It’s not a bad life playing piano in a smart restaurant. That is if you like playing the piano better than working in an office. You need to be tolerant. Public taste is predictable but your repertoire has to cover a wide range of mood and sentiment; especially if you take requests. Also, you have to balance being impressive enough to command respect and unobtrusive enough not to fuck up the conversations.
I’d fetched up in Savannah after my concert career led me to near starvation. In a classy eatery with a decent piano, I was guaranteed at least one square meal a day and time out mornings and afternoons to give music lessons or stay in bed. I liked Savannah. It had enough tourists and well-heeled locals to support a clientele year round.
The regulars and you get to know each other. In general, it’s simply knowing their favourites and playing them – with a verbal acknowledgement where appropriate. Now and again you get to teach their kids and they pay you enough to make it worthwhile.
“This is not a town where being black carries any great cachet”
This is not a town where being black carries any great cachet. Our history is chequered, to say the least in that regard. On the other hand, it’s possible to be treated with a degree of respect and good manners. If you are in a validated role – such as musician – and don’t step outside that, the white ruling classes can be charming to you. Or if you are a professional – doctor or lawyer say – then to you’ll also be cordially admitted to selected social situations. It depends however how far your work impacts on white interests.
My audiences were invariably pale of face and plump of wallet. The restaurant had a very good Creole chef who was also a master of international cuisine. He was licensed to be as familiar as he chose with his clientele. They loved it when he was rude to them, which he was – on a carefully judged basis. Occasionally one of my fellow African Americans would come in, usually a visiting businessman. They never got a good table. None of the local middle-class black people came. The place seemed to convey a subtle air of segregation. It was a two-way street of mutual barring. My wife, a pharmacist, once told me a lawyer-activist customer had asked why I was ‘doing Uncle Tom work’. She had answered, ‘No black restaurants will feed and pay him to play piano.’
The lady at table nine – a corner facing the piano and by a window – was a real regular. She came in unfailingly twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday. She had whatever the chef decided to send out to her. He loved her. Her dishes were always served carried on a silver tray with a rose. My predecessor left a note on the piano when he left. It said, ‘Table Nine, Tue and Thu: My Old Flame when she comes in and These Foolish Things when she goes.’ First time round I was into a piece of Mozart – it was cocktail time and people were mostly in the bar – but I struck up and she turned and nodded her head with a smile of thanks. She was slender, dark-haired, quite tall, very pale and immaculately clad. She sat and drank her cocktail and a couple of glasses of champagne and ate her meal with an air of languid composure. Coffee was served with a brandy. She looked over at me and nodded. I switched from my ‘medley of the great musicals’ to These Foolish Things; she seemed to attend quite closely to this and I thought I might even have heard her singing along in a semi-whisper.
After she left and as the restaurant was closing, the maître d’ came by and said, ‘Madame Delaney much liked your playing.’ That was pleasant to hear for all sorts of reasons.
The restaurant had a very formal culture of musical appreciation: Polite applause only, no ‘whooping’ even for favourite numbers, requests never called out but written on slips (provided at the table) and delivered by a waiter. The pianist was never to speak except to say ‘good evening’ when first sat down, announce a request and ‘thank you, good night’, when rising at the end of the performance. The salutations were regardless of whether there were people in the restaurant or not. I played Tuesday through Saturday.
So it went, predictable and comfortable. I forgot even about the black and white issue whilst I was playing. I also worked hard on the My Old Flame arrangement. There were several versions: my personal favourite is one of Stan Getz’s, but he’s a saxophonist and has several renditions. After two or three tryouts she gave me a small, silent hand clap for the one I had just performed. I stayed with that. She was a good person to play for and I found myself looking forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays. The same was true for all the staff. They told me she was ‘a real lady’ – British apparently – and always dined alone. I thought there was an air of sadness somewhere, mainly on account of her choice of song, but when she smiled she seemed warm and approachable.
One evening she came over to the piano on her way out. This was unprecedented. I stopped playing and she said in a soft, English voice, ‘You play beautifully.’ Then, ‘I notice you play Mozart but only early in the evening.’ I told her that was because guests mostly preferred show tunes and swing. She said the understood that. Then rummaging in her purse produced a visiting card. ‘Would you come and play one evening at my home? I have soirées every Sunday.’ In truth, Sundays were days when my wife and I tried to spend quality time together. But any professional musician will tell you, don’t turn down a decent gig. I said I would, and she told me she would leave her proposed date and her address with the maître d’. We didn’t discuss money, but staff said she was generous.
In due course, an envelope was presented to me. It was a formal invitation intended for guests but with my name written in and on the reverse a calligraphically elegant note saying, ‘Do please arrive a little early to familiarise with our piano. It would suit very well if your repertoire had Mozart, but with whatever else you like. Thank you so much.’ The note was signed Margaret. There was a cheque for $500.00. A nice touch, I thought.
My wife was mollified by the fee. The following week I turned up at Margaret’s address near Lafayette Square. It was a typical, gracious, period Savannah home. A black butler let me in and took my coat. My name and role were evidently known to him. He showed me into the drawing room. The Steinway baby concert grand was in good shape. I was practising a piece when Margaret came in. She bade me welcome in a friendly but slightly distracted way. I guessed she had other things on her mind.
The evening went well. It was a mixed crowd. That is, several black faces among the white. I recognised some of both sorts; the Savannah society set and the black professionals and politicians who had made the social grade.
I gave them Mozart, Brahms and Schumann amongst others. It seemed to go well. Nobody was effusive but a few guests nodded and smiled toward me or on a couple of occasions came over and complimented my playing. None of them was black. A maid came over now and again and topped up my glass of champagne and at one point brought a plate of the canapes that were being served.
At eight thirty people began to leave. By nine, the room was empty and the staff had disappeared. I stopped playing. I had enjoyed the chance to revisit my classical training. Margaret came back into the room and slumped into an armchair. ‘Lovely playing Jack,’ she said, ‘it made so much difference. Where did you learn, by the way?’ I told her Julliard. She said ‘Gosh, that must have been amazing. Why are you playing in a restaurant?’ I tried to explain that there is an oversupply of pianists; black ones have a tougher time in the classical arena than in jazz and cocktail bars. She seemed surprised and a tad dismayed.
The butler came in with the ‘will that be all Madame?’ question. It was, except he was asked to bring more champagne and two glasses. Margaret poured for us both. She asked me questions about my life and career. At an opportune moment, I inquired about her Britishness. She told me that her former husband was some kind of business tycoon, born in Savannah but now resident in Bermuda, which was where they had met when she was a flight attendant with British Airways. She said she loved America and Savannah. Now relaxed, she was vivacious and kind of open in demeanour. I felt encouraged to be direct. ‘I noticed quite a few black Americans here tonight.’ She smiled. ‘Well, we share a great city,’ she said. ‘I don’t think colour matters or should matter.’ The statement hung in the air, but I didn’t feel confrontational.
“Then she said, ‘Jack, have you ever had a white woman?’ I told her yes, back at music school. She said, ‘Was it good?’”
Margaret stood up and came over to the piano at which I was still seated. ‘Play my favourites,’ she said. So I did. Then she said, ‘Jack, have you ever had a white woman?’ I told her yes, back at music school. She said, ‘Was it good?’ I told her, ‘Sometimes yes, sometimes no.’ She said, ‘Do you know the thing about ‘when a woman’s had black she never goes back’’? I told her I had.
‘Is it about the size of your cock?’ she asked.
‘The ‘you’ being ‘me’ as a black man – rather than ‘me’ personally?’
‘Yes, if you wish.’
‘I wouldn’t know.’
‘Would you like to screw me, Jack?’ It was hard to tell whether this was a serious invitation or just a game she liked to play.
I stood up and closed the piano. I told her she was a very attractive woman and seemed like a fine person. But even had I wanted to, I had a loved wife waiting for me at home.
I had expected she might stop coming to the restaurant. She didn’t though. Everything went on as normal. If anything her presence and her acknowledgements had added warmth. I also played regularly at her soirées. She was always smiling and gracious and even friendly, but never again came in at the end of the evening to drink champagne with me.