How to play the piano

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I had the best of Godfathers his name was Collin Bates.

Collin was Australian, spent the middle years of his life in England, and was one of the finest jazz pianists that ever lived. He also took his Godfatherly duties seriously and from time to time he would sit me down and we’d have a conversation that began, “As your spiritual advisor and mentor …” Then he would explain his position as a life-long agnostic, and declare his belief that the truth would be revealed to him on the point of death. With the certainty of youth I somewhat scoffed at this view, but as time passes and my certainty about most things dissolves, I see his wisdom. This is a tangent by the way …

… Check him out playing a boogie-boogie number on British TV here

His piano playing style was variously described in print as “a squirrel gathering nuts” and my personal favorite in a long article, a passage about his stubby fingers transforming when he sat at the keyboard into “dancing sausages” making amazing music.

He was life-long sufferer of what George Melly (singing in the video linked above) described as the “existential conspiracy”. This meant that when Collin walked into rooms, tables and chairs would start hurling themselves about, and glasses of red wine would inevitably spill on white tablecloths. I personally witnessed him make a gin and tonic spontaneously combust, and watching him make coffee was to see coffee grounds on the ceiling. I once foolishly gave him an expensive bow tie as a Christmas present, his face fell when he saw it, and we both knew that his clumsy fingers would never master the complexity of the right knot.

But at the piano he was elegant, delicate, nuanced and subtle. That video again, in case you missed it: here

I grew up watching Collin play the piano. I went to Ronnie Scott’s (now closed), the Merlin’s Cave (now closed), and when I waited tables in my youth at Flanagans in Baker Street he played the piano there. He played jolly-cockney type songs as Flanagans was the first theme restaurant in London, billed as an Edwardian song and supper room. One night Collin came storming down the aisle, “That’s the Evening Standard jazz critic on table 19.”

“Oh?”

“What a disaster. Here I am playing in a sawdust joint.”

“Can’t you play some jazz?”

“Of course not! It’s an Edwardian restaurant.”

As in all the most interesting people he was a mass of instant contradictions. He went back to the piano and began to play boogie-woogie. He played and he played. It went on for about twenty minutes. I never saw him play like that before or since. It was as if the piano had gone into space and was dancing between the moons of Mars and the outer planets.

The place was full and everybody stopped eating. All the staff stood still and listened. A crazy celebration of liquid rhythm pervaded, bouncing exuberance off the walls. At the end there was an eruption of applause which took a long time to subside. When it did Collin and the Evening Standard jazz critic shared a bottle of wine.

And that was all I knew about playing the piano. Until now …

End of the Rainbow is a fine play. It features Judy Garland in her last year of life. Three men play the other parts—a bit like Dorothy and her three companions. We close today after a three week run at the Actor’s Playhouse in Coral Gables, Sth Florida.

I play Anthony. The character is fictional. He’s an amalgam of all the gay men who adored Judy. He’s Scottish and he’s her favorite accompanist. I’m not Scottish and I’d like to say in these times of homophobic nonsense, playing a gay man is as much fun as a straight man can have and stay legal.

All that aside, crucially I don’t play the piano.

The excellent and supremely patient Dave Nagy, our musical director tutored me to the limits of my ability, such that I can vaguely follow the musical notation and have some idea of where the hands should be. I try to tap my feet in time, but one scene requires me to cue the band and conduct them. Early in the run I told them under no circumstances to look at me for the timing, fortunately Gary, who plays the sax said, “Oh we stopped doing that days ago.”

Did I get away with it? Well the piano was discretely angled, and during the musical numbers, such was Kathy St. George’s voltage that all eyes were turned upon her, and fortunately no one looking at me!

I get worried sometimes. When I review these pages, I see that I’m loving being an actor. Believe me, if you were a stage actor it would worry you too. Always at the back my mind, I’ve thought that sooner or later I’ll be doing something sensible, responsible, grown-up. It’s getting late … so maybe I’m stuck with it, and if every gig was a special as this one was, that’s fine.

Anthony begins the play from a point of adoration, and over time falls in love with Judy, finally declaring it at the end. Playing with Kathy St. George, no actor ever had an easier task. She is not Judy Garland—no one could be, that is sort of the point—but she has a great talent all her own, and she channels Miss Garland in way that borders uncanny. On top of all that she is one of the most gracious, generous, (and at 4′ 11″—the same height as Judy, tiniest) leading ladies I’ve ever worked with. http://www.kathystgeorge.com available for Judy cabaret and more!

The show was well reviewed. More than well …

This for example or this, or this

The patrons who attended the amazing Miracle Theatre with its Art Deco foyer, loved the show, many moved to tears …

There she is with The Tinman … the fabulous Terry M Cain3d72de7a805b400d3e3039b9b7ccd440

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And The Scarecrow … the splendid Michael Laurino

 

 

And is that me, the Cowardly Lion?

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It was a standout gig.

But when it came to playing the piano, I remember my Godfather, Collin Bates and the great gift of being able to watch him at the keyboard.

11 thoughts on “How to play the piano

  1. Beth

    I was thrilled with your playing….your head looked like it was going in the right direction anyway!!! and you do have a way with a one liner and a Scottish accent and well,……., you! “Cheerio but be back soon…….., remember this old tune, be back soon!!! Love you! Beth

    Reply
  2. Joseph R. Bly

    The term Tour de Force comes to mind…or, simply, Show Biz…I was astonished at the one-handed super athletic catch by the tight end for a touchdown and son, Leyshon said, “Dad, that’s what he does.” Well, yes, but it still ain’t easy…

    Reply
  3. FRANCINE BATES

    Hi there

    What a great post!  Glad the show is going so well! Anne will be in Sydney the 3rd week of April staying with Claudia! Fx

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    Reply
  4. JOE BLY

    Emily is right, your essay is well written and very interesting, another kind of readers’ theater, one could say;  I was immersed in your play with your insights, a lovely theatrical experience, once removed.  Thank you Brother-in-law, you continue to amaze, as they say…like your friends, I wish I had been there “live.”  Josef

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    Reply
  5. carol brennan

    I always love to read you, Colin. Natural writer, natural actor, natural bon vivant. A 3-point landing always!

    Reply
  6. Peter Wyllie Johnston

    DEAR COLIN

    I LOVED READING THIS!

    WONDERFUL

    WELL DONE.

    Talk soon I hope,

    PETER

    xxxx

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    Reply

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