Playing for the Orchid Lady

THEY Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano.'' That scare headline on the old ads promising a 10-Easy-Lesson rescue flashed before me during a midsummer night's impromptu ramble at the 88.

It all started with a phone call from friends I hadn't seen since our jam session days. ``We're here for a quick visit. Mother's with us, wants to meet you. OK to come by tomorrow night?''

I did a little warm-up on Fats Waller's ``Ain't Misbehavin' '' and ``Honeysuckle Rose.'' Just in case. I don't ordinarily practice in the summer: open windows, captive neighbor audiences presumably not just laughing after endless stumbles through ``Struttin' with Some Barbecue.''

Almost on my friends' arrival, ``Mother'' said, ``I want to hear you play.'' She was petite, quietly chic in slim orchid pants and matching velour top, her silvery hair softly waved. Would she really want to hear ``Ain't Misbehavin' ''? Mothers, if they were like mine (and, growing up, I assumed they all were), barely tolerated jazz, let alone wanting to hear it: ``Aren't you ever going to play any of your nice pieces?''

But this mother, I had to remind myself, had raised a son who'd been our star clarinet man; this mother had played piano herself early on, and even composed rags.

I eased onto the piano bench, fervently wishing my fellow jammers, long since scattered to their various careers, could materialize and give her a real taste of how it was. Daughter and son-in-law knew -- they had occasionally hosted our sessions. Living then in the Midwest, Mother had never heard us live.

I thought of the photo montage of jazz greats on the wall behind me -- Louis, Benny, Gene Krupa, Illinois Jacquet, Jess Stacy, Bunny Berigan. Maybe they could create the illusion of horns and drums joining in.

Thinking ``Honeysuckle,'' I was almost startled to hear Mother, the Orchid Lady, say, ``Do you know `Misty'?''

``Yes. Erroll Garner.'' (Erroll-at-piano on wall.) I felt fairly secure with it, even with the mildly odd chord changes in the release. Appreciative murmurs at its close when, like a shot, came another Orchid Lady request. ``How about `There'll Never Be Another You'?''

``Ummm. Will try.'' Needed just the right tempo to swing. I could hear Coleman Hawkins booting it along on his bold, big-toned tenor sax. (Hawkins also on wall.) Despite warm response, I rated the performance about C-.

Daughter said, ``Now play something you'd like to do.''

I leaned into the Wallers. More relaxed now, I asked the Orchid Lady a question my mother would have considered impertinent, or at least in poor taste. Even before asking it I had again to adjust the image: jazz clarinetist son, her own ``Purdue Rag'' chosen for a new ragtime collection. ``Do you know `Ballin' the Jack'?''

``Of course,'' she said. ``Let's hear it.''

I gave it a no-holds-barred, up-volume go-round. What if it did barrelhouse out the open windows -- just this once?

For contrast, ``Always'' surfaced as a sort of consensus request. Took the sad-sweet Irving Berlin tune in F, journeying blithely through the first eight bars, then panic: That tricky key change was just ahead, the one that always tripped me up in jam sessions and everyone else had to play louder to cover. ``When the things you've planned,'' I sang frantically to myself. ``Where does it go for `Need a helping hand'?'' None from the All-Stars on the wall. ``To E flat?'' A shattering discord answered No.

Too late I remembered E natural, key of A. I fumbled back to F and on to the end.

``They . . . .'' But they didn't. Daughter even said, the others seconding, ``I could listen for hours.''

To me it felt distinctly like closing time. We drifted outside to applaud the view across marsh and bay, then parted, promising, ``Soon again.''

``Purdue Rag'' sits on the piano now, beside Scott Joplin, Zez Confrey, and Czerny's ``The Art of Finger Dexterity, Book III.'' Awaiting closed-window weather.

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