“There is no House of Cards, in my opinion, without Jeff Beal,” says Beau Willimon. “Just like there’s no House of Cards without Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright. He is one of the intrinsic, key elements to the show that makes it what it is.”
Willimon says that now, three seasons into the series, he hears Jeff Beal’s music as he writes. Beal even (inadvertently) helped him solve a plot quandary in season 2: Willimon couldn’t figure out how to get Vice President Frank Underwood and his adversary Raymond Tusk into the same room without anyone noticing. Beal mentioned that he wanted to incorporate some operatic vocals into the score for season 2, and Willimon suddenly realized he could stage the clandestine rendezvous in the bowels of an opera house during a performance of Puccini.
“His music has gotten into my bones at this point,” Willimon says.
Those operatic vocals, as previously mentioned, come courtesy of Beal’s wife, Joan.
Jeff and Joan met as college students at the Eastman School of Music. Jeff was studying trumpet and composition in the jazz program, and Joan was a vocalist. Music has always been a constant in their lives—Joan’s dad was a high school band director and a trumpeter himself.
“Freud would have a field day,” she laughs. “It’s a big joke in our family, because Jeff is so much like my late father. He’s loving and warm and funny…and a trumpet player. The first time I heard him play, I was just completely floored. I’d never heard such a young musician have such a mature voice. He knew who he was at 18. It just blew me away.”
Their courtship was driven by and saturated with music, and in their 30 years of marriage they’ve built a life around it. Their 20-year-old son, Henry, is studying jazz and bass performance at the University of North Texas.
“This is what I love about my dad,” says Henry. “He just doesn’t really push me one way or the other. I could be doing whatever career and they’ll be totally supportive. They’re great parents like that, you know? It just worked out that I ended up loving music.”
Joan and Henry are important players in Beal’s homemade music-making on House of Cards. He jokes that they’re the Von Trapps, and there is a sweetness and simplicity to the arrangement. But there is a marked professionalism, too. Joan is a classically trained, veteran soprano with a versatile and dynamic set of pipes, and Henry didn’t start getting asked to play until he proved he was ready.
“We agreed that it would be a bad idea to have me playing on stuff just ’cause, ‘Oh, you’re my son,’” Henry says. “It was more an issue of, ‘Okay, you’re a musician I would actually call to play this.’”
Listen to Jeff and Henry playing together in the Beal home.
Recording the House of Cards string ensemble (and everything else) in the parlor of Beal’s house, rather than in a recording studio, has several benefits for both Beal and his players—sonically, logistically, and psychologically. “It feels like home,” says Joan. “The whole idea of coming to someone’s home and making music, and having homemade hummus and a cup of coffee and a laugh, and petting the dog… it makes it something warm and personal, and less like a job. More like family. And I think that’s something Jeff enjoys.”
Family and a healthy work/home balance became even more important to Beal when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago (he was in his ’40s). The MS manifested itself in fatigue, cognitive fog, and a tingling throughout one side of his body. Henry’s reaction was one of “protective apathy.” “I didn’t want to think about it,” he admits. “I just kind of tuned out, which was not a good response at all.” Joan got angry. “It was a complete shock for someone as active and physically fit as Jeff,” she says. “And his diagnosis was not good. It was really dismal. I took it personally… I could not let this beautiful brain be destroyed by this disease.”
She voraciously read everything she could on MS, and zeroed in on a possible vascular connection. Beal’s jugular veins were treated with venoplasty, and they began a regimen of whole foods, regular exercise, and meditation. “And thank God,” she says, “in [the] almost eight years since he’s been diagnosed, he’s had no progression—and a reversal of brain atrophy. So now his brain on MRI looks normal. Which is unheard of.”
Beal still takes naps during the day and looks to reduce stress however he can—which seems bizarre when you think of the demands of his one-man-band duties on House of Cards alone, not to mention the other shows, documentaries, and concert works he’s been composing. It helps to be removed from the mad pace of Hollywood out in Agoura Hills, and to have every step of the process contained within a small, tight orbit. He says one of the reasons he does everything himself on House of Cards is to regulate his work pace, and to do things on his own terms. “I get a lot of energy and a lot of joy from making music and being creative,” he says. “But I’m also very careful to minimize the unnecessary stress in the process for me. And that’s really been fun to realize that I can still do what I love, and create a stress-reduced way of doing it.”
But the other reason is that he thinks of himself as a “music maker” and not just a composer. “I’m a believer in personalizing the work as much as I can,” he says. “I think that’s part of the reason I love working the way I do. I never wanted to be so comfortable in the thick of the fast lane of the mainstream that I felt like I was killing off that part of music making to me which feels very personal, very private.”
Being a music man may actually have played a crucial part in Jeff Beal’s incredible healing. “There’s a way in which the brain is constantly rewiring and plastic,” he says. “And that’s very important with people with MS. I know that, for me, in the right amount, doing what I love as a musician is incredibly healthy in a sense, because I’m just every day exercising that muscle. Most of my lesions were actually in the corpus callosum, which is the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres. It also happens to be the most active part of the brain in music making.
“You can’t take credit for this stuff. It’s the power of the subconscious mind, in a way. A lot of what I try to do is not even think about that. Just live my life and not worry about it, you know. The less I focus on the disease, and the more I focus on just being a person and doing my thing, the better off I probably am.”
Beal looks back at a realization he and Joan had during a trip to France early in their marriage. “We were visiting this chapel that Matisse did in the city of Vence,” he says. “It’s a beautiful chapel, and we were just in this beautiful part of the world and seeing where these artists lived. And we just had this epiphany, like: ‘You know what? You can be an artist by living in a garret and being miserable and suffering, and being an alcoholic. But you can do great art from a place of joy, too. And that can be a completely valid way to live.’ That was always sort of our totem. That’s the kind of life we want to have.”
Deepest thanks to Jeff, Joan, and Henry Beal for their time and openness, and to Beau Willimon.