Thank you Apple! And to everyone who is reading the book, I hope you're having fun. Here's another excerpt, also featuring the fabulous Nina.
Marian McPartland: The Lady Plays
Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl
Reprinted with the permission of Bass Lion Publishing
Â©2011 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved
Hereâs your coffee!â says Nina. âRise and shine!â
Itâs nine in the morning and Nina Lesowitz, my publisherâs indefatigable publicist, has run to a Madison Avenue coffee shop to pick up breakfast for the two of us. Iâve come to town to tape a Piano Girl segment for Marian McPartlandâs Piano Jazz on NPR. The invitation to appear on Ms. McPartlandâs program came directly from the queen of jazz piano herself, and Iâm honored, humbled, and very nervous. I flew from Germany to New York two days ago. Nina arrived yesterday from San Francisco. She has jet lag coming from one direction; I have it from the other. I figure between the two of us we have one complete brain.
During the long flight from Frankfurt to JFK, an elderly Indian woman wearing a bright pink sari sat next to me. Hardly more than fifty pounds, she had a face like a walnut and miniscule eyes with fluttering lashes. She sat in lotus position for eight hours without saying a word. Every so often she would hand me a little plastic container of coffee cream to open for her. She didnât smile or speak or acknowledge me in any other wayâshe would pass the cream to me and wait with one shriveled hand gently extended until I peeled off the aluminum top and passed it back. We went through this ritual at least six times. She poured her cream into numerous cups of tea, which she didnât drink. I suspected she was meditating, so I didnât interrupt her, because maybe, just maybe, she was keeping the plane in the sky. After we landed she stayed in her seat, legs crossed, palms resting on knees. I nodded farewell, stepped over her, and proceeded to the baggage claim, where I saw her once again, this time in a wheelchair pushed by an airline attendant. She was still in lotus position.
Todayâs taping will begin at noon. I have three hours to calm down and align my chakras, if I have them. I should have taken notes from my Indian friend.
My publisher is graciously funding this trip, but weâre on a shoestring budget, so Nina and I are sharing a room. Weâre staying in the three-star Hotel Wolcott on Thirty-first Street. The hotel advertises itself as one of New Yorkâs âbest kept hotel bargain secrets.â The Wolcottâs lobbyâdecorated in a pseudo-Baroque style with furniture donated by someoneâs Great Aunt Ednaâteems with Eastern European tourists and American backpackers stuffing their bags with the free birthday-cake-sized muffins offered at the breakfast trough each morning. Nina and I have vowed to avoid the muffins and urban backpackers whenever possible.
Hotel Wolcott is a fine establishment, but the two of us, self-proclaimed travel princesses, are used to places with heated towels, LâOccitane de Provence toiletries, and working elevators. Low-budget or not, weâre determined to have fun, so we cheerfully climb the four flights of steps several times each day, swearing we can feel ourselves slimming down. We hang the towels on the radiator and buy our own overpriced toiletries. The hotel must be trying to attract visiting NBA teams with the height of its bathroom mirrors. I put a little stool in the bathroom so we can boost ourselves up over the sink to put on makeup. Every night we examine the mattresses for signs of bedbugs, a growing problem in New York City hotels. Weâve decided Hotel Wolcott is unusually clean for one of these budget places. Still, Iâve been spraying tea-tree oil on the bed linens, just in case.
âHey, look at this,â says Nina. Sheâs sipping coffee and browsing through the hotel brochure. âWe can book our next press event downstairs at the Buddy Holly Conference Center. He stayed here in 1958. Go figure. Letâs see, the room features, uh, a table and eight chairs. And lights. They have lights.â
Iâm still in bed, wondering if I should drink the coffee or not drink the coffee. I need it to wake up, but my nerves are shot and the caffeine certainly wonât help.
Awake and nervous is better than calm and comatose. I drink the coffee.
âGod, I hate this,â I say.
âIâm nervous. I hate feeling this way. You should have let me sleep until twenty minutes before the taping. Then I wouldnât have to spend the next three hours feeling sick.â
âYeah, but then you wouldnât have time to do your hair.â
âNina, itâs radio. Hair doesnât matter.â
âHair always matters. We might want to take photos. I have to get a shot of you with Marian! Last time we were together we met, like, Bill Clinton. Hello? Who knows what will happen today? Iâve heard BeyoncĂ© is in town. We want to look nice. And it will take a while to get ready in this place. The shower needs twenty minutes to warm upâI timed it yesterday. I turned the shower on, went out for coffee, and when I came back twenty minutes later it was finally warm. And I think the hairdryer is from 1959.â
âMaybe it was Buddy Hollyâs hair dryer.â
âEat a bagel, youâll feel better.â
Itâs true. New York City bagels always make me feel better.
âI donât think they had hair dryers in 1959.â
âHow do you think Buddy Holly got his hair to do that? It doesnât matterâyouâre going to be fine!â Nina says. âOnce youâre dressed weâll go shopping for accessories.â
âJunk jewelry. Weâre in the junk-jewelry districtâthe world capital for junk jewelry. God, I love New York.â
âNina, Iâve got to concentrate on the show, Iâm freaked out, and you want me to go shopping for jewelry an hour before the session?â
âItâs a perfect solution,â she says. âYou canât shop and be nervous at the same time. Besides, youâve been practicing for, what, thirty-five years? If youâre not ready now, youâll never be ready.â
âRight,â I say. She has a point. Iâm happy Nina is here. She distracts me; she makes me laugh. Sheâs keeping the plane in the sky.
I follow Nina into the nearest junk-jewelry store.
âThey say you need a wholesale license to shop here, but just grab a basket and act like you know what youâre doing,â Nina says.
âIâm good at that,â I say.
âLook! Emeralds! These earrings would be perfect with that black sweater you wore last night. Theyâre so adorable.â
I need fake emerald earrings like I need a dogsled, but I throw them in my basket and wander around the store. Garlands of fake diamonds and other dangling bits of glitz hang from the velvet-covered walls. The fluorescent lights bounce off the plastic gems and mirrors and send reflections back and forth across the shop. I feel as if Iâm trapped inside a disco ball. I double-check my backpack to make sure Iâve remembered the music charts Iâve written out for Marianâweâre scheduled to play three duets in addition to my four solo pieces. The show, which is recorded months in advance, will be edited to fit the one-hour NPR time slot.
âLook, Robin!â says Nina. âA tiara with feathers!â
I grab a rhinestone bracelet and a couple of rings for my daughter.
âWhat time is it, Nina? Time to go?â
âNope. We still have thirty minutes. Look over there at those darling African beads. Very cool.â
My cell phone rings. Itâs John calling from Germany to wish me luck. Itâs five-thirty in the morning there.
âYouâll be fine,â he says. âRemember to breathe. Where are you now?â
âIâm in a junk-jewelry store called Nickâs Picks. Nina is trying to keep me distracted.â
âGood. Listen to her. She knows what sheâs doing. Better that youâre in a junk-jewelry store than, say, Bergdorf Goodman.â
Iâve been a fan of Marianâs show for years. Piano Jazz is the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio. The NPR affiliate in Berlin airs it every week, so for the past decade Iâve been listening on Saturday evenings when Iâm driving home from my piano job. Marian plays with guts but never relinquishes her femininity. She connects the gap between sensitivity and strength, playing with conviction and vulnerability, wit and intelligence, innocence and maturity. Her relaxed interview style is not unlike her playing. She has been in the USA for most of her adult life, yet she maintains an air of English graciousnessâtreating each guest like a long-lost best friend, using her warm and smoky voice to invite the listener into her living room for a little music and a cocktail or two.
âShe has played with, like, everyone,â says Nina as she scoops up a handful of fake ruby hair ornaments. âOscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans, and well, the list goes on and on. She even had Clint Eastwood on the show. You know, he plays the piano.â
Nina has done her publicist homework.
âOh, Nina, stop. This is making me more nervous.â
âAlicia Keys and Tony Bennett and, whatâs his name? The blind guyâyou know who I mean.â
âNo, the other one.â
âOh yeah, Ray Charles. I love him! He was on the show, too.â
âOkay, thatâs enough.â
âDizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson were on. Hank Jones and Norah Jones . . .â
âWhat, no Tom Jones?â
âI donât think so, at least not yet. All the big stars have been on Marianâs show. Even, like, Eartha Kitt and Keith Jarrett.â
âNot at the same time, I hope.â
âNo, I donât think so. That opera singer, RenĂ©e Fleming. God, sheâs gorgeous! She was on the show. And whatâs his name . . . God, this jet lag is destroying my memoryâthe âTake Fiveâ guy?
âYeah, thatâs it. He was on. And now, you. So, you want to go in this next store?
Wouldnât it be great to meet Tom Jones? Look! They have lots of pins shaped like butterflies. I love butterflies.â
When Marian called me in Germany last month I was so excited I almost dropped the telephone. She had read Piano Girl and, having logged eight years playing with her trio at New York Cityâs Hickory House, related to my tales of unruly customers, obnoxious managers, stalkers, perverts, and piano gig mishaps. We talked for almost an hour about music and family and raising kids in Europe. She was hip and funny and genuinely interested in my double life as a musician and mom.
A week after our conversation I received a formal letter from her asking me to be a guest on Piano Jazz. I ran my hands over her elegant stationeryâhow odd it is to receive a real letter these daysâand gave it a place of honor in my Piano Girl scrapbook. Then, feeling a little sad, I called Marianâs home number.
âThank you so much for the invitation,â I said. âBut I canât be on your show. Iâm not a jazz musician. Not even close.â
âOh, thatâs okay,â she said. âItâs all just music. Time for something different. Weâll play a few tunes and talk about your book. It will be fun! I canât wait!â
Nina and I arrive at Manhattan Beach studio five minutes before noon. My parents, who have come in from Pittsburgh for the taping, are in the control room. I havenât seen them for almost a year, and it feels odd to have our reunion in front of the technicians. Nina takes charge and introduces me to Shari Hutchinson, the Piano Jazz producer. Good producers are efficient and keep things moving along. Great producers have vision. Shariâs handshake is firm, her manner respectful and friendly, her voice warm and confident. I can tell she knows her craft.
âMarian will be here in a moment,â says Shari. âSheâs freshening up a bit.â
For some reason everyone is eating soup. Mom hugs me and continues chatting with the young man at the mixing board. I think they might be exchanging recipes.
Dad says, âHow are you doing? You okay?â He knows I get nervous before important piano events. âDo you need something to eat?â
âNo thanks, Dad.â
âHow about some tea?â
âOkay.â He pours the tea for me and hands me a little plastic container of cream. I hand it back to him. He opens it for me. I think this may be a sign. Of what, I donât know. Maybe my chakras are aligning.
I check out the two Baldwin grand pianos sitting side by side behind the glass partition.
âWhy donât you check out the piano?â says Shari. âYouâll be playing the one on the right. Weâll get our levels while youâre doing that.â
âSure,â I say.
âBy the way,â Shari says. âMarion is sensitive about pictures, so no photos, please.â
âOf course,â I say. âI understand. But, uh, you might want to mention this to Nina. She has the camera, and she tends to be shutter happy.â
âWill do,â says Shari.
I head into the studio. Itâs so peaceful in here. This might be the first real stillness Iâve experienced since leaving homeâeven at their most quiet thereâs a constant drone on the cityâs streets. I can see the others behind the glassâthey look like silent-movie actors, laughing and pointing at who knows what. I pull the charts out of my backpack and a rope of pink pearls spills onto the floor and makes a big racket. The engineer lifts his head. I canât hear him, but he can obviously hear me. I arrange the charts on the piano and stuff the jewelry back inside the backpack.
Iâm a recording rookie compared to my husband and my father, both of whom make a living in the recording studio. For me itâs still an adventure. John says a recording is exactly thatâa record of what a musician sounds like during a particular phase of her life. This soothes me. I donât have to sound better than I am. I would, however, like to avoid sounding worse.
I look into the control room. Busy, busy, busy. I wonder if anyone would notice if I left and returned to Nickâs Picks. I put my hands on the keys. The first moments at an unfamiliar piano are always awkward.
The piano is in tune. The action is good. Fine.
The studio door clicks behind me, and there she is.
âRobin!â she says. âItâs great to have you here! What were you playing just now? Very nice!â She is wearing a spiffy dark-blue pantsuit and a silky blouse with a bow at the neck. She hugs me.
âItâs an honor to meet you,â I say. Any woman who has managed to make a living as a musician, especially a jazz musician, blows me away. Marian grew up during a time when female jazz musicians were a rarity. In a way they still are.
Shari stands with her hand on Marianâs elbow. She leads her to the piano, helps her get situated, then politely excuses herself. Iâm surprised by Marianâs physical frailness. Her radio voice has always been so strong, her laughter so robust, that Iâve been tricked into thinking sheâs decades younger than her ninety years.
âIt takes me a few minutes to get comfortable,â she says. âI need to have a hip replacement, but who has time for that? I want to go on tour in the fall. My agent has a nice string of gigs lined up.â
âWow,â I say. âItâs wonderful youâre still touring so much.â
âYes!â she says. âThings are good.â
We sit on our individual piano benches, our bodies turned to face each other while weâre taping the interview sections of the program.
I hand Marian the charts Iâve brought with me.
âOh!â she says, tossing the music onto the table between us. âThese mean nothing to me. Never did care much for reading notes! I play by ear. Letâs figure out what songs we should do as a duet and what key, and off weâll go.â
Iâm a little thrown by this, since Iâve spent weeks preparing these arrangements. But itâs her show, so I put the charts away and grab a pencil. Together we decide who takes which chorus for each of the songs. Iâm scribbling notes, but she doesnât write down a thing.
âTrust me,â she says. âThis will work out. I hate planning too much.â
âMaybe thatâs the secret to a happy life,â I say.
âMight be,â she says. âIt works for me.â
I vow that my next fifty years will more spontaneous.
âLetâs try a chorus of âNight and Day,ââ she says. âIâll play the melody on the head.â She turns and faces the piano. And then, before my eyes, this sweet English rose of a grandmother turns into a jazz cat. Get down, Marian. âOne, two, one, two three, four . . .â
We play a couple of choruses. Iâm having fun.
âGood!â she says. âBut letâs not rehearse too much.â
âYou know, Marian,â I say. âThis is tricky for me. Iâm used to playing solo. Itâs pretty much all Iâve ever done.â
âWell then, these duets will be a premiere!â
âYeah. heck of a way to try something for the first time.â We both laugh.
âExcuse me, ladies,â says Shari from the control room. âPlease save the chitchat for the actual taping. Right now weâre just testing levels, and I donât want to lose spontaneity.â
Rehearsal seems to be a bad word in this place.
Marian waves her hand dismissively toward the control room and says, âOkay, okay,â but keeps talking to me, asking about John, my kids, my music. By the time we start taping Iâm having so much fun Iâve completely forgotten why Iâm here.
Marian conducts the entire showâseveral hours of tapingâwithout consulting a single note of music or any kind of written prompt about my book. We play three standard tunes together: âCharade,â âSpring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,â and âNight and Day.â Iâve practiced my two-piano arrangements for months, but Marian, with her ears leading the way, jumps right in and nails each piece on the first take. I play an original solo piece that Iâve dedicated to herâone that Iâve been working on for at least six weeksâand she returns the favor by playing a piece for me that she composes on the spot. She plays, I play, we talk and talk, we play together, then repeat the whole cycle with different topics and different tunes. Her joy rubs off on me. Look at her goâhereâs a ninety-year-old woman playing piano the way she wants to. She has grown into her music and stayed young because of it. She listens, she responds, she encourages the rest of us to keep going. Marian doesnât need magic, luck, or soothing words to keep her plane in the sky, because sheâs the pilot. If thereâs a better role model for a musician, I donât know who it is.
We play the last chord of the last song, and Marian says, âWell, that was fun!â
Everyone in the control room applauds, and Marian hugs me.
âI think we should take some pictures,â she says.
âOh, that would be great!â I try to get Ninaâs attention in the control room, but she is flitting about and exchanging business cards with everyone. Marian pulls out a compact and touches up her lipstick. Then she grabs a can of Final Net hair spray and a small brush and cranks her hair. I realize Iâve forgotten to bring my makeupâitâs back at Hotel Wolcott, on the shelf underneath the NBA makeup mirror. Iâve got a rope of plastic pearls, three rhinestone bangle bracelets, fake emerald earrings and a belt covered in sequins, but no lipstick.
Nina flies through the studio door with her camera and chokes on the hair-spray fumes. Marian keeps spraying.
âWell,â says Marian, taking one last look in her compact. âIâm ready for the photos.â
âBut Marion,â says Shari from the control room. âDonât you want to fix your hair?â
âI just did,â says Marian, rolling her eyes.
âAnd it looks fabulous,â says Nina, sneezing in the cloud of Final Net.
âOh, yes, I see now, your hair does look fabulous,â says Shari.
âSee?â Nina whispers to me. âHair always counts. You want to borrow my hairbrush?â
Shari escorts my parents into the studio and introduces them to Marian. I feel like Iâm at a wedding reception. Marian embraces them and has her photo taken with the three of us.
âWell, Bob,â she says to my dad. âYou should be proud of your daughter. She played her ass off.â
âYes, Marian, she did.â
âYou played your ass off, too,â I say to Marian. Her hand is on my waist, and she gives me a conspiratorial squeeze.
Marianâs driver whisks her away, and I stay at the studio to record several solo holiday pieces for an NPR Piano Jazz Christmas CD. My piano has slipped out of tune, so I slide over to Marianâs. I imagine, just for a moment, what itâs like to be her.
Several weeks later I perform a reading and concert in the rotunda at Steinway Hall. Marian, who has her own concert on the same night, sends flowers. FROM ONE PIANO GIRL TO ANOTHER, the card reads. WISH I COULD BE THERE.
To listen to Marian's show with Robin Goldsby, please go to: NPR.org Marian and Robin