He sits alone at the piano, his fingers gracing the keys. Roughly thirty audience members sit watching him. The mood is casual but at the same time reverent. The nighttime valley wind blows on and off; I lean back into the folding chair and throw a blanket over my knees, hoping to keep the cold away.
The pianist is wonderful. I’ve played with him before, and I would like to again – but tonight is all about him. He plays through three classical pieces, pausing only briefly between each, blushing awkwardly when the audience applauds. Unlike other performers I’ve seen, he wastes no time – as soon as his nimble fingers touch the keys he begins to play without hesitation. When his memory lapses or his hands fail him he saves himself with great skill, moving fluidly to the next section or the beginning of the previous. I smile to myself, thinking that someone who hasn’t heard the piece before probably wouldn’t be able to tell he’d made a mistake. He plays at times with great strength, thundering out the notes when the piece requires it, but he’s also capable of playing with great reservation – soft, delicate, compassionate. He’s not perfect, but nobody is, and I much prefer listening to him than to an oft-self-righteous stranger.
He brings the third piece to a conclusion beautifully. We applaud again, everyone beaming. He stands up, blushing, waves his hands, and announces that he’d like to invite three of his friends up to play jazz.
They’re an amateur band of close friends, and they’ve only practiced once – today. The pianist reaches for a book of music, announces the first jazz piece, and sits back down at the keyboard. The bassist adjusts the volume of his speaker; the saxophone player blows a warm-up. The drummer sits quietly, waiting.
The first song is a classic. The drummer sets the beat, the bassist fills in the harmony, and the sax player starts on the familiar melody, my pianist friend accompanying him. The audience members settle back into their chairs, listening with rapt attention, some people nodding their heads or tapping along to the beat. The players move on to a second song, a third, a fourth, each one better than the last. Jazz is fun for the audience as well as for the band – we smile, clap, and cheer together, the mood lifted and joyous. I want to close my eyes so that I can focus on the sound of the song, but at the same time I want to keep my eyes open, watching the band members and their happiness as they play.
They start a fifth piece, moving their bodies to the rhythm. By this time they’ve adjusted, and they play wonderfully together, supporting each other, signaling with their eyes. We cheer enthusiastically.
Then comes the sixth and final song. This one is loose and haphazard – clearly not planned, they play just for the fun of it. The sax player weaves in and out with the melody and a dramatic solo part. My pianist friend runs through a beautiful solo himself, the bassist turning around to tell the drummer to quiet down while he plays. Then it’s the bassist’s turn. He’s not the most technically skilled, but he clearly enjoys performing, and the audience enjoys watching him. The bassist concludes, nods to the sax player expecting a return to the full melody, but that’s not what he gets. As if on impulse, the sax player turns to the drummer and says – though the audience can’t hear him – “Drum solo!” The drummer replies, “Yeah!” and starts thundering. The audience applauds appreciatively. All four instruments come back together again, and it seems like the band members aren’t sure how to end the piece. The pianist improvises a chord progression and a flourishing arpeggio to finish it off, and I laugh, clapping hard at my friend’s artistry. We give a standing ovation.
The night is over. Everyone gathers around, talking and hugging and thanking, but I don’t know anyone in the audience and it’s not my place to stay. I tell my pianist friend I’m headed home. He follows me back into the house and asks, “How was it?”
“The jazz was fun,” I say. “It was great.”
“Really?” He blushes.
I smile. “Yes.”
It’s our last time seeing each other for a while, and we both know it. “I’ll text you,” he says.
I nod. “See you around.”
This goodbye might be forever, but in my mind it’s not. I walk outside into the darkness of night, heading back to my car, and as I treasure the memory of this moment I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
Thank you, I say silently. It was wonderful. Really.