PIANO MAN

It was a Friday night when I got off the bus in Portland. There was a chill in the air. I was going to a restaurant to meet a pianist.

His name was Art and he had a gig playing jazz at an eatery downtown. I’d rather be composing, he said, and shrugged.

Quite an adventure, going to stay with a person I’d know for just a couple of intense weeks through a personal growth course in Northern California. I wouldn’t be so adventurous now, wouldn’t be so trusting. But Art was a cool dude and one of the smattering of non-therapists doing the training. We hung out a bit during breaks and I was able to stretch my limited knowledge of jazz into something that connected us.

On the final night we performed together, me reciting a poem I’d written a few days earlier while Art extemporised energetically on the careworn upright in the main hall. It was fun, even though his brilliant improvisations didn’t entirely coalesce with the song-like stanzas I’d crafted. Art wanted reading as dramatic as his playing and kept encouraging me to pump up the verses. I’ve always preferred poetry read in a slightly bored monotone—let the words add the energy, not the voice. My writing could use such toning down; too much vibrato sometimes. Still, we did something, Art and me. Something co-created, something new; it forms a bond. As the group disbanded the next day, returning to homes interstate or across the world, a farewell conversation with the venerable teacher revealed that he had not realised the poem was newly written about the journey we’d all taken. You wrote that? Huh! Thought it was from a book.

So I was in an unfamiliar city on a chilly early Autumn evening asking directions for Higgins Restaurant and Bar (or whatever it was called) from the entirely disinterested person behind the office window. And not for the last time, fell into the beginner’s trap of not specifying I was on foot. People just assume you have transport, even if you are carrying a pack and just got off a Greyhound. Just walk straight out the door and turn left, it’s not far.

Trudging up the wrong side of a six lane highway through the Oregon night I saw no-one. Shuttered windows and speeding cars with yellow, jaundiced eyes. Wondered about a cab but had no idea how to action that; no mobiles in those days. A weary ‘eventually’ later, I found the place. Stood on the door-step feeling nervous; sounds of eating and muted conversation from the lit interior. Sounds of piano, too. That gave me courage.

A whispered conversation with the Maître D’ then a small seat near the piano. Another basic instrument, better cared for. A nod from Art but not much else. Focussed on his playing. Diner attention on their meals or companions or conversations. Talking a bit louder when Art played a more energetic passage. I wondered if his frown was concentration or a reaction to the indifference of the audience.

Let’s go to Higgins, they gotta piano man on Friday nights.

Loud isn’t it, in this small space? Don’t worry, I think he’s almost finished. Dessert?

The artist’s life.

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A gift indeed. As was Art’s hospitality.

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