Uptown and All That Jazz

Kander & Ebb. Roxie & Velma. CHICAGO, June 3rd, 1975.

“Come on babe, why don’t we paint the town?
And all that jazz
I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down
And all that jazz
Start the car, I know a whoopee spot
Where the gin is cold but the piano’s hot
It’s just a noisy hall, where there’s a nightly brawl
And all that jazz”

I remember the stage. No, it wasn’t Broadway or 1975. In 2011, a piano and I wonderfully joined a talented cast and pit orchestra on June 22nd in front of a packed house for the first of four shows. The Mishler Theater stage in Altoona, Pa, was underfoot at precisely 7:30 … and magic began when the ages old red and gold curtain rose. We were together. An entire cast – with a supporting pit on stage right and an excited pianist behind a concert grand stage left – ready to paint the town.

All that jazz – witnessing the rehearsal stresses, music changes, conflicts between people who do show-things differently in their brains – didn’t matter to me once I looked over to my pit director. Downbeats of an Overture on opening night melted away misfit memories from two previous months of stops and starts.

Left-right-left-right/Bass-treble-tonic-dominant alternating action between two very experienced hands ushered in “All that Jazz” as the Overture danced marvelously into an opening act. I loved every note of every song and the hotness of the piano under sensational spots. Four nights. Hours of absolute treasureness behind the keys.

There’s never been a final curtain from that show for me. After the Sunday matinee, my mom approached the stage as I stepped off the front riser. She, surprisingly, bought a ticket to attend the show a second time after seeing it on opening night. Exhausively and four-show drained, I gave her a big hug to accept a congratulations realizing this was to be the last time a son’s show performance would be in front of a mom’s tired eyes. A final curtain came the following March. Cancer, at that point, had been her noisy hall and brawl. Her first and second acts were produced & directed the best they could. It was time to enjoy what time could offer … and enjoy she did – watching the Cell Block tango girls, Roxie, Velma, and the entire cast of “Chicago” jazz up the stage. I won’t forget. No final curtain on the memories a decade ago.

All that Jazz then, and “Uptown Jazz” last night. A connection, of sorts, to the past. Kinda.

Below is a musically talented friend and all-around good guy, Dave, at the keyboard, on a smaller stage in a cast of four. He’s sitting on a stage where there were no big production dances, stockings down, sexy outfits, murder, or plot twists. Just a pianist, vocalist, set player, and bassist/guitar player. Oh, a dinner buffet, alcohol, and a relaxed piano player in the audience not concerned about vocal cues or four-show happy stresses.

He’s 25% of “Uptown Jazz” and a very versitile keyboard player. To type his contribution as “one-quarter” is understating his talent. Singer, songwriter, “jazzer”, educater, recording engineer, sound technician, … our community is blessed to have a musician of his skill perform within many combinations of pluckers, strummers, paradiddlers, and vocaleers.

I sat in a dimly lit room, back from some semi-alcohol saturated beings, as one of three sitting close together at a round table normally set for ten. The people situation was more crowded up front. To be expected, since acoustically, “microphone speak” was less like Charlie Brown’s teacher closer to the stage than where we where. “Mmpf … Err , ddrph la ruch” is pretty close to all we could understand between set songs – which makes the notes Dave was stroking on the keys extra special.

Notes from his piano floated uninterrupted as he played a few instrumental pieces in a trio/combo. Jazz. Granted, “Uptown Jazz” performed most numbers as an impressive four, but I enjoyed the deep jazz trio work the best. New York, small, smokey, underground jazz club tug-and-pull, complex chord structure … All that Jazz work impressed my classical piano soul a lot.

It was a nice evening. Even though driving, from my direction, was kinda downtown to the UVA Club … heading “uptown” to hear Dave play again was worth the small cover charge and four-times that for the land-and-sea buffet. Now, to be honest, there was no Roxie to crawl across the table in sexy lingerie last night like she did on my piano ten years ago. Dave’s best playing wouldn’t erase that moment in my memory, but his musical dexterity and kindness certainly made the evening more enjoyable than most.

Hours earlier, I started the car to head into a spot – not a whoopee spot, though. I drove into an Altoona location where jazz would, once again – at least in part – be heard … a few blocks away from where my mom last sat listening to hear a son perform, “Nowadays”, the closing number from “Chicago”.

Nowadays, we can relive some memories. Some magical remembrances while sitting in large, dimly lit halls listening to good friends do what we do … in part, of course. I’m a classical guy, Dave’s a jazz player. A piano is a piano, I guess, and music in all its forms is a transporter back to mom and son special moments.

Thanks to Dave, “Uptown Jazz”, and all the local musicians who build the bridges back to kind, wholesome times. Mom can’t thank you enough.

She’s waiting at the edge of the stage to give all of you a great big hug.

A Reflection on Parking

“Yeah well, I’m going to. If not an old Honda, at least my body.” So said a very satisfied brain … as an equally happy, jovial attitude stopped me for a mid-morning respite and a reflection on parking.

It is a Sunday in Hollidaysburg. A very beautiful Sunday, may I add. The day after I travelled 33 miles north to Patton, Pa., with the intention of playing two selections for a matrimonial celebration – one in, one out. An easy “gig” by any measure. Route 36, a pleasant 2-lane I’ve up-and-downed many times before, didn’t disappoint with its resplendent view. Large, electric generating wind turbines more than dot the landscape, but those don’t take away from the lush early-spring greenery and expansive farmland seen along the way. Saturday rushed go-abouts passed me as I took my time … ahead of schedule. Rare was that feeling in my psyche as I am not used to built-in spare time parked into my body.

The 33 minutes rushed by, however. A few wrong turns didn’t distract much once the arrival of never pushing the start icon on google maps occurred to me. The deeply disappointed virtual voice directed my calm self out from the 10 minutes incorrect destination into a more pleasing, correct direction arriving, finally, at my destination: La Ferme Rouge. The Red Farm … to a bride, a groom, a mom who hired me sight unseen, and the best use of spare time I’ve ever had.

A nice, relaxed exhale from a Honda and a pianist – as both parked calmly in the lower lot below a quaint (uhm) red farm building – was experienced by all gathered around that particular lot. Yes, I was early, but moms, dads, and groomsmen alike were pleased to see the pianist arrive. White chairs around in a semi-circle, wonderful trees ahead with a single swag strewn among their glistening, mid-afternoon branches and a small altar sat on top of a finely cut lawn. No bride or bridesmaids swooshed among us. I’m sure there was to be a few as I didn’t attend the rehearsal and was unsure the exact number … only one bride, for sure.

I was aware of Stephanie, the mom. For two reasons, I needed to be in touch with her. Payment for my services and logistics. Money, in this case, was easy. One envelope. Logistics? Simple. Where to set up my piano and that funky little problem of an electric source. All went surprisingly well during the set-up. For those of you who’ve experienced weddings as musicians, I hope you appreciate the ease and comfort in my soul as each step along the way was met with cordialness, sincerity, and kindness. I parked my easiness for a second …

…And then I had a moment to really appreciate this:

It’s a piano I noticed immediately before even turning off the engine. Actually, when turning into the lot moments before, my breath stopped and the eyes responsible for minding the 33 miles blinked and immediately wiped away the earlier missed turn. I notice pianos. Old and new. This one is special.

It’s parked in a forever home, never to make a sound other than wind turning through rotted slots and slits in the case. In the solitude of night, a whispy zephyr must sit and play this live painting while sitting on a treasured tractor seat elegantly placed perfectly behind its beautifully battered keys . If not, what a solitude for nature inside? Plants and small creatures finding sounds of the past inside to be a parking space of safety and calm for their weary selves.

I ushered bridesmaids and a bride on my arm of music as they walked escorted by young men. Beside and between two pianos they stepped. The old and new … silent and audible music pushing forward a husband and wife once again. Two people the old piano has most certainly done before and will do again. Parked in that same spot only a few yards down from a Red Farm.

Today, I remember that piano more than the wedding itself. A few tunes before, none during, and “Marry You” as the recessional. Nothing spectacular. Setting up and tearing down combined with travel time added up to six times the total ceremony minutes. “Do you?”. “I Do!” … Kind of wedding. Tears, clapping, Yeah, us … and Let’s eat! No complaints here. I left with an envelope and really cool memories of a special piano. The family was wonderful. The bridesmaids jumped the gun a bit behind the faux barn doors which made the processional a bit wonky … good thing the bride’s mom had a good laugh with me afterwards. “Dad” even commented, “Hey, welcome to my world!”.

All in all, I could not have asked for May to park a better first day to start the month. This second day, an even better day as the sun peeks through the trees on Allegheny street. I enjoyed a delicious eggs benedict breakfast a few moments ago and bask in the expectation that this month will be just fine … just fine.

Eventually, we’ll be pianos parked on our forever lawn. Silent and worn, but a joy to someone who happens by. Live for that moment.

Still Music to Me

There is a time in life when one needs to write about something very important in his life. Now is my time to write about music.

I certainly can’t know what is a “very important” in your life. Too many possibilities to venture a near guess. Faith, family, career, pet, health …? We’d need an afternoon over subtle mugs of warm tea and pleasant conversation for me to understand your life’s targeted importance. As individual as we are, so are our focused attentions and interests.

I love music. It is my connection to life. It is where deep connections are made with those I adore. The space around me when I sit at my piano is happily hallowed – where all of the surrounding mistakes of present day slings and arrows can’t reach me. While listening to music, an invisible cloak of safety surrounds my unsettled reasoning of the day … protecting all my insecurities. There is no equal to music’s magic.

I’m not the best at it. Humility comes with ten fingers that not only miss my mom, but also at least a small percentage of notes expected to be accurately executed one at a time always falling on the floor – unfulfilled. Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, … all of them most likely understanding my hearted attempts to carry forward their genius, but coming up a few strides short of the Sibelius Finnish line. They understand, I’m sure. Very few can achieve perfection. Those that do, do. Lang Lang, young Evren Ozel from Minnesota, and blind jazz pianist phenom Matthew Whitaker to name some amazing musicians surrounding our lives.

I mention my imperfections because we have them, right? I love music because it always reminds me I am not perfect. I am, humbly, better than the average pianist … and I know the limits within my skill set.

Within those limits are the connections I make to others as a musician. The over-arching category here for a musician is “artist” and what you see scrawled on walls about town is, for the most part, true: “Artists are kinda weird” … Especially those of us who think a bit outside the normal box of ideas. Our corners aren’t quite square, perhaps, and we don’t look at the world quite the same as most.

My mom was a weirdo, laughingly so. This is why I miss her – even as an older kinda-weird guy. She didn’t give me many sane, common sense ideas on how to be a normal, adjusted human. Her world was fun, frolic, and games. “Be nice and everything will always work out for you …”, she spoke repeatedly wondering if I had any pianistic, musical ideas floating around in my skull. As long as there existed Trivial Pursuit, a deck of Pinochle cards in the game cabinet, and an in-tune piano somewhere near, her brain was in Edenic paradise.

She’s not here anymore. I am … and I’m still a musician struggling with connections to other special musicians, sometimes – because they’re off-beat weird, too, having the same problems in life. I make mistakes in missing those communicative notes between us just like I can’t hit all the keys. Very few can, right? Communication is really, really, hard when the music isn’t there … when only words replace beautiful melodies and arching orchestral crescendos.

This is why music is so powerful … so special to me. Why that space is. Just is.

There is no equal to an eyes closed listening of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, Tim Minchin’s “Carry You”, or Cold Play’s “Fix You” covered by Straight No Chaser – all of which I listened to, again, before writing this entry tonight. I needed a shield around my irrationality of the day. Another cold day in February when connections weren’t as hopeful as I had hoped for, and abnormal wasn’t as normal as I am accustomed to – even as a weird musician type.

You know your “very important” in life. I hope this not only includes a “thing” like, maybe, music, but also really cool people with whom you can make a connection. You’re not going to hit all the right note or keys. Do the best you can to make what you do your best effort, anyway. If you’re struggling with what to do, call me and we’ll meet up for tea and conversation.

That is, if you can put up with a little bit of kinda-weirdness for an hour or two.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. TheĀ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

Life is Grand in Small Pieces

It’s most likely the pianist in me. Eighty-eight keys arranged by white and black pieces, 52 + 36 = 88. Simple math. Ten little fingers gracefully stroking the correct ones – at precisely the correct moment – to create music directly from the Masters’ hearts is so special. A purely divine plan easily devised, but difficult to execute well.

Few rise to the level of international fame. More fall into mediocrity and just as many, if not more, succumb to scales and chords of lesser quality. As with any discipline, refined excellence of prodigious talent is really, really rare. Horowitz, Lang-Lang, and Rubenstein are perfect pianist pearls in an otherwise ordinary oyster world.

I fall into one of those categories. Into which one I descend is up to you to decide without hearing me stroke a single key. My dear mother had an opinion when she so diligently listened to my young digits squeak and squirm their way around the keys. Young as I was years ago, I did have an early affinity toward the mathematical 88. The piano/music connection always made sense to me. Middle C was to my brain as breathing was to my lungs, so mom decided early on THIS was to be the grand plan …

… Did you ever get the feeling someone else knew something you didn’t? Just asking. I should’ve finger-figured something was afoot.

Bless her heart, she tried. I didn’t. Call me stubborn … most do – even to this day many decades later. She recognized a gift I refused to open. I knew what I had in my hands was a unique quality … a special talent to play this wonderful, orchestral instrument capable of rich low and sweet high tones. One single vibration, or many clusters of dissonant sounds together at my sole discretion … all available with one twitch of a wrist. Yet, with that knowledge, I fought the less-than-valiant fight against the natural forces given to me at birth.

“Cantankerousistic tendencies” and the drive to be my own stubborn self. Period. End of self-analysis. I’ll send myself a bill.

Mom died eight years ago knowing all this; However, she did see me perform many times on stage both as a soloist, accompanist, and music director, etc… Music became a major part of my life and, aside from being a street vendor selling munchables, still is. I eventually decided to get serious about it after high school and have remained active in the arts community ever since. Mom saw that development in my adult years … yes, I did, kinda, grow up.

She’s so easy to write about and spatter great and wonderful words all over conversation. Her influence on me is immeasurable – in small parts.

Which makes my life so grand.

She saw the big picture for my life, but never pushed it on me. I was left to be me. Now, had I decided to be less of a pain in the ass and practiced more, she would have most likely influenced the “plan”. I didn’t. She didn’t. Instead, we laughed, played games together, colored, told jokes, went to stores and ate fast food, spent time with my brother and sister, ate meals together as a family with dad after he came home from work ….

All the small stuff in life she never ignored.

Wow. What a life lesson for all of us, right?

Big pictures and goals are great to have and to hold. No argument from me about life’s “go afters” that keep the wheels from coming off. None of us need to sit around drinking sodas, eating bbq chips, and watching cable news all day long. That’s definitely NOT worth the weight, correct?

Point being, relax and notice the small things that make you … you. Perhaps the stubbornness? (Ahem) … or the gift you have yet to develop. Maybe the gift in someone else who needs you to recognize and inspire? Could be a joke or game to share with a friend. Who knows?

My mom hasn’t been here for eight years. I’ll never see her again, nor will she hear me play one more time. It’s really ok. She’d always come up after any performance, give me a big hug and say, “How’d you do that? … it was wonderful!”. Now, I know in her heart she meant a heart-squeeze, but I also am aware I missed a c-sharp in the development of the second movement of the Beethoven Sonata and she knew this as well … “

I miss her on a grand scale. My heart heals every day in small pieces.

It’s all good. My ten fingers grace the keys today with almost as much grace as she blessed my life. It never mattered to her into which category I fell … and that, my friends, is a perfectly executed, divine plan.

Sorry, Bach.

It was a warm fall afternoon when I sauntered my way into a small basement studio, knowing nothing about what was to unfold. Inside approached a man, mid- to-late forties, slightly graying slicked back hair, small build with a striking jaw line framing a pleasant smile. He introduced his Eastman Doctoral self to my freshman-neophytic, pianistic-know-it-all, somewhat taller by 3-inches young, almost 18-year-old boy. Thus began our journey into the wonderful world of music exploration and partnership.

Through years of painful re-examination, it took more than eighty-eight keys to unlock doors slammed shut from pride, unsubstantiated self-awareness, and talent with less-than adequate preparation. This basement dweller of higher knowledge and advanced degrees of insight knew this, instinctively, once I began my introductory, “I’ll show you my genius!” … striking the first notes of Chopin’s G-Minor Ballade (of which I felt was so exquisitely played similar to the likes of Horowitz himself, btw). Jim, as I eventually was allowed to call him, stopped me soon after I began, placed his left hand on my shoulder, gently, and calmly said, “We’ll get back to this masterpiece in a bit .. for now, how about we look at Bach?” ….. Noooooooo!!!!

Not Bach!! I spent years avoiding this dry, powder wig, boring dude. There’s no sexiness in Bach!. Bach has no chick-magnet appeal like Chopin, Liszt, or Rachmaninoff. Jim HAD to be kidding me!! C’mon, man! Ok, so Bach had, like 19 kids and I’ve mega-props for his resilience in that department, but his music takes discipline, practice, and eff..eff… ef…fort oh, I started to see the problem. Damn.

Ding ding!! Light bulb moment in my mind, but I wasn’t about to let him know that. Why would I? Stubborn is a trait I am proud of to this day.

To go through the minutiae of my stuffy, eyeball-watering, note-by-night college lesson years with Jim isn’t the point of this post. I’d love to share all the moments. The struggles. Midnight hours alone with Chopin Etudes wearing my fingers to the bone, Czerny exercises sitting on my every nerve, Schumann lyrical lines I just couldn’t shape correctly, and Strauss waltzes accented so improperly I wanted to throw scores of blood curdling screams across the already small studio room … these are some of a thousand rough experiences nestled in among the few perfectly played moments in front of audiences comfortably settled in their plush, velvety seats in the campus recital hall.

I entered college as a music education major specializing in trombone studies. That was the path, anyway. I knew my passion was the way of pianistic endeavors, but earning a living as a pianist was not encouraged. It took a year of studying to convince myself that path, ultimately, wasn’t the way after all … after one phone call and a little paperwork, I adjusted my thinking and set a new way forward.

All this to say I did end up two college degrees. Yeah me, right? Now, I sell hot “dawgs” for a living and am quite proud of my life … and significantly less full of ego than my earlier, late-teen self.

All of this funneling down to my main point. The past month or so, I’ve posted daily piano pieces on Facebook. These exist as video evidence of my love for the instrument and an extension of wonderful music to the surrounding community as well. If you’d like to listen, they are posted under, “Doug Rhodes Piano”. These would not be possible without that first step into that musty, welcoming studio many years ago.

The selections vary from Jazz to Classical, Rock & Sacred to Motown. I believe there are about 40 total. Now, I don’t claim to have the market cornered on what helps any of us during these trying days, but I can at least give you some – if only a few – moments away to think about happier things. Maybe Chopin, Peter Nero, Barry Manilow, Josef Zawinul, Floyd Kramer, Beethoven, the Beatles, or Les Mis can pull you through … hold your hand – with the help of my two hands. I don’t know. It’s my offering to you.

Oh, and there’s no Bach … still. Years later and I’m as stubborn as I always was. Some things don’t change. Sorry, Jim.