So here’s another little story that’s been playing around in my mind.
Rain was pouring in sheets in the voids between the tall buildings that lined 5th Avenue. It dropped Alex into an even gloomier mood. She never came this way, it was typical that on the one night she did, she would be stuck in the rain. Her small umbrella barely covered her. The blowing wind threw her rain soaked hair around her face as she turned to look up the avenue for a cab having in her mind already decided it wasn’t worth going on. There were none so she drudged on.
The rain turned from deluge to downpour, and Alex shrieked reflexively as the rain pounded on her umbrella and the wind tried to pull it from her hands.She trotted the last few steps to the bar she had come to visit and ducked into small, entrance. She had been wanting to come here for weeks and only just now found the excuse. Ten minutes before she had been walking to a club off of eighteenth, but when she got there the music she heard coming through the door was techno/funk. She kept walking. In the back of her mind she noted where she was, just three blocks from The Burning Pear, the hotel bar she had read about in BSMN, Bleeker Street Music News last month. As she turned left to get to fifth, the rain, a slight drizzle, started.
Alex stopped in the foyer of the hotel and allowed the rain to drip off of her slowly. There were several people near her waiting for a break in the rain to go out about their business, all of them turned to look at her as if she were crazy to be out in the storm. She shook herself with a bit more aplomb and held her chin a touch hire to spite them and walked back toward the rear of the lobby where she already heard the piano playing.
The lobby of the hotel was steeped in age and past grandeur. The floor was yellow tinted subway tile that had a fluer de lis design running through it. A century ago it would have looked amazing. There was a dark mahogany desk on the left of the lobby and a grand staircase in the back with thick red carpeting and banisters that were held up with elaborate balusters. The ceilings were two stories and vaulted with designed that looked like frescos aging and drying up into faded designs. Alex knew the neighborhood well enough to know that in just a few years a developer would offer the right price and the whole thing would be gutted and a new, sterile, hotel would take the place of this antique, but for Alex , it was pleasant and soul filling to walk through a piece of history. It was like that in New York. A person could step off the street and instantly be wrapped in antiquity and be a part of history. She took in as much as she could as she walked, with each step the piano music getting closer and louder. Nestled in the back left, just a quick jog from the stairs, a restaurant cum bar that was filled to overflowing with people.
There were a few couples at the entrance, drinks in hands, it didn’t look like they were upset to be there, they were whispering to one another, looking in toward the bar, not a line waiting to get in, just over spill. Alex squeezed past them and made her way to the left where she saw the bar. The bar was really nothing more than a large, dark wood mahogany bar that had a dozen or so closed packed tables and chairs that served for the appetizer eating patrons. The whole place could hold maybe fifty people tops and tonight it was jam packed. She had expected a crowd, the BSMN had warned the reader that it was popular, but she hadn’t expected quite so many.
She slipped through the crowd and angled her shoulder though the throng waiting on the bar and waved at the bartender who looked her way. She ordered a Vanilla Stoli and coke before she turned to take in the real reason she was there.
Alex looked around the bar. It was a darkened room, with mood lighting that did little to reveal much about the restaurant. It was as if everything about the place has been altered to emphasize the music. Altered was the right word. Alex realized that the bar hadn’t been built expressly as a studio, it had been changed recently, in little ways, tables moved to allow for a grand piano, aisles moved to pack more people in, doors with whisper close devices so that the lobby noise was kept out and the doors didn’t make a bang when they closed.
Behind the bar, in the corner, nestled tight against the intersection of the exterior windowed wall and the brick wall that was shared probably with the building next door, was a grand piano. In any other bar it would have seemed out of place. It would have been a waste of space. In this case it was the reason for the popularity. Like a restaurant with a popular chef who churns out a masterpiece dish that everyone in the dining community must try, this piano, and the man playing it was the magnet that drew every person Alex knew from the article, like iron filings. In other bars she knew she would have seen couples talking and eating and drinking. The piano would have been an afterthought. Here, it was the opposite. Everyone was watching and listening. There was a hushed quiet in the crowd as if everyone was holding their breaths wanting to hear as much as they could. All eyes were facing the piano, and the only thing she heard other than the shuffle and hum of the crowd, was the slight tinkle and clink of glasses as the bartenders hustled to make drinks.
What was interesting was that the whole thing, the mood, the hushed crowd, the ambiance, it all worked. The music was the focus. It was just piano music. No accompanying voice, no strings, no percussion. Just a simple piano that was being played softly yet with distinction. Alex took her drink and gave the bartender a ten. She turned and leaned slightly against the bar, holding her drink in front of her, eyes closed and let the music soak in. He had just started a new song. The first had been jazzy and had a distinct bass melody. This was faster, more upbeat. She focused on it and imagined the fingers of the pianist as the keys were played.
Alex was a musician and felt sure she could identify who was playing as soon as she heard them play. If she walked into Poor Richard’s she could tell if it was Marcus or O’hare playing the guitar after just two chords. She couldn’t see the man playing the piano yet, but she knew she had never heard him play before. Her ear told her that. Next she tried to listen to see if he had training. How precise was the time? How forceful were fingers pressed on the keys and did that pressure vary? Was the musician a slave to the music or vice versa? Hell there were times when she felt she could determine if a fellow musician had been through Professor Higgsons History of Music class.
The article last month in the BSMN had been less a news piece but more of a variety piece. not so much a news piece. The only reason that Alex had read it was that the author, Renee Pace had written an article about her own band, Persistent Soul, a year before. Reading it had been fun and light and told the story about how Renee and her friends had spent five days coming to the bar and listening to the songs to see if they could identify one. They hadn’t. Five nights, with about forty songs a night and they never heard one that they had heard before, and they never heard the same one twice, at least they didn’t think they had.
The article promised a follow up where Renee hoped to get a some industry resources, professors, teachers, tutors, music lovers, music store owners, whoever, to come in and listen as well. It was a bit of a gimmick but it was a gimmick that worked. It had Alex watching and waiting and listening to see if she recognized the songs.
The most intriguing part was that Renee and her friends had gone up to the man playing the piano to talk about the songs he played. He hadn’t spoken to them. In fact, according to Renee, he had hardly even noticed they were there. Renee, being Renee had been persistent, and eventually a waitress had pulled them away. It wasn’t just rudeness or not wanting to speak to the press, the man never spoke. No one at the bar had ever heard him speak at all. He came in and played and left later that night when the bar closed. He had never been asked to play, he had seen the stand up piano one evening, when the owner had installed it as a lark, and started to play. The crowds had followed. Three months later the owner upgraded the piano and tried to get the man on retainer. Nothing. No one could get him to speak. He came in, he played, he left. No money. No talking. No nothing.
Again, Alex thought to herself, a gimmick. Maybe a bit of performance art. Perhaps everyone who worked at the bar, the waitstaff, the owner, the bartender, maybe they were all in on the conspiracy. Whatever the case it was working. There were certainly lots of people. She doubted the bar had ever been this popular.
Alex sat back with her drink and let the music roll over her.By the fifth song she knew that this musician wasn’t a fellow Julliard alum. The keyboard work was too rough, too unrefined and every now and then the timing was slowed slightly. But it was a nice arrangement and the most amazing part was that she didn’t recognize the songs at all. If they were covers they were unknown to her completely.
She stopped the analyzing and just listened and realized she loved it.