Joey’s heart had a jolt. The delivery truck from the piano warehouse had stopped in front of his house. Yes, two men, strong with their sculpted muscles came out of it.
“Is this the Furth residence?” asked the taller but younger looking of the two.
“Oh, yes, of course,” responded Joey almost lost for word. He just couldn’t believe his eyes. Finally his childhood dream was about to materialize. He was going to become the owner of a concert piano, on which he could practice all the solos he kept dreaming about or play along all the riffs of his idol, Art Tatum, the quintessential jazz pianist.
“We are here to deliver your Steinway,” words that sounded like music to Joey’s ears. Within 10 minutes, both men were back to his doorstep with the shiny instrument, well lacquered, dark like ebony, lustrous with a keyboard inviting his fingers to tap.
“Where do you want us to install it sir,” asked the older fellow who looked around and whose eyes became focused on the CD cover of Tatum’s greatest hits. Immediately he felt in his milieu because he also was not only a jazz buff but an avid Tatum fan. The apartment had a big foyer and beyond it was the living room, wide and airy.
“Over there would do,” Joey pointed. Tiptoeing around the furniture and handling the instrument as the piece of art it was, the two fellows carefully pushed the piano on the dolly to its destination. Knowing full well how finicky piano owners can be.
“Just call me Joey,” he corrected, already comfortable with the guys as he paid attention to their careful handling of his crown jewel.
“Ok Joey, can you inspect it to make sure it is to your satisfaction and play it to see if the tuning is to your liking?”
“My piano,” thought Joey, “of course I want to play it.” He carefully took position on the seat and imagined he was in front of a large audience; he took a deep breath, clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and levitated his mind into a special zone. This ritual would become a routine for him before any performance. Suddenly as his level of comfort reached the desired niche, he played a rendition of Summertime. Both men clapped at the end of the performance as fluid as the sound was and at Joey’s prowess. He bowed his head and tipped each $40. This was Joey’s lifelong gift to himself, and he felt in the clouds. He had saved quite a bit to give a sizable down payment so the monthly balance payments would not be so hard on his budget. He was an accountant and was making a decent living. However, his first love was music and more specifically the piano. His parents wanted to hear none of it. They didn’t care for the notion of the life of a musician for their only son. Since he was a good student, they had given in and had allowed him to take piano lessons with the condition it would be a hobby, not a profession. He had acquiesced since he had not much choice in the matter.
Now he was a grown-up, able and willing to take the big splurge into what was essentially an expensive toy. This one was a used one, but one could hardly tell because it was refurbished and looked in mint condition like a brand new one. It had belonged to a concert hall and every year the Steinway factory holds an annual sale and that includes refurbished instruments that have the same luster as a new one albeit with some mileage. Joey figured that this type of investment was worth it because he was in essence getting it at a steep discount.
Joey’s love story with the piano ran deep. His uncle was a jazz musician and played the instrument. He had a checkered life story as a professional player. Although very talented, he often was broke because he gambled, used cocaine and drank. His father always looked down on this sorry outcome like a revulsive coda. He used it as a cudgel to beat any idea Joey was nurturing about following his uncle’s footsteps.
That never stopped him from dreaming of being a concert pianist. He studied the lives of the great performers and granted that quite a few died prematurely due to living on the edge, including his idol on the instrument, Art Tatum, who passed away from kidney failure as well as serious liver damage from excessive drinking at age 47, there were enough of them that had a normal life, free of the drama of substance abuse, gambling and other unsavory wonts. Realistically, the chances of becoming a concert pianist in a full-time capacity were slim to none. Such a rarefied environment was due to the very steep competition. At the very least, by practicing rigorously, he could offer small performances for friends, family, and the public at various venues, including his own church or the local library.
Having a full-time job implied practice in the evenings. That in itself caused some problems for his neighbors when he would extend his playing beyond 10PM. If this wasn’t enough of an issue, his social life also suffered because he didn’t have as much time available to spend quality moments with his girlfriend.
“The piano is your real girlfriend. I am just a wall flower that you pay attention to occasionally,” Earline kept reminding him with a dejected look on her face. It was becoming more obvious by the day that sooner or later he would have to make a choice between Earline and the piano because she wanted his full attention and couldn’t stand sharing it. Yet his passion for the piano was such that he failed to see it as a binary choice. He saw no conflict maintaining a human relationship on one hand and take time to develop a mastery of the instrument to as close a professional level as he could muster.
How to do that and satisfy both masters was problematic. Fact is one can’t have two masters. That’s an inherent conflict. For one thing Earline didn’t care for Jazz one least bit.
“What’s wrong with R&B? All these strange notes coming from the keyboard leave me baffled. I like music with a beat to which one can dance. What you are playing is too deep. I can’t relate to it.”
It wasn’t long before the relationship tanked since it was facing too many headwinds. Joey kept pace with a fixed schedule of playing a minimum of 4 hours a day on weekdays with a curfew of 10 PM. That left him little time for dating. Once he put in quite a few hours of rehearsal under his belt, he felt comfortable to test his mettle and perform publicly. His first option was his church. By happenstance when he went to see the pastor to schedule a free concert, there was another person, Josephine, a woman who is a voice teacher who came in with a similar request. She had recently moved to the area and had joined the church.
“I sing opera, jazz, pop. I am so-so at the piano. Maybe we can have a split program where you play solo and then you accompany me on the piano. What say you?”
“Sounds like a win-win proposition to me.” Thus began the collaboration of Joey with Josephine. They rehearsed a repertoire at his place and with each session, cohesiveness became tighter. The first concert featured a medley of compositions from the cited genres by Josephine. Joey had fun playing the music of Tatum solo except it was of such technical wizardry that the average attendee thought it was highfalutin and only the jazz lovers, a minority at that, thoroughly appreciated his feat. At the same time, the most applause came with the pop repertoire and the duet of Joey and Josephine did hit its stride in that style.
Joey had a conundrum. If he wanted a sizable audience, he would have to tone down his style. If he wanted to remain a purist and follow the footsteps of Tatum, he would have a following, albeit very small. This was the type of decision facing professional players all the time, pure art with a small audience or a blend to be able to survive by attracting a larger follow-up. In Joey’s case, survival was not an issue because he had a full-time job and was well remunerated. He had an inner conversation and had to weigh the advantage of using a light fare and gradually introduce the heavy material for mass appeal or stick to his gun and play a style not well understood due to its intricacy and sophistication.
“Joey, there’s a reason why some stars in the classical world have opened their repertoire. A concert by Renée Fleming includes pop. Same for Bocelli. Relying solely on Tatum will not cut it. Think about it.” Josephine advised him with a very refreshing smile that he couldn’t miss.
The solution came by ebb and flow at first and then gentle coercion by a critical mass that couldn’t be ignored. Like a tidal wave in scope. It started with a simple report of the concert in the newsletter.
“We had the privilege of witnessing two great performers during one and one-half hour. The session however was uneven, and the audience did react accordingly. There was warm applause during the repertoire of standard pop tunes with an eclectic rendition. It dimmed somewhat for the jazz part and was polite during the opera section. On the other hand, the solo piano featured a virtuoso speaking a foreign language to the average attendee. Comparing the warmth of the pop section with the up-tempo riffs on the piano, the best example that comes to mind is the searing burn on a delicate stomach by a very spicy fricassee versus the soothing oomph of a lightly seasoned steamed fish. Of course, other members may have a different opinion, but my eyes saw people who were a bit uneasy with that type of far-out, sophisticated but hard-to-grasp style of playing.”
This was a watershed moment and that became the topic of conversation for that ecosystem. People did respond by writing, phone conversation and this mushroomed into a grassroot movement, sort of. By a ratio of 10 to 1, people agreed with the opinion expressed in the newsletter. Something else happened, someone suggested to continue with the concert series and to turn it into a fund-raising activity. Some enterprising members conducted a poll, and worshippers of the church overwhelmingly expressed the desire to have more cultural activities with musical concert at the top. To the question of which format, hands down the choice remained for pop mostly, and people responded to the idea of a mix by adding light jazz and opera in that order. Gospel music was in class by itself. The church also had an outstanding gospel choir that traveled to sister churches from time to time. The feeling was to keep the two separate, the secular from the sacred. As for a charge for the concert, with unanimity the response was positive. The goal was for the revenues generated to go toward the operating funds of the church.
Joey, as an usher at the church, was not tone deaf. He heard the message loud and clear. Something else happened that made him reconsider the opportunity at hand. One day later, around 1PM as Joey returned from a lunch date with a buddy, his cell phone showed an incoming call from his physician’s office.
“Mr. Furth, this is Dr. François’s office. The doctor wants to talk to you.” Joey had a knot in his throat. He had a physical done the previous week and had otherwise complained of feeling a bit fatigue lately but nothing else. Why would his doctor call him now? What kind of news was he going to give him? His pulsation at the temples accelerated, his palms were sweating profusely.
“Mr. Furth, I need to see you right away. This is a very important matter,” the baritone voice said to him. Joey rushed to the doctor’s office. His imagination was running rampant. Stepping into the same office one week later felt so different.
“Mr. Furth, I am sorry to inform you, you have acute leukemia.” An arctic wind took residence in his blood and the coldest shroud cocooned his being. The kiss of death had touched his lips; his world was spiraling down in a rapid vortex.
“Your coverage wouldn’t take effect until the first of next month,” an automated voice had told him when he had checked about his benefits over the phone.
“Your treatment can easily cost upward of $30,000 over the next couple of weeks,” was the laconic answer he received from the office manager of the cancer specialist he next visited. The exact cost of the piano he had just purchased. He had recently changed job and although the pay was more, the benefits wouldn’t kick in until 2 months later. The end of his dream of being a concert pianist. He had forty-eight hours to return the piano provided it was still in the same condition, thanks to an insurance policy he had purchased. His dream instrument would fall victim to the cost of his life until his health insurance became effective. That was an option he had no control over. If he kept the instrument and didn’t receive the treatment, he would face sure death and would not be able to enjoy it anyhow. It was the choice of dying by drowning or falling down a cliff.
“Sleepy head, wake up,” blared his alarm. He woke up drenching in sweats and realized he had a nightmare, the result of drinking this caffeinated booster drink. He pinched himself for the dream was so vivid. “No, I didn’t have any lunch with my friend and my phone didn’t ring and most importantly, I don’t have leukemia and I am not about to lose my piano”, he kept repeating to himself.
That made his decision easier. He saw it as a sign. Later that day, Josephine called, “So Joey, when do we start rehearsing?”
“I leave work at 4, get home at 5, then will make dinner and I should be ready around 7.”
“Let’s make it simple. I will bring dinner around 5:30 since I leave work at usually 3 as a teacher. Will that work?”
Did it work ever? A woman with a melodious voice and an excellent cook sound like a providential suggestion. Joey did indeed have rehearsal with Josephine. The glaring chemistry between these young two effervesced for all to see during the first recital. Some of the love songs sounded like a subliminal message. The riveting optic of the two was reminiscent of the spellbinding posture of a mixed couple of ballet dancers or ice skaters wowing us with their gravity-defying pirouettes, all the while titillating us with very suggestive poses. Like lovebirds.
Like a hand in glove, Josephine came into Joey’s life in a propitious manner. He was just as smitten by the lushness of the vibration of her vocal cords as she was in awe of the deftness of his fingers on setting free enchanting notes. That developed into a mutually satisfying nexus. In her, he found someone who shared his passion for music on one hand but someone who also was pragmatic to help him massage and refocus his perspective and diversify his repertoire. Like the acquisition of a keen sense of detecting the blind bend of a road.
“Need I remind you that as great as Nat King Cole was on the keyboard, he made his name with the richness of his voice no matter with a narrow registry. Let’s not forget that Oscar Peterson, stylistically as close to Tatum as you can find, broadened his appeal and every now and then he would also sing. So be adventurous.” Josephine gently coaxed him.
“Adventurous like asking you to join me for dinner at a restaurant tomorrow for Valentine’s Day?”
Henceforth Joey and Josephine managed to find all the bells and whistles to satisfy an audience. They morphed into a duet that offered serious music in a palatable format to denizens who were not Rhodes’s scholars as well as impress demanding patrons. Joey was able to let loose his improvision skills in a subtle manner or overboard depending on the venue. A restraint facing worshippers would disappear when among jazz buffs. Either way they were known as J&J, a duet who found fusion in musical styles, culinary taste, and sentimental attachments since their first date on Valentine’s Day.
Reynald Altéma, MD.