Until last month, I couldn’t be certain of the last concert I attended. Which is ironic because I can remember the first, if not clearly — the Beach Boys, a Saturday in November 1975, Boston Garden (don’t ask what they played for the encore; it could have been Good Vibrations, but for certain there were good libations).
The next three decades of my concert-going life were blessed. I saw Dylan in Paris and Joshua Redman in the south of France. I saw Jethro Tull in Budapest (an opening act of Hungarian rock lost something in the translation).
I saw The Who on their farewell tour (and two later farewell tours) and Steely Dan on their reunion tour. I flew to San Francisco to see the Dan, thinking it would be my only chance to ever see them live. I plotted the whole Sunday around getting there in time to see the Eagles game, but the flight got held up and rerouted to Dallas, where I deplaned just in time for the kneel down, proving God or Delta has an ironic sense of humor. Or, after the next two Dan reunion concerts, Becker and Fagan.
I saw Warren Zevon a year or two before he died, and Lionel Hampton and Dave Brubeck as they approached 90, very much alive. I saw Al Stewart when his hair was longer than the neck of his guitar and when it was shorter than a bad encore. I’ve been in the crowd when Miles turned his back, and I’ve been in a bathroom with the Marsalis brothers watching Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s (Larry, not Charlie) Celtics in the NBA Finals (Branford seemed more interested in the game, Wynton in the concert).
I went with my mother to see Abdullah Ibrahim and my sister to see King Sunny Ade, and my brother to see the Grateful Dead, when maybe it would have been better to hop on the T than drive. (I’m guessing he would agree with me, but I’m not sure he remembers anything about that concert).
I went to countless shows with my wife, who humored my likes each and every one, even on the night the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia opened, her temperature soared above 100 and Branford’s encore went on and on and on, longer than this sentence. In return, she took me to countless shows of Harry Connick Jr., whose appeal I acquired, and one of Josh Groban, whose appeal I did not. I’d like to think we’re even.
But I don’t think I’ve ever left a venue as euphoric as when I left the local performing arts center last month after spending the evening with two of my favorite pianists: Marcus Roberts, who played furiously, and my 13-year-old son Sam, attending his first jazz concert, who watched intently.
It’s one thing to listen to Roberts on a CD or even vinyl, or attempt to play on the piano one of his songs or even one of the standards he’s covered. It’s another to watch Roberts, sunglasses over his eyes, gently led on stage to settle himself in front of the piano and then play it, knowingly, as one might remember the house they grew up in in a dream years later — everything perfectly in place. Roberts may not be able to see, but he has never lacked vision.
The occasion was an all-day festival commemorating the 25th anniversary of a local jazz organization. Attendance was unfortunately sparse — we watched Wallace Roney’s quartet, ducked out for Starbucks and subs and returned to a better parking space and a better seat. I haven’t been to an event so accommodating since going to an Oakland A’s baseball game in the early 1980s (there were so few people my friend bought an A’s hat, assuming that would assure him instant celebrity status on the big screen).
We were six rows up when Roberts sat at the piano, and I kept one eye on him and one eye to my right, where Sam kept both eyes on Roberts’ hands. They moved faster than a NASCAR tire changer’s, and there wasn’t a key left untouched.
Sam watched it all — the speed, the fury, the deftness — and his appreciation grew, as if to a crescendo. At one point, in the middle of a particularly hectic piece, Sam leaned over and whispered: “He just changed hands. How did he do that?” To which, as the only non-piano player in the conversation, I answered the only way I knew how: “He did what?”
Because somewhere between the time Roney’s quartet played its first note, and vocalist Taeko Fukao, the second act we saw, sang I’ve Never Been in Love (“but I’ve been married three times,” she said after the song) and Roberts struck the piano chords for the final time, father’s and son’s musical chairs changed just a bit. The apprentice musician was a little more the aficionado.
Sam grew up in a main living room which is walled by 2,000 albums and a thousand CDs. He never once pulled them out in my presence, or asked to see them or appeared the least bit curious about any of them (when he was 2, I noticed him tapping to the beat of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; I thought this might get interesting). If he was motivated, he looked it up on youtube or iTunes. My music collection to him was as relevant as a used book store is to a reader with a kindle.
(I may not always know all the workings of the computer, and yes, I have asked him for help more than once; but I doubt he would know where to begin with the turntable.)
Once he came home from band practice and asked if I knew “The Sidewinder.” I moved over to the Ms (like Shrevie in “Diner,” I believe organization matters in a music collection), pulled out Lee Morgan’s album of the same name, and said: “Know it? I have it.” Sam looked at it as a relic from a time gone by, just as he did when we pointed out a pay phone in New York.
When we got home from the Roberts concert, I pulled out all the Roberts CDs and records at home — Roberts doing Gershwin, Roberts doing Joplin, Roberts doing Ellington, or just Roberts doing Roberts. He looked at them all, hopefully with the appreciation which comes from the discovery of a new joy.
The next day he sat down to the piano to play “The Entertainer,” a Scott Joplin piece covered by Roberts. It’s been one of Sam’s signature pieces as he’s learned to play the piano. And for the first time, we heard him experiment with the piece, as Roberts might, playing a little lower, a little freer, wherever his mood took him. Sam on the piano is always a warm sound, but that day even more so.
I don’t know where the piano will take him, or music, or our night with Marcus Roberts. I do know where it will take me — back to the piano lessons I quit 40-some years ago.