Jelly Roll Morton Ain't Got NUTHIN On This / by LD


I've played the piano for most of my life. It started with the requisite Fraulein-Mary-type doe-ray-meeing as a child and eventually transitioned, unyielding though I was at first, to learning how to read music as a series of letters instead of as a drop of golden sun. The lessons were arduous at first - a practice in the self-discipline that I lacked, and a test to the iron will that was buried as deeply in me as a threshold of crude oil under the earth's crust. 

My piano teacher Judy was a swinging 60's type of woman, thoroughly modern in a mid-century sort of way, as fascinatingly sleek and classic as a Barcelona chair. She was as outspoken as I was stubborn; as unbending as I was unyielding. And what's more, she was smarter than I was and even worse still (!): she was usually right. This posed a particular problem as I had yet in my young life to meet another who matched me wit for wit, steel for steel, will for will. My parents had bafflingly birthed a wild child, less of a social terror than a deep and unending reserve of mouthy and bull-headed contrariness. What I lacked in outright spoiled-brat rebellion I more than made up for in pigheaded noncompliance. 

In other words, I was a joy to be around, and Judy inexplicably seemed to enjoy our time together. So I stuck with it, by parental force at first, eventually transitioning to a place wherein I could learn and play the Disney songs I loved so much - and by then it was too late. I was hooked. As a pre-adolescent, I loved the mental release piano afforded. As the music became more and more complicated, so too my perceived "problems" grew into a terrific sense of blooming, brooding, full-bodied ennui, and playing Mozart or Saint-Saëns or Tchaikovsky released my turmoil-addled brain from the rigors of being a daughter at the hands of angry authority figures. 

Eventually my lessons were split 50/50 - both in location and in intention. Sometimes we played piano at the music store Judy and her husband Keith owned. Sometimes we went an entire lesson without therapy. But usually I drove to her home, and usually we spent a good thirty minutes chatting before we ever played a single note. I loved driving up the sinuous hills of West Salem - over the bridge, and so far away from my suburban reality! Though it was only a few miles away from Keizer, Judy's hilltop time-capsule of a house seemed like a million miles from home. Sleek Eames-y furniture reclined on shag rugs, and the monochromatic beige color scheme subdued the exaggerated shapes. Creative lighting. Acute angles. Obtuse swoops and swooning curtains. Every square inch of Judy's living room seemed to be infused with light from picture windows flanking the back wall. It was the most stylish place I'd ever been; glowing from within, this snazzed-up snow globe containing an entire era's worth of alternative perspective. The kind of wisdom that only retro furniture can impart.

Our lessons became a split reality, too, like the two halves of my brain that were learning to work in tandem. I'd sit on the piano bench with Judy beside me in her chair and I'd talk, and talk, and talk. Or sometimes Judy would tell me how it was, and I'd listen. Then I'd bang out a few pieces, arduously climbing the ivories with each scale, stopping, starting, willing the tendons in my forearms not to twinge with every arpeggio or measure of a song that seemed to be just outside my abilities until one day: holding my breath, fingers flying, muscle memory, not thinking, not concentrating really, just focused. Breathless. Note for note, perfection. Not one mistake. 

And then we'd move on, euphoric, employing smiley faces and stickers even as I brushed up against adulthood; charms and mile markers for my achievements. Achievements that were about so much more than learning "Rondo Alla Turca." A sparkling alligator on Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1," was also the week I learned to hold my tongue. A fuzzy, flocked Christmas tree on "The Coventry Carol" for a season in which I'd fought with a friend, but had reached reconciliation. And so I found solace at the keys, and it was there that I also learned how to grow up. How to be a better person. How to love more deeply, to care more genuinely, to notice more faithfully the infinitesimal details that made being a teenager such a uniquely fleeting experience. 

When I went to college, I stopped playing as much. I'd spend time on it while I was at home, but it wasn't the same. I was losing my edge, and after a few years, the only couple of songs I still knew how to play were Christmas songs - and in a minor key, at that! I never lost the hope that I'd have a piano one day and that I'd begin to play again.

In June when Kelsey moved in to our house, she brought with her a number of things (a Brita filter, a flat screen TV, and El Jefe, to name a few). She also came with a piano. Overnight, the house was filled with music again, though certainly more riddled with  mistakes than before. But it didn't matter - I could play! I could learn! 

Around the time that we acquired the piano, we noticed that when we weren't playing, the music was still wafting in the open windows. Except that in sharp contrast to my furrowed-brow finger plunking, this music was jazzier. Lighter. Better. Far, far better, in fact - a point that did not go unnoticed by our household, especially on a night like tonight when the air was still with anticipation (of more heat the following day, I'd imagine. Rather anticlimactic, but it is summer, after all). We planted ourselves on the porch so that we could better hear the music that seemed to be eddying around the upstairs condo across the street. 

After the song ended, we clapped wildly in appreciation. There was silence. Then a blonde head poked through the sliding glass door and a guy around our age wandered warily onto his balcony. He looked down the street. We clapped again, and his eyes focused on our house. "Bravo!" We called across Obispo Ave. 

"Thanks," he responded with a shrug. "What are you guys up to?"

"Listening to you!" 

"I hope it's not bugging you..."

"That's why we're OUT here, man!"

He grinned and disappeared back inside. Soon the music began again, more freely than before. Louder too. We drank beers. Soon a trumpet started in. 

What on earth?

He came back to the balcony. "Who was playing the trumpet?" We hollered. 

"That was me," he smiled. "One hand on the trumpet, and the other--" he wriggled his fingers in the air. 

"Do you want a beer?" Kelsey called out. 

"Sure, I'll come over."

And so he introduced himself; Justin from Georgia. Completely self-taught, and oh yeah? All those songs? He was making them up as he went along. We sat in awe, our mouths agape. "I usually find that having music in front of me is more of a hindrance. It keeps me from being spontaneous. I just play whatever I want to."

I commented that I've never been able to play so freely, that I'd never been able to improvise. 

"You should try it. I mean, if you're classically trained, it will be like teaching yourself all over again. It's a risk. But if you worked hard enough at it, I think you could do it."

"Maybe I'll try," I conceded. 

And maybe someday, I will.