How Clean is Your Palate?

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I don’t know if there is a law, axiom, or principle to this effect someplace, but I begin to discover that the best way to develop an active distaste for a thing you love is to make it a full time business. There are others who may feel differently, of course—and I’d like to have some of what they’re having. My experience is that the obligation to do the same thing day after day, even if it involves something wonderful or even ecstatic, evolves into drudgery.

For ten years, I tuned pianos. I started out at age 25 loving the instruments, cherishing the tonal and mechanical quirks of every piano I worked on. Aside from pianos whose actions fell apart in my hands, or whose pinblocks were so worn and dried out as to be unable to hold a tune, I was in love with the beasts. At one point I had seven or eight pianos in my house, adopting them as some people hoard cats. I knew them inside and out.

And I wasn’t even a particularly good technician. I wince at the memory of botching an agraffe repair on a Chickering square grand. (Yes, I was such a piano nut that I even tuned squares.) I took care of and loved the pianos that I rescued and restored at home, and sent them back out into the world. Until, one day, I married a woman with a good job and I realized that I would never have to tune anyone else’s piano again. I can barely begin to convey my relief at this epiphany—though for about three years I still felt guilt at turning down the maintenance requests of my old customers.

I still love pianos, but I am down to one: a 1927 Knabe 5’8” parlor grand. I sat at the keyboard on a couple of occasions in the past month and I found myself having fun—which is a rare enough occurrence for me these days. Ironically, I have not been able to steal the wakeful hours necessary to keep it in tune. I admit I have been sorely tempted to call the man who sold it to me and have him do what I could do myself.

I love jazz, I think. I don’t listen to much of it at home because it requires the rapt attention that I am bound to allocate to other things. I spend all month preaching syncopation but I don’t practice it. Getting into “jazz mode” is a conscious effort for me. I put on music with intent, and not casually. As I determine to play a record—even a shellac 78—I have to attend to it and not consider that those are three minutes I should spend doing something else.

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Publishing and editing The Syncopated Times is my life’s work. I say that even though I suspect it isn’t good for me or for my love of the music I report on each month. My one hope lies in remembering who I have been when not beset by my various crusades and obsessions: a happy dilettante. Everything came into my wheelhouse, by turns. I dabbled, most proficiently. As such, I never grew weary or bored; my palate was perpetually clean.

We recently returned from a weekend in Connecticut at Jeff and Joel’s House Party where we heard the best possible jazz. Among the excellent musicians we heard were Paris Washboard Superswing, led by trombonist Daniel Barda and featuring clarinetist Alain Marquet, stride piano master Louis Mazetier, trumpeter Michel Bonnet, and washboardist Charles Prévost—and stellar Connecticut musicians including cornetist Fred Vigorito, clarinetist Noel Kaletsky, and trombonist Neil Defeo.

We were delighted to see everyone again, and the music was incredible—well worth our six-hour trek through the detours and traffic jams of Connecticut. However, after three days of thrilling, riotous jazz, we experienced a palate-cleansing moment. On Sunday afternoon, trombonist Daniel Barda put down his trombone and sat at the piano, and he played Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, from memory.

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The jazz-party attendees, who normally chatter away during the music, were absolutely silent for the seven-plus minutes of the piece. For my own part, I closed my eyes and listened intently. My wife said that she was in tears. The truth is, we’ll often put on such music which serves as background for our conversation at night. But there we paid close attention, and the Mendelssohn proved a refreshing contrast to the weekend’s relentless hot jazz.

Daniel Barda finished the piece, and received a thunderous standing ovation. All the music we heard at the House Party was worthy of such applause, but if we do not listen we do not hear. It does sometimes take a cleansing of our palates—and a centering of our spirits—to appreciate fully that which we are bound to take for granted.

As a footnote to that weekend—and a “footnote to his spectacular playing”—here is a photograph of Louis Mazetier’s dancing feet as he played the piano, submitted by party attendee and new subscriber Maida Sperling. I revel in the joy of this moment—and would fain imitate it.


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