I taught myself to play piano, hunt and peck style, like learning to type. I could hear sophisticated harmonies and my playing, though untutored, developed a kind of appealing sheen. I’d absorbed hundreds of tunes from composers like Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke, whose harmonic lexicon was irresistible. From time to time I’ll post some anecdotes about my musical adventures.
I played and sang on a luxury train, the American-European Express. It ran from New York to Chicago every Wednesday and Saturday, an overnight hop. There was a Baldwin grand piano in the club car -plus a sound system, and as we glided out of the station at four pm, I’d play a cocktail set for an hour. I wore a tuxedo to add to the flavor, and the passengers would order a Champagne Kir and congratulate themselves on being affluent enough to afford this trip; it cost six hundred dollars, a hefty piece of change in 1980. My set finished at five-fifteen, as the crowd retired to their swank compartments to change for dinner in the elegant dining car. About quarter to five, a pair of young black guys swung through and slowed their momentum long enough to ask me a question: “You be here after dinner?” said the older one. “‘Cause we’ll be back, we’ll bring the horn, hang out and play a li’l with you.” “Oh I’ll be here,” I responded, “but as for playing, the management here is very particular about who they let make music in this car.” “Yeh, that’s all right, we’ll see you after dinner.” As they headed away I saw the younger one was dressed in shorts with white, knee-high socks. He looked no more than fifteen. Well, was I embarrassed. They came back after dinner for my ten o’clock set and the kid turned out to be…Wynton Marsalis! And yes, he brought his horn. “What you want to play?” he asked. I said, “D’you know Jeepers Creepers?” “Oh yeah -love that tune.” So I played an intro, and he jumped in after bar eight. Although it’s an up tune, I slowed it down a bit because his tone was so mellow I wanted to prolong his notes and bask in them. It was obvious (and he was just at the start of his career) this kid had something special. After Jeepers Creepers, I suggested (I Don’t Stand a) Ghost of a Chance With You, a ballad, because I was so entranced with his sound. He was unsure of the bridge: “Play that part again?” he asked me. He got up from the chair to my left and watched my fingers as I went through the progressions. “Yeah, all right, from the top.” We did the song once more and this time he got the melody. I was doing the vocals, to make a showpiece, a presentation out of the numbers. The crowd was increasing as word spread through the train that some extraordinary music was happening in the club car. People were jammed in, pressed against the walls, mesmerized. He played and played, and I joyously accompanied, something I’d become expert at doing, working with singers like Margaret Whiting and Judy Garland. Minutes later, it seemed, I glanced at my watch and it was one-forty-five in the morning. We’d been playing nearly four hours straight without a break. This guy didn’t want to do anything but make music, his passion simply poured out of his horn. One of the three times I’ve been in the presence of astonishing musical talent. The other two were Andre Previn…and Benny Goodman. TO BE CONTINUED. (and I’ll add a pic of the train in a few days) With thanks to my brother, Chris, for reminding me of this incident.