By Jihoon Park
The piano has been drinking. It stumbles onto the stage at Rosie’s Jazz Bar with a CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK, every step making a key-smashing thud of all its strings. It smells like sweet tea and bourbon.
“Gonna start off with a classic for all you fine folk—HIC—sure all y’all recognize, here’s ‘Summertime’ by Billie Holiday.”
But nobody in the crowd recognizes the tune. The people that know the song don’t come to jazz bars anymore. They’re away in retirement homes or in graveyards and crematoriums. The regulars are long gone. The crowd at Rosie’s today mostly ignore the piano and continue their conversations and drinks. They take pictures of the grimy walls and old Dixieland posters:
The piano can’t play as well as it used to. It’s old now. Years of drinking has damaged its sound. Alcohol has seeped deep into its keys and strings and hammers. Its ivories are chipped. Its hammers are bent and weak and can’t sound out the strings like they used to.
Sometimes, when the piano has drunk quite a bit, it envisions itself on stage with the greats. Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and so on. All the greats used to come through Rosie’s Jazz Bar, and when the piano thinks about those days, it is happy. There was no other piano in New Orleans, probably in the great state of Louisiana, that could carry a tune like the piano at Rosie’s could. The piano used to bring down the house with tunes like “Go Down Moses,” “What a Wonderful World,” and “Blueberry Hill.”
“Get off the stage!”
Hecklers are yelling and laughing and taking videos on their smartphones of the drunk, out-of-tune piano that is stumbling through an old jazz tune. But the piano doesn’t hear them. It hears a soft upright bass, gentle brushes on the drums, and Billie Holiday’s golden voice.
One time, some drunk hecklers, disappointed that the piano wouldn’t play any requests, snuck backstage after the show and beat the piano with a crowbar. They splintered out the soundboard and snapped the strings and hammers.
“Fuckin’ hick bar with hick music.”
A piano technician was called, but the piano never fully recovered.
The piano does have some friends, though. It gets along well with most of the old furniture still standing at Rosie’s. Some of the sturdier bar stools and tables have survived since the ‘30s. They don’t talk much, but there’s a mutual solidarity in being relics of a time long gone. There is also an old baritone saxophone backstage, even older than the piano, that has been trapped in its case for almost a century. It’s the only thing that can still make out what the old piano is really trying to play, beyond the out of tune strings and rusty action of the keys. It listens to the piano’s drunk tunes every night, through the muffled walls of Rosie’s Jazz Bar.
“You still got it, still got those old sounds,” the saxophone always says after a set. The piano never says “thank you” or “glad you liked it” or anything like that. It just shrugs and opens another bottle of whisky or bourbon and drowns its innards with liquor. But the piano secretly admires the saxophone. Legend has it the saxophone was a member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The piano is honored to have a saxophone from those days admire its music.
One day, the piano is on stage playing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” loaded up with bourbon all the way to its soundboard when, halfway through the song, it throws up, spewing all its guts over the stage. Keys, pins, strings, dampers, and hammers tumble out, the wooden bits all rotten from liquor.
Last month, Rosie’s Jazz Bar got a new piano: a sleek Steinway Upright. The old piano has been fixed, but now only ten out of its eighty-eight keys work. It doesn’t play on stage anymore, but it still drinks and plays those ten keys whenever it has the energy to do so, thinking about those golden sounds from ages ago. But not even the old saxophone can make out the tunes anymore.