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19 March 2020
Of all the Pizza Joints in all the World...
No. 36

Mike Westbrook

For bar-room piano players the ultimate gig must be Rik’s Bar in Casablanca. Hardly anyone listens to what is being played, yet the music is essential to the atmosphere. Dooley Wilson is the Everyman Artist, looking on helplessly as the plot unfolds around him. He averts disaster by playing piano. As long as someone somewhere is tinkling a piano there is hope. There may be trouble ahead,-flood, plague, economic collapse and the threat of fascism. All that Dooley Wilson aka Sam has to do is carry on playing, fulfilling the occasional request to play As Time Goes By (or not to play it) and everything will turn out alright in the end. But then Sam doesn’t have to cope with coronavirus.

On Saturday 21st March, my 84th birthday, I was due to play a lunchtime concert with pianist Jonathan Gee on two interlocking grand pianos at the Pizza Express in Dean Street, Soho as part of their annual Steinway Festival. Covid-19 put paid to that. The workshop basement of Steinways showroom just off Wigmore Street, is a vast elephants graveyard of pianos, their ivories gleaming, waiting to be brought back to life. Jonathan and I met there to discuss the performance. Jonathan was happy to go along with my idea of a first set that would be an unbroken sequence of improvisation, based around my composition View From The Drawbridge. Dedicated to Kate, this is a piece that has taken many forms over the years.

Jazz@Pizza Express

The first performance of View From the Drawbridge was 1974 in Stockholm, as part of the premiere of Citadel/Room 315. Since then it has been through many changes. At its heart there is the interplay between the keys of Db and F. The written material of Drawbridge consists of an opening theme, played in thirds, an ascending/descending whole-tone pattern and a theme in 3/4. As Jonathan and I played around this structure it was apparent that the use of two pianos would open up many possibilities. All kinds of interesting juxtapositions occurred. There were references to Monk and Strayhorn, either hinted at or explored in full, and to the blues. At one point Jonathan elaborated beautifully on the song Tender Love, again part of Citadel. We concluded the set with an extended de-construction of Strayhorn’s Johnny Come Lately- a cliff face I have often attempted to scale in the past. This time I was glad to have such a brilliant companion.

There were to be no announcements in the first set. The second set was to begin with a spoken introduction about Dooley Wilson, Rik’s Bar, and Pizza joints, and of course a reference to the potency of ‘cheap music’- as described by Noel Coward. ‘Cheap Music’ is the everyday material that piano players like Jonathan and me often work with. Jonathan would then play As Time Goes By, using at least some of my chord changes. Then I would play my version. After that we would each be free to play solo pieces, with the other perhaps joining in or interrupting. We would definitely play alternate 8s on Round Midnight.

I had decided to play a current favourite, Illusions by Frederick Hollander, another piece of ‘cheap’ music from the 1946 movie Foreign Affair. Kate and I revived Illusions at New Year in the Bath Jazz Weekend with our Hollander programme, joined by Roz Harding and Marcus Vergette.

I also planned to play for the first time in public a standard that I’ve been working on at home in recent months, Lover Man. Jonathan had yet to decide which of his pieces to perform, beyond the certainty that he would play and sing one of the songs he’s preparing for a new album. The song is called Cognac with a lyric by Kate. In Steinway’s basement Kate and I were privileged to hear the World Premiere and Jonathan’s remarkable performance.

It being inevitable that the question of my age would have to be addressed, I requested that we play the Bessie Smith 16-bar blues Youve Been a Good Old Wagon. If this should bring the house down and an encore was demanded I was going to ask Jonathan to apply his brilliance to my chord changes on Happy Birthday To Me.

It is strange to have written a commentary on a concert that can’t take place. In the months ahead, and with the scene in lockdown, we’ll have recordings to listen to but what happens to live music? Perhaps musicians around the world will give ‘virtual’ concerts to keep us in good heart, or we’ll just have to describe what we would have played if the gig had not been cancelled.

Mike Westbrook

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