Pt. 1 - Grade School
“ ...it was known that I was taking piano lessons, a fact that up until then had not earned me any points on the street. ”
"Perhaps it is a peculiarity of mine that... I have always preferred playing without an audience." Bill Evans (1929-1980)
I used to play the piano. Quite a bit, in factand I even got paid for it, sometimes. I started taking lessons when I was 11 years old, and ended up playing in rock 'n' roll garage bands during the 1960s, "fusion" groups during the 70s, top-40 bands during the 80s, and jazz combos during the 90s. I've played solo, in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and octets. I've played on Farfisas and Hammonds, Wurtlitzers and Fender-Rhodeses, and I've done it in gymnasiums, nightclubs, auditoriums, church basements, bowling alleys, coffee shops and bookstores.
These days, once every proverbial blue moon, if no one else is around, I may sit down at the sad, broken-down, out-of-tune spinet in the basement and dither out something by Horace Silver or Dave Brubeck or Chick Corea. But the several non-functioning notes (some of them critical) are frustrating, particularly to a harmonic-minded player. And the broken surfaces of the keys themselveswhich, in many cases are exposed down to their wooden corescan be rough on the fingernails, even drawing blood if I permit myself to become intoxicated by my own exuberance. As for the foot pedals ... well, the less said the better...
As with most things, the stage was set in my youth. Parents can never really determine the direction their children take once they have set them in motion. My musical development is a wonderful example. Although my mother envisioned me playing "Pomp and Circumstance" and other decorous pieces on the spinet in the dining room ("Must you play that awful Bartok?"), leave it to an adolescent to follow the influence of his peers instead.
While several of my buddies were taking up the guitar, bass or drums, in response to the then-ascendant British Invasion, I was reduced to nerdhood, as usual, by my mother's insistence that I take up the piano. Like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, my fate had been written in the stars long before my birth.
My mother, a genuinely musical woman blessed with a beautiful singing voice, was a frustrated pianist who felt cheated out of her chance to play the instrument. Although her sisters had been given lessons when they were girls (for a year or two, before they started waitressing in my grandfather's restaurant), my mother's turn came along at a very bad time: the death of her oldest brother.
Now when a Greek household goes into mourningespecially over the death of an eldest sonit REALLY goes into mourning. For a year, there was no radio, no card-playing... and the piano was draped in black. By the time the mourning was over, my mother's window of opportunity to take piano lessons had passed, and it was time for her to start waitressing after school in Papou's greasy spoon (where, incidentally, she met my father).
So it was my mother's idea to have me take piano lessons. But it was my father who gave me the hands for it. Pater Familias was vain about his hands, with their long, sculpted fingers, as he was about his appearance generally. In his younger days, by all accounts, he was something of a dashing young zoot-suited blade in the jitterbugging dancehalls of Youngstown, Ohio, where he evidently cut quite a dashing figure. He always remained something of a clotheshorse and ever-fancied himself a devastating charmer of the ladies. Over the course of his lifetime, a great many pairs of feminine eyes were rolled behind his backbut he did receive a great many compliments from women about his hands.
As did I, beginning at an early age, when my aunts (the ones who took the piano lessons my mother didn't get to take) would remark upon them, exclaiming that "with hands like that, this boy should be a pianist, etc., etc." My mother usually nodded in quiet agreement; they were preaching to the choir. She had long since decided that if she couldn't play the piano, then one of her children (most likely me) would fulfill that desire vicariously. But she never imagined that I'd end up playing jazz, which she looked down upon as "music that n***** hopheads play in whorehouses." (While politically incorrect, she was, of course, historically correct, as any knowledgeable resident of New Orleans can attest).
But before she met my father, making me a possibility, he was still tripping the Light Fantastic in his zoot-suit with the drape-shape. At this point in his life, he had an argument one night with some of the guys in the Dorsey Brothers Big Band. Years later, when he saw I was beginning to appreciate jazz, he demonstrated his contempt for it by telling me the story.