1000 bonus points to anyone who gets that reference, by the way.
I owe my interest in music to a number of people. I sat next to Chris Castellanos, one of the best horn players in the world, for two years in high school which went miles towards my involvement with classical music. Mentors like Ken Woods and Rob Baldwin got me exploring all kinds of interesting orchestral repertoire in new and exciting ways. Close friends like Dan and James were there to experience live concerts, marathon listening sessions, and the general exchange of ideas. More recently, my friend Dave McIntire has gotten me investigating musical worlds I didn’t know existed. But before I ever knew any of these folks, my first musical experiences came from listening to and being around my dear mother.
Mom is not classically-trained. I’m not entirely sure she’s trained (though she is house-broken). I seem to recall stories of some lessons very early on, but the overwhelming majority of her musical education is from the University of Just Play the Fucking Piano. She’s had a long career in music, sprinkled around raising four kids and an endless slew of pets. Her focus is largely jazz and show tunes, though she’ll throw in the occasional classical accompaniment from time to time. And she plays a supremely entertaining Joplin rag even though I’m fairly certain that her left hand isn’t big enough to play the octaves. Mom’s strongest appeal as a player is her style, sort of a homeless man’s Oscar Peterson (obviously Peterson’s technical skill is in another realm, matched by maybe a dozen pianists who have ever lived). Simple and musical with tons of soul. There are thousands of people who can play the piano “better” than she can, but there are only a small handful that I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing that can play MUSIC on the piano better than she can.
One of my favorite stories illustrating this took place a few years ago, at a charming coffee shop in Tacoma, WA that’s now closed called Mandolin Café. It was Christmas Day, and we went there to have some coffee and hang out. It started snowing when we got there, and it was about as close to a Norman Rockwell painting as I’ll likely ever get: family, snow on Christmas, and music in the background. It was the music that was the letdown. Some gent went to the piano they had set up and proceeded to play some jazzy shit from the “hey everyone check out how complicated this is” method of performance. We listened, clapped when he was done, and moved on with our lives. Then mom went to the piano, sat down, and played 20 minutes of jazz-infused Christmas music that ended with everyone in the coffee shop singing “Jingle Bells” like the God damn Salvation Army Carolers (is that actually a thing?). The folks in that place LOVED the music, and it’s not hard to understand why. It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t technically brilliant, it was just good, soulful shit.
When I was in high school, my friends knew that my mom was a piano player, so she did a lot of accompanying at solo and ensemble festival every year. That kind of dwindled as the years passed though, thanks to one of my other favorite skills of mom’s: the ability to hear chord structures before they happened and come up with alternate progressions. MOST of the time you could count on her to keep the same number of measures, but quite frankly all bets were off if there were one of those extended sections of orchestral reductions. There were some I didn’t really get, but occasionally there were some absolutely bizarrely awesome changes. I remember playing one of the Mozart Horn Concerti (I think it was the 1st) and there was a 6-bar sequence in the first movement that all of a sudden sounded like Mozart inhabited the body of Richard Strauss, and I mean that in the best possible way. It was insane and awesome. I remember another similar situation when the aforementioned Chris and I played the Beethoven Horn Sonata in unison, which was among my greatest musical sacrilege moments of all-time.
When I was doing my masters conducting recital, I had to have a soloist as one of the requirements. I was instantly like, “I gotta get mom in on this.” I wanted it roughly structured like something classical but with mom’s areas of interest and expertise. What resulted was a five-movement hodgepodge of arrangements that I wish in hindsight I would have called “Stolen Concerto for My Mom and String Orchestra”:
1) Peacherine Rag
2) Honeysuckle Rose (which mom sang)
3) Loungin’ at the Waldorf
4) Harlem Serenade (for solo piano, kinda like a cadenza)
5) It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
She was awesome. And it really dovetailed nicely with another of my all-time musical sacrilege moments, which was putting the raw brutality of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony op. 110a between that and Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plunk. I should have a CD of that somewhere…I’ll put some of it up if I can track it down.
Another specialty of mom’s is the ability to seamlessly transition between pieces with such little effort that she can play a piece, transition to a new one, play the next one, and so on all while carrying on a conversation. One Sunday we were at church (yes, I used to go to church) and she was playing organ. When the service ended, she was playing a postlude that began with the Bach Prelude in C major. She was, of course, talking to someone while she was playing and I was sitting waiting for her. After whoever she was talking to left, she leaned down to me and said, “Am I playing Old Black Joe?” And the answer was yes. She had transitioned from playing Bach Preludes to a Stephen Foster parlor song that some have argued was the apex of Foster’s racism (to be fair, others, including WEB DuBois have argued the opposite). I mean, fuck yes. That’s rad as hell.
And that’s a perfect summation of my mom’s musicianship in a nutshell. She knows a shitload of songs, she can play them in a bunch of ways, she can connect musical dots in a way that’s almost creepy, and if she can’t play it, she can fake it in a way that’s occasionally more interesting than the real thing. She’s got a way with an audience, too. She’d be really great at one of those dueling piano bars, but you wouldn’t need the other piano. It’d be like a weird hybrid of Victor Borge, Anna Russell, Katt Williams, and Paul Shaffer, and it would be epic. If I ever had enough money to open a small lounge/club, I would totally make that happen.
And it’s her birthday on Friday, too. Happy birthday, mom. You’re awesome. Thanks for the musical genes and for all the fun over the years. May you have another 40 or so of bringing a smile to everybody who hears you.