Disassembling the Piano

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Having found my piano, I still find my search worth reading . . . about the rationale and motivations . . .

Every few years I start looking again. I am never satisfied with the instruments I wind up with. I'm lucky in that they seem to come to me, brand new, at little or no cost. This is not because I have any arrangement with a piano maker. Indeed, most manufacturers eschew having pianists represent their brands, as far as I know. I don't think that any but the most famous artists are supplied with pianos, and I'm not so sure that Steinway does that at all anymore, after the indignities heaped upon them (and rightly so) by Gould.

It's always made me a bit crazy, knowing that Monk, and Bud Powell, and so many other great musicians went for years without instruments in their house. Many of these masters also went without houses. I was years without an instrument, myself, as were many of my associates. But quite a few years ago, my life took a turn. Rather, I turned it, by getting out of clubs, by becoming clean and free of alcohol and tobacco, by rediscovering my passion for GREAT music as opposed to pedestrian jazz music, and by nurturing my natural, innate ability to make audiences weep with joy as opposed to providing them with nearly free and usually recognizable (if unusually inventive) "jazz party music" - to the strains of which they might get loaded and lucky.

So it's no surprise to me or anyone else that discovering how a piano's action affects my creative process is quite a new interest for me. Suddenly, in my sixth decade, I'm concerned with fall-boards, and key velocity, and touch, and "the ledge". Where I would play any instrument without complaint in my youth, now I'm very hard to please when it comes to pianos.

I've written down a few things that I like:

I like a swift, soft, sure action, even from bottom to top. I don't like pianos that feel like Ford trucks. "Like a rock". Or is that Chevy? Whatever it is, it should never apply to pianos. I shouldn't have to be an athlete to play a swift passage. I shouldn't have to exert much physical energy to accomplish ANY task at a piano, other than to clean it or move it. It needs to be without discernable resistance. I know this goes against all the theories that one can get more dynamics if one has a wider range of "striking power"...

A piano, like a little dog, should never be struck. It should be caressed and teased and held and played with and trained, and, like a little dog, it should be full of life and able to get around just fine on its own power.

I also hate pianos that growl and scream. Steinway is known for its "growling bass".

Growling should be reserved for circus animals and professional wrestlers. I don't want a piano that growls at me or anyone else. Screaming is equally upsetting. The glassy tinkle of the high treble of some Steinways makes my brain hurt. Yamahas used to be guilty of that but the company is learning. The high end should be bell-like, even thin. Thin like clear, clean air at an elevation, not thin like aluminum foil.

At many concerts, I play with the lid fully closed. Lots of attendees and - more specifically - most promoters are horrified at this "break" from tradition. To have spent all of that money for something so big, and then, to have little me just amble in, and close the lid, as if the concert were over and I not yet having played a note. It's the metaphorical equivalent of having cold water dashed in their face.

Which brings me to a major gripe about pianos. All of them.

They should all be played, at all times, even during "thunderous" passages, with the soft pedal down, depressed, nailed to the floor.

The single most annoying thing about pianos is the inability for all of those strings to stay in tune all of the time, much less through a performance. Two strings per note, from lower treble to the absolute top of the register, is enough.

By depressing the soft pedal, the keyboard of a grand piano will - should - shift, and the hammer should hit only TWO strings. It sounds more sonorous, more pure. It has a clarity and a singing quality and a purity that three strings drown out. Three strings rarely can be tuned to produce such beauty, such lovely clear singing.

Three strings per note on the middle and upper register of any piano is a superfluous and nefarious roadblock, serving only to detract from the beautiful sounds that might emerge, were the instrument allowed to bypass all of the conflicting transient overtones created by three strings per note. One too many.

I am waiting for someone to make a piano with one string throughout the bass for each note, and two for each other note on the lower-mid, mid, and upper end. That will be a piano. With an action as fast as light, and less strings, the piano would become a truer, more playable, and more tunable instrument. More adjustable to the player.

Why should the player have to adjust to the piano, especially when you consider the cost of a decent one (which I have not found yet.)

There was historical precedence for the madness of stuffing so many strings into such a small space. One imagines that some idiot tried four, and yes, probably five strings at once. Thinking on this for a moment, I'm sure of that, having lived long enough to understand the excesses that over-zealous, power-mad, self-appointed experts are capable of and given to.

The historical precedence was a) the use of the triceps and biceps, along with the quadriceps and other angular anatomical anomalies, usually ending in "ceps", that some men seem so fond of, to create great storms of sound, literal crashing cascades of notes played at the highest volume possible: think of the word thunderous - think of the concept of sturm und drang - think of the pouring forth of the passion of a tormented soul - all very noisy affairs... and b) the decision to put one orchestra (the piano) in front of another orchestra (the orchestra) and call it piano and orchestra.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra", and thus spoke history. It had nothing to do with music as we would have known it, had cooler heads (such as Bach's, or mine) prevailed.

The power of the symphony is a beautiful thing when it is used in its own setting, namely, as a solo entity. Nothing can touch the violin for sounding out above an out-of-control symphony orchestra's most mortally offensive din.

Take Rimski-Korsakoff's Sheherazade. Give me Yasha Heifitz playing it with the New York Philharmonic, conducted, at a snail's pace - which is its correct pace - by Lenny Bernstein. Put a nine-foot Steinway-D out in front and you've just put training-wheels on a freight train.

And I feel that way about jazz, too.

If only Bill Evans had been left to his own devices, sans the "interplay of his great trio" that, at times, became a hash of egotistical BS approaching the calamity of ten accordions improvising at once, in different keys!

When he played solo, it was about touch and song and drama and pain and joy. It was about romance and sorrow and longing. It was music from his heart. Introspective, quiet, simple, tragic, mellifluous, delicately lovely beyond any words.

When he played with that one cursed trio (you know, the one that the critics revere most highly; the one with the tragedy and the dying early and the miserable breakup) it was enough to wake Davy Jones and send him paddling frantically up to the surface to see what the hell was making that awful rattling.

And then Bill himself said it. He actually said "I never liked that band."

Aha! I knew it! I can't reveal my sources, because I would be drawn, quartered, and then eighthed or possibly sixteenthed. Oh, foo on that. He said it to me. And I think we were alone, so I can't prove it. I just hope he said it to other people too. I'm sure it was something that he must have shared with someone besides myself. And I knew it! I wouldn't have liked it either. I knew they fought like the Honeymooners, and I knew it was more than just personality problems.

So there you have it. Pianists trying to play as loudly as bassists with amplifiers that go up to eleven (just like in Spinal Tap) and drummers who, like practiced skeet-shooters, are adept at blowing every single important note that a pianist may play clean out of the air. Pull! Pull!


I said once, years ago, on the notes to an album of mine, that "I was a musician first, and as much of a pianist as I needed to be to express myself adequately."

Gould said it better (no surprise there): "I have no great love for the piano. But since it is the instrument with which I am most familiar, it is the one I choose to play to express my music."

I couldn't agree more. With the near-infinite shortcomings of the piano (the mere size and weight is daunting enough) who wouldn't long for the wonder, the sheer joy, of playing the same instrument that you learned on as a child? Particularly if it was a good instrument?

I learned on a Kimball upright. My daddy bought it for me in 1954 or '55. I was six or seven. I had been playing piano at my grandma's house since I was an early four (or a late three) and was addicted already. Abducted is a more fitting term. Every day I begged him for a piano. He got drunk one night and came home proudly brandishing an accordion. Of course, I wanted him to die, slowly and painfully (which he did, in due course, but not right then.) He broke down eventually, being the sentimental, music-loving, weekend-alcoholic, essentially good-natured man that I convinced myself he was (by the time I was thirty) and bought me the Kimball. A thousand dollars! In 1954!!! It WAS a fine instrument. At least it seemed so to me!

It was mahogany. It was a bit less than five feet high. It had three pedals. Yes, it had a soft pedal, but that soft pedal moved the hammers closer to the strings. On a grand, the soft pedal would mute the cursed third string. But I was too young and stupid to know about third strings or my looming distaste for them. The middle pedal sustained bass notes only. A weird affair. But I found that, by using it instead of the sustain for fast passages, it created a reverb-like effect. It was like playing in a hall.

And I disassembled that piano, as I have done to all pianos since. I took the top and front off to gain access to the strings. I took the lower front off (that part UNDER the keys, on an upright) and laid it on the floor under my left foot. I needed a drummer, and that left foot became the hi-hat foot. Even in 5/4 time, that left foot was going on 2 and 4 and 6 and 8 and 10. All by itself.

That little Kimball held up until I left home, at the age of - was it sixteen? Yes, I suppose it was. I played it to death, and I always pretended that I was playing to a full house. Off to my right, where the living room was, there were at least a thousand people, listening to every note. And, by the time I was twelve, I was burning up the road.

I would put on recordings of the Miles Davis Quintet, and play along with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. (I might've died right then and there had someone told me that, in less than 20 years, I'd actually be playing on a real stage in front of real people with Philly Joe Jones (!) and his band, of which I had become a member!)

But back then, there I was, alone, in my house, playing the piano, at the age of eleven or twelve.

Of course, no one was there to hear me. But my dreams all came true, and, years later, I played for the Crowned Heads of England and the Bald Heads of Charles Street ( a very, very old joke, at least where I'm from) ... but the England part came true, too. The last time I was there, at Brecon, I was invited into the country by the Home Officenew window. I think the Queen may have some pull there. It was an honor to be expected and greeted at Heathrow as "Ms Williams, the prominent pianist from America."

(Now we simply need to impress that upon the Americans.)

My European audiences have been large, devoted, and enthusiastic. I never wanted to be famous, and am not capable of being delusional enough to believe myself so. Musicians, particularly serious musicians, are rarely famous in the traditional sense. Princess Di was famous. Any American President is famous. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were famous. There are also serial killers that are made famous by the press. But you have to be crazy to want to be famous!

And rich does not necessarily go with famous. Matter-of-fact, most times, the two words are not attached even remotely. In reality, the world's most creative people are very often NOT terribly well-to-do, and sometimes, they're even living in poverty. Lots of Americans seem utterly amazed to hear about this.

If you hear a person's music on the radio, don't assume that they live in a mansion and have a butler and a maid and sixteen bathrooms. I have to muddle along with one (bathroom, that is) and (gasp) no servants at all! The up-side to all of this is that it's tremendously fulfilling to do what you love. And you can only use one bathroom at a time.

Anyway, if you run into a jazz musician who tells you that they're famous, look at them askew. Do you really think that anyone down at your local Safeway or WalMart will know who they are? Do they? If they do, run.

We do not become musicians to make money or to be famous. We become musicians to make MUSIC. Perhaps this is why so MANY musicians make so LITTLE music.

The pianists that move me in deep ways are usually the ones who don't TRY to be pianists. Trying to be a great pianist is ridiculous. Trying to be ANYTHING is ridiculous. We are or we aren't. I am a musician. It is the thing my body does in its sleep, at rest. I play in my dreams, or I am always trying to get to the performance on time. This may not be a good thing as viewed by a specialist in dream symbolism, but to me it usually indicates that I'm not working nearly enough. Which I never am, because I refuse to grovel, and I refuse to compromise, and, the older I get, the less time I have for games. I've devoted my life to exploring solo playing. If a promoter calls me and TELLS me I must play with a band, I am usually not amenable to that sort of thing (and that's putting it mildly). I'll play with others when I want to, not when I'm told to. That's in my music, that kind of obstinacy that refuses compromise.

That's why I am seduced by Monk. That's why I positively adore Gould. That's why I don't care much for many of the younger "cult" pianists who are more concerned with speed and appearance than with substance and moral courage. That's why I find the music of Keith Jarrett so hard to write about. Music SHOULD BE hard to write about, by the way. Jarrett is at times the greatest pianist in the world, and at others he may be among the worst. THAT, I find enthralling and captivating. USEFUL. I find nothing useful in billions of notes spun out by millions of tiny flying fingers, in thousands of universities and institutions and halls of academia, not to mention concert halls, all over the planet, on any given average day.

The state of art and music - both being roughly the same thing - is deplorable, and has never been what one would deem acceptable by any but the most base standards. Mediocrity is everywhere, and it is the rule.

To be mediocre, one needs do nothing except to do what everyone else is doing. I think that's just fine, and it's why you won't find me around anywhere, not in a jazz bar, drinking and smoking and taking drugs and acting hip, trying to look 39 when I know I'm 60. I won't dye my hair. I won't wear silly, constricting garments that are impediments to movement. I won't try to look happy when I'm sad, and I won't try to act healthy when I'm ill. I will not try to act interested when I'm bored, and I won't say I like something when I actually abhor it.

Consequently, I am attracted to those artists, those very few artists, whose art offends. I am attracted to musicians who are controversial and not well-liked or universally loved. They must be magnificent. More than competent, and more than great. They must be profound. They must cross and effectively traverse, and even erase the line between life and death. That is the line between art and life. I won't settle for good or even great. It must be pure TRUTH I am hearing. For me, the musicians who have most often accomplished this are Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and Glenn Gould.

I have been near death for so many years, and I have lived so close to it and crossed the line so often in my dreams AND in my waking state that it is now impossible for me to bend to the pressure of other human beings to be a certain way, to look or act or play or think or believe or behave a certain way. I can not be friends with just anyone, and I can not play with just anyone. And I can NOT just listen to anyone.

I am now re-crafting my music so that I may listen to it again. It is hard to call myself a pianist, because there is so much I can NOT do and so much I DO NOT know. I DO know that I am a musician, and I am that always.

I am now working at becoming a pianist, preferably one that I'll enjoy listening to.

Being so sick for so long is not something I easily put behind me. It's left marks all over my consciousness, and changed me drastically. I won't be doing things that I did, and I will be doing things that I never did. It gave me perspective, and I have good days and bad days and some days that are just "blah" days, but I never have days that are cluttered with indecision about my art. Not any more. There's only one direction for me to take now, and it is like those lines that Trudell writes about. "Straight ahead and strive for tone." as Ray Drummond always says.

[postscript: for all of their faults, six cds of mine that I made while I was ill all seem to stand up very well to my repeated listening of them. Songs for a New Century, Prophets, Deep Monk, and Tatum's Ultimatum are some favorites. I particularly have a soft spot for Songs for a New Century, as it is almost a see-through entity, as transparent as glass, as delicate as an exotic jellyfish. Every note is not right, but every note is revealing. It's probably the most revealing album I've ever made, almost embarrassingly so, and so I must love it the most. The other two have similar properties. Blood Music, being mostly electronic and very modern, is one of my favorites, but I'm wild about technology and know that it won't have appeal to a "purist" of any camp. It also seems to be an anti-war statement somehow, but it became that without any conscious help from me. Finally, Vital Signs, my way of challenging myself to a duel, was and is a success, except that we shall never know who won.]