By Joe Brocato
A few weeks before he died, we played a stifling trio gig at La Taverna.
After the show, we took our seats at the bar and were approached by a woman with a question for Bill. Once in a while, Freddie and I got a round for free, but Bill got the questions. They nearly always came from women, and they were always for Bill.
Those that did the asking were usually musicians themselves. Or poets, sculptors, designers—that sort of thing. Although, they all had one trait in common: their big break was just a phone call away. This one wrote the best children’s books you’ve never read, and asked a fair question.
“But, when you get up there, how can you play like that when you look like you’re sleeping?”
After seeing him play, it was usually asked in earnest, and this was no exception. I rolled my eyes at Freddie. We had enough of these overcrowded, sweltering nights to know the difference between his answer and the truth.
Tugging at his sleeves, he would answer factually, weaving together his classical training and feverish dedication to the craft. To push the bounds of music was to first understand its web of colors, histories, and limitations, and few understood better than Bill.
Of course, this much wasn’t wrong. But it was where his answer ended and the truth began.
Bill wasn’t asleep, but he was dreaming. And whether it was ten people or a hundred, whatever audience he had was pulled into that dream, out of their seats, whisked away from any earthly responsibility. They left behind their cocktails and visions of a gaunt man hunched over the piano, bespectacled face inches from its cascading keys, eyes shut, languid. They, too, closed their eyes, giving in to his trance, their emotions rising and falling at his gentle touch. Until, at last, he released them. The dream was over for the listener, ephemeral, but not for Bill.
For he continued to dream long after the music had ended, his trance beautiful, deadly. Often until the early morning, stooped, hunched, sometimes drooling. What could I do? It worked for him, until it didn’t.
Not long after his response that stuffy night, he waved an airy goodbye. Slouching off with the best children’s author you’ve never heard of, his sleeves were all but soaked, still buttoned at the wrists. I wondered if she would care. Freddie and I stuck around. We drank, talked about the gig. Besides, Bill’s tab was still open.