When I was a young man, I went to an Orff workshop taught by a nationally acclaimed teacher and thought, “I can do that.” I could and I did and I still do and it has been at happy life. But now at the far end of that career, another door is opening a crack to another glorious land and a beckoning finger inviting me to step through it— cocktail pianist! I’m sure I’ll keep teaching kids and adults Orff-style until my last breath, but such a delight to step into these new shoes—and with a fancy suit to match!
Three times now, thanks to my Pentatonics jazz band bassist Sam Heminger, I’ve played in the opulent, historic and lush Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. It’s a gorgeous place to sit and play for three or four hours, a fine Yamaha grand piano, a tall glass ceiling, dressed up in a new suit, purple shirt, striped tie and Spanish beret, playing through the Great American Songbook with some blues, Miles and Monk thrown into the mix. For a blue-jeaned barefoot Orff teacher sitting on the floor with three-years olds, it’s a remarkable contrast to feel such elegance. I’ve been practicing jazz piano in the woodshed of my home my whole life and now I feel like the woodcutter in the fairy tale brought by fate and circumstance into the King’s Palace, betrothed to the Princess.
Of course, it’s weird for a musician to be excited about being a cocktail pianist, the equivalent of acoustic wallpaper. This most recent time, the manager told us to play much quieter because people in a meeting next store were complaining. It was an interesting musical challenge to play whole songs at ppp volume and intriguing at first. But soon we felt like horses eager to race pulled back by our bridles and were itching for that meeting to end so we could play. But from management’s point of view, we’re no more than part of the furniture, to be arranged and re-arranged as they see fit.
And the people who come are talking to each other or texting on their phones or working on their computers. They’re not there for the music. So it’s a fun challenge to see if we can catch their ear and get that little sprinkling of applause at the end. My first time playing, we did and in fact, some people were so enthusiastic that they ran up and stuffed a tip in a glass (something that apparently we’re not supposed to accept). But the last two times were more lukewarm.
But hey, that’s okay, because from my point of view, we’re getting paid to practice! Sweet deal! Not a lot (pay, that is), but even after a full day of school, to play great music from 5 to 9 with fine musicians (Sam on bass, Joshi Marshall on sax or Scott Jensen on trumpet) is a fairy tale dream come true. And though I had a jacket and nice pants and shirt and shoes my first time, management wanted an actual suit, something I haven’t owned since my wedding and no way that still fits me. So I went down the block to Men’s Warehouse a casual blue-jeaned guy and emerged an elegant man, struttin’ down Market St. like a dapper Jelly Roll Morton thinking, “Check me out, San Francisco!” That was a different feeling.
Also fun to go “backstage” during the breaks, which is down to the bowels of the hotel with the help, the underside of elegance. Some fabulous warm-hearted people working there, always fun to exchange greetings and sit in the cafeteria watching a bit of the Warriors. And interesting to be the help, required to stay out of sight and not fraternize too much with the guests. Because I have no investment in my identity as a musician, none of it is insulting, just kind of a fun game to play. If my luck holds out, I’ll get to keep playing it.
Next gig, May 20th. If you’re in town, stop by.