Tanya Baum, The Acoustic Miracle, and the Ghost of Christmas Past

Robin Meloy Goldsby remembers a Pittsburgh shopping mall, a tree named Tanya, and a pianist with a booming voice and a fondness for Maker’s Mark.

When I was a teenager, I won the role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree. Not knowing that I would some day end up living in Deutschland, I called myself Tanya Baum and spoke with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids were a little scared of me, but I cracked myself up, which, I’ve since discovered, is the main point to just about any job. I also made twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal stuff at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya was a little nasty. She had a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I could turn her lights on and off with hand controls. And I could see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head. Tanya was the shiznit.

I got the gig because my dad was the bandleader of a  jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a trio popular in Pittsburgh. For years, he ran the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast” at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that featured frozen cokes, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake-up Santa” became popular after several failed attempts at having Santa parachute into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials decided it would be safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. I mean, let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re in bed for hours. We tortured that unfortunate fellow. A few years into the gig he started drinking long before the event even started. As a matter of fact, so did Bookie, the pianist in my dad’s band. Bookie, who has since joined that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, had one of those really LOUD voices. We used to call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice could penetrate any crowd without amplification. With a deep and slightly guttural timbre, he growled his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad had to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus 2 when Bookie was drinking, because you could never be sure what he might bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper had legs.

At one of our annual “Wake–up Santa” events, after we had jumped on Santa’s bed, played a trumpet in his ear, slapped him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smacked him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never ever suggested anything gentle), and tickled his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raised his hand—and his voice—and said he had an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asked Dad. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seemed, had been hitting the holiday sauce with Santa at the local whiskey joint down the road.

“Santa,” announced Bookie, in a tone that could only be described as stentorian. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna kill all the kids.” (Keep in mind, dear reader, this was 1972. It was a different time. Or was it?)

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from all those years of playing the drums, put down his microphone, looked right into my angel-head eyes and said: “Did he just say what I think he said?”

“Ja!” I said, as Tanya Baum. I prided myself on staying in character. We were horrified. Aghast. But most of the parents and kids in the audience were laughing. Sort of a nervous laugh.

“Jesus Christ,” said Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue out on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

That was the last year we played for the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast.” I like to think that Santa, forty years later, is still there—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent, but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of bored and tipsy piano players. The jesting and jabs and slapstick violence seemed slightly amusing back then, in the naive days of “The Three Stooges” and “Tom and Jerry.” These days it wouldn’t be so funny. Especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged parent (or child for that matter) were packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone. Maybe the mall went back to the parachute theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa sits in a throne now and kids come to sit on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they shoot Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

Schlosshotel Lerbach in Early Spring

www.schlosshotel-lerbach.com

Photos by Julia Goldsby

Music: Pachelbel Canon in D: Variations on a Theme
From the recording SONGS FROM THE CASTLE
Arranged and performed by Robin Meloy Goldsby

Waltz of the Asparagus People – Book Trailer

The Piano Girl journey continues. Waltz of the Asparagus People follows Robin Meloy Goldsby and her family to Europe, recounting their adventures and frustrations as they learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and find new friends.

Waltz of the Asparagus People has also been translated into German. It is called Walzer der Spargelmenschen and is available from Amazon.de.

Goldsby’s newest CD (same title) presents solo piano pieces that correspond with the stories in the book. It’s available from Amazon and iTunes.

This video features Goldsby’s performance of the title track, Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Touch The Rain

“Touch The Rain,” performed by Jessica Gall, lyrics by Robin Meloy Goldsby, video by Julia Goldsby

Still Married to the Bass

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December 9th marked the occasion of my seventh “Concert in Candlelight” at Schlosshotel Lerbach. John survived the shoveling, I survived the drive (over the icy river and through the snowy woods), and we only had a handful of bad weather cancellations. What fun we had. There was such a nice vibe in the audience—I knew (personally) about half the people there, and the complete strangers who happened to show up were welcomed warmly by those more familiar with what I do. After the concert people were seated at tables of ten and—oh boy—did they ever whoop it up during dinner—not something I expect at a candlelight dinner, but there was such a festive mood to the evening. I think we were all just happy to be alive after risking life and car just to get there.

John (the husband) and I have sort of a rule about not working together—we figure our marriage is more important than a couple of gigs, but we broke with tradition for this one concert and he played a few pieces with me, most notably a musical version of “Married to the Bass” a story from Piano Girl. I recited the story while he stood behind me and played. You can just imagine. I am posting the story below, in case you’re not familiar with this piece. Bass Player Magazine published it a few years ago and I started getting emails from bassists who were carrying it around with them so they could show it to babes they wanted to impress. There you go.

One funny thing happened at the concert. We did the program, took a bunch of bows, and then the audience wanted an encore. I sat down to play, and a cute guy in the front row, who was wearing an AMERICAN FLAG tie, shouted out “ROMEO AND JULIET.” So there you go, once a cocktail pianist, always a cocktail pianist. I should have told him to write the request on the back of a twenty.

Anyway, that’s it for me and the high pressure gigs for this year. I have quite a few cocktail piano gigs coming up between now and January 1st, but those jobs will be easy and fun.

Here’s the Married to the Bass story. Happy reading.

Married to the Bass
Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir
Courtesy of Backbeat Books
©2006 Robin Meloy Goldsby

Okay, Ladies, listen up. Bass players make great husbands. There is no scientific data to support my claim. But having worked my way through the rhythm section, the technicians, and a handful of brass, reed, and string players, I’m a qualified judge.

First, consider this. A man who plays an upright bass is strong. He lugs the instrument around, carries it up steps, slides it in and out of cars, and maneuvers it through large crowds of people. If you marry a bass player you’ll be getting a physically fit husband. Okay, there is the occasional back problem. This crops up two or three times a year—usually when you want him to move your grandmother’s walnut armoire or need him to stand on a ladder and drill a hole in the ceiling. But you can cope with such minor inconveniences by calling a muscular clarinet player who is handy with a power drill. Good luck finding one. Here’s the thing: When your bass player is pain-free, he’s as strong as a bull. He has to be in order to make the gig. And he might even throw you over his shoulder and carry you over the threshold every so often, just because he can.

Next, ponder the shape of the upright bass. It’s shaped like a woman. A bass player knows about bumps and curves—he even likes them. He has dedicated his life to coaxing beautiful music out of voluptuous contours. He’ll do the same for you. Just don’t marry a stick-bass player, unless you look like Kate Moss or intend to spend the rest of your life eating lettuce.

Examine the bass player’s hands, especially when he’s playing a particularly fast passage. Now imagine what those fingers can do to you. Enough said.

A great bassist is an ensemble player, a team member who executes, with confidence, a vital role in any band with the strength of his groove, the steadiness of his rhythm, and the imaginative logic of his harmonic lines. This doesn’t just apply to the bassist’s music. It also applies to his outlook on life. A bass-player husband will be loyal, true, and interesting, and will help you emerge from life’s challenges looking and sounding better than you ever imagined. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t worry. He’ll change keys. On the other hand, if you marry a pianist, he’ll try and arrange everything and then tell you what your disposition should be. If you marry a guitarist, he’ll try to get ahead of you by analyzing your temperament in double-time. If you marry a drummer, it won’t matter what kind of mood you’re in because he’ll just forge ahead with his own thing. A bass player follows along, supports you, and makes you think that everything is okay, even when the world is crashing down around you.

There are some minor drawbacks. You need to have a house with empty corners, especially if your husband owns more than one upright bass. I know, you have that newly reupholstered Louis XV chair that would look fabulous in the corner by the window. Forget it—that’s where the bass has to go. You can come to terms with these trivial decorating disappointments by reflecting on the sculpture-like quality of the instrument. Even when it’s silent, it’s a work of art.

If you have children—and you will because bass players make great fathers—your most frequently uttered phrase will be “WATCH THE BASS!” You will learn how to interject this phrase into every conversation you have with your children. For instance: “Hello, sweetie, watch the bass, did you have a nice day at kindergarten? We’re having rice and broccoli for lunch, watch the bass, do you want milk or water to drink?”

You will be doomed to a life of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. You might harbor a secret fantasy of zooming around town in a Mazda MX5 convertible, but this will never happen unless you go through a big messy divorce, give your bass-player husband custody of the children, and marry a violinist, which would be no fun at all. Better to accept the hatchback as an integral part of your existence and get on with it.

Any trip you make with your family and the bass will be a pageant that requires detailed organization and nerves of steel. In addition to your two children (one of whom probably wants to be a drummer—heaven help you), you will commence your journey with suitcases, bass, bass trunk, backpacks, amp, car seats, strollers, and diaper bag. Your husband, weighted down with an enormous backpack and a bass trunk the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, will leave you to deal with everything else. As you try to walk inconspicuously through the airport terminal, people will point and stare.

First Spectator: “They look the Slovenian Traveling Circus!”

Second Spectator: “Hey buddy, you should have played the flute!”

Things like that.

You will learn how to say ha, ha, ha, stick your nose in the air, and pretend that you are traveling with a big star, which of course he is, to you.

Your bass-player husband will know the hip chord changes to just about every song ever written in the history of music. This is a good thing. Just don’t ask him to sing the melody. He might be able to play the melody, but he won’t sing it—he’ll sing the bass line. And, if you happen to play the piano, as I do, don’t expect him to just sit there silently and appreciate what you are playing without making a few suggestions for better changes and voicings. He’ll never give up on trying to improve your playing. But that’s why you married him in the first place. He accepts what you do, but he pushes you to do it better.

If you marry the bass player, you marry the bass. Buy one, get one free. Your husband will be passionate about his music, which will grant you the freedom to be passionate about the things you do. You might not worship the bass as much as he does, but you’ll love the bass player more every day.

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Let’s Talk Weddings . . .

I’ve been threatening to do a wedding video for years, and now, here it is!

I spend a lot of time playing the piano for brides and grooms. It’s a happy way to make a living. Most of the time I play for events at Schlosshotel Lerbach, but if you’re living somewhere other than Germany and you’re looking for pretty solo piano music for your Big Day, then send an email to me and we’ll talk.

Many thanks to the photographers who contributed photos to this video.
Here’s a little wedding excerpt from my book, Piano Girl:

I love weddings. I love going to them, I love being in them, I love playing for them. I adore the Gone with the Wind white dresses, the pomp and circumstance, the father giving away the bride, the drunken weepy speeches, the little girls in their patent-leather shoes, and the little boys throwing rice. There’s something about a wedding that gives me faith in humanity. The very idea that the love between two people can make the world a better place for each of them is, to me, a reason to celebrate.

At Schlosshotel Lerbach, it’s not unusual for the bride and groom to arrive in a gilded carriage pulled by white horses. I play for big weddings and small weddings, for ceremonies and receptions, for wedding lunches, wedding dinners, and wedding cocktail hours. I play in the rose garden in the blazing sun of July or in the golden entrance hall with tremendous gusts of winter wind sweeping through the iron gates of the castle as the ermine-clad bride makes her first appearance. I play on the balcony, in the bar, and out on the old stone terrace surrounded by huge pots of fragrant herbs. Whenever the client has requested quiet background music, I’m the girl who gets the call. I’ve made a niche for myself playing music that doesn’t interfere. Less is more. It’s hard to find musicians who understand this, and even harder to find good musicians who are willing to put up with being ignored. But I love it. An elegant man once came to the piano while I was playing, took my business card, and said, “Your music is so perfect. I can hardly hear it.” He called me a week later and booked me to play for his wedding.

Playing the piano for four or five hours straight is hard work. There’s a meditative state that I sink into when I’m doing one of these marathon jobs. I call it the Piano Zone, and when I’m there I’m happy. I play for myself, I compose on the job, I improvise, I let my fantasies take me far away. I’ve always figured that my job is to tame the chaos beast, so that the people around me can feel as peaceful as I do. Married life is chaotic enough. You might as well get off to a nice quiet start.

Marian McPartland: The Lady Plays

From Goldsby’s book, Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl

Excerpt courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

Here’s your coffee!” says Nina. “Rise and shine!” It’s nine in the morning and Nina Lesowitz, my publisher’s indefatigable publicist, has run to a Madison Avenue coffee shop to pick up breakfast for the two of us. I’ve come to town to tape a Piano Girl segment for Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR. The invitation to appear on Ms. McPartland’s program came directly from the queen of jazz piano herself, and I’m honored, humbled, and very nervous. I flew from Germany to New York two days ago. Nina arrived yesterday from San Francisco. She has jet lag coming from one direction; I have it from the other. I figure between the two of us we have one complete brain.

During the long flight from Frankfurt to JFK, an elderly Indian woman wearing a bright pink sari sat next to me. Hardly more than fifty pounds, she had a face like a walnut and miniscule eyes with fluttering lashes. She sat in lotus position for eight hours without saying a word. Every so often she would hand me a little plastic container of coffee cream to open for her. She didn’t smile or speak or acknowledge me in any other way—she would pass the cream to me and wait with one shriveled hand gently extended until I peeled off the aluminum top and passed it back. We went through this ritual at least six times. She poured her cream into numerous cups of tea, which she didn’t drink. I suspected she was meditating, so I didn’t interrupt her, because maybe, just maybe, she was keeping the plane in the sky. After we landed she stayed in her seat, legs crossed, palms resting on knees. I nodded farewell, stepped over her, and proceeded to the baggage claim, where I saw her once again, this time in a wheelchair pushed by an airline attendant. She was still in lotus position.

Today’s taping will begin at noon. I have three hours to calm down and align my chakras, if I have them. I should have taken notes from my Indian friend.

My publisher is graciously funding this trip, but we’re on a shoestring budget, so Nina and I are sharing a room. We’re staying in the three-star Hotel Wolcott on Thirty-first Street. The hotel advertises itself as one of New York’s “best kept hotel bargain secrets.” The Wolcott’s lobby—decorated in a pseudo-Baroque style with furniture donated by someone’s Great Aunt Edna—teems with Eastern European tourists and American backpackers stuffing their bags with the free birthday-cake-sized muffins offered at the breakfast trough each morning. Nina and I have vowed to avoid the muffins and urban backpackers whenever possible.

Hotel Wolcott is a fine establishment, but the two of us, self-proclaimed travel princesses, are used to places with heated towels, L’Occitane de Provence toiletries, and working elevators. Low-budget or not, we’re determined to have fun, so we cheerfully climb the four flights of steps several times each day, swearing we can feel ourselves slimming down. We hang the towels on the radiator and buy our own overpriced toiletries. The hotel must be trying to attract visiting NBA teams with the height of its bathroom mirrors—at least two meters up the wall. I put a little stool in the bathroom so we can boost ourselves up over the sink to put on makeup. Every night we examine the mattresses for signs of bedbugs, a growing problem in New York City hotels. We’ve decided Hotel Wolcott is unusually clean for one of these budget places. Still, I’ve been spraying tea-tree oil on the bed linens, just in case.

“Hey, look at this,” says Nina. She’s sipping coffee and browsing through the hotel brochure. “We can book our next press event downstairs at the Buddy Holly Conference Center. He stayed here in 1958. Go figure. Let’s see, the room features, uh, a table and eight chairs. And lights. They have lights.”

I’m still in bed, wondering if I should drink the coffee or not drink the coffee. I need it to wake up, but my nerves are shot and the caffeine certainly won’t help.

Awake and nervous is better than calm and comatose. I drink the coffee.

“God, I hate this,” I say.

“What?”

“I’m nervous. I hate feeling this way. You should have let me sleep until twenty minutes before the taping. Then I wouldn’t have to spend the next three hours feeling sick.”

“Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have time to do your hair.”

“Nina, it’s radio. Hair doesn’t matter.”

“Hair always matters. We might want to take photos. I have to get a shot of you with Marian! Last time we were together we met, like, Bill Clinton. Hello? Who knows what will happen today? I’ve heard Beyoncé is in town. We want to look nice. And it will take a while to get ready in this place. The shower needs twenty minutes to warm up—I timed it yesterday. I turned the shower on, went out for coffee, and when I came back twenty minutes later it was finally warm. And I think the hairdryer is from 1959.”

“Maybe it was Buddy Holly’s hair dryer.”

“Eat a bagel, you’ll feel better.”

It’s true. New York City bagels always make me feel better.

“I don’t think they had hair dryers in 1959.”

“How do you think Buddy Holly got his hair to do that? It doesn’t matter—you’re going to be fine!” Nina says. “Once you’re dressed we’ll go shopping for accessories.”

“Accessories?”

“Junk jewelry. We’re in the junk-jewelry district—the world capital for junk jewelry. God, I love New York.”

“Nina, I’ve got to concentrate on the show, I’m freaked out, and you want me to go shopping for jewelry an hour before the session?”

“It’s a perfect solution,” she says. “You can’t shop and be nervous at the same time. Besides, you’ve been practicing for, what, thirty-five years? If you’re not ready now, you’ll never be ready.”

“Right,” I say. She has a point. I’m happy Nina is here. She distracts me; she makes me laugh. She’s keeping the plane in the sky.

I follow Nina into the nearest junk-jewelry store.

“They say you need a wholesale license to shop here, but just grab a basket and act like you know what you’re doing,” Nina says.

“I’m good at that,” I say.

“Look! Emeralds! These earrings would be perfect with that black sweater you wore last night. They’re so adorable.”

I need fake emerald earrings like I need a dogsled, but I throw them in my basket and wander around the store. Garlands of fake diamonds and other dangling bits of glitz hang from the velvet-covered walls. The fluorescent lights bounce off the plastic gems and mirrors and send reflections back and forth across the shop. I feel as if I’m trapped inside a disco ball. I double-check my backpack to make sure I’ve remembered the music charts I’ve written out for Marian—we’re scheduled to play three duets in addition to my four solo pieces. The show, which is recorded months in advance, will be edited to fit the one-hour NPR time slot.

“Look, Robin!” says Nina. “A tiara with feathers!”

I grab a rhinestone bracelet and a couple of rings for my daughter.

“What time is it, Nina? Time to go?”

“Nope. We still have thirty minutes. Look over there at those darling African beads. Very cool.”

My cell phone rings. It’s John calling from Germany to wish me luck. It’s five-thirty in the morning there.

“You’ll be fine,” he says. “Remember to breathe. Where are you now?”

“I’m in a junk-jewelry store called Nick’s Picks. Nina is trying to keep me distracted.”

“Good. Listen to her. She knows what she’s doing. Better that you’re in a junk-jewelry store than, say, Bergdorf Goodman.”

I’ve been a fan of Marian’s show for years. Piano Jazz is the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio. The NPR affiliate in Berlin airs it every week, so for the past decade I’ve been listening on Saturday evenings when I’m driving home from my piano job. Marian plays with guts but never relinquishes her femininity. She connects the gap between sensitivity and strength, playing with conviction and vulnerability, wit and intelligence, innocence and maturity. Her relaxed interview style is not unlike her playing. She has been in the USA for most of her adult life, yet she maintains an air of English graciousness—treating each guest like a long-lost best friend, using her warm and smoky voice to invite the listener into her living room for a little music and a cocktail or two.

“She has played with, like, everyone,” says Nina as she scoops up a handful of fake ruby hair ornaments. “Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans, and well, the list goes on and on. She even had Clint Eastwood on the show. You know, he plays the piano.”

Nina has done her publicist homework.

“Oh, Nina, stop. This is making me more nervous.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Silence.

“Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett and, what’s his name? The blind guy—you know who I mean.”

“Stevie?”

“No, the other one.”

“Ray?”

“Oh yeah, Ray Charles. I love him! He was on the show, too.”

“Okay, that’s enough.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Silence.

“Dizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson were on. Hank Jones and Norah Jones . . .”

“What, no Tom Jones?”

“I don’t think so, at least not yet. All the big stars have been on Marian’s show. Even, like, Eartha Kitt and Keith Jarrett.”

“Not at the same time, I hope.”

“No, I don’t think so. That opera singer, Renée Fleming. God, she’s gorgeous! She was on the show. And what’s his name . . . God, this jet lag is destroying my memory—the ‘Take Five’ guy?

“Dave Brubeck.”

“Yeah, that’s it. He was on. And now, you. So, you want to go in this next store? Wouldn’t it be great to meet Tom Jones? Look! They have lots of pins shaped like butterflies. I love butterflies.”

When Marian called me in Germany last month I was so excited I almost dropped the telephone. She had read Piano Girl and, having logged eight years playing with her trio at New York City’s Hickory House, related to my tales of unruly customers, obnoxious managers, stalkers, perverts, and piano gig mishaps. We talked for almost an hour about music and family and raising kids in Europe. She was hip and funny and genuinely interested in my double life as a musician and mom.

A week after our conversation I received a formal letter from her asking me to be a guest on Piano Jazz. I ran my hands over her elegant stationery—how odd it is to receive a real letter these days—and gave it a place of honor in my Piano Girl scrapbook. Then, feeling a little sad, I called Marian’s home number.

“Thank you so much for the invitation,” I said. “But I can’t be on your show. I’m not a jazz musician. Not even close.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s all just music. Time for something different. We’ll play a few tunes and talk about your book. It will be fun! I can’t wait!”

Nina and I arrive at Manhattan Beach studio five minutes before noon. My parents, who have come in from Pittsburgh for the taping, are in the control room. I haven’t seen them for almost a year, and it feels odd to have our reunion in front of the technicians. Nina takes charge and introduces me to Shari Hutchinson, the Piano Jazz producer. Good producers are efficient and keep things moving along. Great producers have vision. Shari’s handshake is firm, her manner respectful and friendly, her voice warm and confident. I can tell she knows her craft.

“Marian will be here in a moment,” says Shari. “She’s freshening up a bit.”

For some reason everyone is eating soup. Mom hugs me and continues chatting with the young man at the mixing board. I think they might be exchanging recipes.

Dad says, “How are you doing? You okay?” He knows I get nervous before important piano events. “Do you need something to eat?”

“No thanks, Dad.”

“How about some tea?”

“Okay.” He pours the tea for me and hands me a little plastic container of cream. I hand it back to him. He opens it for me. I think this may be a sign. Of what, I don’t know. Maybe my chakras are aligning.

I check out the two Baldwin grand pianos sitting side by side behind the glass partition.

“Why don’t you check out the piano?” says Shari. “You’ll be playing the one on the right. We’ll get our levels while you’re doing that.”

“Sure,” I say.

“By the way,” Shari says. “Marion is sensitive about pictures, so no photos, please.”

“Of course,” I say. “I understand. But, uh, you might want to mention this to Nina. She has the camera, and she tends to be shutter happy.”

“Will do,” says Shari.

I head into the studio. It’s so peaceful in here. This might be the first real stillness I’ve experienced since leaving home—even at their most quiet there’s a constant drone on the city’s streets. I can see the others behind the glass—they look like silent-movie actors, laughing and pointing at who knows what. I pull the charts out of my backpack and a rope of pink pearls spills onto the floor and makes a big racket. The engineer lifts his head. I can’t hear him, but he can obviously hear me. I arrange the charts on the piano and stuff the jewelry back inside the backpack.

I’m a recording rookie compared to my husband and my father, both of whom make a living in the recording studio. For me it’s still an adventure. John says a recording is exactly that—a record of what a musician sounds like during a particular phase of her life. This soothes me. I don’t have to sound better than I am. I would, however, like to avoid sounding worse.

I look into the control room. Busy, busy, busy. I wonder if anyone would notice if I left and returned to Nick’s Picks. I put my hands on the keys. The first moments at an unfamiliar piano are always awkward.

The piano is in tune. The action is good. Fine.

The studio door clicks behind me, and there she is.

“Robin!” she says. “It’s great to have you here! What were you playing just now? Very nice!” She is wearing a spiffy dark-blue pantsuit and a silky blouse with a bow at the neck. She hugs me.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say. Any woman who has managed to make a living as a musician, especially a jazz musician, blows me away. Marian grew up during a time when female jazz musicians were a rarity. In a way they still are.

Shari stands with her hand on Marian’s elbow. She leads her to the piano, helps her get situated, then politely excuses herself. I’m surprised by Marian’s physical frailness. Her radio voice has always been so strong, her laughter so robust, that I’ve been tricked into thinking she’s decades younger than her ninety years.

“It takes me a few minutes to get comfortable,” she says. “I need to have a hip replacement, but who has time for that? I want to go on tour in the fall. My agent has a nice string of gigs lined up.”

“Wow,” I say. “It’s wonderful you’re still touring so much.”

“Yes!” she says. “Things are good.”

We sit on our individual piano benches, our bodies turned to face each other while we’re taping the interview sections of the program.

I hand Marian the charts I’ve brought with me.

“Oh!” she says, tossing the music onto the table between us. “These mean nothing to me. Never did care much for reading notes! I play by ear. Let’s figure out what songs we should do as a duet and what key, and off we’ll go.”

I’m a little thrown by this, since I’ve spent weeks preparing these arrangements. But it’s her show, so I put the charts away and grab a pencil. Together we decide who takes which chorus for each of the songs. I’m scribbling notes, but she doesn’t write down a thing.

“Trust me,” she says. “This will work out. I hate planning too much.”

“Maybe that’s the secret to a happy life,” I say.

“Might be,” she says. “It works for me.”

I vow that my next fifty years will more spontaneous.

“Let’s try a chorus of ‘Night and Day,’” she says. “I’ll play the melody on the head.” She turns and faces the piano. And then, before my eyes, this sweet English rose of a grandmother turns into a jazz cat. Get down, Marian. “One, two, one, two three, four . . .”

We play a couple of choruses. I’m having fun.

“Good!” she says. “But let’s not rehearse too much.”

“You know, Marian,” I say. “This is tricky for me. I’m used to playing solo. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done.”

“Well then, these duets will be a premiere!”

“Yeah. Hell of a way to try something for the first time.” We both laugh.

“Excuse me, ladies,” says Shari from the control room. “Please save the chitchat for the actual taping. Right now we’re just testing levels, and I don’t want to lose spontaneity.”

Rehearsal seems to be a bad word in this place.

Marian waves her hand dismissively toward the control room and says, “Alright, alright,” but keeps talking to me, asking about John, my kids, my music. By the time we start taping I’m having so much fun I’ve completely forgotten why I’m here.

Marian conducts the entire show—several hours of taping—without consulting a single note of music or any kind of written prompt about my book. We play three standard tunes together: “Charade,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “Night and Day.” I’ve practiced my two-piano arrangements for months, but Marian, with her ears leading the way, jumps right in and nails each piece on the first take. I play an original solo piece that I’ve dedicated to her—one that I’ve been working on for at least six weeks—and she returns the favor by playing a piece for me that she composes on the spot. She plays, I play, we talk and talk, we play together, then repeat the whole cycle with different topics and different tunes. Her joy rubs off on me. Look at her go—here’s a ninety-year-old woman playing piano the way she wants to. She has grown into her music and stayed young because of it. She listens, she responds, she encourages the rest of us to keep going. Marian doesn’t need magic, luck, or soothing words to keep her plane in the sky, because she’s the pilot. If there’s a better role model for a musician, I don’t know who it is.

We play the last chord of the last song, and Marian says, “Well, that was fun!”

Everyone in the control room applauds, and Marian hugs me.

“I think we should take some pictures,” she says.

“Oh, that would be great!” I try to get Nina’s attention in the control room, but she is flitting about and exchanging business cards with everyone. Marian pulls out a compact and touches up her lipstick. Then she grabs a can of Final Net hair spray and a small brush and cranks her hair. I realize I’ve forgotten to bring my makeup—it’s back at Hotel Wolcott, on the shelf underneath the NBA makeup mirror. I’ve got a rope of plastic pearls, three rhinestone bangle bracelets, fake emerald earrings and a belt covered in sequins, but no lipstick.

Nina flies through the studio door with her camera and chokes on the hair-spray fumes. Marian keeps spraying.

“Well,” says Marian, taking one last look in her compact. “I’m ready for the photos.”

“But Marion,” says Shari from the control room. “Don’t you want to fix your hair?”

“I just did,” says Marian, rolling her eyes.

“And it looks fabulous,” says Nina, sneezing in the cloud of Final Net.

“Oh, yes, I see now, your hair does look fabulous,” says Shari.

“See?” Nina whispers to me. “Hair always counts. You want to borrow my hairbrush?”

Shari escorts my parents into the studio and introduces them to Marian. I feel like I’m at a wedding reception. Marian embraces them and has her photo taken with the three of us.

“Well, Bob,” she says to my dad. “You should be proud of your daughter. She played her ass off.”

“Yes, Marian, she did.”

“You played your ass off, too,” I say to Marian. Her hand is on my waist, and she gives me a conspiratorial squeeze.

Marian’s driver whisks her away, and I stay at the studio to record several solo holiday pieces for an NPR Piano Jazz Christmas CD. My piano has slipped out of tune, so I slide over to Marian’s. I imagine, just for a moment, what it’s like to be her.

Several weeks later I perform a reading and concert in the rotunda at Steinway Hall. Marian, who has her own concert on the same night, sends flowers. From one Piano Girl to another, the card reads. Wish I could be there.

 

Listen to Marian McPartland’s interview with Robin on NPR Piano Jazz.

 

Rhythm – Book Trailer

This video presents author Robin Meloy Goldsby talking about her new novel, Rhythm. Robin reveals the stories behind Rhythm and reads a short excerpt.