“What key is this in?” Bob Rawsthorne, mallets hovering over his vibes, asked Johnny Costa, musical director of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as they prepared to record improvised music with complicated changes, live on tape. Playing with Costa was harrowing, inspirational, and full of surprises. Bob, my father, called the band the Kamikaze Trio. He and bassist Carl McVicker never knew what Costa would do next—he had a habit of switching keys at the last minute, causing low-level panic for his experienced sidemen. In the shoe-string budget world of public television, the trio was usually not offered more than one chance to get it right. Sink or swim.
“What key, what key?”
“Only God knows, Bobby,” Costa said before launching into one of his Ravel-influenced cushions of sound. “Only God knows the key.” God, that day, decided on D flat. Dad and Carl hung on for life, finished the take, and silently congratulated each other with a subtle “yeah, man” nod. Costa kissed his own hands a dozen times, raised them to the sky, and accepted praise from heaven.
Costa knew when he was on point.
“How about that, Bobby? How about that?”
Yeah, man. Beautiful, man. Yeah.
Next time you’re at a jazz concert, check out the way musicians acknowledge each other when a solo section finishes. “Yeah, man,” one of them will often say. Perhaps it’s a whisper, sometimes it’s a bark, or maybe it’s an implied “yeah, man” bop-bop-bop of the head. It’s endearing in any form.
The jazz world is often viewed as macho, cut-throat or, at best, way more competitive than one would hope. But many of the musicians I love are firmly in the “yeah, man” camp—playing their asses off while supporting and confirming the artistic skill and technical prowess of their colleagues.
Sometimes the “yeah, man” comes at the end of a so-so concert, a diplomatic way of recognizing group effort even if the performance wasn’t up to par. “Yeah, man” might well mean we’re all in this together. Or onward.
Onward works for me.
Drummer Adam Nussbaum tells a jazz urban-legend story about a musician who flew into New York City and hired a killer rhythm section for his recording. Following the session, some version of “yeah, man” took place, and the musician, for whom English (or jazz-speak) was not a primary language, said: “I am suck.”
When the trio—a Greek chorus of tact—said, “no man, no man, you killed, you sounded great,” the guest musician replied: “You full of asshole.”
I heard this story decades ago, and still say I am suck when I have a bad day. I’m inclined to dissect a less than stellar performance by engaging in a painstaking analysis of the nebulous reasons for why a particular piece didn’t go as well as planned. The jazz guys don’t do this, as far as I can tell. Safety in numbers. They say “yeah, man” to each other and move on to the next thing.
But here’s my challenge—as a soloist I’m missing the “yeah, man.” I finish an improvised solo and there’s no eye to catch, no nod to receive, no “yeah, man” to nourish my ego. Instead, I hear my old nemesis, Voice of Doom—playing kickball with my vulnerability—saying I am suck.
I’ve had moments of musical satisfaction and—dare I say it?—bliss, but not once have I kissed my fingers and raised them to the sky. Rarely have I stood to take a bow and heard the subtle “yeah, man” praise of a fellow troubadour.
My husband, musician and jazz educator John Goldsby, recently interviewed bassist Larry Grenadier for a Bass Magazine feature article. Larry, a brilliant player with a gazillion recordings as a sideman and a bandleader, had just launched his first solo bass recording, The Gleaners, on ECM. Solo, as in solo. Nuthin’ but bass.
John: “How was it being in the studio alone—with only the engineer and producer present, but with no other musicians around?”
Larry: “To be in the studio alone is a trip. I had never really done that, except for maybe overdubbing something. You’re waiting for something to react to, but it never comes. You have to get comfortable with that.”
John: “You’re waiting for the yeah, man, after the track!”
Larry: “Yeah, man. You’ve got to say it yourself!”
Welcome to my world, Mr. Grenadier.
I love working alone—but that hasn’t always been the case. I started out as a soloist because it was a good way to make money. It still is. If a venue only has enough bread to pay one person, well, then, it might as well be me. But there were many times I could have used some company. Back in 1976, an hour of solo piano felt like three months. I swore the clock moved backwards. I would play six choruses of a Carole King tune, stretch out the vamp, triple the bridge, look at my watch and see that only forty-five seconds had passed.
Truthfully, I bored myself. I longed for other musicians with whom I could share twenty-minute breaks and forty-minute sets. All the musical responsibility of the gig sat firmly on my glitter-dusted Windsong-scented shoulders. When I screwed up, I had no one on the bandstand to cover for me. When I sounded good, I had no one to say “yeah, man.” I never felt lonely—it’s difficult to be wistful and sad in a bar packed with drunken yachtsmen and a handful of Kate Smith and Cher impersonators—but man, did I ever feel alone.
During the early part of my Piano Girl career I was a big baby bouncing on a booby-rigged piano bench, honestly believing that each droopy-assed breast-gawking gin-guzzling customer I encountered was paying studious attention to the nuances of my youthful, earnest music. I smiled like a half-witted cheerleader during the gig, but I beat myself up a lot at home, obsessing over mistakes I had made, sloppy playing, lapses in memory. Thunderous applause from a gaggle of lounge lizards can only get a gal so far. Here’s a secret: Applause doesn’t mean much to an artist with high, or even medium-high standards. All the standing ovations in the world won’t make up for an I am suck kind of night.
I had the I am suck thing going on for years. And then one day—poof—I didn’t. I attribute Voice of Doom’s vanishing act to the birth of my children, the death of a friend, and the sudden realization that art might reflect life and love, but it’s no substitute for the real deal. Not wanting to waste another minute on self-imposed negativity, I loosened the claw grip I had on the back of my neck and kicked Voice of Doom in the ass. I focused on family and let my music grow from a place of maternal joy. I cherished my time with my kids, but felt enormous gratitude for my hours alone at the piano. I stopped comparing myself to everyone else and found my voice, my style. I turned into a composer, a songwriter, a musician satisfied with making my own fun. Yeah, man.
Robin Spielberg, my dear friend and fellow traveler on the solo piano circuit, says this: “I feel like I live a double life. If you were to ask anyone about my personality, they would tell you I’m an extrovert. I enjoy parties, events, being with friends. However, I have chosen a field that requires that I work alone. I accept the alone-ness of my work, and now crave it. I like practicing in an empty house, with only my thoughts and the ticking of the clock. It’s typical to fret over what others think of my music, but I’m reminded of good advice I once received: What others think of my music is none of my business.”
I’m astonished by how lessons learned in music apply to real life. I’ve learned to say “yeah, man” to myself in many situations when there’s no one around to say it for me. Consider motherhood, for example: It might take a village to raise a child, but any mom will tell you—most of the time we’re flying solo. My kids left home two years ago. I cried my eyes out when they departed, worried about words I had forgotten to say, ways in which I could have been a better mother, lessons that slipped by me when time’s tidal wave crashed onto the shores of our busy lives. But damn, in spite of numerous mistakes and flawed reasoning, I launched each of them with admirable values, a strong sense of self, and the ability to do their own laundry. Yeah, man.
In contrast, a solo piano career seems easy. Step onstage and play. It’s that complicated and that simple.
Spielberg says this: “One of these days I will have a t-shirt made. On the front it will say I AM NOT SUCK. The back? It will say ‘ATTA GIRL.”
Yeah, man. Beautiful, man. Yeah.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel. New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.
Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.
Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.