Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Night with Horace Silver

Back in the summer of 1989, I lived and worked in Manhattan.
In those pre-internet, pre-Craigslist years, if you wanted to find a job, you bought the New York Post and examined the classifieds.
“Piano Player Wanted”, said one item. The place was a restaurant on Mulberry St., in Little Italy. Off I went and auditioned for the job. The piano was a battered upright. The restaurant was called PJ’s. I got the job. It was quick and easy, not like the convoluted job-seeking musicians in New York undergo nowadays. I was paid $75 per day for three days in the weekend, which may not seem much, but in those days, a subway token cost a mere one dollar and I paid just three hundred dollars rent for an entire attic room in Queens. Later, I was also able to snag another regular gig at a retro- bar on Christopher St. playing a sixties electric organ, so I was good to go in New York City. Plus I was getting tips from diners, who were usually tourists with cash to spare. I wasn’t getting rich, but I managed comfortably in a city that was, and still is, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I could even afford to watch Broadway shows regularly, because you could still watch a top-notch show for half-price starting at $15. Try that today.
One of the perks of my job as the resident pianist of an Italian restaurant in Little Italy was that I was entitled to whatever meal I wanted on the menu. My favorite was the stuffed squid.This was over and above my afternoon snack in Chinatown before my gig. At a Chinese teahouse that no longer exists, I usually ordered the most scrumptious steamed buns and oolong tea. The memory of those buns still brings tears to my eyes.
I played from 7 till 10 PM. Sometimes, after all the customers and tourists had gone, bartenders from other restaurants who had finished their shifts would gather at PJ’s and have a sing-a-long. Those were the days before karaoke, so I was busy accompanying bartenders from “Azzurro”or “SPQR” as they sang Frank Sinatra songs till 2 AM. They were pretty good, and I was getting a name in my little corner of New York. That of course ended when I decided to go back to cruise-ships, but that was in the future.
Working in Little Italy meant that I was within walking distance of Greenwich Village, and Greenwich Village was where all the famous jazz clubs where: Blue Note, Village Vanguard, Arthur’s Tavern. After my gig ended at PJ’s, I’d walk the few blocks to Bleecker Street and catch the last set at 11:00 PM. at any of the clubs. You bought a drink at the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard and that was it. I don’t remember paying any cover charge.
One Saturday evening, after my gig at PJ’s had ended, I hurried to the Blue Note. Horace Silver was performing there, had been all week long. He loomed large in my list of influential pianists, and therefore I obligated myself to listen to him in person. Anyone who has played “Song for my Father” can understand this feeling.
I arrived at the club a few minutes before the start of the last set. I went up to the restroom, which was on an upper landing, to freshen up after my breathless walk. At the vestibule stood a lanky black man with a slight stoop and longish hair. For some reason, I immediately recognized him. Horace Silver. I went up to him.
“Hi Horace,” I said.
“Hi man,” he replied smiling.
“Love your work,” I said, feeling stupid.
“Great!” he said. “ Did you buy my record?”
“Yes I did,”I said. I lied. He looked so amiable.
“Good, good,”he said as he made his way down to the stage.
At the club, I stood at the bar, listening to Horace play the piano in his odd, funky way. The jazz aficionados of Manhattan clustered around him in rapt attention. They were there not to drink, but to listen to a great jazz artist.
Today Horace is 83 years old and has Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t perform anymore.
That summer in New York, when the Dow Jones gained 2800 points for the first time and Wall Street was on a multi-billion dollar high, I did not gain any riches.
That summer in New York I chatted with, and listened to, Horace Silver.
That, to me, is a memory as rich as any other.

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