• Otter Views: The Patio Piano

    People who enjoy jazz are said to make up less than one percent of the commercial music market. This is easy to verify when you’re traveling. For every jazz radio station you might pick up, there are a thousand rock, rap or country stations.

    Sales bear this out. The gold standard in pop, rock or country music is a million units, and top acts routinely eclipse that tenfold. By contrast, the entire hundred-year history of recorded jazz has kicked out only three million-sellers: Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and Herbie Han- cock’s “Headhunters.”

    Jazz seems a taste not widely sought or acquired. Yet I acquired it early in childhood and have been hooked ever since. When I ask other “jazz people” how they got into this obscure music, many say they heard it around the house as kids.

    The jazz source at our house was a battered upright piano of my dad’s that resided on various seaside patios. It was a compact, solid model equipped with small teak wheels. Built in the early 1950s, it had “two-tone” decor like many cars of that period. The body and legs were chestnut-colored hardwood, but the frame was of some tough beige material.

    The patio piano was the successor to instruments my dad had known during a Depression-era childhood in the Midwest. Back then, many homes still had a living room adjunct called a parlor. In the parlor dwelt an upright piano, a spinet, a pump organ, or in a few cases, a baby grand. Someone in the household was expected to be able to play, and the others would gather around to sing. This was “parlor music,” a quaint 19th century custom doomed when the first TV set clicked on.

    Thanks to these parlor sessions and some childhood lessons, enough piano crept into my dad that he was able to “get around” on the keyboard thereafter. He was no Horowitz, but he had a good ear for intervals and could play jazz chord progressions in an energetic, percussive “locked hands” style.

    In music, my dad eschewed anything “square.” He liked odd time signatures, off-beat keys, and discordant voicings. He had heard Oscar Peterson in Toronto and Art Tatum in Chicago, but those fleet-fingered keyboard geniuses defied imitation. My dad found his true metier when he first heard Dave Brubeck.

    As it happened, Brubeck also played a fair amount of “locked hands” piano as he was coming up in the late 1940s, and he was the antithesis of square. Before his famous trio, octet and quartet recordings, Brubeck worked briefly as a single. My dad recalled hearing him shortly after the war at a bar called The Zebra Lounge.

    That must have been a eureka moment for my dad. Here was Brubeck, playing “locked hands” piano, banging away at the keyboard, sounding, as one critic later put it, “like a woodsman chopping down redwood trees.” From that day forward, my dad was a Brubeck devotee, and the patio piano rolled into our lives accordingly.

    My earliest memories of jazz probably date from about 1952. I remember falling asleep many nights to my dad’s playing. The dark, woody chords walked through the house and into my room like jazz footprints. On other nights, the piano vied with the loud talk, charade games and boozy laughter of parties organized by my mother Eileen, a literary refugee from Montana.

    Bill could play rudimentary piano jazz and enjoyed its rhythmic challenges, but Eileen may have been more a “jazz person” at heart. She had literary and artistic inclinations that manifested as a lifestyle more than a life’s work. Her art, if she had one, was assembling interesting combinations of people – poets, hipsters, beach boys, artists and theater people. Her métier was the salon.

    When entertaining, she favored Chinese-style silk pajamas fashioned from the bright, floral rayons popular in postwar Honolulu. Cigarette holder in one hand, highball in the other, she would array herself amid bright Chinese pillows on a broad, island-style couch called a punee.

    Guests would join her on the punee or sit nearby in rattan chairs and couches. Jazz and dance music issued from a hi-fi set, or when my dad was in the mood, from the piano on the patio. The sounds of laughter, conversation, dancing, singing, and jazz formed the lullaby of my childhood.

    Forty years later, I helped move my dad out of his last house into an apart- ment. Cancer stricken, he would only live another year, but he wanted that old piano to go with him. Yet when the movers and I tried to roll it, the termite-riddled instrument fell apart. As the soundboard struck the patio, the piano released a long, dark, discordant chord. Brubeck would have approved.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 19, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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