When I was young my father was a jazz pianist. He was quite accomplished. Played in the Army jazz band as well as in trios and quartets around the Bronx. I grew up listening to him comping to imaginary soloists. It didn't make sense to me, this music that went nowhere and said nothing.
Later he'd pop on an album and show me how what he was playing was the same as the piano player in the band. I couldn't make out the keyboards past the wall of horn sounds. My attention inevitably drawn to Benny Goodman's clarinet -- listen closely on "Sing Sing Sing" and you'll hear where he breaks his reed. That sounded important. Playing so hard and intently the reed breaks.
Once in a while Dad would play "Misty" or "Old Buttermilk Skies", just to satisfy my mother who believed all real music had vocals. Even if he didn't sing along, she could imagine the words to "Someone to Watch Over Me", but usually he sang. And I thought all fathers played piano and sang.
I remember sidling up the keyboard, next to where he sat playing the upright against the living room wall. Every now and then when his hands were on the higher registers I'd pop some of the low-end keys and hear how my additions changed the sound. Usually he'd flush me out of there with the back of his hand gently to my chest.
"Come on, leave me in peace."
Occasionally he'd show me which key to hit and when. I'd usually hit it a couple more times than necessary. And then I'd get the, "Ok, go on. Leave me in peace."
The Osorio Music school came to my third grade class and they tried to get us all to sign up for lessons. The instrument which intrigued me was the accordion. Here was a piano you could carry with you, and not only did it have a keyboard but it had a bunch of buttons. Pressing buttons and playing keyboard seemed like the ultimate musical combination, and the fact my mother laughed and said, "Lady of Spain," about sixty times didn't deter me.
Didn't I want to play piano like my dad?
Dad could only play the keys. He didn't have the buttons.
I played the accordion for a year. Actually stuck with it for a year. In those days we lived in small houses, so a kid learning accordion meant the whole family had to be subjected to my screwing up "Happy Jack" in the key of F six hundred times before dinner. But they put up with me, and were just as happy as I was toward the end to have me forego my practicing.
We brought back the rented accordion.
About five years later a lady down the street offered to give me piano lessons. She was Russian. Her family had escaped the communists. But before they did she had been schooled in an academy similar to Julliard.
I took lessons from her until we moved from Chicago back to New Jersey six months later. They were a glorious six musical months. She taught me finger positions and scales, and naturally we got the "Learning Piano #1" books from the music store. But I quickly progressed passed the first five or six junior books, and when I plopped the score to "Jesus Christ Superstar" on the music stand she didn't flinch, but simply showed me how to play the syncopated left hand to "Heaven on Their Minds" while playing the melody with the right.
She had me playing scales with my hands crossed. Behind my back. Standing at the piano with one hand on the keyboard and the other turning pages. She knew I wanted to be a rock star and saw no reason to train me to play Beethoven. It was all Emerson Lake and Palmer.
After we moved, my parents couldn't afford piano lessons for me anymore. I used my six months of lessons to teach myself as much as I could. With our relocation to the east coast my father stopped playing piano. He was generally depressed and struck out at us. Isolated himself in work he didn't enjoy.
The old upright went untouched, and so I played it while my parents were out. Bought music. Elton John. Yes. Learned the songs by hunting and pecking out each note -- Every Good Boy Does Fine. And F-A-C-E. And Great Big Dogs Fight Animals. And All Cars Eat Gas.
I learned "South Side of the Sky" that way. And "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road". And "Funeral For A Friend". And "Roundabout".
One day I'd saved enough money and bought myself a Rhodes 73 suitcase piano. It was a 180lb electro-acoustic monster I set up in my bedroom. Not long after my brother bought an electric guitar and we became a "band". And we were for eight years.
The last tune I heard my father play happened in my bedroom, on my Rhodes. He sat on the edge of my bed. I turned on the bedroom stereo which was doubling as the amp, and I watched his fingers gliding over the keys. Even after ten years without practice, the Rhodes sang as it never would for me. It knew the difference.
My mom recognized his playing and came up to the room. She stood in the doorway and watched him as he switched from something jazzy and unconstructed to a song with words. And then he stopped in the middle. Took his hands off the keyboard and got up. Said, "That's enough. Good luck with that. Nice piano."
That was 1979. I never heard him play another note.
And my Rhodes piano sounded bad from that point forward, as if it suffered from the depression of having to find a way to accomodate amateur fingers. It's now in the closet in my office, untouched for years.
My paying job has come to an end I decided to take piano lessons to fill some of my free time. Maybe I could unlearn all my bad habits. Because the problem with teaching yourself is you only get as good as you get. You recycle bad ideas, and you never sound any different. After thirty years, I thought it was time to sound different.
My piano teacher is an old pro. Came up through the ranks and played with the greats. Did Vegas with Sammy, New York with Sinatra. He still plays professionally on and off, he says. When he can get it. Occasionally a gig for the holidays.
Of all the things he's having me do this week is to learn a couple songs in "ballad" style. Learn how to handle 10ths with the left hand while playing the melody with the right. Play slow, ignore the time signature.
"You're telling a story," he says. "You tell it in sentences. Not in one big unstopping lump." And he showed me how to throw in grace notes. How to leave spaces your ear fills in.
I put the score on my Kurzweil. My fingers on the keyboard. Tenths on the left hand, melody on the right. Key of C. Last song before closing. Glistening eyes in amber lights. Something old and moody your grandparents used to dance to.
The last song I heard my father play, is the story I'm going to tell.