“What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
And all music is.”
- Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Breakfast of Champions
It was the winter of 1926. Thomas “Fats” Waller, the popular jazz pianist, had just finished a spirited performance at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Following the concert, Waller was approached by four men wearing dark suits with wide lapels.
“We want to make you an offer that you can’t refuse,” they told him, as one of the men shoved a revolver into Waller’s corpulent stomach.
The men led Waller outside and into a black limousine. He was terrified, but knew it best to follow their instructions.
Orders were given to the limo driver to drive to the Hawthorne Inn in East Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. Inside, Waller found himself in the middle of a huge party. The kidnappers shoved him towards a piano and demanded that he play. The loudest applause came from a familiar man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone. Capone was having a birthday party, and Fats Waller was a present from “the boys”.
The party lasted for three days. Waller exhausted himself and his repertoire, but with every request bills were stuffed into his pockets. He and Capone consumed vast quantities of food and drink. By the time the limousine headed back to the Sherman Hotel, Waller had acquired several thousand dollars in cash tips.
Currently, there is an art installation by British artist Luke Jerram on display around New York City. Titled “Play Me, I’m Yours”, it consists of 60 newly refurbished pianos scattered in public places among the five boroughs, available for anyone to play. Following the artwork, the pianos will be donated to local schools and community groups.
Next week, I plan on finding some of these pianos and listening to people make music. Maybe I’ll even make some myself.