Eminent Domain

It was a raw winter night in Greenwich Village in 1978.    I was tending bar at Bradley’s, a now long gone, legendary saloon on University Place that featured the best piano jazz on the planet.  The supremely gifted veteran, Jimmy Rowles, was at the keyboard, Sam Jones was playing bass, and all was right with the world.  I loved my job because I loved the music.  Bradley, an imposing giant, ruled the roost in a somewhat eccentric fashion, but I had known him a long time, and we got along well enough.  One of his regulations was that nobody was to play the piano except the person hired to do so.  The instrument had been bequeathed to the place by Paul Desmond in his will, and it seemed to possess a mythical status.  It was, of course, a Steinway concert grand.

As midnight approached, a good crowd was gathered at the bar and in the small dining room.  Heavy coats were strewn everywhere, and the howling wind outside was reduced to a whisper by the sound of the superb musicians flaunting the mastery of their instruments.  I was busy making drinks and facing away from the door when I was suddenly aware of a subtle change in the room, something akin to an unexpected deep breath.  I looked up and saw Hoagy Carmichael coming in with a small entourage.  He was old, and he was frail, but there was no doubt of his identity.  He and Jimmy Rowles had been born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, and Hoagy, in New York for some reason, had dropped in unannounced to visit his friend.  A round of applause began slowly and built to a respectful volume.  Hoagy smiled and waved it down.  Jimmy looked up from the piano, stopped playing, and rose to embrace the icon in our midst.

After the Carmichael party was settled, Jimmy asked Hoagy if he wanted to play, and as the composer sat at the piano, the room hushed.  He began with a slow, heartbreaking version of Skylark, and we were all mesmerized.  Bradley had not seen any of this.  He had been in his office off the kitchen, and he stormed out and came to the bar.  “Who’s that little bastard playing my piano?” he choked out in a rage.

“Bradley, that’s Hoagy Carmichael,” I replied.  “Do you want me to tell him to get up?”  Bradley studied Hoagy suspiciously, blushed, and then disappeared back into the office and did not show his face again until closing time.

After he had finished playing, Hoagy and Jimmy came to the bar and ordered drinks.  “What was all that ruckus about?” Hoagy asked me.  Jimmy just smiled and rolled his eyes.

“Well,” I said, “Bradley usually doesn’t let anyone play the piano but the musician hired for that night.”

Hoagy thought about it for a moment.  “Well,” he finally replied in his unmistakable Hoosier accent, “sometimes, if you write a few tunes, you don’t have to bring your own piano to play them on.”

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