Augustine listened to the piano man’s guttural voice sing the blues. The noisy smoke filled room was silenced by the power of his words and the complicated riffs he played – a driving life force that lifted him to another realm of understanding. The audience cheered when the music ended; the piano man continued to finger keys, some harmonic and some atonal. A drummer joined him, so did a bass player, and a wild-eyed young man of about twenty, hair braided, face angelic, picked up a microphone and recited the following:
“His fingers move from note to key like a tiger stalking its prey– in his nighttime reverie, the blues are not the blues heard in small suburban towns, but the Harlem blues, the black man’s blues, the voice that’s never deep enough for the blues learned in back alleys and on gutters and in burned down buildings, for the blues learned in city projects where the heart and soul of the piano man listens to the cries of wizened crack heads, prostitutes, and crusty old men shooting dice in hallways; he was a kid once who dodged bullets on the Harlem streets, who hid from the cops, who ran across rooftops and down stairwells and out of tenement doors that led to dirt lots and back alleys and to secret places where he and his friends would smoke a few joints, talk about music and jam the blues. He was a kid once who never grew up ‘cause you can’t grow up if you want to play the blues; and somewhere he learned to master the piano; and somewhere he learned to speak to us all; somewhere he found a way to make his nimble fingers move from key to key.
“He was a kid once, but now, here’s the man, just listen to him, learn from him, begin to understand the power of the blues.”
He put the microphone down, sat cross-legged on the stage and let the music take him for a ride through the back streets of Harlem. He motioned for Augustine to sit next to him.
“Just listen, man, there’s a lot to learn from this dude, there’s nothing to compare with the blues. It’s another voice that people speak on the street.”
When the music stopped, the lights went up, the piano man stepped off the stage, went to the bar and ordered a double whiskey on the rocks. Augustine joined him.
“The world’s gotten a whole lot crazier,” he said to Augustine, “and I celebrate it by singin’ my songs. Do you know the blues? I don’t think so. You ain’t lived long enough to be down and out. It takes time, man, lots of time, and ya gotta be hurt. Ya hear me. If ya ain’t been hurt, you’ll never be able ta get the meanin’ of the blues.”
“How does one get through life without being hurt?” Augustine asked him with a smile.
“Impossible, man, it’s just impossible. That’s why ‘most anyone can ride with me when I play the piano. The music’s from outside my door and your door, and one day, we all gotta leave the house, we all gotta be touched by life, we all gotta walk through God’s crazy world till we gets to the other side.”
Of what, Augustine thought.
He left the jazz club and walked in the shadow of a tenement building. Maybe I’ll never find out; maybe, all of life is about singing the blues with the piano man until he and I reach that place he calls the other side…