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Strains of Familiar Song Bring Back Memories of Another Time and Place

December 10, 1987|Joseph N. Bell

I stopped for a drink the other evening at the Irvine Hilton. I like to get lost in a bar and read, especially if there is a piano in the background playing my music.

There was. The heavyset, tuxedoed pianist was good. I found myself unable to read. I was mouthing the lyrics to the tunes he was playing, and when he started "You Stepped Out of a Dream," I put down my magazine and sang. Not loud enough for anyone to hear me, but I could hear myself. And, as always, I sounded like the early Sinatra.

The pianist saw my lips moving and smiled and nodded, so I got up and stood over the piano and sang with him. Just for us. I'm sure my discords startled him, but he liked the attention. He finished the song and played a few riffles and sighed.

"That's a great old song," he said.

I agreed.

"Nobody pays much attention," he went on. "Hell, I could play anything, and they wouldn't know unless it interfered with what they were doing. I was told to put my lid down, muffle the sound, so I wouldn't interfere too much with conversation."

We talked for a while as he played absently. I found out his name was Les Czimber, and he had led a trio that attracted a lot of jazz lovers to the Hilton last year. But his bass player had gone on to bigger and better things, and now Les was back to playing solo piano, along with some orchestra gigs in the area. He was morose but hopeful. That's when I asked him if he know "Autumn Nocturne."

I tend to judge bar musicians by whether they know "Autumn Nocturne." If they do, they're OK. Not very many of them do.

That song, besides being a virtuoso piano number, goes to some deep place in my psyche that seems to need nurturing more often than it used to.

It brings back instantly and graphically the recreation room in a dormitory at the University of Iowa, where I endured three months of a character-building in a backbreaking program called Navy Pre-Flight School in the summer of 1942. Early in World War II, the Navy recruited whole squadrons of pilots from universities, sending us off to war with the absurd premise that we would hang together all the way through training and go into combat as a unit.

We believed it because we wanted to. Actually, our squadron disintegrated when we were scattered to half a dozen flight centers after pre-flight. But for three heady months, we were the Missouri Flying Tigers, strengthening mind and body to go out and lick the Japanese.

Rooming adjacent to us were the Minnesota Flying Gophers. One member of the Minnesota squadron was named Swifty. If I ever knew his last name, I've forgotten it now. But Swifty led the most popular dance band on the Minnesota campus, and he used to entertain us after dinner by sitting at the piano for hours on end. I never tired of his playing, particularly his theme, "Autumn Nocturne," which he played over and over.

That was the mellow part of a war. A rec room at late dusk, the satisfaction of having survived that day still whole, the slight buzz of a beer, other figures melding into the shadows until Swifty and I and "Autumn Nocturne" were all that was left. The picture is vivid, and it brings with it some strange kind of peace.

So for years, I've been asking bar pianists if they know "Autumn Nocturne." And the other night at the Hilton, Les Czimber did know it. And clearly loved it. I went back to my seat and fondled a drink and listened and felt. He played it for me twice, and, for a few moments, he was Swifty and I was back in Iowa City and the world was divided into Good Guys and Bad Guys again.

It didn't last, and that's OK. I didn't need it to. I was nourished. And afterward, I began musing about music. My generation--more than most, it seems--lived by its music. I can define most of the crucial events in my life by associating them with songs. And when I hear the songs, the events replay with a breathtaking kind of clarity--like Swifty at his piano.

Maybe that's true for other generations, too. I don't know. But except for some show music, today's songs don't seem as clearly defined as they once were.

Hoagy Carmichael caught that when he wrote "Star Dust" at Indiana University:

Sometimes I wonder

Why I spend the lonely nights,

Dreaming of a song. . . .

So thank you, Les Czimber, and all the other bar pianists--good and bad--who have the power to evoke memories with music. Sometimes you are being heard--and taking that white-haired guy out there on a long journey.

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