He was, in fact, on the ground, and I was still about ten feet up in the air. I looked down and our eyes met. His were half-closed and he was smiling demonically. In one hand he held the control box that operated my platform, in the other was a pint of whiskey. He was totally drunk and I was utterly helpless.
�Jesus, Mike, what the hell, COME ON!� I hissed. Then I had to start playing again�the spotlight was still glaring at me and the audience�s silence was ominous. I went back to the beginning of the Overture, knowing I wouldn�t be off the hook until I hit the ground. Strangely, I was playing okay now. �Mike, please,� I yelled, �GET ME DOWN!� The motor kicked in and my descent began. Then I jerked to a halt, hands flying off the keys. It happened again, and again. I looked frantically at Mike; he was in hysterics, playing with the buttons. I leaned over to yell at him, my hands still approximating the Overture. At the same time, the ship lurched heavily starward. Mike laughed, jerking the platform once more, and my hat tumbled off as I felt myself start to fall...
...I was back at my audition, which had taken place by phone. The ship�s booking agent, Leonard, called me at the appointed time, and I tried to sound casual as we exchanged pleasantries. I was serious about getting this job, which would be my first long-term engagement as a professional musician. I had memorized my resume and intended to stress my versatility, having been warned that Leonard was not a big fan of jazz.
At a certain point our small-talk came to an end and there was a pause. I knew that the audition was about to begin in earnest. �Well, listen,� Leonard said, �could you start on December 2? We�ll need you for six months.�
�No problem.� I waited for his questions, and hearing none wondered if he expected me to just launch into my own sales pitch.
�Great,� he said. �I�ll send your plane ticket in a couple of weeks. I know you�ll love it. You got my number if you need me.�
This was too easy, and it didn�t feel right. �Wait!� I blurted, �Don�t you want to know anything about me?�
�Oh, yeah, sure. Listen. If I call �Tie a Yellow Ribbon �Round the Old Oak Tree� in F, what are the first three chords?�
�If you start on the verse: F, A minor, and C minor. If you start at the chorus: F, A minor, and F seven.�
�Awesome,� he said. �Welcome aboard...�
Then I was onboard taking a guided tour from Buff, the ship�s widely-despised bandleader. �Are you sure I couldn�t have one of the dance jobs?� I asked. �I mean, you know, it�s not like I can�t pull off this show and all, but my real strength is, you know, improvising.� I was mortified when they�d informed me I would be the show pianist. I�d never in my life had a job playing written music, and I felt totally unqualified. Of the six piano positions on the ship I had somehow been assigned the only one I couldn�t handle.
Buff didn�t hear a word. During my plea we had silently passed into the Club International�one of the ship�s dance rooms�and Buff spontaneously became the feared Jazz Police. The bass player, posted on lookout, noted Buff�s arrival and the band seamlessly segued into �In the Mood.� Well-heeled couples quickly flooded the floor, and the band appeared to have escaped The Bust.
But Buff hadn�t missed the last few powerful notes of a Coltrane tune as we entered, or the angry looks of seated passengers, all dressed up with no place to dance. �Tragically hip,� he muttered to me, gesturing angrily at the band. We sat silently for more than 20 minutes, and I was thoroughly humiliated to be seen on the wrong side of the law. The band never stopped playing �In the Mood� until we left. Trailing behind Buff, nearly out of earshot, I smiled as I heard the faint opening chords of a Charlie Parker tune.
Sadly, these dance sets would not be my salvation. Denied reassignment, I began my regimen. Every night from one until four, I frantically practiced the show in one of the ship�s elegant dining rooms. There were no witnesses at this time and place, so I was able to maintain an air of detached professionalism during the day, hanging out with the other musicians and dutifully voicing disrespect for my gig.
I had two weeks until rehearsals started and three weeks before opening night. My goal was to memorize the show�the one way I had of converting it into something other than a written music gig. Unfortunately, two weeks proved too short and I found myself scuffling badly at the group rehearsals. A misplaced rookie musician among professional theater people, I felt like the spotlight was focused on my every bad note. Inside my head P.T. Barnum�s tuneless voice tortured me with the show�s theme song, �There�s a sucker born every minute.� Yeah, I�d think, and half of them think they can play jazz for a living.
My secret evening practice sessions became more frenzied, as did my cover-up efforts. Each night at 1:00 a.m., in deference to Rule Number One, I would explain to my roommate that some particularly deviant opportunity lay in wait for me just around the corner. Then I�d follow a carefully charted route of hidden passageways into the dining/practice room and throw myself into the music I despised.
The first time I was ever able to play the Overture by memory�and the first time I came even close to playing it correctly�was at the dress rehearsal. This also happened to be the first time that Buff and various other musical dignitaries were in attendance. Buff pulled me aside afterwards, patted me on the back, and said, �You know, man, the Musical Director was actually worried about you. I don�t see it. Actually, I think you�re the perfect cat for the job.� My heart sank as I realized I would be forever miscast, a jazz pianist in theater clothing.
So it was showtime. Each evening held new surprises, my opening trauma being the only constant. The director had an endless arsenal of half-baked new ideas intended to keep things fresh. At one point he even gave me a line: �Jenny Lind? I know her. Used to work up on Tenth Street.� Determined not to blow my first foray into acting, I made these twelve words a personal mantra during the week of their debut. But my timing was off and, steeped in jazz cool, I couldn�t pitch the line with the requisite zeal. It wasn�t long before the Director approached me, apology written all over his face.
�Listen,� he said, �You did a great job with that line, but it really isn�t what we thought it would be in a more global sense. It just doesn�t quite work on all the different levels of interpretation we�re shooting for, you know?�
I was flattered that he felt the need to obscure my incompetence in abstraction. �That�s okay, I don�t mind,� I said. �I�m probably pretty much just a piano player.�
�Yeah. Oh, and that reminds me. We�re trying something different with the Overture.�
My mind raced with the possibilities: a shortened version, a stationary version, an unspotlighted version, A TAPED VERSION! �What�s that?� I asked, trying to hide my enthusiasm.
�When the platform starts to descend, you�ll need to turn away from the piano. You can look out at the audience and smile or something...� He paused. �We�re going to have some fireworks on stage, just some Roman Candles. They�ll be kind of bright and the cinders might drift your way. But we already had one of the techies try sitting at the piano, and it�s really not too bad. He said a few of the sparks landed on his fingers, but they just stung for a couple of seconds, maybe.�
I looked at him in disbelief. �And I�m supposed to be playing while this is all going on?�
�Well, of course,� he said. �It�s just the Overture. You must be pretty comfortable with it by now.�
Fortunately for me, the first time they tried this one of the Roman Candles fell over and sprayed out into the audience. Try as I might, I couldn�t quite manage to stifle a fit of laughter, and I felt the bench teetering dangerously backwards...
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