Atlanta’s jazz community squeezed into 800 East Studios to celebrate Johnny Knapp’s 90th birthday last Sunday. To these people (musicians, mostly, and others) Johnny, a professional piano player for about 70 years, has been a friend, a teacher, an inspiration, a bandmate, a hero, and a ball-buster.
One guy stood up and called Johnny a national treasure. He might be. But I don’t really know any national treasures to compare him with because Johnny is incomparable. It blows me away just knowing he’s been a working musician since Harry Truman was president, because I know plenty of musicians that don’t work. To me, Johnny is mostly a good friend and frequent dinner companion.
I got to know him about five years ago and wrote a story about him for Atlanta magazine about three years ago. Since then, our friendship has deepened as I got sucked into his gravity, like everyone else who meets him. Col. Bruce Hampton introduced us at the IHOP and the first thing Johnny said as he shambled into the restaurant with Bruce was, “Jerry, it’s nice to meet you. Bruce and I were just talking about 1951. Do you have any thoughts?”
So I blurted, “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant …”
Johnny rasped, “son of a bitch!” He’d been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. We’ve been pals ever since. When I changed jobs, which meant that I couldn’t make the weekly Tuesday lunches with Johnny and Bruce and the gang, I started meeting Johnny for dinner on Thursday nights, arranging my Atlanta work commute around that.
Every Thursday, or every other Thursday, I’d pick him up at his home in Lawrenceville. First, we stashed his walker in the back of my car. As mobility became tougher for him following a series of mishaps, we folded his wheelchair and stuck that in the back. The point is, he never wanted me to bring dinner to him, he always wanted to go out. Usually, it was either a Chinese place that never let him pay for a meal, or later, Dan Thai in Lilburn, with occasional forays to Golden Corral, which he loved (he mostly loved the Ethiopian waitress, Helen). Sometimes we’d go see a band.
For the past few months, he’s been recovering from a heart procedure, spending all of his time in either the hospital or a rehabilitation center, and will hopefully be returning home at some point, with a caregiver. If and when that happens, I intend to start backing into his driveway again, so the passenger side is close to his man cave door, so we can meet Helen again, or go to Dan Thai.
In the meantime, he’s making the transition to 90 at his own pace (he won’t actually “be” 90 until later in November). But when I think of Johnny Knapp at 90, I think of all the people he’s met and known and affected, like the good people at his birthday celebration, including my siblings, and the stars whose orbits he’s influenced, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Col. Bruce Hampton, etc., etc., etc. Truly a list of legends, and Johnny might be the biggest of them all. Col. Bruce used to say the two greatest jazz piano players are Art Tatum and Johnny Knapp.
Tal Farlow, the pioneering jazz guitarist, would probably have agreed with Bruce. Once, when Johnny had a conflicting gig out of town, he enlisted a young Chick Corea to take his place in Tal’s mid-60s quartet, a jazz supergroup. When he got back with the quartet, Johnny asked Tal, “how’d Chick do?” Tal said, “He was good, but he was no Johnny Knapp.”
When I think of Johnny at 90, I keep going back to Johnny at two, Johnny with polio, and his frightened parents, Czechoslovakian immigrants who could barely speak English.
“I had to teach them English,” Johnny told me. “When I got polio, my father found out they were coming to get me to put me in quarantine. My parents didn’t understand what was happening. If you can’t speak English, what the hell does quarantine mean?”
When the police arrived at their door, John Sr. picked up baby Johnny and ran up the fire escape, to the roof. So here’s baby Johnny, lame with polio, God bless him, in the arms of his terrified father, fleeing the cops, flat foots in blue scraping pebbles on the tar rooftops of Manhattan tenement houses in the depths of a Great Depression.
I think of his hard working immigrant parents – his mother a cleaning lady at Radio City Music Hall, his father waiting tables. I think of how the doctor suggested they should move to the country for Johnny’s health, so they moved to Brooklyn.
When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of nine-year-old Johnny in lock-up leg braces, and his father giving him an accordion, asking the little boy, “do you like this?” And Johnny lighting up, beaming, “Yeah!” I think of Johnny riding the dumbwaiter up to the third floor, where they could tie him to a fire escape to keep him from falling. And he’d sit there with the accordion on his lap, his first gigs, and from down below came the voices of Eastern European women calling through the zig-zagging lines of flapping laundry, “Johnny, play us a song!” That was 80 years ago and we’re still calling out, “Johnny, play us a song!”
When I think about Johnny at 90, I think of a young man trying to make it in the music business, his mother getting a phone call from Woody Herman who wanted to hire him for a gig, then telling Johnny later in broken English that someone named Forest had called. I think of Johnny playing piano for gangsters and New York Yankees at the Copa, and teaching Charlie Parker simple melodies – teaching Bird, and Bird visiting Johnny’s pad just to jam! And Bird asking Johnny to go out on the road with his band, and Johnny begging off because he couldn’t afford the pay cut, and didn’t care for the drugs.
I think of kindhearted Johnny, who used yoga to get out of his leg braces then gave his yoga books to suffering Charlie Parker, because he really thought they might save doomed Bird, and gave thousands and thousands of dollars to out-of-work friends, and never told his wife Dee while she was alive, “because then she’d know why we’re so poor now, and I’d never hear the end of it,” he said.
When I think of Johnny at 90, I can’t help but think of Dee, his beautiful wife of 53 years, and how they met.
Johnny said, “I was going with another girl at the time, and I had a pad on 71st Street and, who do you call, Julius Baker was on that street, and Burt Collins, and Gene Quill. A lot of very good musicians lived on that street. And I had this pad and my piano, and I’d have sessions. People would come up and play, and one day I happen to invite Carmen Leggio, a very good tenor sax player who worked with Woody Herman at the time, and I liked the way he played. Very aggressive. And I invited him, and he invited this girl to come with him, this singer, Dee.”
Dee told Johnny that she liked him and asked him to call – good thing Johnny’s girlfriend wasn’t there that evening. But Johnny, he wouldn’t call, not for a while anyway, “because I was one of those schmucks who believed that if I cheated on her, she would cheat on me, and I didn’t want that. So Dee would ask me every time we saw each other, ‘why don’t you call me?’ Finally, I broke up with my girlfriend. Maybe she was fooling around with a few guys. I never asked. I was afraid of the answer. But I was a free thinker anyway.”
Dee was singing with a band, the only white singer in an all-black band in Yonkers. And she got to be good friends with Duke Ellington. One of their first nights together as a couple, Johnny went to see Dee perform in Danbury.
“She was in the band opening up for Duke,” Johnny recalled. “Another singer, Babs Gonzalez, was hitting on her. She was a real dish and Babs was laying it on thick. He said, ‘you know how to make it in this business? You gotta pay your dues?’ And Dee says, ‘is there a vocalists union?’ And Babs says, ‘no, I don’t mean those kind of dues.’
“Duke was on the other side of the ballroom, rehearsing the band, and he walks over and says, ‘Babs, don’t fool around with her, she’s a nice kid …’ Then he kisses her and walks off and I said, ‘wow, you really know Duke.’ Yeah, Dee and I really liked each other from the moment we met. And let’s face it, we’re married 52, 53 years on April 15, income tax day – we married on that day on purpose, because I knew I’d never forget our anniversary that way.”
Johnny told me that story when Dee was still alive. She died in February 2015. “I was supposed to go first,” stunned, broken-hearted Johnny said.
When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of Johnny at 86, a recent widower living alone in their house decorated with her fabulous sculptures, annoyed at Dee for leaving him. I think of the night he went to the Velvet Note, a few weeks after Dee died, his friends asking if he wanted to play.
“I was heavy hearted and I didn’t feel like playing,” he said. “Then I heard Dee’s voice in my head saying, ‘Hey, schmuck, get up and play.’ Clear as hell, from the other side she’s still telling me what to do!”
So he played. He thought about Dee when they were both young, about the dinners at her Italian family’s house.
“They were so loud,” he said. “They screamed across the table, ‘pass the bread, you need more sauce, feed the kids!’ This fucking cacophony! That’s how they talked, and that’s how she sounds in my head. So I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna play like she talks.’ Loud. I also played it like that because its the best way to show how pissed off I am that she passed away. But just as I was finishing, in my mind, I could see her dancing, so pretty. That’s why I played the tarantella at the end. I don’t know how it sounded. I haven’t seen the video. It was painful.”
It’s all there on YouTube, Johnny Knapp’s furious, heartbreaking rendition of “Softly as a Morning Sunrise,” his face intense, even as he imagines his dancing wife and he plays the dancing rhythm, and all of it the truth.
When I think of Johnny at 90, I think of one of his favorite quotes, a line from the poet Sidney Lanier. “Music is love in search of a word.” So when I think of Johnny, I think of all the sonic love he’s spread in 70 years of playing, or 170 years – Col. Bruce used to say that Johnny performed at Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.
Anyway, last Sunday at 800 East Studios, you could hear the love, and it had a beautiful, ageless sound. Happy Birthday, Johnny Knapp.