Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ghost Hands Across the Player Piano

Delroy Figgins played the Chase Lounge some eighteen years before succumbing to a heart attack plying the loins of Molly Jarvis in the women’s bathroom.

Figgins had celebrated a January birthday in fact a milestone – number sixty.
Throughout the near two decades Figgins earned an honest reputation as the man who could play any song from any era –right or left handed in any key. The trick was to first learn the lyrics then one would never forget the melody.

Art Tatum would occasionally drop by and share a drink and talk repertoire and the two men would play some kind of head game based on ‘stump the audience’.
Figgins praised Tatum as being the only true pianist on the planet who knew every inch of the instrument even the grooves in the wood frame, the cigarette holes, down to the pedals near the floor. He said when Tatum touched a piano it would submit and play mistress and give him every inch of her flesh without commitment or payback.

Both men had a special version of ‘Tenderly’ and had it preserved on piano roll.
Piano rolls were popular in houses where folks never understood the instrument or practiced long hours but liked to entertain when company dropped by. Most times it was rag time music, sometimes a bit of Gershwin – whatever, it had to be fast and impressive.

Figgins played with his trio – Lamar Gold bass and Riley Everett drums. The three of them were like brothers and pounded a rhythm irresistible to dancers.
The club was owned by the Stinson family and seated a hundred and fifty patrons. Figgins and crew packed the place.

The night Delroy perished was the first time the room went silent in twenty-five years.
Sonny Stinson swore one day he’d buy one of those player pianos and let it do the work and save a few dollars, although Figgins wasn’t high priced like Bill Basie, Tatum and Fats Waller.

Three days past the funeral the new piano arrives along with a box of piano rolls.
Riley and Lamar think the end had come and planned moving down the street to the Hotel Belvedere and the Tap Room. Certainly a demotion, but still a pay check.

Sonny invited the men stay on and continue performing as if nothing unusual happened.
Riley wondered who the next piano player would be and if the three would be compatible.

Stinson told him to call Gold and tell him just be here at nine sharp ready to entertain as before.

At eight forty-five the two arrive after a couple drinks and a drive around Lake Malby.
The room was packed and everyone seemed to be getting along fine even with the vapors of death in the air.

Everett was first to notice there was a dummy in a suit jacket situated on a gold-covered pillow leaning on the keys. At first he laughed and thought to himself – what if Figgins had seen this spectacle and the jokes that would have transpired. He then takes his customary seat behind the drums and waits for Gold.

Gold played the tables – not the gaming ones but the ones crammed with fine young women. He smiled and toyed with his pencil thin moustache as if he was a casting a voodoo spell, then serves notice he was not only a handsome dandy but a musician of note.
When he cleared the brocade curtain and slipped on stage he sees the plump dummy head resting on the keys - pats him on the back and says, “Figgins, you’ve never looked better.”

The band mates sit awaiting the arrival of a new leader but none shows other that club owner Sonny Stinson, who begins winding the piano.
“Boys, what do you want to play first – how about a waltz?”

Gold looks over at Everett and nearly busts a lung laughing.

“You can’t be serious? Wait, how many tunes does the dummy know?” he demands, before nearly stabbing an eye on the tuning pegs of his upright bass.
“Look men, this thing never makes a mistake – I have a boy coming in tomorrow night and every night after that who will assist. He’ll change the rolls, label and pull and wind between tunes. All you have to do is accompany.”

Gold shot back with a look that would revive the Dead Sea. “Are you fucking crazy? That’s a fucking dummy and it ain’t got enough spine to sit up straight. You making a fool of us?”
Stinson reminds the two he pays and they play.

Everett thinks about the directive and offers a solution.

“Here’s the deal Sonny – we get to call the dummy anything we want. If he screws up I get to stick him in the ass with my drumsticks, rattle his nuts and if he talks back,  tape his mouth.”
Stinson looks at the two as if the Boonsville asylum doors had sprung open. “Do whatever - just play – I’m sure the hired help don’t much care what you think.”

The piano began churning a boogie woogie groove. Near bar six the three were playing in tandem. The piano roll purrs along as smooth as a locomotive, sporting a rock solid bottom. The bass lines never fluctuated; in fact Gold was deeper in the pocket than most evenings with Figgins at the keys.
Next up, ‘Tis Wonderful,’ with Gershwin at the piano. This was smart and classy – short but sweet. Then a very settled Everett asks the boy – “what else you got in the box.”

“I see some James P.Johnson, some Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Ballin' the Jack, Basin Street Blues, Bumble Bee Boogie, King Porter Stomp - how about The Twelfth Street Rag?"
Then it hits the two – they were now playing with the greats the best ivory men every to reside behind the piano.

Three days in Gold notices something odd going on with the dummy – it seemed to be moving between songs and sitting higher on the stool – then slump at songs end.
He’d try to catch Everett’s attention but as soon as eyes locked, the dummy assumed its natural catatonic state.

As days pass Gold would witness odd occurrences – strange movement and then the most shocking of all. The dummy spun around and grimaced just as he plucked a foul note. All the while, Everett sees and says nothing.
Gold passes it off as hallucinations from an encounter with some wicked Mary Jane.

The set ends and Gold doesn’t know whether to alert or inspect. He decides to take a closer look. Just as he reaches the piano bench – the dummy mumbles, “You suck.”
Gold doesn’t  know if he really heard something or invented himself.

“Can’t you play in tune – your meter is killing me,” a voice comes from near the dummies head.
Gold reaches back and wallops the stuffed object and watches as it tumbles to the floor. He then steps on the head and looks clearly into its stitched eyes, sees no sign of life and walks away.

Sitting to the right of stage a woman in a yellow dress pulled up around her knees both legs muscled by garters and stockings yells over ,’He deserved it honey – I saw it all – he was giving you bad looks.”

By now Gold was questioning his own sanity and dismissed the woman as being a loon.
As he walked passed she says, “Even if he’s got an attitude, he still plays real good,”

That was it – Gold fires himself and starts packing when Stinson and Everett come blowing in.
“Ah, come on Lamar don’t let a dummy kick your ass,” says Everett.  Then Stinson whips out a cylinder shaped object from behind his back – presses to his lips and yells ‘You suck.”

The room explodes with laughter and big mama leaps up runs over and gives a big hug.
“You been fucking with me?” asks Gold

“Yep, every night – got me a megaphone, got a bit of string - pull it’s leg and watch you turn blue,” says Stinson.
“Fellows, the new man comes tomorrow night – we just needed a week to sort this out and have some fun,”says Stinson.

“But what about the piano rolls – the boy?”
“Listen – the boy works harder than the both of you and cost me more, besides his folks have had enough.”

“I’ve hired Elmer Tapscott!”
Gold looks at Everett rolls his eyes and says, “Dress the dummy – the gig is his for life.”

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