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Donald Dewey

When does it dawn on you that you want to play the piano? When your mother keeps dragging you off to see her best friend, Dame Myra Hess? When the toy piano you got for your fourth birthday is the only thing you managed to save from the earthquake? Or is it when you pass a musical instruments store, suddenly begin trembling, go inside, sit down at the first bench, and, without knowing how, spin off what the astounded salesman identifies as Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue?

None of these things happened, and yet I wanted to play the piano. More precisely, I wanted to play jazz piano. There were three problems with this. The first was I was so unmusical that even in elementary school I always belonged to that half of the class briskly defined by the music teacher Mrs. Fleming as "non-singers," meaning I drew a lot of scales while the hearty of tone were practicing "Amazing Grace." The second problem was that the closest I'd ever come to a piano was my record collection. And third, this desire for the keyboard didn't come over me at some Mozartian five or Lisztian nine, but at 17, when most prodigies were already washed up and most teenagers had other kinds of boogies and blues distracting them.

On the other hand, there were encouragements to my ambition. One, I wanted to play jazz piano. Two, I wanted to play jazz piano. Three, I wanted to play jazz piano. And then there was Andrew Kobel, the neighborhood piano instructor. For years I had been looking across the street at the sign in his first-floor apartment window --- ANDREW KOBEL, PIANO TEACHER, TRADITIONAL, JAZZ, MODERN --- without feeling any personal tug. More than that, Kobel himself had made sure his public appearances were exercises in antipathy: When he wasn't leaning out the window to chase ball-playing kids away from the entrance to his apartment building, he was stomping down to the candy store or the deli with visions of the tone-deaf he might trap underfoot. This was no minor specter since his left foot was on an elevated stand, as though a leg deformity had left him with little choice but to act like the display case of a shoe store. Needless to say, this accessory branded him on some tongues as The Crip, while others saw more than a passing resemblance in his gait and that of Bela Lugosi's Igor in the Frankenstein movies. For me, though, Kobel's real eeriness had been in some apparently divine ability to listen to the same hammer blows on his piano morning after morning, afternoon after afternoon, few of them producing anything as complex as "Three Blind Mice." Where had he gotten so much patience? Or, the baleful version of the same question, what made him satisfied with so little?

Instead of coming up with an answer to those questions, I crossed the street to provide another reason for asking them. Sitting in his dark, over-furnished living room, Kobel heard out my aspirations as though they weren't the most preposterous thing he had ever heard. In the meantime we exchanged pledges of good faith --- $25 for a half-hour of learning what the ivory and ebony things were supposed to do. It seemed reassuring to think that Thelonius Monk had started this way, too.

Kobel never asked why jazz, in particular. I attributed this to several things. First, there was his total lack of interest. I was 7-8 Tuesday evenings and 11-12 alternate Saturday mornings, over and out. If I wanted to squeeze in a few hours of practice on his spare piano during the week, that was free and fine, but omit the unnecessary details. Then there was his conviction, more than visible after a few lessons, that it didn't matter if I wanted to play bebop jazz or Javanese folk songs, I was never going to get there, that both of us would have already accomplished a great deal if I managed to remember after a few years that Every Good Boy Does Fine. No question, both these attitudes were discouraging, did nothing at all to exemplify that positive reinforcement we like to discern in inspiring teachers. But --- and this was another reason he didn't care about jazz ambitions --- Kobel had never longed to be inspiring. On the contrary, his few remarks not having to do with half-notes and quarter-notes had to do with the foul fates that had given him synovitis at an early age ("and made me The Crip, as they say around here") and forced him to make a living teaching six- and seven-year-olds. Putting aside the niceties, he simply didn't like his pupils, resenting their usurption of time he had once planned to devote to the concert hall.

So I labored on without understanding, sympathy --- or much of a taste for practice between Tuesday lessons. This, of course, was hardly conducive to mastering my instrument. On the other hand, not showing up at Jack's luncheonette or Marty's drug store wouldn't have been conducive to getting weekend dates, pool hall partners, or lines on temporary jobs, so the dilemma was acute. It also became more gnarled when the person showing up at Jack's and Marty's instead of going to Kobel's rehearsal piano started being known as the Jazz Piano Player. Clearly, I had stumbled into a variation on that old agony about not being able to have one's cake and eat it, too --- an expression that, before then, I had never truly understood. But in fact wielding a cake fork with the utmost aplomb had been the reason behind wanting to be a jazz pianist in the first place.

What it seemed to come down to was this: jazz pianists were smart, cool, and imaginative all in the same package. Cops could be smart and gangsters could be cool, but neither was especially imaginative. Classical musicians could be imaginative and even smart, but hardly cool. Rockers could be imaginative and cool, but who had ever accused them of being smart? Within jazz itself there also seemed to be a hierarchy. The saxes weren't smart, the drummers weren't cool, and the bassists weren't strikingly imaginative. (Besides, I had neither the wind for reeds, the money for drums, nor the strength for basses.) But the pianists, on the other hand, they were not only laying the foundation for others and getting their own moments on stage, they were also the ones who had seen the world and, wearily or not, had opinions on what they had seen. They were the composer Monk, the expatriate Bud Powell, the virtuoso Art Tatum. At their most banal they were still Dooley Wilson and Hoagy Carmichael, who had hung around with Humphrey Bogart, spies, and traitors. Jazz pianists had it all covered, and that's how I wanted my time to go by, too.

And Andrew Kobel played along for a few months. Why shouldn't he have? Not only was he getting paid for pointing out little more than where the C was, but, as I soon grasped, he was close to appreciating me as an exception to his generally taciturn misanthropy (i.e., with me he let it flow more freely). Was it because I was significantly older than most of his students? Because the musical situation was so obviously hopeless and he needed other themes for our time together? Because I triggered thoughts of his own vanified ambitions? Whatever the reason, I heard all about his synovitis, his fury at having been willy nilly incorporated into the city's educational system ("they come here at eight o'clock because they have to be in school at nine"), and his growing impatience with his wife Gladys ("she likes the small kids, treats them like they should be ours"). In his own way he was a supreme artist because there was nothing he couldn't disdain if he applied his concentration to it long enough. The only thing right about firemen was that they got to work off their guts sliding down poles. The only thing legitimate about lawyers was that they wanted to be governors and senators like all the other crooks. The only thing wrong with people you read about in the papers --- Adlai Stevenson, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, Salvation Army generals, Prospect Park muggers --- was that they were still breathing. And don't get him started on classical musicians. The only thing classical about them was their two-thousand-year-old brains.

Not that Kobel didn't have his soft side. Gladys, for instance, might have liked the child pupils more than he did, but she turned into Uriah Heep when they missed their lessons, insisting they still owed their money. Kobel didn't want to hear about it. "They got these parents pushing them to be Arthur Rubinstein geniuses," he said, waving her quiet at the start of one of my lessons, "and all the kids want to be geniuses about is cowboys and indians. Bad enough we take their money under false pretenses when they show up, we don't have to take it when they don't, too." He also had a fondness for Kools smokers like himself, deciding that both an upstairs neighbor and one of the owners of the deli around the corner were "all right because they don't listen to that crap they're always saying about Kools." (For historical purposes, "that crap" wasn't about how smoking might be bad for you, but about how a menthol brand like Kools raised questions about the masculinity of the men smoking it.). And then there was his deepest of all vulnerabilities --- a grandfather who had apparently been the one who had driven him to the Steinway every morning with Biblical admonitions of what might happen to the whole family if he didn't put in the necessary exercises. Whenever the subject was anything remotely bearing on practice or regimens or dedication, "the old son of a bitch" (the only name I ever heard) came in for commemoration as an ultimate standard for seriousness and sense of mission. I didn't think of it as much of a stretch to infer that the synovitis hadn't gone over too well with "the old son of a bitch" and that Kobel had been limping through the years hauling cauldrons of guilt and bitterness with his grandfather bobbing up and down inside. He just hadn't lived up to expectations.

Either had being the Jazz Piano Player. It suddenly became an awkward necessity to avoid any place (living room, bar, hall) where a piano might be found; Smart, Cool, and Imaginative didn't need any lynch mob demand to sit down and demonstrate what had been learned at Kobel's crippled knee. It didn't help, either, that Jerry Lee Lewis was showing more staying power than John Lewis and Fats Domino more than Fats Waller. And all those expert opinions about who was a great-great-great player, a great-great player, and simply a great player --- what were they worth when all of them could run off complex riffs before Kobel had finished lowering himself into the leather chair next to the piano and asking where we were? Where we were, it had become evident, was with the illiterate who made his living selling old books --- a laudable enterprise in itself and a testament to the resolve of the handicapped, but maybe also just a teensy-weensy unmeasured for attaining happiness or any of its sugarless substitutes.

Kobel beat me to the punch. Arriving for one of our alternate Saturday morning sessions, I found him already drawn up at the piano in his chair and adding to the five or six Kools butts he had already left in his glass ashtray. He had a question: What the hell did I think we were doing? Somewhere in the middle of my stammered answer came the word music, and that was enough to make him stomp the floor with his elevated shoe. Music? Music? When he turned on the radio, he heard music. When he played a record, he heard music. Even when he went to a goddam parade, it was theoretically possible to hear music. But what he had been hearing over months of Tuesdays and Saturdays was somebody trying to learn scales and apparently bent on unlearning them as fast as he learned them. There was more music in the upstairs neighbor banging the pipes for heat in January. He knew radiators more gifted than I was.

I understood he was trying to make a point. And I appreciated his concern so much that I wanted to tell him he didn't have to go on, that I would pack up my exercise books, and disappear from his life forever then and there. But he had another lesson in mind, and it had to do with more than clef signs. Taking a long drag on his Kool, he studied the ash he had produced, then slowly, deliberately tapped it down on the back of his other hand. I saw the wince, but not much else. "Hear that?", he asked. When I seemed to convey the thought that the only thing I'd heard was a marble or two rolling around inside his head, he repeated the demonstration, right down to the silent wince. "This time?"

What can I say? Maybe I was already busy thinking about moving on from the Jazz Piano Player to the Lion Tamer or the Caliph of Baghdad. He had to spell it out. The ash on his hand had been painful, but he hadn't cried out. The same way the piano hurt when it was abused by somebody like me, but had to keep it inside. I didn't believe in inanimate objects having a capacity for pain? What the hell did I know?

The moral wasn't exactly Aesopian in its ramifications, but it was enough to get on with --- and get out of Kobel's apartment with --- that day. Every once in awhile after that I pictured him shutting himself into his studio, away from his pupils and Gladys and "the old son of a bitch," lighting up a Kool, and asking the piano whether it was in pain. And if he got the wrong answer, giving it a kick on the pedals with his elevated shoe.


Donald Dewey has published 18 books of fiction and non-fiction, including biographies of actors James Stewart and Marcello Mastroianni that have been translated into several languages. He has also had some 30 plays of varying lengths staged in the United States and Europe. His awards include those named after Nelson Algren, Tennessee Williams, and the Actors Studio. Surprisingly, and for reasons unknown to the staff at 3am, he claims to have no photos.

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