The highlight of our trip to the city was getting hear Dave Brubeck play the piano. We’d been looking forward to the performance since April: we bought the tickets as soon as they went on sale and planned our trip around the event.
We arrived at Blue Note more than two hours ahead of time, and already, a line had formed outside. When the doors opened, the wait staff began seating the people ahead of us.
“Can we sit where we can see his hands?” I asked the waitress when she approached us. The tables out in front of the stage were already filling up, and some were reserved for special guests, but over on the side, crammed right up against the stage, were a few empty tables.
“These seats are awkward,” the waitress said, “but also awesome.”
I sat down. My chair was touching stage, just behind the black grand piano. When I reached out, I could touch the chair that Brubeck would be sitting in. It was a chair with arms, rather than a traditional piano bench, probably because he’s 90 years old. Shaggy Hair Boy, at the corner of the stage, had a clear view of the piano keys.
The room filled quickly. It’s an intimate venue, and I’m guessing that they were breaking every fire code in the book. The seating was so tight that Shaggy Hair Boy said to me with a grin, “I better not drink anything. I’d never get out of here to get to the bathroom.”
The two hours went by fast as we chatted with the other guests that were seated at our table. When everyone in the room began applauding, we knew that Dave Brubeck had arrived.
He was charming and funny as he talked to the crowd. When he sat down at the piano, I was closer to him than anyone in the room, including the other musicians. When I put my head down on the table (a move appreciated by the man sitting next to me), I could see the reflection of his face in the shiny black piano, just inches away. He kept grinning, even though I’m the only one who could see his face: he seemed just so happy to be there.
He played old standards that I’ve known since childhood, like Pennies From Heaven. (I can, in fact, tell you where my father was the first time he heard that song: he was a young man standing in the lobby of the Wood Hotel in the mountains, with his drummer friend, when that song came on the radio.)
In the dim light, Brubeck’s hands looked translucent, almost skeletal, much like the long skinny fingers of my adolescent son With-a-Why. He held his palms high above the keys, like spider. He played a song called Elegy that was hauntingly beautiful. I had the sense that even if his body gave out, old and tired as it is, that the music would just keep going.