Ghost Man at the Player Piano
Delroy Figgins praised Art Tatum as being the only true pianist on the planet who explored every inch of the instrument, even the splintered grooves in the wood frame, charred cigarette holes, down to the pedals near the floor. Figgins said when Tatum played the piano he seduced every inch of its ebony flesh. Both men played a signature version of ‘Tenderly’ preserved on piano rolls.
By Bill King
Tales of virtuosic triumphs linger from generation to generation. None as colourful as those passed down from one musician to another. Here’s one as told by Clarence Hipple, bartender at the Chase Lounge– a once prominent jazz destination for many of the giants of jazz. The ‘Chase’ was a showroom/ bar frequented by hopheads, hookers and fancy lads through the declining hours of the ‘Roaring Twenties.'
Delroy Figgins played ‘the Chase’ some eighteen years before succumbing to a heart attack while plying the loins of Molly Jarvis in the women’s bathroom. Figgins had just celebrated a milestone. It was his 60th birthday, registered on the coldest January day in a quarter century.
Throughout near two decades, Figgins earned a reputation as the man who could play any song from any era –right or left handed, in any key. Figgins said the trick was first to memorize the lyrics, then strap on a blindfold and gently touch the ivories as if reading braille. One could actually see the melodies ripple and hear the passing chords.
When in town, piano giant Art Tatum would occasionally drop by and share a drink and talk repertoire. Tatum was said to have a preferred beer; Pabst Blue Ribbon, and supposedly downed fifteen a set. The two men spun a musical head game based on ‘any key’, through whistling the first eight notes, down a bottle of gin and dare the other to sing them a tri-tone higher.
Figgins praised Tatum as being the only true pianist on the planet who explored every inch of the instrument, even the splintered grooves in the wood frame, charred cigarette holes, down to the pedals near the floor. Figgins said when Tatum played the piano he seduced every inch of its ebony flesh. Both men played a signature version of ‘Tenderly’ preserved on piano rolls.
Piano rolls were popular in houses where folks liked the elegant architecture of the instrument but weren’t prepared to invest hours at practice. Most were amused by the ‘no hands’ piston-like movement of ivories. Most times the piano sounded a classic rag. At others, a bit of Gershwin. Whatever the call, it had to be fast and impressive.
Figgins played nightly with his jazz trio – Lamar Gold, string bass and Riley Everett, drums. The three were like brothers and pounded a rhythm irresistible to dancers.
The Stinson family owned the club with enough room to fit 250 party-hungry patrons. Figgins and crew packed the place. The night Delroy perished was the first time the room would go silent in twenty-five years, but the interruption only lasted short of twenty-four hours.
Sonny Stinson would often taunt the men. “You men wasting time talking between tunes. Remember, I pay by the minute.” 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 a James P. Johnson, Tatum, or Fats Waller.
Three days past burial a polished mahogany upright player piano arrives along with a box of piano rolls.
Gold and Everett argue the end had come and arranged to move down the street to the Hotel Belvedere and the Tap Room. Certainly a demotion, but still a paycheck.
Sonny begged the men to stay on and continue performing as if nothing unusual had happened. Everett chain-smoked while interrogating the waitresses about the next piano player and wondered if the three would be compatible. Stinson intervened and demanded he call Gold and remind him to be on stage 9 pm sharp, ready to entertain as before.
It was eight forty-five when the two arrive after a couple of drinks and a drive around Lake Malby. The room was jammed to capacity, much like every Friday night since the club opened and everyone seemed to be in matching spirits even with the scent of death still in the air.
Everett was first to eye-ball a strange figure perched far side the piano. On closer inspection, he notices its a child’s dummy dressed in a tuxedo propped high on a gold-leaf pillow, right arm leaning on the piano keys. At first, Everett mumbles something to himself then laughs and whispers out loud, “Figgins would cut any fucker who sat in his chair.” He then reminisced about Figgin's caustic sense of humour and no-nonsense demeanour. Everett then takes his customary seat behind the drums and stoically waits for Gold.
Gold played the tables – not the gaming ones but the ones crammed with beautiful young women. He’d smile and toy with his thin pencil moustache as if he was casting a voodoo spell over a den of lovely‘foxes’ and remind them he was not only a handsome dandy, and a snake beneath the sheets, but also a musician of note.
Once onstage, Gold encounters the porcelain head of a bug-eyed dummy lounging on the keys, laughs, then pats its bottom side and says, “Figgins, you’ve never looked better.”
The duo patiently awaits the arrival of the new piano player, but none shows. Then club owner Sonny Stinson steps near, whispers in the dummy’s ear, and walks off.
“Boys, what do you want to play first – how about a waltz?” Gold looks over at Everett and nearly coughs up a lung. “Seriously, the dummy talks?” Everett responds, “I hear nothing. Maybe it’s those voices in your head arguing again.”
Stinson returns. “Look, men, this piano never makes a mistake. I have a boy coming in tomorrow night and every night who will assist. He’ll change the rolls, label, pull, pump between tunes. All you have to do is accompany.” Gold shot back with a look that could have revived the Dead Sea. “Are you fucking crazy? That’s a fucking dummy, and it ain’t got enough spine to sit up straight let alone play worth a shit. You making a fool of us?” Stinson reminds the two he’s the one who pays and they’re the ones who play.
The voice returns. “How about Jitterbug Waltz?” Then the music begins. It was as if Fats Waller was hitting the keys. The duo joins in and swings to the end of the tune then stare back at one another in amazement.
Then the dummy begins churning a boogie-woogie groove, “Honky-Tonk Train Blues”. By bar six the three were playing in tandem. The piano purred as smooth as a LaSalle Four-Door crossing the interstate. The piano lines and tempo never fluctuated; in fact, Gold was deeper in the pocket than most evenings with Figgins behind the keys.
Next up, ‘S Wonderful,’ with Gershwin at the piano. This was smart and classy – short and sweet. Then a curious Everett asks, “who the fuck is pumping the pedals?”
Stinson returns. “I see some James P.Johnson, more Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, Meade Lux Lewis in the box… your call”. It then dawns on the two – they were playing with the greats, the best ivory men to ever reside behind a piano and neither had seen the mechanics behind the music.
Three days in, Gold notices something odd going on with the dummy. It seemed to be shifting left and right between songs and sitting higher on the piano stool – then slumps low at songs end. Gold tried to catch Everett’s attention but each time eyes locked the dummy dipped into a catatonic state.
As the days pass, Gold witnessed odd occurrences – strange movements and then the most shocking of all. The dummy rises, looks above the piano top, grimaces only seconds after Gold punches out a misplaced beat. Gold passes it off as hallucinations from an encounter with some parking lot Mary Jane.
The set ends with Gold even more confused, not knowing whether to alert or inspect. He then decides to take a closer look. Near the piano bench the dummy mumbles, “if you practiced more, I’d hire you up in Harlem. Bad beats are bad beats, and few ever forget.” Gold falls backwards. “Motherfucker!”
Gold then begins to question whether he really heard something or imagined it. He then inspects the piano, the box of rolls and says, “James P. Johnson ‘Carolina Shout’. Fuck me,” Gold then reaches back and wallops the dummy and watches as it tumbles to the floor. He then kicks the head then looks straight into its glossed-over eyes for any sign of life.
To the right of stage sits a hefty woman dressed in canary yellow stockings rolled down below her muscular knees. “He deserved it honey – I saw it all – he was giving you bad looks and said some nasty things.”
By now Gold was questioning his own sanity and dismissed the woman as a drunken fool. She continues, “Even if he’s got a bit of attitude, he still plays real good,”
That was it – Gold fires himself and starts packing. Stinson and Everett rush in. “Come on Lamar don’t let a dummy kick your ass,” says Everett. Then Stinson whips out a piano roll 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 Lamar a big hug. “Calm down little man, calm down,” she says.
“You been fucking with me,” he asks.
Stinson pulls at his goatee, “Yep, every night – got a bit of string and pull its leg and watch you turn blue and Cornell, you know, is a bit of an amateur ventriloquist who learned how to throw his voice in the navy and loves to sit close to the piano.” Lamar, the new man, comes tomorrow night – we just needed a week to sort this out and have some fun.”
“But what about the piano rolls – the boy?”
“Listen – the boy was down there on the floor working harder than the both of you and cost me more. Besides his folks have had enough. He can’t be doing this every night. I’ve hired Elmer Tapscott!”
Gold looks at Everett, rolls his eyes and says, “Pay the dummy – the gig is his for life.”