In March 2012, my wife and I set out on a lengthy adventure that would take us from Colorado to the East Coast, over to Europe, and then back across the U.S. On that trip, one of our first stops was to visit her grandma, Iris, who lived in Wichita, Kansas. I’d met Iris once and knew little about her, but in the two nights we spent with her, that changed. Today, I look back.
The walls of Iris’s small two-bedroom home closed in around me, giving the place a tight, claustrophobic bite as soon as we walked through the squeaky front door. I stepped over our massive suitcases to follow her as she started our tour down a narrow hallway. Photos of family and Jesus adorned every available space on the wood-paneled walls, rosaries hung along the stair railing, and angel trinkets were scattered on windowsills, end tables, even her bookshelves. What I didn’t see were the four handguns she said she had strategically placed around the house, “just as a precaution.” Apparently if Jesus or the angels happened to be off the clock one night, the .38 caliber in our room wouldn’t be.
“You can never be too sure about some people,” Iris said without hesitation.
After dinner, I found myself sitting with three photo albums draped across my full stomach, each full of yellow-tinted photos and newspaper clippings from her time as a musician.
“It seems like you were quite the rock star back in the day, Iris.”
She chuckled and handed over another photo album. Neatly tucked inside are band photos and a few personal notes she’d kept over the years. “Well I don’t know about that, but I played music for forty-one years. Oh, it was such a good time, too.”
One particular note scribbled on a torn page caught my eye. “What’s this story about you playing for Richard Nixon?”
She handed Hailima a stack of family photos and took a seat near the screen door, looking up as if searching for the memory before answering. “Oh, yes,” she began. “I was in Fargo, North Dakota, during the 1968 presidential campaign playing at the Townhouse Motel and Lounge one Saturday night. Nixon and his entourage came to listen after a speech he gave down at the auditorium across the street. They were a great audience. Very pleasant.”
“That must have been fun,” I replied.
“Oh, it was! That all changed after the show, though. Just as I was about to go up to my room, security got a little touchy and wouldn’t let me go upstairs. I guess Nixon had his room on the second floor near mine. Well, I started getting upset and told them I didn’t care who was up there, I wanted to go to my room. It took a minute but thankfully Nixon’s press secretary came over and told the men it was okay. Just in time, too! I was about to really let them have it!”
“Did he say anything to you, Grandma?” Hailima questioned.
Iris took a sip of water. “Well, yes. Just as I turned toward the stairs, that secretary stepped closer to me and said they loved my set.” Now she starts laughing. “It was nice, but I still didn’t vote for Nixon. I’m a Democrat!”
We talked late into the night – a time when random lanky figures walked this way and that under a failing streetlight flickering overhead. My mind drifted into a scene of what an evening behind the piano may have been like for Iris all those years ago.
The year could have been 1969, strangers walking in from off the street while a dense haze of smoke already envelops an anticipatory crowd rendering them faceless patrons of jazz in a darkened lounge. Blenders mix daiquiris to life and cubes of glistening ice fill glasses of good scotch ordered by a group sitting along the wall just as Iris, calm and confident, appears on stage and gives a quick smile to her bandmates before taking her rightful seat behind a piano illuminated under a single, dim light. The audience erupts in applause and…BANG! , photo albums slipped from my lap and crashed to the floor bringing me back to reality. Hailima and Iris jumped in surprise.
“Whoops. Sorry about that,” I said, grabbing for photos and paper now strewn around me.
“Oh, that’s okay, Joe. Just put them up on the piano bench in front of you. Now, where was I? Oh yes. I moved back to Wichita from Oakland when I was twenty-six. Well, I was taking care of two children and music was the furthest thing from my mind. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t even an option. I was just too busy. Around this time, though, a local group was looking for a pianist and knowing I was back in town and had some experience, well, they asked me to give it a try.” Iris began chuckling at this point, the memory making her shift a little in her chair. “I could play a little boogie-woogie and some blues at that time so they said it was good enough for them. Then before I knew it, they had me up on stage playing. Oh, it was tough for a while and I nearly gave it up. But you know what? I had kids to feed so I kept at it.”
“I guess the rest is history, huh?”
“Oh, that was just the beginning, Joe. I played with a few different bands up until the early sixties before starting my own trio, The Riffnotes. It was nice being the boss for once, too, and when that happened, it seemed like everything just took off from there. We started playing three, sometimes four-hour gigs from here all the way to Long Island. Bob was on bass and Richard played the drums. We had a good ol’ time on stage every night. People danced and we just played and played. And the thing was you had to be able to play everything back then. Jazz. Rock and roll. Shoot, I even knew a bit of alley cat too because you really had to be up to date with the latest sound. I couldn’t stand rock and roll, though. It made my ears ring too dang much.”
Me being a live music fan, I had to ask, “Maybe we can get you to play something for us before we leave?”
“Oh, I’m not too sure about that. I haven’t really played that ol’ thing in a while. But who knows?”
The following evening, Iris cooked dinner for us. She just had to make sure we both had one last hearty meal before heading back out on the road the following morning. We both offered to help numerous times, but no matter how much we pushed, she pushed right back and wouldn’t let us take one step into her kitchen. “You’re guests, so just sit and relax. It’s only me in this house you know. It’s nice to cook for someone else besides me.”
Iris was hospitable, no doubt about it, but at that point, her pride really showed through. And who was I to get in the way of pride? After all, this is a woman who made a name for herself in music at a time when women, especially black women, lived in the shadow of men, and she did it with humility, grace and every bit of toughness many in her shoes have fallen away without. And now that she’d gotten older, a fact she deeply, so deeply despised, it was her pride that helped her remain independent. So, I sat my ass in the chair and let her do her thing.
“Listen, though,” she announced, stepping out of the kitchen. “Before dinner is ready why don’t I try to play something for you? Remember, I haven’t played in a long time so I may be rusty.”
Hailima and I shot a glance at each other, our eyes becoming wide as we immediately started to clear loose papers and books from the piano. Iris said she hasn’t played for anyone in nearly ten years and Hailima, even though she lived with Iris as a child, has never heard her perform, either. I’m so excited, I jumped from one corner of the room to the next looking for the best seat in the house, thinking should I stand or should I sit? I had to take pictures, though! So, I ran up the stairs to get my camera, came back down and hunched over the side of the piano, out of breath and panting. Iris paid no attention.
She just quietly took a seat on the narrow wooden bench, and stretched out her soft, scarcely wrinkled hands. Her fingers timidly found their way over the gleaming ivory keys struggling to remember patterns of a musical past. Slowly, she progressed through the blues, fought with a small classical piece and then finally came to life with her Sinatra favorite.
“Start spreading the news,” she sang, voice clearing. Her fingers began to find their way again. There was no more struggling and it was as if we are whisked back in time as my vision from the previous night came to life again.
“I’m leaving today.” The room darkens around us leaving only a small, dim light upon her and the piano. “I want to be part of it. New York, New York. These vagabond shoes, they are longing to stray.” The walls widen. A crowd, blanketed in heavy smoke, are all cheering and swaying in the darkness of the lounge, completely mesmerized by her melodic mastery. All eyes are on Iris again and she can feel it. Her hands dance, her body moves. It is magical. “Right through the very heart of it. New York, New York.” Iris is smiling. She loves this moment.