When Oscar Hammerstein suggested to my father that he might be better off pursuing a degree in architecture rather than chucking it all to become a composer and performer of popular song, it must have been quite a blow. Dad had come by this ambition honestly enough; his mother having worn away a divot with her elbow above the keyboard of the family piano, teaching neighborhood kids in Duluth over the span of sixty years. Whereas architecture was the field he chose, piano was something he absorbed from birth like language.
My own piano lessons were provided by a withered harridan in a stuffy, over-heated, third-floor walk-up. Redolent of stale sweat and radiator steam, the tiny room contained only the piano and a bench, warmed by my tormentor's bony buttocks, upon which I was reluctant to sit. There she would lean in to me with her lavender, pancake foundation and tissue-stuffed cuffs, chewing on licorice pastilles and urging me to arch my fingers. Too lazy to become a proficient sight-reader, I learned to play most of our repertoire of etudes and minuets by ear, eventually frustrating my teacher to the point where she threw up her hands in a cloud of talc and sent me home.
Over the next few years I prevailed upon my parents to start investing in a drum kit in rich, red sparkle. Beginning with a bass drum, upon which I immediately painted Johnny and the Rebs, even though I wasn't Johnny and there were no Rebs, my mother and I would take the subway down to Manny's Music twice a year to select another piece. By the time I lost interest in the drums altogether, I'd amassed a high-hat and crash symbol, a snare and two tom-toms.
There followed a long flirtation with the flute, which I chose primarily because it was not a guitar, and upon which I learned to play a Bolero by ear and not much else. Around this time – tenth or eleventh grade – the saxophone began to tempt me and by the middle of my freshman year in college I'd rented a tenor and taught myself the simple riffs and obbligatos behind the Supremes and Temptations. As it happened, Providence at that time was a mecca for young guys my age in wing-tips and zoot suits who really could play the sax; every bar and coffee shop had a resident quartet or big band and it wasn't long before I bought a vintage suit and began torturing ballads like Body and Soul and Polka Dots and Moonbeams while imagining the soft, dissipated, lush life I'd someday spend in some small dive.
One fine day, well into my post-youth period in Brooklyn, a call came in from a friend who was putting together a photo-shoot for GQ. The shoot was all about tuxedos and the theme was to be a sort of retro, ballroom scene based loosely on a story by John O'Hara. My friend had called me because her boyfriend played double bass in a bluegrass band and she knew I owned a saxophone. Together with a few other ne’er-do-wells – a rock drummer and a couple of friends who just looked good in black tie – she was trying to fashion an ersatz, prop orchestra to take the bandstand for the shoot. Flattered at the prospect of being seen even peripherally in the pages of GQ and attracted by the princely sum offered for spending a Saturday dressed to the nines in an historic mid-town Club drinking beer and posing with my horn, I had just one caveat. We would not, under any circumstances, I made clear, be asked or expected to actually play anything. No, she assured me, we were just props. As she chuckled at the thought of us - a rock drummer, a blue-grass bassist, a tone-deaf pianist and guy who'd confined his saxophone playing quite literally to the closet – I felt a faint chill at the back of my neck.....
On the appointed day we were fitted into our tuxedos, fussed about with hair gel and set loose upon the catering tables and beer tubs to await the call. After several hours of noshing, swilling and sinking ever deeper into the soft, leather club chairs, the band was finally summoned to take our places. And Boy, did we look sharp! With a hundred men and women in evening-wear milling around before us, the spot-lights picking us out upon the stage and the undeniable power imparted by good hair, a fine buzz and a fabulous suit, I was momentarily lulled into the belief that we could do this; we could actually pull this off. I looked around for our producer but couldn't spot her in the crowd. A man with a clip-board directed the photographers toward the stage; I gripped my horn, assumed my best Lester Young pose, eyes rolled up towards the lights, and held it, fingering the keys, mutely, for effect. Someone on the dance floor shouted, “Come on, guys, play something!”. A cacophony of requests floated up from the crowd as I turned, confused and mortified, to look at my friend Doug on bass. “OK, fellas...” shouted the man with the clip-board, “ Hit it!”
I could hear the soft brushes on the snare behind me as Doug plucked a string, beginning a long, slow intro into Polka Dots and Moonbeams.