A stormy night on the ocean. Sheets of rain wash across Pacific Coast Highway. Water drips from the eaves of a rustic wooden building. And Jack Harris sits at the piano, making memories. “You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss . . . “ I get restless when it rains. Hidden bursts of energy ignite my urge to prowl the windy nights when the storm blows off the ocean, shouting and pounding, like the music of a primitive tribe.
I listen for the first faint drips of rain on my roof and then for the full crescendo and then I’m out the door. Windshield wipers whisper against the storm. Car lights reflect off shiny wet pavements.
I drive north, to where a restaurant called the Beaurivage sits outlined by pinpoint lights on the upper edge of Malibu. And I listen to Jack.
“ . . . a sigh is just a sigh . . . “
There are many places on the Westside where one can hear rock or jazz, and Jack plays that too if someone asks. But mostly he offers the kind of music that creates other times and other places.
Jack plays moods. He offers memories. He draws you in with a kind of bland smile, head cocked to one side, graying hair slicked back, luring you up a deep purple ladder to where music assumes form and function, stepping lightly in the starlight above the storm.
I met Jack some months ago and noticed this kind of ability to play music that creates images, that touches something deep inside, that evokes flashes of half-remembered faces on unremembered nights.
Jack is 70 years old and there’s history there. He’s not just one of those chatty kids talking classroom musicology off the tops of their heads. Jack has tone , and tone is an element of style.
We talked for maybe an hour between sets that first time and he told me how he had his own four-piece band at 19 and used to play in the Baltimore underground with people like Stinkie Fields and Billy Scratch Wallace.
They were strip joints mostly, featuring an army of tassle-twirlers and the amazing Miss Lois De Fee, “New York’s Sensational Amazon Star,” at Hon Nickel’s Gayety Theatre, and later at the Oasis, where John Barrymore and Johnny Weismuller used to fall by to watch the amateurs peel.
Not that Jack grew up dreaming of the day he could play for overweight women removing their clothes before a boozy crowd.
He wanted to be a concert pianist once and studied classical music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore for 18 years. But the Depression edged a lot of misty dreams with hard realities and he ended up playing in bars for the change people threw.
“I was going to high school, delivering papers in the afternoon and working in saloons at night,” Jack says in a soft voice, leaning over the table in the Beaurivage. “I’d make maybe one or two dollars a night in the bars, and that was pretty good then.
“But you had to have a thick skin. They’d shout things like, ‘Hey, kid, what’d you do with all the money your mother gave you for piano lessons?’ I learned to take it.”
Jack went on to bring his music to concerts and hotels and fashion shows and radio and television, everything from Latin to Dixieland, you name it.
But it was playing for drunks and strippers that gave his tunes the kind of sad fulfillment street people call soul, coming from a guy you’d think had spent his life at high-steppin’ eateries like the Beaurivage.
Jack fools you. Barely 5 feet 7 and 155 pounds, bright blue eyes almost luminescent, he looks a little like a prep-school English teacher, but when he plays, you begin to see the shadows and feel the heat. Jack knows where moods are born, where the small, sad memories sleep.
“What do you want to hear?” he asks as the rain glistens on the leaves just outside the restaurant window.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I am finished with dinner and hunched over a warm cognac, watching the storm play, the way I used to watch it from an apartment in San Francisco and later from a hotel window in New York, when being alone in the rain made me feel like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
“What can you play?” I ask, and I get the answer I expect.
“If the song was popular in the last 60 years,” Jack says, “I can play it.” Then he offers a fleeting smile and adds, “There aren’t too many around like me anymore.”
Pretty soon he is playing “Harbor Lights” and “Laura” and “Misty,” and the theme from the “Fantasticks,” “Try to remember a time in September . . . ,” and the saddest of all songs, “The Way We Were.”
“Play ‘As Time Goes By,’ ” I finally say to Jack, because I am feeling like Bogart again, saying goodby to Ingrid Bergman at the airport.
“You’ve got it,” he says.
Then Jack is at the piano and I am following his melody to a place I have never been on a night I have never known, walkin’ kind of slow and mellow, while the blustery storm backs off to listen and water drips from the eaves in a sad, slow rhythm.
“ . . . the fundamental things apply, as time goes by . . . “