Lyrical: O.P., Again

Lyrical is a series on music in our lives

A sane person, to stay sane, has to have, as a general rule, a place to escape once in a while. A little corner for a self-imposed timeout from time to time. A spot to crawl into and pull the figurative — or real, if that’s your thing — covers over your head. A safe little nook, especially in this relentlessly unforgiving year, where you can forget about viruses and politics and all the stupid loudmouths in the world — oh my god, they could start a country of their own — who will just not shut up.

It doesn’t have to be a physical hidey place. A nice stroll around the neighborhood works, even if the mask you’re wearing is a constant reminder of the current suckiness that pervades our lives. A sunny day in the sanctity and safety of the back yard will do. A fast-food burger, with the windows cracked and the sun roof wide open, in a shady spot in an empty parking lot. “Schitt’s Creek” on Netflix. A good nap on the couch. Social distancing on the driveway or the porch with friends. Non-business Zoom calls.

And my latest pandemic-buster: Oscar Peterson on Spotify.

A few weeks ago, looking for something to relieve the crushing boredom of my basement workouts and get my mind off — you know, things — I decided to listen to something different. Something jazzy. More, I wanted to listen to some cool jazz piano. Coolness always helps. I did a search, landed on O.P., and my pandemic life instantly turned a little less grim.

Listening to Peterson play is, not really overstating it, a sort of religious awakening. Someone that talented, that smooth, that inventive is a gift to us all. The first time I heard him play “Georgia on My Mind” — at least the first time that I remember — I laughed out loud. At the absurdity of his virtuosity. The daring. The joy. My joy.

And, man, is he the absolute coolest. I listen to him and I’m instantly in some smoky bar somewhere, circa 1960, sitting at a small table next to the stage, wearing a sports jacket and a skinny tie, nursing something strong from a tumbler and snapping my fingers next to a date with a foot-high beehive.

The artistry that this man possessed, that he so tirelessly shared, is … I keep falling back on this word: It’s uplifting. Listening to Oscar Peterson play is to marvel at the height that human creativity can reach. Even if you know nothing about piano playing — and all I know is that I have a piano in my house and I have to search for the two keys to start “Chopsticks” — listening to his fingers fly across a keyboard and carve his initials into any song he plays, you know that you’re experiencing something rare and beautiful.

It’s transforming. He may be the most amazing musician I’ve ever heard.

And, as it turns out, seen.

I grew up with music in the house. My dad, a trumpeter, had his own big band in the late 1940s and early ’50s (or so the family history is remembered). The Tommy Donovan Orchestra. Every one of my brothers, and my sister, played an instrument or two at one time. Trumpet, the flute (that was my sister), trombone, a sousaphone, the clarinet. The house was a cacophony of sharp and flat, of squeaks, toots, and blares.

When it came time for me to choose an instrument — I remember it as seventh grade — I jumped on the saxophone, probably because I thought it sounded cool. I practiced infrequently, which is to say almost never, but the musical genes kicked in enough to make me a credible teen musician. It was fun. My friends all were band geeks, before that was a totally geeky thing, to be in band.

(You want geek? As a freshman in high school, if my reasonably repressed memory is correct, my mom made me join the school chorus. I was nowhere close to a baritone — again, freshman in high school — and I didn’t want to go full-fledged falsetto and be a soprano, so I spent my time standing on the back row of the risers, searching vainly for the right note and lip-syncing when I couldn’t find it. I faked it. All the time. When mom finally called a halt to her little episode of maternal sadism, my relief was surpassed only by everyone else in the chorus room.)

Despite all the tooting and braying in my childhood, though, my exposure to different kinds of music was somewhat limited. It consisted largely of old orchestral band arrangements (you’ve never lived until you’ve heard a teen saxophonist play Bach); some Herb Alpert records belonging to my oldest brother; the Monkees, the Partridge Family, and Lawrence Welk on TV; pop stuff my friends and I listened to either on the radio or on a few stray 45s; and “On Wisconsin!,” which the band played to start every football game.

Not until high school did I first encounter real, live, professional music. Our band teacher, legendary for his patience over a career that spanned the entire high school years of every one of the seven Donovan kids, piled a bunch of his students into a bus one summer and took us to an honest-to-god concert; three musicians that were notable, as far as I knew at the time, only for being old.

Devon, Pennsylvania is a tiny town — like 1,500 people tiny — in Chester County, about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It’s known for its annual horse show, a full-blown institution within the hunter-jumper-saddlebreed set. The Devon Horse Show has been held every year since the 1890s, and now draws more than 100,000 people every spring. (Well, most springs. Didn’t happen this year.)

From the June 15, 1975 Philadelphia Inquirer

Up until 1996, Devon also was the site of the famed Valley Forge Music Fair. From the time it opened, under a tent in the mid 1950s, until the time they closed the doors on a roughly 3,000-seat theatre in the round some 40 years later, Valley Forge was a regular stop for all the top acts of the time. It was, for those comedians and singers and bands, a nice spot away from the hassles of the big cities on the East Coast without having to play the Catskills or some other hick haven.

Our busload of middle Delaware schoolkids rolled into Devon one June night to see that trio of musical acts, all of whom were huge stars in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s almost embarrassing now to admit I knew their names but nothing about their music.

Ella Fitzgerald. Count Basie. And Oscar Peterson.

The memories from that night have been pretty much lost by now. I was impressed with the show, I sort of remember. The intimacy of it. The rotating stage. I instantly recognized, I had to have, the superb musicianship; I knew because it sounded nothing like anything I’d ever heard. We probably talked about the show, my friends and I, for several days after. I’m sure, all these years later, that we must’ve tried to scat like Ella on the bus on the way home. (As if.)

But only now, decades and decades later, can I really appreciate how special that night must have been.

I mean, really. Ella. Count. O.P.

How could anything, then or now, be any cooler?

Ella was a stunning talent. I could listen to her for hours. And lately, I have. On “Mack the Knife,” she does Louis Armstrong better than Louis Armstrong (this video in a live show from Stockholm).

Both Count Basie and his orchestra were classics. Count Basie was no O.P. on the keyboard, but as you can see (below), he hung with him in the cool department.

And then there was Peterson, who opened the show that night in Devon (according to the Philadelphia paper of record ^) and who I finally rediscovered, so many years later, in my unfinished basement in Georgia during a year we’d all rather forget.

He’s a wonder. A revelation. And he couldn’t have come around, again, at a better time.

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