This is my new way of providing complete liner notes without bulking up the CD packaging. It enables us to keep the prices from increasing and is more ecologically responsible. Also, I am not as constricted in my writing. Hope you enjoy our endeavors in this direction. As always, Anne and I thank you for joining us on our musical journey.
If you wish to save and/or print liner notes they are available as PDF files .
The rag Mystic Memories took over 15 years to complete. I came up with, and primitively wrote out, the B section (second melody you hear) in 1986. While my earliest composition, The Shepherd Glen Rag (1977)—which I wrote in the 6th grade for my Elementary school; it was played on the daily radio show/announcement program that year and for years afterward—was also a rag, I would consider the second section of this piece to be my first serious composition. I had written “tunes” between 1977 and 1986, but they were simple, 32-bar ditties: tuneful, but almost uniformly uninteresting. The first melody of the trio (3rd section, in Eb) came soon after the first. Segue to the year 2003, when I dusted off the B and C sections and first, arrived at the skeleton of the final section while also fleshing out the repeated variation of B that you hear on the recording. Funnily enough, although I’ve heard of this phenomenon from several other composers, it was the A section that took the longest to appear. For a long while I was afraid I had a rag with no beginning. Finally, the linear melody came to me and I was able to complete the piece in time for my recording with Anne (the out-of-print CD, Romances in Ragtime). Since I completed the rag in Mystic, the name seemed appropriate.
The next track is a swinger I came up with in anticipation of a 2009 recording date I had for Arbors Records featuring some great musicians and inspirations. Among them were Bob Wilber, Bucky Pizzarelli, Antti Sarpilla, Nicki Parrott, Nik Payton, Ed Metz and (ahem) Anne Barnhart. While the recording was comprised of primarily Wilber originals, he invited me to submit some compositions as well. Of the two I brought along, he selected Across the Pond—so named for the colloquial way Brits, and those like Bob Wilber who live in England, refer to the Atlantic Ocean—and tweaked a note and a chord before we recorded it (does that mean I should have given him co-composer credit?). Here is its solo piano debut. I especially recall Bucky commenting favorably on the changes. Very nice memory.
I wrote Love’s Journey in one sitting to commemorate Anne’s and my 10th wedding anniversary. I think I was trying to show fealty to the love gods who had allowed my relationship with Anne to last MUCH longer than I’d hoped any romantic relationship would survive in my topsy-turvy world. She is my life’s partner and my steps, large and small, in this corporeal journey are indeed filled with love. Initially intended to be a piano solo I could play for her, the piece came to life when I adapted the melody for Anne to play on flute. I hope for the honor of writing music for her for decades to come.
The name for the following ballad, Morning Fog, came to me 27 years after the melody did! This tune had a long, arduous journey of its own. It began as the sole ballad of a 3-act comedy/musical I wrote in junior high school called “A King’s Home is His Castle.” So although I cite 1987 as the year of this song’s inception, it was really written in 1982-3. I’ve recently gone back to read the manuscript of the play, which almost made it to the stage of Sleeping Giant Junior High, but for my inability to do anything but write, act and direct (lighting? Staging? COSTUMES? Those endeavors are for people with real talent!). It wasn’t bad, really: a bit too hip for the average middle-schooler and WAY to juvenile for any audience much past puberty but, all in all, writing it taught me a great deal at the time and I’m glad I did it. Perhaps the best thing to come out of it was the framework for the tune you hear here.
The tune languished for a few years, then, in 1987, while I was a sophomore at Connecticut College, I was invited to share a concert in Harkness Chapel with a senior who, honestly, had some real chops! His compositions were percussive, jazzy and intimidating. At the last minute, I decided that rather than play other people’s percussive, jazzy pieces (Gershwin’s or Berlin’s for instance), I would simply sit down and start noodling with whatever sprang into my head. I made sure that the tone of my music was in direct contrast to the music the audience had hitherto heard by opting for a lyrical, soft approach. For 30 minutes I played around with one random melody after another—the only non-original tune was a ballad by Leonard Bernstein from “West Side Story” entitled One Hand, One Heart—finished up and went back to my dorm room to listen to the cassette tape I made of the performance. The quality of the recording was poor and, in retrospect I know that the performance was a bit stilted (I really possessed almost NO technique at that time), but, at the end of the day, I had quite a few new tunes that would be used for future projects, including this one. Not bad for a half-hour’s work!
My most recent composition is a tango called Mediterranean Nights. Only about 6 months old at the time of this writing, this piece has proved a favorite with every type of audience. I wrote in a section where I can improvise over the changes so each time I present this piece it morphs into something new. I always enjoy incorporating the element of surprise in my compositions. To affect this, I begin each line of the melody with the same phrase and then take it someplace (hopefully) unexpected.
We return to my college years for the next trio of pieces. The first two melodies were themes included in a suite I composed to accompany a live theatrical reading of the celebrated children’s book Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. My college friend Derron Wood adapted Buscaglia’s book for a performance in Harkness Chapel at Connecticut College. He played the title character, a leaf named Freddie (represented musically by my flowingly naïve, optimistic melody entitled Freddie) who is afraid of dying. As fall approaches and he sees leaves around him turn color and fall from is tree, his anxiety increases. It is up to his friend Daniel, a much wiser leaf, to help Freddie through the process toward the inevitable cessation of life. My theme Daniel is more deliberate and calm to contrast with the faster, more melodic melody representing Freddie. The third theme occurred at the end of the reading, when we released thousands of leaves, slowly at first and then increasing intensity and number, from the attic of the chapel onto the heads of the audience. I’ll never forget how college students and faculty lit up like 6-year old children when they first noticed the multi-colored leaves floating down to them from above. I tried to capture their wonder with As the Leaves Gently Fall.
Wilber Wobble was the rejected tune for my CD project with Bob Wilber. I’m not sure if he objected to the “wobble” bit; while he is in his mid-80’s he still moves around quite well. It’s a stompy, stridey piece so more in line with what people expect from me. I honor one of my heroes, Fats Waller, with the bridge of the tune; he would always compose harmonically straightforward “A” sections for his 32-bar tunes and then write something completely outside for the bridge. I’ve had musicians look goggle-eyed at me after playing through the middle part of the tune. Everyone seems to enjoy it though, Bob W. aside, and so, I hope, will you.
The story behind Aspens on the River takes us to Sun Valley, Idaho. Each year, the Jazz festival in October draws musicians and listeners from around the globe. I had the pleasure of beginning my string of appearances there in 1994 with the Hot Cat Jazz Band so this year marks my 20th anniversary at the festival. The founders of the event, Barbara and her late-husband Tom Hazzard, gave Anne and me our first chance to appear in public as Ivory&Gold® and were always so encouraging to us. We’ll be forever grateful for Tom and Barbara’s vision, kindness and support. To commemorate our love for them, I composed this tango in 2003, and we performed it at that year’s Finale. I’ll always remember Barbara and Tom—he with his forest green smoking jacket—smiling in appreciation as we played their piece for them. One of the immeasurable blessings we have performing music is the chance to meet wonderful people like the Hazzards and so many others around the world. We are truly blessed.
Once the short theme has been stated, Bluff Point Sunset becomes entirely improvisatory. I’ve gone back to listen to its origin as part of the aforementioned concert I performed in 1987 while attending Connecticut College. While the feel is the similar, it might as well be a different piece. It’s interesting what changes 27 years can wrought (and not merely musically!!).
I was working on this next composition for quite some time. It’s another rag, so each section has to somehow make sense with the other sections. As with most of my rags, one section came to me immediately. In this case, it was the final section, which has an anthem-like quality that needed similarly weighty melodies preceding it. Once I received the news that a dear friend of Anne’s and mine, Nan Bostick, had passed away, the rest of the piece arrived in a flood of memories and music. I first met Nan in Savannah, GA in 1994-5 at a ragtime festival. She was working through some piece and cursing up a storm every time she hit a bum note. I recall it was about 3am in the lobby of the hotel in which all the performers were staying and I sat and listened for a couple of minutes. I told her to relax, and Nan would always remind me of my exact words: “The music is in you, lady, you just gotta let it out!” She would tell everyone she met that because I had said that, she started performing and writing and doing shows. When we lost Nan Bostick, we lost a beautiful, feisty, wild woman and my rag reflects her swagger, her dignity, her sense of adventure and my sadness that she has been taken from us. Perhaps when you listen to Remembering Nan, the rag will conjure up your own happy memories of a departed loved one.
Morning Fog #2 is the second take of the melody from the play I wrote in junior high. Excepting the initial theme, this version differs entirely from the initial one. I couldn’t decide which take I preferred so decided to include both here for comparison.
In my senior year at college, I would spend countless hours playing the Steinway grand in Harkness Chapel, usually from about 1 am to dawn. The acoustics are unbelievably good; the chapel is stone, the pews hard wood. Late one night (or early one morning) a tune came to me that I thought had to be played by two flutes—an irony in that at the time the flute was one of my least favorite instruments. Luckily, there were some rather good flutists on campus who were willing to play Riversong and its companion piece, Iberian Glimmers. For this recording, both economics and the fact that I know no one as accomplished as Anne on the flute necessitated that she play both parts (obviously overdubbed). While this means we’ll rarely, if ever, have a chance to perform these two compositions live in the manner I intended, I am so pleased with the outcome of the recorded versions. It took 25 years, but now two originals of which I am most proud are finally on record.
I conclude this collection with my Eagles and Ivories Rag, written to commemorate the 15th anniversary of a charming annual event under the same name in Muscatine, Iowa. Every January, I act as musical director for a ragtime festival in this small mid-western town. In addition to the music, patrons have the opportunity to view the largest congregation of wintering Bald Eagles in the country; the curves in the Mississippi River running through town, and the resultant fast water flow, discourage ice from forming on the water so the birds can fish during all but the very coldest of winters. Speaking of cold, there is very little in the world colder than Muscatine, Iowa in January but the people are so warm and friendly they more than make up for the harsh weather. Come check it out some year for yourself!
Musically, this final rag is the most programmatic of the lot, with the introduction representing the barren, frozen tundra of the edges of the river and the cracking of ice, followed by the main, raggy theme depicting the movement of the eagles. The second theme, in Am, depicts the birds swooping down for their catch and flying back to the trees to consume their prize. The syncopation disappears for the trio section, a sweeping ballad I hope captures the majesty and awe of the winter climate and the eagles at rest or in soaring flight. We return to the first theme, now with even more action and syncopation, a true celebration of the wonders of this world and my gratitude for being a part of it. I am equally grateful for your being a part of my world, faithful listener. I hope you enjoy.
Jeff Barnhart, Mystic, CT
October 9, 2014
THE ENTERTAINER - WINDOWS
THE COMPLETED STORY
Jack paced the small room that housed the controls of his recording studio. He was growing increasingly nervous that the old piano player he was waiting for was going to stand him up. Their agreed upon rendezvous time had arrived and passed over an hour ago and Jack was beginning to think he might have to close up the studio and search some of the old timer’s favorite watering holes.
He couldn’t understand what went wrong. His first recording with Red had gone smoothly, after Red’s initial apprehensions were quelled. Indeed, once Red started recording, it was difficult to get him to stop. The tunes and ideas flowed from him as strongly and tempestuously as a river overflowing its banks. Once Jack compiled the best of the material he contacted Grand Canyon Music, a record company in Phoenix, to put Red’s music out on 78s and distribute the discs to their outlets. So far the reviews had been very enthusiastic and the sales had outperformed anyone’s highest hopes. People were entranced with Red’s playing and were asking for more. So where was he?
Jack walked out to the lobby and grabbed his car keys. Just as he approached the front door, it opened from the outside to reveal a highly inebriated Red, who leaned on the doorjamb, slurring, “Well, where ya goin’, Jack, my boy? I thought we had a date here.”
Jack couldn’t contain his annoyance, exclaiming “Well yes, we did, Red: over an hour ago. You said 10 am was too early to get together, so I agreed to an afternoon session. Has 3 pm become too early as well?”
“No, no, Jack, really, I juss lost track of time. I use to have mora that—time, I mean—before so many people knew me. I’ll be walking down the street and som-un’ I’ve ne’er seen’ll come up and say ‘Hey, Red, man I love your tunes!’ We’ll get to talkin’n all of a sudd’n they’re buyin’ me breakfass or lunch or even a drink or two…”
“Or three or four?” Jack asked with raised eyebrows.
“We-ell, you know,” Red began defensively, squinting at Jack to remain standing, “a guy’s gotta be polite, Jack…”
“Hmm...Red,” Jack began cautiously, “how do you feel right now? It is quite a process to set up the equipment and prepare to capture more of your great music, you know. If you’re feeling like you need a nap or we should postpone until you have a bit more energy…”
“Poss-pone?? Nothin’ doin’, my fine young lad. Let us proceed to the pianah!” Red lurched in the general direction of the studio, tangled his feet up in the carpet and fell face first onto the lobby couch. He made an abortive attempt at rising, slumped down, and seconds later was snoring gape-mouthed.
Jack stood there non-plussed for a moment and then walked dejectedly back to the studio. He had some other projects to edit and clean-up so the day would not be a total waste. He was worried that Red’s small amount of success was changing him, and not for the better. Red was now playing in restaurants and was even being invited to perform in people’s private homes. In addition to his pay, Red eagerly accepted every offer to buy or give him a drink, and there was a lot of drinking going on. As Jack continued working on his back projects, he pondered a solution.
At 5 pm, Jack was finishing putting away his equipment when he heard a terrific crash coming from the studio lobby. He ran into to find Red had fallen over the coffee table in front of the couch acting as his “sleep-it-off” pallet.
“Whuff!” exclaimed Red, “Wha-where am I?” He looked around blearily before resting his red eyes on Jack.
“At the tail end of a drunk it looks to me,” Jack scowled at Red. “I’m closing up shop for the night, Red, so you’ll have to go.”
“Yeah, kid, how’d you know? I do!” Red grunted as he staggered to his feet. “Don’t worry, I remember where the john is.” He weaved down the hall at the back of the lobby, intent on finding relief.
Jack rolled his eyes heavenward and returned to the engineering section of the studio to collect his hat. As he was hunting for his keys he heard the piano in the recording room begin to play. He stopped for a moment to keep his temper and then really tuned in to what he was hearing. Red was playing a march that Jack had heard performed by some of the local Dixieland bands in town. He couldn’t remember the name but there was no mistaking the opening fanfare. He strolled into the recording room and leaned against the doorjamb, hands in his pockets.
Red was sitting bolt upright at the piano, concentrating on his flying fingers, oblivious not only to Jack but to everything around him. Jack could have shouted, set off an alarm, even, so he thought, offered Red a shot of whiskey, and Red would have kept pounding those keys.
When he brought the piece to a virtuosic finish, he swiveled on the stool and looked up at Jack with a bemused expression. “Jack, I know I let you down today. That’s not the way friends treat each other. I wouldn’t blame you for tellin’ me to go blow, but I’m feelin’ real good now and I’d like to play if you’d care to stay.”
Jack was silent for a moment and said, “Well, Red, it’s not like I have a hot date or anything…but I don’t have any hooch for you to swig on as you play.” He raised his eyebrows and looked questioningly at Red.
“We-ell, Jack,” Red squinted at him in a sideways glance, “I guess I could try and play OK with no, a-hem…liquid sustenance.” He adopted a tragic air as he rolled is eyes in Jack’s direction.
“You sounded pretty good just then and not a drop of booze in sight. We’ll see if you can you do actually do that twice.” Jack turned his back, went out of the recording room and shut the sound-proof door leaving Red muttering under his breath, “Li’l whelp!! Do it twice? Did he actually say ‘do it TWICE?’ Hmmph! Wait’ll he hears this!!”
Red waited for Jack to give him the OK sign through the window and launched into his march once again, attacking it with a new fervor, bringing new variations in on top of his old ones, playing the melody with his left hand and his right hand beat out arpeggios and chords, adding chorus after chorus and finally changing key midway through the last time around the tune. When he finished, the sweat was dripping from him and he wearily turned to Jack to see the young man’s upraised thumb telling him this was really a keeper.
Walking into the engineering room, he was greeted by Jack laughing and cheering. “Man,” Jack exclaimed, “I gotta keep getting you all mad. When you’re worked up over something, you’re amazing!!”
Red smirked and said, “I’ve always played good when my mind was gnawing at something and what you said got me so riled I didn’t even know what I was doin’!” He paused. “I do pretty well with a few draws from a bottle too, y’know…”
“Never mind that, Red!” Jack admonished, “Once we’re done here, I’ll be happy to buy you the whole bottle, forget about a few swigs. It’d be nice if you made it last for a couple of days, though.”
A not entirely comfortable silence ensued that Jack broke by saying, “I know that I know the tune you played but I can’t remember the name of it.” He rotated his hand in a small circle, indicating that he wanted Red to share what he knew.
“That piece is not a tune, Jack. It’s a march called High Society. A clarinet player I used to gig with down there in New Orleans took that march…well, really stole it, I guess,” Red chuckled softly, “and made a rag out of it. He learned the piccolo part from the march and played it on his axe. Now whole bands play it and it sounds like a real New Orleans jazz tune, but back then it was ragtime! I’m probably the only guy who does it as a piano solo now, but back then in the Big Easy, any piano player who wanted a job had to be able to cut that piece!”
“It was amazing, Red,” Jack enthused. “Surely back then, even when you were young, you couldn’t keep that pace up all night, could you?”
“Hell, no, Jack!” Red barked, “And the owners of the place didn’t want us to play that fast all night, either! We had to give it some variety so’s the folks would get down to the business of drinkin’ and carousin’; the real reason they were there! Let me demonstrate.”
Red went back into the room with the piano and sat at the keyboard. Jack gave him the OK and he began playing a lilting waltz. Again, Jack recognized the tune, but couldn’t name it. After a short time, Red transitioned into a loping stride, moving out of the waltz rhythm into a foxtrot. As Jack had learned to expect, the music built in intensity to an exciting climax. As he listened to Red finishing up the tune, he thought about how it must have been in Red’s day: the raucous crowd, the beautiful ladies, perhaps a fight or even gunfire over a quickly forgotten dispute. He wished he could experience, say, one night in an environment such as the one he was imagining, but was very glad to be young in the late 1940’s; with the war over, things were looking bright.
Red sauntered into the engineering room with a wry smile on his face. He seemed to have fully recovered from his excesses of the previous evening. “Well, well, Jack,” he began. “I have no idea where that one came from. I remember playin’ it back in the day, but I haven’t gone through that tune in around 20 years. Before you were born, I figure.”
“Too, true, Red, too true. I think I might have an idea what you just played, however. Two weeks ago, I recorded a soprano and it seems to me that one of the melodies on the selection list was very similar to what you just played. Back in a second.”
Jack popped out of his chair and went to a storage closet. He brought back a reel-to-reel tape labeled “Opera Session” with the date of recording. “I’m not sure what the producers want to do with this, if anything,” Jack explained as he sat back in his chair and started to feed the tape into his machine. “Sometimes the sessions sit here for quite a spell before anything is done with them; sometimes they’re never released.”
Red watched over Jack’s shoulder as he threaded the tape and manipulated the knobs and wheels. He marveled at the technology he was seeing. Things seemed to be moving so quickly nowadays, and really had been during the years between the two wars. At first, shortly after the laughably named “War to End All Wars” (until the next one, Red had cynically thought, even back in his young days), Red dismayed about the pioneer recording industry, proclaiming that it would shortly mean the end of work for musicians such as himself. Although he had never recorded before meeting Jack, he had continued to find work; it seemed nothing could take the place of a live performance, especially when done with pizzazz and entertainment value! However, his means of learning tunes had to change; it was no longer good enough to pick up a tune from a fellow—often rival—piano player: now he knew he had to haunt record stores so that he could keep up with the latest tunes. Sure enough, within 6 months of the first appearance of those early “pop” records, he was being requested to play the tunes found on those little wax discs. The learning curve was steep, but Red was a fast learner and had a good memory, as evidenced by the tune he had just played in the recording room—a tune that he’d heard once on a record, played incessantly for about 3 months and then discarded for new requests.
Jack had been hunting around on the tape and called out, “Got it!” He played the tape for Red, who heard the same piano he had been playing being caressed by someone, he could tell, with real training. After a few seconds of the piano introduction to the aria, a beautiful female voice emanated from the speakers. Red was speechless. Jack allowed the old piano player to hear the aria to the end and then switched of the machine and began to remove the reel.
“Wow,” Red breathed. “Sure doesn’t sound like the same tune when she does it!” He paced the small room. “These tunes that I play all have different places they come from. I don’t know much about the beginnings of a lot of these types of songs.”
“The origins you mean?” Jack inquired. “Well. Let’s see what that one was and where it was from.” He looked at his list. “That aria is listed as…Quando me’n vo’ from ‘La Boheme’ by Giacomo Puccini”
“God Bless You!” exclaimed Red as if Jack had sneezed. Jack chuckled and Red said, “One of them Italian numbers, eh? That makes sense. I learned that one and one by another Italian guy…Verdi I think he was…when I was visiting New Orleans back in 1910 or so.”
“They were playing songs from operas in New Orleans back then?”
“Still do! Many bands do a lot of their own jazzin’ up of any tunes they can think of, from waltzes to opera tunes to, well, whatever. They do now what us pianna players were doing back in those good ol’ days. Yes sir, I learned that song from none other than Jelly Roll himself!”
“You had said you knew him, but you actually were close enough to learn a song from ‘The’ Jelly Roll?”
“The one and only!” Red enthused proudly, “All them stories you know about him, from the diamond in his front tooth to driving is Caddy while towing his Lincoln behind it are one hunnerd percent true. That guy was amazing! Why, he could play anything.” Red jumped up and ran into the recording room, calling behind him, “Check this out! I’ll show you a version of St. Louis Blues that I copped part of from Jelly in 1915 on my second visit to the Big Easy, including the tango section…well, Jelly called that the “Spanish tinge!”
Red started with a dramatic tremolo and moved onto some arpeggios. He then began a pensive version of the minor-keyed section with pauses and drama that did not sound at all like the Jelly Roll Morton style Jack had heard before. He thought that Red still had some booze in his system the way he was laconically caressing the tune; it was the most peaceful, relaxed version of the Handy’s blues he had ever heard.
Red returned to the minor strain and began to intensify the music adding in a bit of the tango style in the left hand. As Red moved into the final strain—the chorus, you would call it, Jack supposed, the music started to swagger. By the second chorus Red was beginning to romp.
THEN, returning yet again to the minor theme, Red went into full tango mode, only to leave it for a full boogie-woogie bass. Jack found himself moving with the music. After two choruses of boogie, Red finished up with a real, barrelhouse ride that ended in a whisper.
He came back out and looked puzzled. “Jack, that didn’t sound nothin’ like Jelly…I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked. “We already have a lot of Jelly on record. We need more Red. I’ve never heard St. Louis Blues played like that and I expect I never will again. It was a very personal statement, Red, with a lot of feeling. I think it was great.”
Jack had not really spoken so passionately and at such length about Red’s music since their first encounter in that saloon downtown and Red stood there looking seriously at him. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I really do, Red. I think it was magical. Now, would you like to do some more or are you gettin’ a little tired?” Jack’s unabashed grin told Red he was goading him, and of course he took the bait.
“Tired, Jack, why I haven’t even begun to play tonight. Now’s when I’m just gettin’ going. We might even stay up too late for a young whelp like you
“Now, I’m gonna dig waay back,” Red declared. “This tune was published in the same year as W.C.’s blues, believe it or not. At least, that’s what I’m told, having never laid eyes, heh, heh…or fingers…on the sheet. It’s called the 12th Street Rag. A guy from Texas by the name of Euday Bowman wrote it.” Red laughed shaking his head and continued, “Now there’s a guy could’ve used a nickname like ‘Red’ or, well just about anythin’ would've done!"
Red leapt up and strode into the studio, saying over his shoulder, "Get that tape rolling, Jack. I feel a rag comin' on!"
Red positioned himself at the piano, sat up straight and began the rag in mock-serious form at a moderate tempo and deliberately accenting each alternating note as it landed on the downbeat. After his "12th Street Concerto" wrapped up, he doubled the tempo and took Jack on a wild ride through multiple variations, increasing in intensity and even speed, finally moving up to a new key to ride out the piece like a cowhand taming a bronco. When he finished, he leaned back whooping and coughing.
"Whoo-ee!" Red sputtered. "I din't know who the victor was gonna be on that one. Sometimes I get so excited by that tune that I lose control. Not bad for an old guy, eh? And stone sober, yet!"
"Mm-hmm," Jack mused as he listened back to a few seconds of the end to be sure Red hadn't peaked out the levels. "Now that I've heard that piece, I have to tell you your timing couldn't be better."
"How's that, Jack?" Red asked.
"A side of 12th Street Rag was recently released by a dixieland trombonist named Pee Wee Hunt. Apparently, the band had a bit more time reserved in the studio after they had finished recording the tunes they had planned on doing. So they did this piece as a laugh, you know, real corny and 'doo-wacky.' That throwaway tune is topping the charts."
"It all makes sense, Jack. There's something about that old music that connects with people. A jazz band playing ragtime is also no surprise; the first bands playin’ what was later called 'jazz' were simply playin’ piano rags and marches with band instruments. I hope my version makes a splash, too!"
"Pee Wee and company have paved the way, Red. We'll just have to see," Jack mused.
The pair sat for a few minutes lost in their own thoughts when Jack asked Red, "Since you knew Jelly Roll, did you catch any of his tunes? I mean, the ones he composed."
"How could I avoid it, Jack? Ol' Jelly's tunes were all over the Big Easy. I'll do a great tune with a lot of mileage. It's part rag, part pop tune and all Jelly! It's called Frog-I-More Rag. Have you ever heard it?"
"Can't say as I have, Red," Jack admitted.
"Jelly wrote it for a trombone player he knew in New Orleans called One-Eyed Frog Joseph. It's a terrific rag. Let me at it!" Red scampered back into the studio and took his place, waited for the nod from Jack and began the introduction. Jack could almost hear the different instruments that might have taken over certain sections and melodies. When Red had returned to the starting melody, Jack thought he'd be finishing it out but he moved into a new melody, playing it in an almost hymn-like manner. Jack squinted his eyes and listened more closely. He'd heard this tune before, but not as part of the rag Red was playing. After a clear statement of the melody, Red launched into some Jelly-like characteristics and brought the rag to a close.
He sauntered back into the recording booth and looked at Jack inquiringly. "Did you catch the tune that finished up Jelly's piece?"
Jack said, " I did recognize it; I've heard it before but can't remember the title."
“Ol’ Jelly was a crafty guy.” Red chuckled, “He recycled that tune in the third section and called it ‘Sweetheart O’ Mine.’ These guys were always great at reusin’ material and makin’ more money on it!!” He shook his head in wonder. “Even I’m beginning to make a bit of money with all the gigs my first recording’s with you have brought me. I really do have to hand it to you, Jack. You know what you’re doin’.”
“Thanks, Red,” Jack said a little embarrassedly. “Do you have any more tunes you’d like to get down tonight?”
“Do I ever, Jack,” Red exclaimed, “do I ever. I’m going to go in and play some tunes written by someone I admire very much. His name is James Hubert Blake, but we all call him Eubie. He’s a couple’a years older’n me. Man, does this guy have hands! Well, actually his palms aren’t all that big, but he has these skinny, spidery, strong fingers that can pretty much play anything!
I’m gonna go in there and string some of Eubie’s tunes together. I’ll start with Eubie’s most controversial song, at least at the time he wrote it. It was a love song called Love Will Find a Way that he included in his show, “Shuffle Along.” Man, the jazz, rag and blues music from that show was so hot!”
Jack interrupted Red, “Did you actually see the show, Red?”
“I sure did! That show was a great moment in music, Jack! Y’see, the whole hub-bub about that song, really the whole production, was that it was the first show to present black actors, singers and dancers onstage as real people. The real risk here is that the show was playing for white audiences! Nobody had to worry though! Every night that song was very warmly received and it’s stayed one of Eubie’s handful of real hits.”
Red thought a moment and then continued, “From there, I’ll move onto an old favorite of mine, and one of his biggest hits: I’m Just Wild About Harry. Y’know, he originally wrote that tune as a waltz, but Lottie Gee, the leading lady in “Shuffle Along,” the show where Eubie’s waltz was to go, said she couldn’t put it across unless it was a one-step. Eubie was reluctant to change it, but his lyricist, Noble Sissle, had a crush on Miss Gee and so changed it was!” Red rolled his eyes as if to suggest that this was always the way; a woman would get her way, especially if two men were involved!
Jack was writing down the titles. “Any other tunes you’d like to include of Mr. Blake’s?”
“Well, one that was in that show but a couple of years older has a great melody and chords so I’ll throw in Goodnight, Angeline. I remember in the show, the plot paused so Eubie and Noble could do some of their vaudeville routine and this was one of the songs. They sang so pretty together. I never forgot that tune. Then let’s finish up with a great ragtime piece that Eubie claims he wrote when he was 16!! Pers’nally. I don’t believe it for a second, but I’d love to see if I can get through Charleston Rag.”
Red strode into the studio and, getting Jack’s nod that they were rolling, played for over 13 minutes. Jack realized that this take could never be released as it was too long; only the high-end classical labels were putting together boxed sets of 78’s to present longer compositions. Still, it was magnificent to hear, and he knew he’d hang onto it for the rest of his life.
Red was on a roll, and immediately launched into two songs he loved to play: Shine and Some of These Days. It was only after Red was through with this final pairing and had left for the night that Jack did a bit of research and discovered the two tunes were both from 1910. Jack wondered if Red had known that or if it was just coincidence. He realized that these two tunes were still well known by all, over 35 years after their creation. Musing that hits were made by performers, not usually by composers, he looked back at some old 78’s he had and discovered that Louis Armstrong had taken a shine to Shine, while the other song of Red’s medley was the biggest hit in Sophie Tucker’s career, at least so far. Jack went home that night wondering what other surprises Red might come up with.
Jack had set up a noon session with Red—he’d learned the hard way that 10:00 am was much too early—and was eagerly anticipating a productive final day with his old friend. He busied himself rechecking levels and making sure the scene was just right. Red bounded into the studio 10 minutes early, looking energized and younger than Jack had ever seen him.
“What did you have for breakfast, Red? And did you bring me some?”
Red chuckled indulgently. “Young man,” he intoned, “I’m afraid you’re just a tad too young to fully appreciate why I have this spring in my step. Let’s suffice to say tips come in all shapes and sizes and last night made me feel young again! Whoo-ee!!”
Thinking discretion was advisable in this situation, Jack simply said, “Well, Red, I’m glad you had some fun. Looks like you’re raring to go, so how should we begin?”
Red declared, “Seeing as I’m feeling so spritely, I want to revisit some tunes I haven’t thought of in years. Some old rags that my buddy Scott Joplin wrote back in the day.”
Jack eyed Red incredulously. “You mean you actually met Scott Joplin? Wasn’t he from a whole other era, sort of the Father of Ragtime? I know that he started getting his rags in print before the turn of this century.”
“Well, sure, Jack! I might have been a l’il sprat, but you remember I told you about the Rosebud Bar that Tom Turpin owned up there in St. Louis? That’s where I met Joplin. He really wasn’t much of a piano player and the rest of the guys would pound him off the stage. They respected him though, for his compositions. He was, how could I say it, legitimizin’ the ragtime style of music being played in the bars; not just in the Rosebud and the other joints around St. Louis, but through the whole land! It’s because of Joplin that we have the next piece I’m goin’ to render for you right now.”
Red moved into the recording room to the piano and motioned Jack to follow. “Have you ever heard this piece, Jack?” he asked, his fingers running over the keys and producing a melody of profound melancholy. His touch caressed the keys and after he finished playing the first section of the rag, Red sat back and sighed. “Pretty stuff, eh, Jack?”
“It sure was, Red. What was the name of that?”
“Joplin called it Heliotrope Bouquet, a name I think goes nicely with the atmosphere of the tune. He had met young Louis Chauvin at the Rosebud in the first few years of this century. Chauvin was the best player at the club, but couldn’t read any music. So Joplin set about to write down a couple of strains of Louis’ music. They became the first two sections of the rag. Joplin finished up the piece with a couple sections of his own. I think you’ll hear the difference. Now shoo, son, I’ve got to get to playin’ here!”
Jack moved back into the engineering studio and prepped the tape. He gave Red the nod and he began to play the piece Jack had heard a moment before, but now it sounded quite a bit different from the first time Red had played it. It was looser, with a good amount of swing and buoyancy. While the melancholic nature remained, now the piece had a lope and swagger that made it sound somewhat more optimistic.
Upon concluding the rag, Red came back into the studio and sat on the couch. He looked impishly at Jack, who exclaimed, “Red, what’d you do, rewrite the whole piece? It didn’t sound anything like what you played before!”
“Makes sense, Jack. At the last minute, maybe ‘cause I was feelin’ youngish and fulla piss and vinegar, shall we say, I played it the way I remember Jelly might have done it. He’d visited St. Louis in the old days and spent some time playin’ at the Rosebud. He knew all those guys, Artie Matthews, Sam Patterson, Joe Jordan. I’m sure Jelly would’ve latched onto Heliotrope Bouquet on one of those visits. It has the right feel for him and that first section could come right out of one of his early tunes as well. So, I decided at the last minute to play the old rag in the manner of Morton.”
“It really sounded unique, Red, and also immediate. It sure didn’t sound like you were trying to recreate an old sound.”
“Shoot, Jack,” Red said, “nothing about this music is old, ‘ceptin’ the time it was written. This stuff will always be changing. These tunes aren’t supposed to be put on the shelves to collect dust. It drives me crazy how everyone puts Bach and Mozart and those guys on pedestals and mopes around saying ‘I’m not worthy to play the great masters’ works’ ‘cause they’re afraid they’ll make a mistake. Where’s the fun in that?!?”
As Red slumped down on the couch, clearly winded by his outburst, Jack calmly said, “I didn’t say it had to sound old, you know…”
“’Course I do. Sometimes I just get tired of people gawkin’ at me, saying ‘Hey, look at the old guy playin’ that old-timey music! Idn’t he cute?’ Honestly! This stuff is just music, good…no great music. Doesn’t matter when it was written, or IF it was ever written down.”
Red jumped up. “Man, I’ve gotta get some of this energy I’m feelin’ onto the keys! Hang on, boy, and make sure that tape is a-rollin’!” He fairly scampered back to the piano, leaped onto the bench and hollered, “Here we go!”
He launched into a rag that Jack immediately recognized, although he had never heard Maple Leaf Rag played like Red was pounding through it. He kept taking the sections and throwing in his own ideas, really everything but the kitchen sink. He wrapped up his version just past the 4-minute mark, when Jack was sure it would have been less then 3 minutes as written. Red was breathless, but after a few seconds he jumped up and strutted back into the engineering room, grinning at Jack like a naughty kid.
“Take that!” Red smiled at Jack, awaiting his response. Jack could only say “Wow…”
“Yep, that’s kinda how I felt too. I’ve never put some of those things I did into that rag before. But that sort of thing is what everyone was doin’ with the pieces written in “ragged” time. You just wanted to be sure you weren’t playin’ it like it was on the page. Hell, any schoolgirl with a couple years of piano training coulda done that! Ol’ Joplin wasn’t too keen on us perfessors runnin’ riot over his rags, but it sure got the people goin’! ‘Sides, he wasn’t much of a player anyhow. He was a much better composer.”
“Yeah, but you said earlier that people respected Joplin for legitimizing the music being played in the Rosebud Bar and Sporting houses in the Midwest,” Jack countered. “Are you saying at the same time they were appreciating his artistry, they were using his music to show off?”
“Jack, that’s always the way these things go. For those guys—and me, come to think of it—any tune that was ever written was fair game. Remember when I played the opera aria a while back?”
“I do, yes; the one by Puccini, wasn’t it?”
“Well, YOU figured that one out! I just play the tunes. Here’s another one that I like doing, and this tune is one that I know where it came from. A show called Samson and Delilah by this guy Saint-Seans.”
“Red, I think they refer to it as an opera,” Jack gently suggested.
“Whatever it is, this great tune…er…aria came from it. It’s fun to play straight and then, as my old New Orleans friends would say, great to rag it. Lissen here!” Ray fairly ran into the piano room, received the thumbs up from Jack and began arpeggiating a sweet and recognizable melody. Once he completed his time through it, he went into rhythm with a hot interlude as if he were setting up a band and proceeded to pound that piece in a way Saint-Seans would never have dreamed possible—“or desirable, perhaps,” Jack thought wryly.
Red finished up and returned to Jack once again with a grin on his face. “Any idea what the name of that old saw is, Jack?”
Jack straightened up and mockingly intoned in a stentorian voice, “Why, my good sir! Everyone knows the name of that aria. It is most popular. Its tantalizing sobriquet is Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix. Nearly everyone knows that!”
Red simply stared at him. He waited a couple of beats and asked, “How do you know that, Jack…really?”
Jack looked at Red, blinked, and couldn’t help laughing. “Remember that soprano I recorded a while back? The one who sang the other opera aria you played earlier? I remembered she also sang the melody you played just now, so while you were finishing up your rendition, I dug around and got the name. Ha, ha, ha!!! You should have seen your face!” Jack sat heavily on his chair, wiping his eyes. “Hey, how was my French?”
“Terrible, son. You ain’t no linguist!”
“Isn’t that a pasta?” Jack started laughing again and this time Red joined him.
“Don’t mention food; I’m hungry but I have a couple more tunes I’d like to do. Actually the next thing I’ll play is a pair of tunes, written by a guy named Tony Jackson. He was playin’ in New Orleans back in the day and was the only player Jelly wouldn’t go up against. They were pretty close, ol’ Jelly and Tony. Jackson was one of the only pianists Jelly truly respected. In addition to being the best piano player in town, he sang, told jokes, entertained in a real flamboyant manner; sometimes he’d jump up at the piano and do a buck and wing while playing. There was a lot to admire.”
“Why don’t we know more about him, Red?” Jack was intrigued by this shadowy figure of the past.
“Well, he never traveled quite as much as Morton. Also he died pretty young in 1921, back when recording piano players was still mainly somethin’ that happened in other places than Chicago, where he spent the last years of his life. He was a really cool dude, Jack. He was one of them guys who, er…liked guys and not gals, if you get what I’m getting’ at.”
“Jackson was homosexual?” Jack prompted.
“Yeah, I guess that’s the fancy word for it. He liked guys. The thing about him was that he was open about it; everyone knew he liked to mess around with other guys and no one really cared. It’s funny, but I think Jelly and Tony’s close relationship was one of the things that made him go into pimpin’ for a spell; Jelly was worried that people would begin to think he was a homo because he was always hangin’ around Tony.”
“Did you ever meet Jackson, Red?”
“Nope. He’s one of the ones I never had a chance to catch up with. And, I’ll tell you, if I had, I wouldna cared what anyone thought; I’d’ve been hangin’ on Jackson like a fly on meat in order to catch all of the music from him I could. Hell, I still would. When he and Jelly were both in St. Louis at the same time, Artie Matthews claimed Jelly was a better player, but Jelly never thought that—and he thought Matthews was the best player in St. Louis!”
Anyway, only a handful of Tony’s tunes are around for people to play and know. I’ll do two of the best and try and get a bit of Jackson in there, although I’ll only be doing that based on stories I heard and demonstrations by Morton and a couple of others. I’ll start with a tune called Some Sweet Day and then finish up with his biggest hit—people still know this one today actually—called Pretty Baby. I’m headin’ in!”
Red began playing the piece and Jack heard a different piano player coming out of that room, with a more relaxed, loping style. Tremolos in the right hand, melody in the left hand the second time Red played the chorus; stops and breaks and a breathtaking chorus, where he doubled the tempo of the rhythm while still keeping the melody at the same initial speed and feel. Jack could picture Jackson playing that way to accompany the dancers in the bar, or perhaps just show off.
Red transitioned to Pretty Baby and kept up the quicker speed he’d established at the end of Some Sweet Day, starting with what Jack assumed was the verse, with which he was unfamiliar. Once Red got to the chorus, Jack absently began singing the words until Red’s variations began to get too elaborate. Once he finished, Jack let out a cheer. “Fantastic, Red,” Jack enthused as the old piano player walked back in the studio. “Now do you want to do it while I have the tape rolling?”
Red looked horrified for a few seconds and again Jack couldn’t keep a straight face. He burst out laughing and said, “Only kidding, only kidding. Do you want to hear the tape back?”
“No, Jack…I trust you, but DON’T do that again. I’m an old man and that sort of thing is not good for the ol’ ticker!”
“Not a problem, Red. Sorry.” Jack grinned again, not looking even mildly abashed, and said, “No matter what age either of us is, I’m about done in; it’s been a long day, Red.”
“Sure has,” Red agreed, “but I’ve got one more tune I’d like to run down before we leave for the night. You got one more in you, Jack?”
“What d’you have in mind, Red?”
“Well, as you know, I like tunes with a story and this one has a great one. Seems young George Gershwin was looking for a way to get more recognition in New York. He wrote tune after tune and none of them were doin’ much. He and his friend Irving Caesar came up with a song he thought would be a smash hit and called it Swanee. After all, Tin Pan Alley was still obsessed with the South, it had a catchy tune and was easy to play and remember. They wrote it in Papa Morris Gershwin’s house in fifteen minutes, really upsettin’ the card-playin’ friends Pop had over in the next room.”
They stuck Swanee in a show, and though the audience loved the show and the song, no one bought a copy of the sheet music in the lobby as they left. George was pretty depressed about this. To cheer himself up, he wandered over to catch a show starring Al Jolson, the biggest name on Broadway at that time. After the show was finished, Jolson invited George to join him at the after-show party bein’ thrown for him. As luck would have it, the place had a piano. One thing Gershwin never suffered from was shyness, so he went over to play it and went through some of his own tunes, including his great disappointment: Swanee. Jolson hadn’t been payin’ much attention until Gershwin got to that one, and loved everything about it; the key change between the verse and the chorus, the simple but memorable tune. The words even had a ‘Mammy’ reference, so Jolson was sold. He sang it in his show Sinbad and recorded it too.”
Red paused for a moment. “I love the stories behind the songs I play, Jack. People need to know how a song came about. I’d like to finish with this one. It’s still one of my favorites and I’ve been playing it for 25 years!”
“I know the song well, Red, and it is a great one. Go give it a good treatment!”
Red returned to the piano in the recording room, received one last OK from Jack and began with a quasi-classical octave arpeggio down the keys. He played the melody to the verse simply, as if someone were singing it; it sounded like Jack imagined it might have in the show. As Red started the melody for the chorus, he added more characteristic pianisms, returning to his simple style for the interlude. Then he joyously romped through another chorus, moving farther away from the melody. Back to the interlude, into a second time through the verse, and then, Red slowed the tempo down, beginning the final chorus slowly and loudly, steadily picking up the tempo until he reached the midpoint where he simply took off, racing to the end, throwing everything he had into it. A tag, a crashing ending that Jack could only interpret as “triumphant” and Red slumped down over the keys, utterly spent.
He stayed there for quite some time and Jack, concerned, went in to check on him. He had his forehead on the keys and was breathing harshly. Jack called out, “Red! Red, are you OK? Gee, man, that last one was really going and I…”
Red waved Jack to stop talking, stayed slumped over for another few seconds, and with a deep breath, lifted his head off the keys. He rested his forearms on the top of the open key cover and placed his chin on his arms, giving Jack a weary but happy look. “That’s it, son. I’m done for now. It’s time for ol’ Red to go to the nearest waterin’ hole and order anything but water! Care to join me? After all, it’s one of those places where we first met!”
“If you can give me a couple of minutes to wrap up and close the studio, you’re on. Who knows, maybe if there’s a piano and you’re playing a “catchy tune,” someone important may hear you.”
“Everyone who listens to me is important, Jack. And I’m waayy to old to be ‘discovered’ or catch that ‘big break.’ I’m just havin’ a good time, makin’ music and tellin’ my stories. I’ll let the young kids try and make it big. You’ve got great ears, Jack. Since you prefer to work behind the scenes, you’ll need to make it big in other ways, but I really think you will.”
Jack blushed a bit and said, “Well, Red, I hope to be wherever there’s good music happening, and if I can capture some of it, all the better! I have to say I’ve sure heard a lot of it since I met you. Let’s go get that drink.”
“Great! First one’s on me,” Red declared.
Jack was bemused. “Red, since I’ve known you, you’ve never offered to pick up a drink. Really, you hardly ever have to buy one for yourself or anybody. I’m flattered.”
“Good. I got the first round. You can pick up the second, third, fourth…” Red kept counting higher as Jack turned out the light and closed the door to the studio, mindful of locking it to keep safe all of the amazing music he’d experienced over the previous three days.
When Jack walked into the bar he felt the familiar slight rush of evening air at his back as the doors swung shut behind him. He had spent this day in 1947 pioneering; capturing the first recorded stereo sounds in Arizona history. As a chronicler of people’s music, indeed as a witness to a part of their souls, he always found himself in a state of heightened awareness regarding the sounds surrounding him. And so as a result, the rollicking, twinkling notes emanating from the piano in the corner—music that would merely conjure a dusty saloon in some Western film with actors named Gabby and Hoot in the ears of the only casually involved—stopped Jack in midstride. The authenticity, the feel of the tune emanating from the battered old upright in the corner deadened Jack’s senses to everything else in the room. He floated past the bar and the three or four patrons seated at it, heading straight for the piano and the aged, bald fellow pounding out a vibrant yet haunting melody that seemed to surface from the forgotten past directly through his fingers and into Jack’s heart.
His song over, the stooped figure at the piano sensed Jack’s presence and slowly turned in his direction, revealing a royal blue shirt and cream waistcoat beneath his dusty suit jacket. “Recognize that ditty, son?” the old man rasped in a tone indicating he harbored little hope that one as young as Jack would have any connection with the tune or the antiquated style in which the man had played it.
“Well, sir,” Jack said thoughtfully, “yes and no. Some of it sure sounded like The Entertainer to me, but I’ve never heard it played that way.”
The old piano player wheezed a laugh, his mouth opening wide to show surprisingly white, straight teeth and he exclaimed, “Why, we all played that thing in our own way, in our own voice if that makes sense to you. It was so popular we all knew it, but ol’ Joplin hadn’t really captured its full potential when he wrote it down. See, he’d played it for us up there at Turpin’s place in St. Louis and, well, Scott really wasn’t a great professor, so we took his rag and twisted it around to get the real emotion out of it. Some guys like Chauvin and Patterson would turn it into a real complicated piece like the virtuosos they were, but I like to showcase my chops with other tunes. I play this one in a thoughtful way so the real meaning comes out.”
Jack understood exactly what the old-timer meant by this last bit as he was always in search of the emotion and meaning in the music, although the names the piano player dropped so casually meant little to him. What really resonated was the fellow’s next observation.
“Every song has a story, young man; every song has a story. The piano player is just the doorway you look through to glimpse it.”
He turned back toward the keys, the stool creaking with the movement, and, laying his weathered hands upon the cracked keys, began to pound out an ebullient waltz, the strong “OOM-pah-pah” of piano player’s left hand lifting Jack’s heart even as he sunk his body into a chair by the piano. The tinkling melody brought Jack back to a time in his early childhood, and he heard, in his mind, the melody the old-timer was playing as a song sung by his Grandfather. He began to murmur the words along with the music: “You hold her hand, and she holds yours; and that’s a very good sign that she’s your tootsie-wootsie In The Good Old Summertime.” Jack fairly shouted out the last line, the title of the tune he was hearing, and the piano player turned to him with surprise and delight.
“Hey, young fella, that song is WAY before your time. I learned it only after people kept asking for it; seems it was a big hit in a show in New York, but I’d never been to New York,” he rasped out a chuckle, “Heck, still haven’t got there. No, the way I heard the Summertime song was when Sousa came through town with his marching band—kinda funny that’s how they were known as they’d sit like concert players while they pumped out their marches. Sousa was a cagey old guy and he knew, same as me, same as all the popular players of the day, that to stay on top you had to give the people what they wanted to hear. So, his band’d do his marches, then a waltz like the one I just played, then maybe a rag or a polka. Yessir, ol’ Sousa was one classy guy, but he knew how to play for everybody.”
Jack was intrigued and asked, “But sir, if the first time you heard the song was by a large marching band, how did you start playing it?”
“Young man…” the piano player began.
“Please, would you call me Jack?”
“Pleased you meet you Jack,” the old man held out a calloused hand and shook Jack’s warmly, though Jack noticed he did not offer his own name, “Back in those days you and your music usually fit into one of two categories. You were either a “by-ear” player or what they called a ‘musicianer.’ I was a “by-ear” player so I was good at playing anything I heard. Sometimes a patron in the bar could simply hum or sing the melody to one of their favorite tunes and I’d play along with them like I already knew it. Got most of it right, too. Oh, sure, there might be a fancy chord in the song somewhere, but most people didn’t care about that. Back then they wanted what they do now; a clear melody to tug at your heartstrings and a firm beat to move your feet!”
Jack grinned at this and asked, “So what was a ‘musicianer,’ someone who could read music?”
“Pretty much, yes, with all of the privileges and limitations that came with that attribute. Those guys could read fly-shit on paper,” the old man almost spat out, “but ask ‘em to change keys or play a ditty in a different style and you’d find them lacking. They could read music alright, but they weren’t always able to make music as naturally as us “by-ear” players could. ‘Course, there were exceptions; people like my old friend Artie Matthews back in Turpin’s place in St. Louis. He could play hot and by-ear but he also was a real good reader and writer. Why, he helped many a piano-player get their music on the sheet to sell to both the professional and amateur ‘musicianers.’ If you had your music written down for people to buy, that was where you could make some real money, especially if your song was a hit and if you were working with an honest publisher.”
Jack gave his head a little shake and mused, “It’s a lot different now. Sure sheet music still sells OK, but now radio and records are the ways people get their music spread. I sometimes think of the tragedy of all of that lost music from your time, tunes and styles that were heard just once and then gone forever.”
“Yeah, I know. People like Louis Chauvin and Tony Jackson who were the two best in the Midwest will never be heard by today’s folks they’ve been gone so long. I can tell you about how Chauvin would take difficult tunes and rip through them in octaves in both hands, all while staying as smooth as silk and communicating with the crowd and deciding which lady he’d have that night. Or how Jackson would leap about while playing and singing his tunes in that high voice of his, carrying on, entertaining and deciding which man he’d have that night,” the old man doubled over with laughter, “Nobody was supposed to know, of course; if you were discovered to be of that persuasion, so to speak, it could turn out pretty dangerous for you with that crowd. This is one of the reasons Jelly Roll used to advertise his status as a pimp in addition to his fine piano playing. He didn’t want to be thought of as what you might call “light-in-the-loafers” today because he played piano and hung out with Jackson.”
Jack queried, “The ‘Jelly Roll’ you’re referring to was Jelly Roll Morton?!?”
“The same. Another of those guys who could do it all. His reading was fine; he wrote his own tunes and arrangements, but he sure could work a crowd, something those ‘musicianers’ were hopeless at doing with their noses stuck in their notes!”
The piano player turned back to the keyboard. “Enough of this chat,” he crowed out, “Jack, let me show you what I mean by working the crowd!” He pounded into another waltz with a gusto that made everyone in the bar react. By now, more businesses had shut their doors for the evening and the place was beginning to hop. Every head turned as the old guy thumped out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Feet tapped, bodies swayed with the rhythm, and more than a few voices were heard quietly humming the tune or scratching out the lyrics. When it got time for the count-off, each number was louder: “For it’s one, TWO, THREE, strikes you’re out at the old ball game!!”
And that’s when the show really began. Switching into a hotter rag-feel, the old-timer cajoled everyone into singing again full throttle and then had contests between the patrons at tables and the ones drinking at the bar to see who could sing the loudest. By the time he finished, the place was resonating with hollers, cheers, applause and the stamping of boots on the hardwood floor. Jack had never seen anything like it.
The old piano player sank back on the stool, spent after his performance. Between gasps, he said to Jack, “Yessir, still got it. Jack, the old tunes that everyone knows are the best ones! And the only way you can hold someone’s attention in places like these is to get rowdy and make everyone pay attention to you. And these folks here are just drinkin’! The bars and Sporting Houses where I played in the old days had many other activities to…distract folks from your music.”
“Sir, what’s a Sporting House?” Jack wanted to know.
“Stop calling me Sir, boy! I work for a living!” the old musician cackled at his own humor, “A guy passing through from Jolly Old England gave me that line and it still tickles me. No, Jack, if we’re gonna continue our visit here, you need to be calling me ‘Red’ on account of the red hair I used to have.”
“My pleasure to meet you, Red,” Jack said happily, extending his hand.
Red shook Jack’s hand while prevaricating, “You’re a man Jack, but I should try and be genteel while describing a Sporting House to you on account of I don’t know much about your sensibilities. You see, a Sporting House was a, er…establishment that catered to folks in search of a good time, and I mean a different good time than what we piano players could provide.”
Jack exclaimed, “You’re talking about a cat-house, aren’t you?”
Red brightened and rejoined, “Well, in a way, yes, in that both places we’re talking about acted as, shall we say, houses of horizontal refreshment. Modern places offering er…carnival rides for adults really are pretty shabby with not much, well, ambience for lack of a better word. In addition to the…well…feminine attractions, the old Sporting Houses boasted fine furnishings, a gleaming bar, great music and entertainment…” Red’s voice trailed away as he peered wistfully through the mists of time.
Jack waited for a respectful moment and then interrupted the old man’s reverie with a skeptical voice, “And that’s where you learned all of this great music, while people were carrying on in such a fashion? Didn’t they distract you?”
Red laughed, “Jack, everyone in those establishments was distracting, but never for the same reasons. In most cases it really wasn’t learning the music; you already had that in you. Sure, you might not know a particular tune yet, but songs are easy to pick up. What you were really learning back then was how to keep a crowd, keep your job, and keep alive. People wanted hits of the day, and just like today, the hits came in all flavors of music. Here’s one that a Tin-Pan Alley guy wrote in NYC, which spread across the country like wildfire. I never did see the sheet for it, but back then I couldn’t’ve read it anyhow.”
He swivelled back to the keys, ripped off a march-like introduction and launched into an intoxicating piece that had a series of repetitive three-note melodies. The piano rocked with the rhythm and Red worked more into what Jack decided had to be a rag.
Red completed the piece to enthusiastic applause, hooting, hollering and, “most importantly,” Red gleefully exclaimed, a fifth of bourbon that arrived at his left elbow. Red took a large swig from the bottle and, wiping his lips daintily with a rather grimy handkerchief he produced from his pocket, wheezed “Yessir, Jack, rewards for a man’s work still come in all shapes and sizes!”
Jack waited for a moment while Red savored another sample of the spirit and conjectured, “Red, that sounded like a rag that my Dad used to play on his banjo in between my Mom’s vocal features.”
Red nodded approvingly, “I could tell you have music in your blood, son! That tune is the Black and White Rag and is good proof that even non-performers could come up with a winner. I remember the feller’s name was George Botsford. Just of them day-jobbers on the Alley who got lucky, had a hit and kept writin’ ‘em! Snobs used to say guys like that, you know—with all that musical training, were selling out when they lowered themselves to write popular music.” Red started to laugh so hard, he hacked and coughed for a few seconds, stopping long enough to sample a bit more bourbon. Once he had recovered, he chuckled “Hell, I’ve been trying to sell out for years; only trouble is no one’s buyin’!”
Jack was thoroughly enjoying his encounter with a piece of living history, and ventured, “Red, could we go back to the way you play The Entertainer once more, please? I arrived in the middle of it and it had such a slow, soulful---well---mournful quality about it that I’d love to hear you play the whole thing!”
Red glowered a bit, “Boy, are you asking me to play a request? You should know that I never repeat tunes of an evening, and that thing is already overplayed!”
Taken aback, Jack stammered, “Gee, I didn’t mean to be forward, sir, I…I should have guessed that an artist like yourself would have his own things he…”
“Aahhh, forget it, kid! I was actually only pulling your leg. Some guys get all bristly when a customer makes a request…I even knew one fella who would snarl ‘Never heard of it in my life,’ and then, about 10 minutes later, ease gently into it to see if the guy who asked for it was still listening. I’m NOT kidding about not liking to repeat tunes, however. I got waayy too big a repertoire for that, you bet! But, seein’ as you called me an ‘artist’ and I ain’t gettin’ paid here anyhow and seein’ as I just mosied in and decided to plunk myself down here, sure I’ll play that tune again. If they don’t like it, they can move on. What’re they gonna do, fire me?”
“Red,” Jack started, “I really don’t mind if you’d rather…”
“Jack, my young man,” Red drew himself up and stuck his chin out, “there are no bad songs, only bad interpretations of momentarily abused good songs. And if I do say so myself, my version of this rag is hands-down different from any other that I’ve ever heard, as you yourself mentioned when we met! So here goes…”
Red turned back to the piano and sat there for a time doing nothing but staring at the keys. Jack noted that this time Red was not diving into the tune and attacking it with the almost maniacal glee with which he had performed the previous selections. Then Red started rolling rich, fat chords across the notes, and slowly brought an echo of the melody to Scott Joplin’s old rag into those tremolos. Slowly, the piece unfolded, with each hand taking turns caressing the melody and twisting it about. The place, which had been rocking when Jack first came in, had by now tuned in more closely to the music the old-timer had been creating and Jack felt and then heard a hush slowly descend over the crowd.
Red made the volume and texture ebb and flow for the next five minutes, wringing every possible depth of emotion from the rag Jack had requested. Finally, as a wry musical joke, Red let the piece whisper away with a gentle sounding of the notes of the introduction he had skipped over at the beginning of the piece. This time, the reception was more subdued but had a warmer feel to it. As the respectful applause died down, Red looked around a little uncomfortably, saying to Jack out of the corner of his mouth, “I hate it when this happens to me, when something goes so well, I don’t know what the hell to do next!!”
Before Jack could reply, Red swiveled around on the stool once again to face the keys and launched into a breakneck version of Chinatown, My Chinatown that left both player and listener breathless. Instead of bringing the tune to a climactic ending, however, Red moved into a less well-known piece that Jack didn’t recognize, although he heard the same exotic flavor in it that he’d noted in the first tune. From there, Red barged into a song Jack knew well, and he found himself laughing when the bar-flies started to sing the words, with the requisite insertions:
I’m The Sheik of Araby (without no pants on)
Your love belongs to me (without no pants on)
At night, when you’re asleep (without no pants on)
Into your tent I’ll creep (without no pants on)
The stars that shine above (without no pants on)
Will light our way to love (without no pants on)
You’ll rule this world with me (without no pants on)
I’m the Sheik of Araby (without no pants on)
Even as the denizens of the bar were congratulating each other on both their memories for the words and their vocal prowess, Red moved to yet another locale with the song Hindustan. The notes were flying now and he was dripping with sweat but he would not let up. He crashed through that song into another tune that Jack knew he had heard before even if he could not recall the name. Red brought the volume and intensity down for what sounded like Jack as an interlude—indeed Red was imitating the undulation of a camel in the desert at this point, both with the notes he was playing and the way he was swaying up and down on the stool in time with the music. He slashed into a hot version of San, a tune Jack remembered his Dad playing. Red concluded with a song that sounded extended to Jack; it stayed on the same harmonies longer than Jack anticipated and elongated the expected phrases that cascaded one after another.
Finally, over 7 minutes later, Red banged out a crashing ending which brought the crowd to its feet. He was panting and Jack was a bit worried for him, but after Red had gulped down another tot of liquor he looked revived. “Whew,” Jack breathed out, “I guess that’s what you follow The Entertainer with!”
Red nodded and gasped “Yeah, but now what?!?”
Jack wanted to distract Red from the piano for just a little time so the old guy could fully recover from his most recent pianistic efforts, so he confessed, “I didn’t catch all of the tunes in your medley…”
“Wow,” Red sat back and placed his elbows on the keys, creating a discordant jangle of noise. “I’ve never had that high-falutin’ word used for my music! ‘Medley,’” he rolled the word around in his mouth. “Now you might think ‘cause I’m not a great reader that I don’t know any of those uppity music terms, but I do, Jack, I do.” He raised himself up off the keys, sat straight and intoned in a mock-professorial manner, “A medley is a string of songs one after another.” Red paused and winked before adding, “But not necessarily in that order!”
Jack guffawed at Red’s caveat and said “Red, you are a real surprise. That is a truly funny twist!”
Red blushed a little and murmured, “Oh, I can’t take credit for that one. A guy I used to play with, a fantastic banjo player named Eric Eddyson—we used to call him ‘Fast Eric’--- came up with the medley quip years ago. I miss Eric. He played fine guitar too. A better man I’ve never met. I’m sure I’ll meet up with him again down the line!”
“So you didn’t just play solo?”
“Oh, no, Jack. The most fun was when you got to play with other folks. Banjos, other pianos, trumpets, clarinets; any instrument that could give the poor piano player a break was welcome, as long as they were good players…! Why, I learned many of the songs I just got through pounding out in my ‘medley’ while sharing the gig with horn players. You mentioned you didn’t catch a couple of them. Lessee now, I started with Chinatown…”
“Yes, that one I knew, but what was the next one?”
“Aw, that old thing was a tune I picked up years ago when I heard it on a gramophone recording by Paul Whiteman and his band. Japanese Sandman is what that one’s called. I think the chords move along very nicely. Then, everyone here knew The Sheik and it seemed natural to follow that with Hindustan, which was a really easy one to learn, Jack, because almost the whole thing is based on the chords of “Bill Bailey.” I’ve been playing that one for almost 30 years! Then for some reason, I went into a song I hadn’t thought of in more than 10 called “Jungletown” or, I guess, the whole name is Down in Jungletown but we players just referred to it as “Jungletown” and everyone knew what we meant. Yessir, if you called that song with a bunch of players that hadn’t jammed together before, they’d all know what tune you were calling. Everyone played that one back in the day.”
As Red paused in his list to avail himself of another brace of liquid fortification, Jack remarked, “Red, you just said ‘for some reason I went into a song.’ Wasn’t this medley arranged by you some time ago and then used as a set piece.”
“Heavens, no, young man!!” Red cried, his voice getting louder. “In my line of work, of “professerin’” so to speak, you always needed the element of surprise. If folks knew what was comin’ they’d stop payin’ attention, stop buying you drinks, stop slipping you side-money, stop…”
“Side money?” Jack couldn’t help interrupting the old man’s rant.
“Yeah, side money. Tips. Calling that money “tips” demeaned us however. We looked at it as money picked up “on the side.” Sometimes, the side money you got for a night when the crowd was with you made your measly pay mean nothin’! Many of my piano-playing compatriots and I would have had to go on to shinin’ shoes or washing cars if it weren’t for folks with deep pockets and deep appreciation for the unique entertainment we were providing. Come to think of it, many pianists did have other lines of work to augment their musical pursuits. Why, Jelly Roll himself spent some time as a pool shark and also a pimp, although, as I said, I think he did the latter so’s folks wouldn’t spread the word that he liked men in the same way as did his close friend Tony Jackson. It didn’t make me no never mind who guys liked to hang around with afterhours but a lot of people got pretty uncomfortable with that sort of thing and it could affect your rep or at least your jobs. Of course, Tony was so good that his “interests” never stopped him working.”
“I love hearing you tell me some of the back story of this music and the people who made it, including yourself, Red,” Jack told him, “but I don’t want to lose the name of the last song that I did not recognize in your medley of songs from far-off places.”
“Oh yeah,” Red paused, “Where were we…er, from Jungletown, I took us to the desert with San—another hit for Whiteman and also for his doomed cornet player, Bix Beiderbecke—and then finished with a terrific Walter Donaldson song with one of the funniest titles I ever heard.” He paused, obviously waiting for Jack to ask about the name.
“Well,” Jack blurted, “Red, what was it?”
“It was called My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle and it was real naughty for its day. It had hilarious lyrics like “She had a shape like a ukulele” and “All she wore was a great big friendly smile.”
Jack grinned. “Must’ve got the highbrows all in a tizzy!”
Red laughed. “It sure did, boy. Music considered “popular” has always had its naysayers among the upper crust. Not that any of those folks would come to listen to we popular pianists, or,” he winked at Jack, “at least admit to coming in and checkin’ us out. People back then, even the common folks, had a wide taste for music though. You heard more of it around. This is before the days of most people being able to afford a Victrola or some way to have music in their own home, other than the music they themselves made. You say you’re recordin’ people?”
“That’s what I do, Red,” Jack replied, “and all sorts of music just as you say.”
“Back in the early days when records were first comin’ out, musicians were pretty down on the whole thing. Remember that a musician who recorded hardly ever received anything other than a flat fee…10, 20, the big guys were gettin’ 50 dollars, maybe…and ev’ryone was worried that once someone had your music on record, they wouldn’t have to come listen to you playing live. Now, if a record went big, well that was a whole diff’rent story but that didn’t happen too often.”
“I think live music will always be with us, no matter how many people can listen to music in their own living rooms,” Jack opined.
“From your lips, Jack,” Red intoned, pointing upwards, “from your lips. But now, where was I? Oh yeah, the pianist back in my salad days had to play it all and each of us enjoyed surprisin’ the folks with a classical-type piece that they’d know and then ‘ham’ it up a bit, put some pep into it, ‘rag’ it, if you’d like. Here’s what I mean…” Red swiveled back to the keys and started a quasi-classical overture to what turned out to be one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. At first, he played it straight and, to Jack’s ears, quite well. About a minute into it, however, Red lit into a transition and turned it into a hot, up-tempo barnburner, never losing the melody but with plenty of syncopation in both hands, with octaves and arpeggios in the right and thundering bass notes and chords in the left. He returned to the cadenza as written by Chopin and then burst into a surprise ending that left both pianist and listener breathless.
“Whoo-ee, Jack,” Red gasped, “That sure was a lot easier to do when I was younger! I remember that Jelly’s classical show piece was a version of an aria from La Traviata by that guy, um…the Italian one…”
“Guiseppe Verdi?” Jack offered.
“Just the fella! Although some joker who knew the language translated his name for us in English: Joe Green!” Red slapped his knee and chortled merrily. “Kinda takes old Verdi down a peg!” He recovered, took another gulp of bourbon and continued, “Yeah, we all had at least one piece from the classical book to call our own. Donald Lambert, or ‘The Lamb’ as we call him, would romp along on Grieg’s ‘Anitra’s Dance’ for hours on end and the Lion was influenced by all of them French Impressionist guys in almost all of his tunes.”
Jack asked, “Red, who do you mean by ‘The Lion’?”
“One of the real old guys from New York, name of Willie Smith. Many different stories about how he got the nickname ‘The Lion’ but the main thing is that when he attacked that piano he sure made it roar!”
Jack mused, “With names like ‘The Lion’ and ‘The Lamb’ how is it you were satisfied with ‘Red’? Wouldn’t you have liked to be known as some distinctive animal?”
“Naw,” said Red, “really the name was secondary to the music. If you couldn’t play, you could call yourself God and you wouldn’t keep the gig. ‘Red’ suits me fine…and so does this bourbon!” He swigged some more down and turned back to the piano.
“Hey, Red,” someone at the other end of the room called out, “What tune was that last one you barreled through?”
Red stood up, turned around towards the room and drew himself up to his full height. “That, Gentlemen,” he intoned, “Was Chopin’s Nocturne in Eb, Opus 2, which I play as Chopin’s Nocturnal Stride. I can tell, however, that these highbrow emanations from my fingers are leaving you mystified, so here’s a little somethin’ more in keeping with your tastes.”
Red then sat back at the piano, gave Jack a wink and began to thump out a rhythmic bass line in his left hand. He lifted his right hand way above his head and wiggled his fingers as his left hand continued the constant rhythm. Then he dramatically brought his right hand down to the keyboard and echoed the ongoing rhythm, which by now was becoming hypnotic. The melody Red began continued that rhythm and finally broke into a series of held, ascending chords. These came to an abrupt stop, and the suspense of the silence, broken at the last second by a few twinkling notes high up on the piano, had silenced the entire room. When the rhythm came blasting back in, the crowd let out a huge holler of appreciation and Red really started rocking back and forth.
Jack looked around the bar and saw that people had joined in on the rhythm, some banging their beer mugs up and down on the bar, other more energetic folks jumping out of their seats or off their stools and gyrating about to the music. Red really had them going and looked as if he could keep up this beat all night! Three more times he suspended the rhythm, lengthening the silence just a little more, stretching it further each time while never losing the underlying, constant, though momentarily silent, pulse.
Red returned to the second theme and played it three more times, changing keys with each repeat and building to a deafening ending that resulted in the largest response from the crowd yet! Everyone was cheering, hollering and, from the sound of the breaking glass, throwing their drinks into the air. Red slumped back breathlessly with a weary, yet satisfied, smile. “Gets ‘em ev’ry time,” he breathed, mostly to himself. “You can’t beat The Yellow Dog Blues!”
Jack was astounded by the effect the music had on the customers in the bar, but he then reminded himself that he was planning on devoting his entire career to capturing the power, the emotion of music recorded live, in the moment. No pre-planning; simply a fearless dip into the musical soup to see what come out of it on your spoon. “Red,” he asked once the pianist had caught his wind, “I would like to record you playing this music. Would that be interesting to you?”
Red glanced sideways at Jack. “My music is no good recorded. It would lose all of its…vitality. After all, I change it up every time I play a tune, even if it’s one I play every night.” He turned away and groped for his bottle; obviously uncomfortable with the turn Jack’s conversation with him had just taken.
Jack knew better than to push the issue with him: he had a feeling that Red had been approached previously about recording his music and might have either had a bad experience during the recording or, even more likely, with the recompense he received after he had completed recording. Jack thought it might be best to continue to get to know Red better and gently cursed himself for bringing up recording so soon into their encounter. Red was looking down at his hands, half-turned away from Jack, and Jack felt sorry for sending Red into a slump.
Thinking quickly, he asked “Red, you really change a tune every time you play it, even the ones you have played since as long as you can remember?”
Red looked around and said, rather sullenly Jack thought, “Kid, that’s what we entertainers do. It’s no fun for the listener or the player if things always stay the same. That’s for the musicianers; the ones who play by the notes. I try to tell a new story no matter how old the song.”
Jack narrowed his eyes at Red in a conspiratorial manner. “I know you have a lot of songs in your song-bag, Red. Show me what you would do with one of my favorite old songs, Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.”
“That old thing?” Red exclaimed, “It really is amazing how people can’t shake that song. It’s got a great melody and a terrific beat but so do a lot of other tunes.” He shook his head in amazement, muttering quietly, “Even kids like this one remember that old warhorse.” He raised his eyes at Jack and said, “The great thing about that song is that it was written by two Tin Pan Alley guys who never went south of Staten Island.” Red paused for a swig and continued, “If you ever stop to think of the lyrics ‘Way Down on the Levee in Ol’ Alabamy’ you know right away they were full of it! Why, the only levee in Alabama is in Cherokee County and ITS on a lake! No riverboat’d be found there, not in a million years, heh, heh, heh…”
Red paused and assumed a serious look for a moment and then squinted at Jack. “Just remember, son, when you’re an entertainer, you entertain. Oh sure, it’s OK to sprinkle a bit of your knowledge here and there, but spouting facts in a story takes a far back seat to being able to move the folks listenin’ to you. Move the folks and you’ll always have the job. Make it exciting, sexy, funny, sad, whatever, and you’ll have ‘em all night!”
He turned back to the piano and said over his shoulder, “Jack, each time I do this ol’ Robert E. Lee saw it gets a huge response. Check out how I use the left hand to imitate the crash of the paddlewheel!”
Jack marveled at how Red started the song rolling and never let up. He noticed two things about Red’s version. It did sound how he imagined a paddle-wheeler steamboat would sound, although he had never seen one in Arizona. The second thing Jack observed is that once again the place went wild from the time Red switched the thundering melody to the left hand until his virtuosic finale.
Red swiveled around and leaned back, putting his elbows on the keys once again. He was sweating and out of breath but grinning like a child. “Hoo, boy,” he exclaimed, “it’s time to do a medium one. Here’s a tune that the Dixieland Bands round the country still like to do.” He turned back and pounded out Fidgety Feet, a tune Jack recognized as he had the 78 disc by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. When Red completed his version, complete with key change and band ending, Jack told him: “Red, I’ve never heard band tunes played on the piano like that! Wow!”
Red replied, “Oh, Jack, that’s nothin’. Especially the old band pieces. Why all of those old tunes back in the nineteen-teens were nothing more than ragtime played by a band, so it just seems right that since the bands stole ragtime from the professors, we should steal their tunes and do our own thing to them, too.”
Jack interjected, “The bands playing this stuff didn’t call it ragtime, they called it jazz, Red. Even a young guy like me knows that.”
“Yes,” Red countered, “but those are just words, Jack. Labels. They don’t mean nothin’ in the long run. The rhythms, the chords and the roadmap of the early jazz tunes came right out of the world of ragtime. Man, back in those days life was fat for the piano player. He was the superstar! He could do anything. Still can, if you’ll be so kind as to notice me.” Red stood and executed a mock-solemn bow, earning a couple of half-hearted claps and hoots from a couple of inebriated patrons at the bar. “Yes indeed, my boy, even today, the piano is the best instrument for the working musician. You got the whole orchestra at your fingertips! Guitar players can do pretty well too, but they always have to leave some subtleties out.”
Jack noted, “Red, not a whole lot of what you have been doing is what I would call subtle.”
“Oh yeah?” Red challenged. “I know subtle stuff that’s way too high class for this room, buddy!” He looked piqued at Jack for a moment and Jack feared his gentle jibe had upset his new friend, but Red’s face softened into a grin after a few seconds and he quietly said, “Allow me to illustrate.”
He turned back to the piano and began a piece in the high register that had a melancholy quality although it still had plenty of rhythm. While it began in a more sophisticated style than Red had exhibited in the past few tunes, it soon began to get hot again, and by the time the old piano player was coming towards the end, the piano was rocking and did not stop until Red completed the coda.
There was no response from the crowd, as nobody in the bar knew the tune Red had just finished, but Jack told him he thought it was really catchy. “Should be,” Red chortled, “it was written by none other than George Gershwin!”
“Red, I know a fair amount of Gershwin and I’ve never heard that piece. What was it?”
“Why, it’s ol’ George’s only rag. He called it Rialto Ripples. While the original tune is very ripple-y, I like to put a bit more muscle into it, but you notice the folks here couldn’t care less if they tried. I gotta say, Jack, I usually only use about 10 percent of my repertoire when I’m playing for people. Ev’ryone wants to hear the same tunes over and over. Why that song is an early masterpiece by one of our country’s most talented composers! Five years later he’d be the first guy to blend jazz and classical music together in his Rhapsody in Blue tune!”
“Hey, can you play that?” Jack requested excitedly.
“I ain’t getting’ paid enough!!” Red snarled. “Ain’t getting’ paid at all, come to think, except for booze and that’s not enough to tackle somethin’ so…so…” Red trailed off and sat still. After a couple of seconds, he muttered, “And, that’s one I don’t really do. Too long to really learn when you don’t read so good. Ah well, most of the folks here wouldn’t want that anyway. This is the tune that’ll get ‘em going again!”
Red began to play fast and furious, and from the first notes Tiger Rag had the crowd hopping, stamping their feet, clapping their hands and shouting, “Hold that Tiger!!” when the famous chorus came around. The stamping of feet and pounding of fists was so loud it threatened to drown out Red’s playing. His fingers were a blur and his left hand pumping out the stride bass was almost holographically transparent it was moving so fast. The piano shook as he crashed into the ending and the tumult was deafening with glasses being broken and Jack even thought he’d heard a gunshot! He’d heard stories of an Old and Wild West but was a bit concerned that he now appeared to be experiencing a remnant of it.
As Red caught his breath, Jack wondered if it might not be time for him to leave the old piano player, not just for his own safety but because Red looked as if he was all in, done and out. But he was captivated by both the music and the musician and wondered if he might change the tone so as to stay just a bit longer.
“Red, I’ve heard you play some really exciting stuff; music that I’ll remember for a long, long time. I was wondering if you play anything that you wrote. Maybe a pretty, slow piece?”
Red considered Jack’s question for a moment. “Well, Jack, from time to time I do fool around with makin’ up my own tunes. I have a blues that I play almost ev’ry night as the evening winds down. I change it a lot each time I play it, but the chords and the roadmap stay the same.”
Jack inquired, “Do you mean you keep the harmonic progression and the structure of your blues constant but change some of the details of the piece?”
Red squinted at him for a second. “Well, I guess I do if you insist on usin’ that college brat language,” he responded with a lop-sided smile. “Sure makes me sound like I know what I’m doin’, don’t it?”
Jack returned, “Red, for sure you know what you’re doing. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone play the piano with such energy and such feel.”
“Aw, you’re makin’ me blush, son. I just do what comes natural and hope folks like it. I think I’ll stay for a while here. The crowd likes my music, the booze flows nice and smoothly and it seems like you just might want to hear some more from me.
“So now I’ll play my blues. Since I’m usually pullin’ up stakes ev’ry week or so—sometimes each night until I find a good fit—I call this tune the Movin’ On Blues. Sometimes movin’ on makes me sad and quite often makes me real glad! The rendition is sorta a mirror as to how I’m feelin’ about my life at that moment. So let’s see what we get.”
Turning once again to the piano, Red began to caress the keys as Jack had not yet heard him do that evening. He made that piano sing of travel, longing, excitement, adventure and heartbreak. Jack could catch the form of the piece, but Red kept slipping in new ideas and passing harmonies to such extent that the piece was constantly shifting and remaining true to its title. The place grew more and more still until finally the only sound in the bar was the melancholy sound of the piano filling the listener’s ears and their souls.
When Red whispered his piece to a finish, the silence held for another several seconds and then the chatter and clinking glasses recommenced, although Jack noticed that is was much quieter then before. No one had applauded, which would have ruined the mood.
“Red, that was beautiful. It was actually magic. I loved it!”
“Well, Jack, I’m glad it touched you. Too bad if you want to hear it again, though. It’s diff’rent every time.”
“Then, if you agree, I’d really would like to record your playing,” Jack had hoped that by now Red was feeling comfortable enough with him to seriously consider his request. He was shocked by Red’s response.
“Record ME? Me, Jack? What on earth for? I’m just a travelin’ piano thumper. I don’t have anything to offer that will be lasting. Besides, if I record my music then other people can hear it and maybe steal it, you know?”
“Like you did when you were young and just starting out, Red?” Jack countered, inwardly holding his breath and surprising himself with his effrontery.
Red looked at Jack, opening and closing his mouth repeatedly as he struggled for a response to silence this young sprat. Finally, he let out a whoosh of air and started to chuckle softly. “Now that, young man, is a very rude thing to say to your elder…and right on the mark. We’d all steal from each other! We’d like to say it was some kind of flattery, but really it was just plain ol’ theft. Theft and learning. ‘Course you wanted your sound to at some point become recognizeable on its own; taking what you’d stole from the other players and changin’ it enough that anyone hearing you even without seein’ you would exclaim ‘Why. That’s ol’ Red; I’d know him anywhere. Means we’re gonna have a good night!’”
Jack said gently, “Red, if you’d allow me to record you, more people would hear that unique sound of yours and know it was ol’ Red they were listening to. I’d sure like to do that. And, yeah, other pianists would hear it and those that could would steal stuff from you but that would just get your sound heard even more. Besides, if they steal some licks or tunes from you, don’t you have more in your ammo bag or is that all you have?”
Red bristled. “Of course that’s not ‘all I have’! We ain’t even scratched the surface yet of what I know and what I can do!” He jumped off the stool and exclaimed, “Yeah Jack, I would like to try recordin’ some of my music! Let’s do it and show ‘em that Red has got some real stuff goin’!”
Jack stood and shook his hand. “That’s great to hear, Red. Believe me, I’ll make sure you retain all your rights to anything you record. I’ll make sure no one cheats you.”
“I know that, son,” Red responded solemnly. “I can tell how much you love music. And for you to spend so much time listenin’ to an old geezer like me play and spout off his mouth, you got somethin’ special goin’ for you, boy. If you really think that some of my music is worth capturin’, well I guess we can give it a shot.”
“Old-timer,” began a man standing above them, “you deserve more than a shot!” He placed another fifth of bourbon in front of Red’s delighted face and sauntered back to his seat.
“Thanks buddy,” Red called out. “Well, Jack, I’m gonna do some more playin’. What time should we meet to tomorrow and where?”
Jack gave Red the address and they agreed they would meet at 10 am the next day.
It was 11:30 before Red arrived at the studio where Jack was working. Although Jack was somewhat discomfited by Red’s tardiness, he had been able to edit yesterday’s work while waiting for him so he welcomed Red warmly and brought him into the studio.
Red sat at the piano and noodled a little. “So what do I do?” He asked Jack.
“Play anything you’d like. I’ll just say ‘rolling’ when I have the reel going and you do anything you want. Then we’ll see what we get.”
“OK…hey, Jack, set up a mic for me to talk into as well, alright?”
“Sure. Are you going to sing?”
“No, no…nothing like that! You want it to sound good, don’t you?”
Jack set up the mic, went into his recording room, mouthed ‘rolling’ at Red and Red began talking. Jack captured his spoken routine and musical examples and they decided to call the recording Chopsticks. They recorded many more of the songs Red had played the previous night and during the course of the day they solidified their friendship. Jack knew he’d be hearing much more of Red in his future.