, but remained there as a tenant. “The store meant everything to her,” Vail said.
Over the past nine years, however, Vail was his mother’s primary caretaker; she was paralyzed from a stroke in 2006 and suffered from dementia.
“Once in a while we can get her over to the piano and she plays with one finger,” he told RiverheadLOCAL in 2013. “She still loves it.”
Born in Brooklyn on April 27, 1916 to Adelaide, nee Bunce, and William Louis Harrer, Edde lived in Riverhead for 82 years.
Her son said she brought music to generations of students, teaching piano, guitar — and breaking barriers as one of the first female accordion players. She also worked as the church organist, he said.
Looking back on his mother’s rich life, Vail said Edde played in many bands for weddings and graduations parties. In addition to Ninow, she also played with Riverhead High School band teacher Howard Hovey, well-known for his tuba prowess.
“She had many other interests — she was multi-talented — but music was her number one love,” Vail said.
While playing piano for a dance studio in Jamesport, Vail said his mother also earned a reputation as a skilled seamstress, sewing outfits for the performances.
His mother, Vail said, had wanderlust in her heart and loved to travel. Over the years, Vail and his mom went to visit his aunt, uncle, and cousins in Florida.
Vail recalled the many trips he took with his mother, sharing experiences and making memories. “Once I got my driver’s license and new car, I told her I’d like to drive to California and she said, ‘Let’s go!'” he said.
Vail said he and his mother shared a very close bond.
When his brother Forrest W. Vail — he preferred to be called “Bill” — married a Japanese woman, Vail and his mother traveled first to California to meet her; the family spent a month exploring Disneyland, Death Valley and Palm Springs. “We did it all,” he said. “I was blessed.”
Vail and his mother visited Alaska, Hawaii, and all 50 states, as well as every national park.
Sadly, Vail’s brother died at 37, leaving behind four children.
After his death, Vail and his mother won a trip through a music company and traveled to Hong Kong and Japan, to meet his brother’s wife’s family.
“In Japan, my mother was already in her late 60s, but she was a trouper. Her legs hurt but she climbed every temple step.”
Remembering his mother, Vail said one word comes to mind: “Love. Love for music, love for her students.”
His mother, Vail said, was also an “early women’s libber” something he takes credit for. “My mother was an accordionist and she played in a band. One time a woman from Southampton called and asked if I knew the name of an accordionist and I said ‘Mrs. Vail plays with many bands. I’d recommend her.’ She said, ‘Don’t you have a man? I don’t picture a woman playing the accordion.’ That was such a surprise to me, because it had always seemed so natural. She’d played all her life, going out on Saturday nights.”
His mother, Vail said, first met Ninow at the Hotel Perkins. “Back in the day, that was the place to go,” he said. “She was playing in a band and when she was on a break, she went to see what other band was on. She introduced herself to Mr. Ninow, and he said, ‘Would you be interested in playing with my band? My accordionist wants to retire.'”
Later, his mother got a call to work a square dance on Shelter Island, where the caller wasn’t available. After reaching out to everyone she knew, Edde called Ninow, who remembered her from the Hotel Perkins. “She said, ‘I’m desperate. Do you know a square dance caller?’ He said, ‘I can do that.’ She thought it would be a disaster, with his German accent, but people just loved him.”
Two months later, Ninow made plans to open the music store, asking Edde to teach — and the Vails’ destiny took shape. “That changed the whole course of her life — and therefore, of mine,” Vail said.
Always breaking barriers and ahead of her time, his mom, Vail said, helped his uncle build their house, the house where he still lives. “She got on the roof and nailed shingles,” he said. “She was so proud of this house.”
Edde also loved “sporty, hip cars,” Vail said. Riverhead bass player Stan Wright, who’d met Edde when he was 14, said “the first thing he remembered about her was that she had a Pontiac Trans Am,” according to Vail. “Even when she was 50 or 60, she was proud to get out of a sports car. She was very young thinking.”
Vail said although he has been unable to spend as much time in the store in recent years due to Edde’s illness, every moment spent with her was precious. “She was a great mother. I was happy to take care of her.”
Bob Barta, longtime president of the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall board of directors in Riverhead, said Edde was a legend. “She was very kind, very generous and involved in getting things started for a lot of music educators on the East End.”
Barta recalled Edde’s connection with Otto Ninow, as well as with Westhampton Beach High School music teacher Barbara Cornell, who taught at Ninow’s. “There was this whole connected network of music educators all across the East End and the North Fork,” he said. “She was really an advocate of music education, and of the idea that this was something that was important for kids to learn from a cultural perspective — and, without ever saying it, from the self-discipline aspect. The whole idea of ‘practice, practice, practice’, it developed a focus with her students and was passed on.”
As electronics has shaped the shifting music scene and far fewer students study piano, Barta said the values Edde instilled in her students left a lifetime legacy. “There’s so much positive to be gained from that experience, and that was something she was focused upon. She was ahead of her time.”
Vail’s brother died in 1970; his wife Mieko died in 2010. She was survived by her son Ralph, Forrest’s children Bill, John and Daniel, all of Riverhead, and Mindy Sullivan of Tennessee; and nine great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her two sisters and her brother.
Her family has asked that memorial donations in Edde’s name be made to the Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance or Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead.
All SoutholdLOCAL photos courtesy of Ralph Vail.
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