Monday, January 18, 2010
Memphis composer's a piano player for hire ... in a tux
Happy 2010 to followers and readers! This first entry of the new year is a feature column about a Memphis composer who's also a regular working stiff--a piano player for hire ... in a tux. It's a little different from your typical labor story, but that's okay. This blog aspires to be a little different even as it pursues its central mission (for that, see the Manifesto, one of the blog's earliest entries). In the photograph, taken recently by my wife Suzanne at The Majestic, my favorite downtown haunt in Memphis, you see Boatner (to the right) and yours truly.
MEMPHIS – The new year is still a quarter-hour away, and our small group has gathered around the piano at Judd Grisanti’s Trattoria to hear John Boatner play As Time Goes By one more time. I’m a hopeless Casablanca fan, and, in my mind, Boatner is every bit as good as Sam was that night he played it for Rick.
As the clock ticks on to 11:57 or so, we all know what we want to hear next. Just as Boatner strikes the first notes of Auld Lang Syne, however, some philistine flips on the sound system and out comes Mylie Cyrus. We’re not to be deterred.
“Play it, John,” I demand. “Just play it.”
And he does, and we all enjoy our champagne and sing in 2010 with Auld Lang Syne.
The next time I see John Boatner is at The Majestic, a wonderful downtown haunt that offers diners silent films on a giant screen as well as great steaks and Sazeracs. He’s wearing a black coat with a red plaid scarf, drinking black coffee, and answering my questions about his long career as a pianist, composer, conductor, and teacher.
“Life would be hell without music,” he says. “You need three things in life: music, humor and laughter, and children.”
He’s the father of two grown sons, he’s got a hearty laugh, and he’s devoted to music.
You may have heard him if you’ve been in the famous lobby of The Peabody Hotel. He played the ivories there for 28 years as well as nine years at one of the city’s premier French restaurants, Paulette’s. He’s often in my hometown of Oxford, Miss., usually performing at the Downtown Grill on Homecoming Weekend.
“That’s support for the artistic things that don’t provide income,” the 70-year-old Memphis native says.
Trained in classical and sacred music at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary, Boatner spent years in New York working in ballet studios and churches before returning to the South, where he has produced and directed dozens of concerts, including the first public concerts of black and female composers presented in Memphis.
He has composed 20 published works—from cantatas and ballets to experimental music and theater pieces such as his Toot Sweet Trilogy. His Easter Cantata For An Unbeliever, performed at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Cordova, Tenn., in June 2009, incorporated rock rhythms on percussion as well as guitar folk music. Ever lyrical and deeply spiritual, he can also be as experimental as an Edgar Varèse or John Cage.
But classical composition rarely keeps food on the table—even if your works have been performed as far away as Germany, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. So Boatner is also a working stiff , piano player for hire—in a tuxedo. “Erik Satie is kind of my mentor,” he says. “He had to make a living playing piano.”
I ponder Boatner’s mustache and goatee. He even looks a little like the turn-of-the-century French composer, who also had a penchant for giving strange titles to his compositions, titles like Next-to-Last Thoughts and Pieces in the Form of a Pear. Satie kept food on his table by banging on the ivories in a Montmartre cabaret.
But years at the public piano can produce a bottomless well of stories. Boatner has played for Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, and President Clinton. He probably played for my wife Suzanne and me the evening I proposed to her at the Peabody lobby. “People come up to you and ask you for anything and everything, and you have to be ready.”
One evening after taking a break at the Peabody, Boatner returned to find one of the hotel guests picking out a tune at his piano. He went up to the man and said, “I think I look better than you do here.” When the man stood up to move out of the way, Boatner realized who he was. “By god, you’re Jon Voigt!” he said to the Academy Award-winning actor. Voigt wasn’t angry. “He was as nice as he could be,” Boatner recalls.
And after the exchange, Boatner sat down to play while Voigt listened.