By AUGIE FAVAZZA
I had my baby grand piano tuned the other day by Dave Clements of Falmouth and sadly learned of the death of Maine jazz pianist Alex Johns in Portland, Maine, back in April. I had missed his passing, because as snowbirds, my wife and I, had not yet returned from Florida for the summer.
Alex was my piano teacher. Back in the mid -1980s, my then-fiancee and I had bought a baby grand piano on a lark and on my pledge to learn to play.
I asked popular local musician and band leader Tony Boffa, a golfing buddy of mine, for a name of a good piano teacher. He wholeheartedly suggested I give “Coolie” a call.
When I did, Alex quickly quizzed me about how long I had been playing. I replied I had never played the piano. With that, Alex lived up to his well-known nickname and “cooly” responded, ”I don’t teach beginners.”
But before he hung up, I brought up Tony Boffa’s name which apparently eased his fears or anxiety of working with a neophyte. Alex inquired, “Do you like to drink scotch?”
I answered, ”Sure, on the rocks.”
He then quipped, “Good, come over this afternoon, and we’ll get started.”
That afternoon Alex began to dangle before me the keys — 88 black and white ones — that opened a door to a world of joy and passion for the piano.
Now I am probably one of Alex’s least talented protégé and certainly not a professional, but there is not a day that goes by where I don’t want to sit at the keyboard and pound out a tune, mostly from the old standards.
That first lesson in 1985, Alex asked, “What exactly do you want to learn?”
I confessed I had no classical music aspirations. I knew basically how to read music from boys’ choir as a kid. I told him I wanted to play tunes like “Misty”‘ , “The Way We Were”, “Moon River” and, forgive me, that 1980s lounge- lizard ballad “Feelings”.
Alex took a drag from his cigarette and smiled.
“I will teach you the “stride method” and some basic chords,” he said.. ”Most basic arrangements of songs, have pretty much the same chords – C, G, F, D.”
Alex had a hip, devilish personality at times. Why sometimes, during a lesson, he would listen to me struggle through a tune and say “move over”. He would break the tension by playing the same tune expertly, sometimes with hands behind his back or lying prone on the floor and reaching up with his fingers, magically traversing the keyboard.
Well, that first lesson, he showed that devilish demeanor and proposed, “We’ll make a pact. If you practice the chords I show you with your left hand and read and master the melody line with your right hand …. WELL, YOU WILL NEVER BE ANY GOOD, BUT YOU WILL SURE AS HELL SURPRISE A LOT OF PEOPLE.”
“You got a deal,” I beamed and sat down at his mahogany baby grand Kawai in the basement of his home in the Deering section of town and began to learn major and minor triad chords.
For a year or so, I would go for a weekly lesson of an hour that would sometimes stretch into two as I made steady progress. Alex would get after me at times, not so much for not practicing, but for relying on an ability I possessed to remember tunes I had played a few times.
“You’re not reading the lead sheets,” he would deduce. “You’re playing from memory.”
I had to give up my lessons with Alex when my wife-to-be and I moved to Florida in 1986, along with my baby grand. In Florida, I never did find a teacher I was so comfortable with. But I still loved playing every chance I could at home or wherever. I’m not sure if Will Rogers tickled the ivories, but I never met a piano I didn’t like.
And so I play piano. Many people will confide in me that it was their dream to play. And they surmise I must have taken lessons as a child. They are stunned when I tell them about Coolie and how he taught me at age 35.
“And don’t be afraid to play in front of people,” Alex would say. “Few people will know you made a mistake. “
I’ve heeded his advice and have played in hotels, restaurants and even recently in the Charlotte, N.C. airport during a long layover. One of my favorite piano impromptu gigs was performing on a baby grand in the favorite cafe of the famed composer Puccini in the town of Lucca in Tuscany. I regret I had not yet mastered “Nessun Dorma”.
My wife and returned to Maine in 1989. But with a new business to run, I put off taking up lessons again with Alex, although I talked about it with “Coolie” whenever we found time to hear him perform at a local hotel lounge. Why bigger crowds never were on hand to enjoy the talents of a man, described in his on-line archive obituary, “as a giant in Maine music scene” always bewildered me. I knew he studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but I didn’t really know of his sterling reputation as a musical arranger during his Navy career. I wished I had seen him perform with Maine’s big bands like Al Corey and Don Doane.
The last time I saw Alex was quite a few year ago at a Christmas party of friends in Cape Elizabeth. They had bought a Young Chang grand piano and needed a tuner. I had recommended Alex, and they hired him to play for the party, as well. Alex played brilliantly that night, and when time came for him to leave, with the party still going, I took a seat at the piano. I remember someone playfully remarking “well, look who’s going to clown around at the keyboard.”
I played quite few of those standards and a few Christmas carols by ear-and-memory to the amazement of the party-goers. Before, Alex went out the door, he came over and whispered in my ear, “I TAUGHT YOU WELL, YOU SURE AS HELL SURPRISED ALL OF THESE PEOPLE.”
The Piano Man’s parting words were music to my ears.
By AUGIE FAVAZZA