Recently I was watching, again, the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie “Shall We Dance?” and was surprised to find tears running down my cheeks.

The tears occurred during the amazing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” number where, after the wonderful duet singing of the wonderful Gershwin song (Ira’s lyrics as important as George’s melody, both inspired), the two do a dance on roller skates. It’s an astonishing sequence, as close to perfection as anything human can be. As usual, Astaire insisted on filming in long takes so the audience could see that he and Ginger were actually able to do the whole number, not just small segments spliced together. (Accounts I’ve read indicate that Fred insisted on endless rehearsals.)

There’s something about seeing anyone do anything that well that I find extremely powerful and moving. I have those same goosebumps and tears when I hear Fats Waller play James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” That stride piano solo was what the Harlem pianists used to call a “cutting” piece, one that the pianists used to compete against each other. Johnson’s original recording is extremely impressive, but Waller has him beat.

Having once been a low-grade amateur pianist, I can feel viscerally how difficult it is to play that “stride” bass (single notes in the bass followed by chords an octave or so higher), hitting all the skips accurately. Waller does it with perfect accuracy and such lightness of touch that he makes it seem easy.

Some of my outside knowledge probably contributes to the intensity of my reaction. I know that Waller’s recording was made on a 78 master, so that what you hear is exactly what he played in that three minutes without any editing. (Much like Astaire’s long takes in the films!) He could have done it over until he was satisfied with a “take,” but he probably didn’t have to. In fact, there is an alternate take still in existence and it’s just about as good. And when you hear Waller in a radio broadcast playing his own equally-difficult “A Handful of Keys,” it’s always perfectly accurate too. I also know that Waller wanted to play classical piano, and even studied for a time with the master pianist Leopold Godowsky. He loved to play Bach’s organ music on church organs whenever he got the chance. But there were no opportunities for black classical pianists. And the recordings Waller made of classical organ music were destroyed by the company.

One of my long-held ambitions was finally realized in 2011 when I got to publish a two-CD set of live performances by my late friend Jacob Lateiner. During Jacob’s lifetime I had often suggested to him–even going back to the LP days of the late 1960s–that we issue live performances of his, but he always resisted. After he died in 2010, his widow Amy and I got our hands on a number of tapes of Jacob’s concerts and I selected two of them to publish.

The set simply had to include Jacob’s playing of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.” He had recorded a technically amazing performance of the piece for Westminster in the 1950s, but in later years he had become very dissatisfied with that recording because he “found more music in the piece,” as he put it, and he was right. Listening to a recording of a performance given at the Juilliard School of Music in 1977 (for which I was in the audience,) I focused on the variation (No. 8 from Book 1) which requires even more difficult skips than “Carolina Shout.” Nobody plays it perfectly, not even the great Wilhelm Backhaus in his legendary 1927 recording (from 78 masters, so there’s no splicing there either). So I listened to find out how many of those bass notes Jacob missed in his live performance. None. And hearing that gave me the chills too.

I guess it’s artistic perfection that affects me the most. I remember, for example, walking through an ancient English estate outside of London and marveling at how poor I found the quality of the old paintings which filled the walls of the many rooms. Suddenly, I rounded a corner and saw a painting of an old woman, and I burst into tears. When I recovered, I looked at the label and saw that it was Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother.

Still, sometimes I can see other wonderful human activities that fill me with the same overwhelming awe. I still remember, when I was about 11, seeing the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cincinnati Reds at Ebbets Field. Ted Kluszewski, the Reds’ big catcher, hit a long fly ball which landed in the far right field corner. Carl Furillo, my favorite Dodger (Jackie Robinson was second), was noted for his amazing throwing arm. He picked up the ball as Kluszewski was rounding second base and threw it to Billy Cox at third. Cox held out his glove, moved it a few inches as the ball arrived, caught it and tagged out Kluszewski. So Furillo had thrown the ball the farthest distance possible inside the ball park and landed within inches of his target. It remains the most amazing action I’ve ever seen a human being perform, and still gives me the chills when I remember it.

One night in 1988, I was at my brother’s apartment on Long Island with a batch of his friends, watching Mike Tyson take on the boxer who was supposed to be his greatest challenge to date, Michael Spinks. During the preliminary bouts, one attendee had too much beer to drink. So when the Tyson fight started, he got up and went to the toilet to pee. By the time he returned, Tyson had knocked out Spinks. (One boxing writer claimed that on that night Tyson would probably have beaten any heavyweight who ever lived, and I think he may have been right.) Learning that he had missed the whole fight, the drunk said, “Aw, what a chiz! That fight was a waste of money.” I replied, “My friend, perfection is cheap at any price.”

One Response to “Perfection”

  1. Geraldine Says:

    Thanks, Leslie, for expressing it so… well… perfectly. In a world filled with sour notes, mis-steps, good-enough tries, and downright incompetency, those pristine moments of perfect performance are worth savoring.

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