It’s taken me almost a month to get around to finishing it. Better late….right?
That Wednesday morning I took Amtrak from St. Louis’ Gateway Station to Chicago to spend the holiday with my son, Gregg, who lives in Chicago, and my daughter, Holly, who was flying in from LA. All went smoothly, we connected in Chicago as planned, lucked out with mild weather, and spent a delicious and memorable Thanksgiving with two friends of Gregg - Keralee and Daniel. Traditional Thanksgiving dinner, fine wine, and stimulating conversation. Highlight of the conversation was a response to the “what are you thankful for?” question. Daniel (our chef and turkey carver) went along with the usual “friends, family, health” response. Then he added “music.” For the next several minutes he talked about what music means to him, how it brings people together, its power and permanence. We all joined in, sort of a verbal jam session. A memorable conversation.
I’m getting to the blues part.
That Friday night the five of us met at a bar called The Lighthouse, on the north side in Rogers Park. It’s a small place, a long and narrow neighborhood tavern with cluttered walls and a well-worn bar and random stools that speak to friends and neighbors and conversations and tears and laughter and closing calls.
This Friday night was an open mic night. A small space in the corner worked as the “performance” area, with drums, a keyboard, a few spotlights, and a couple of microphones. We found stools near that area, the five of us. No sooner had I been handed a bottle of a local brew than an old white guy, with white beard, stepped to the mic and said he was going to sing the blues. Then he added, “Is there anybody here who plays blues piano?”
Four fingers pointed at me. As you may know, I play blues piano, as long as it doesn’t stray too far from the 1-4-5 chord progression. And in the key of C hopefully. Even though I hadn’t played out in years, I couldn’t resist - either the opportunity or the pressure. I went up to the keyboard. “What key?” I asked. “C” he said. A match made in heaven. So he sang a blues I’d never heard before but it didn’t matter. Blues is blues. Halfway through he ran out of lyrics, so I soloed for a couple of choruses and finished with glissando up the short keyboard. (Glissando is more of a classical piano term seldom found in blues but what the hell, it was The Lighthouse.)
I started to sit down when the next act came up. A trio - drums, bass, guitar. “Hey, man,” the guitar player said. “Stay here. We need a keyboard.” I pretended I was reluctant but actually couldn’t wait to start playing. Which we did. One number and an old black guy came up to the mic. I could tell this guy had some chops. Well dressed, hair dyed and slicked down, a look in his eyes that said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” He led us through two or three tunes…I don’t remember exactly, kind of a blur…had the audience shouting for “more” and finished up with a dynamic version of a blues standard whose name I forget (again, kind of a blur).
With that, and another beer, the evening ended, at least for me and I grabbed an Uber back to the hotel.
There’s more blues to this story. Stay with me.
The next night, Saturday, I took the 7:00 train from Chicago, headed back to St. Louis. Sat by the window, looked out at the passing flatlands until the sun was gone and all I could see in the window was my reflection. Around midnight we neared St. Louis. As we sped down the Illinois side, I saw the Arch reflecting light across the river, and the glow of downtown. The train made an easy turn west and crossed the bridge. I saw the Mississippi, the barges, the dark stretch of shoreline that represents a sad commentary on our waterfront. It was almost a half-hour past midnight. I hadn’t had dinner. My plan was to go home, fix a couple of scrambled eggs, a cup of hot chocolate and go to bed. It had been a long day. But as we crossed over Broadway, I saw the lights of White Castle, then Broadway Oyster Bar, then BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. “Hmmmm, I wonder who’s playing at BB’s tonight?” I said to myself. When you’re on a train it’s okay to talk to yourself, especially if the seat next to you is empty. Since I had parked my car in the Amtrak lot and I was already downtown…
Cut to the last chorus of the blues.
By 12:45, I was seated at the bar at BB’s, drinking one of the excellent 4 Hands brews. On the bandstand - a first-class professional bandstand - was Marquise Knox, one of St. Louis’ top blues guitar players, a young guy backed by a solid band.
And so Thanksgiving weekend came to a close. I left BB’s at 2:30, giving thanks I had my kids, my friends, my music, and the blues.