I was probably the least talented and least able piano student Piero Weiss ever had. He got stuck with me in 1969, when I was living on Staten Island. I had found an excellent piano teacher who lived just a few blocks from my house, but her husband got a job in Los Angeles and they moved away. Thinking cleverly for once, I wrote a letter to Jacob Lateiner, a pianist I greatly admired but did not yet know. (Later he became a friend.) I described my level of ability as honestly as I could and asked him if he could recommend a teacher who would take me. He recommended Piero Weiss.

Mr. Weiss, as I called him in those days (later we became Leslie and Piero, but only after I was no longer his student) must have found me a trial as a student. I had no hopes or ambitions of playing on anything near a professional level. As a young man with a wife and three children to raise, I was lucky if I could manage an hour a day to practice, and often I couldn’t. But I came for lessons faithfully every other week, even after I moved to upstate New York the following year. Although I was a poor student, I was otherwise well informed about music, already writing professional record reviews. So even though I was unable to put my knowledge into practice very well, I must have been interesting enough to keep him willing to teach me.

Piero actually taught me more about playing the piano than I had any right to know. I was unsatisfied with the sound I usually produced from the piano. He taught me to listen, assuring me that conscious attempts to alter my sound would probably not work but that concentration on listening would lead my fingers to produce something closer to what I wanted to hear. He also showed me some elements of the technique he had learned from his own teacher Isabella Vengerova, of which I remember the use of the wrists to produce changes in volume, especially strong accents.

One of the aspects of his teaching I particularly remember was the way he would help me select repertoire to study. He often made suggestions. When he asked if I ever had played Schubert and I said I hadn’t, he said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like Schubert?” “I love Schubert,” I replied. “That’s why I don’t want to play his music.” But he selected for me just the right Impromptu to fit my technique. When I mentioned something I would like to play, he would zip through the score from memory, no matter what it was, and tell me whether he thought I would be able to play it or not. I did surprise him once. I said I wanted to play Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 2, and he said I would not be able to handle the finale. I worked like a demon for two weeks and came back with that movement comfortably in hand. He was surprised, and gratified.

Piero frequently played for me at lessons, usually just brief excerpts to show me how something should go. He was obviously a superb pianist, and I asked him why he had not pursued a career as a performer. He told me he didn’t have the confidence. But he played me with pride the recording of his performance of the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto from a Lewissohn Stadium concert. And he gave me a duplicate copy of one of the two LPs he had made for the German record club Opus. I found the other one decades later.

After one lesson, we somehow got into a discussion of the Schumann Toccata. “I used to play that,” he told me. He was still sitting at his piano, and he turned to the keyboard and began to play. He played superbly, with great power and fluency and surprising accuracy. When he had finished, he looked at me and said, “I haven’t played that in twenty years.”

After I “mastered” the Schubert Impromptu to the best of my ability, I asked if he thought I could learn one of the Schubert Piano Sonatas. I was particularly interested in the little Sonata in A Minor, D. 784. He pointed out to me that the finale was beyond my ability, and then told me he hated to teach that piece anyway. He had once had a talented woman student who wanted to play that Sonata. He had told her that the last measures of the finale, in octaves, were very difficult, and that she could not play the movement any faster than she was able to play the octaves because it was improper to slow down for them and spoil the momentum of the music. When she played the Sonata for him, she did slow down for the octaves, and he told her she could not play the music like that. She became angry and never returned.

At one point I fell in love with the Brahms Intermezzo in B Flat, Op. 76, No. 4. Piero encouraged me to give it a try. It didn’t really suit my limited ability, and although I could get through the notes, I was not able to make the piece flow. He kept encouraging me to work on it, but I brought it back for several lessons and it never sounded right. At one lesson, after I lumbered through the piece, I told him I wanted to give it up. “No,” he said. “Work on it for two more weeks, then play it for me and then you can give it up.” I did my best, but the day before the lesson it still sounded lumpy. I came in and said I was ready to quit and didn’t want to play it even the one more time. He told me to try it anyway. I did, and amazingly, that time, I played it very well. When I finished, he said, sounding very surprised, “That was beautiful!” “I know,” I replied, just as surprised. I never played it again. Thinking about the experience later, I suspected that he was not surprised at all. He knew exactly how to push me–like the zen master who told a student in search of enlightenment that if he did not succeed within three days he should kill himself.

I had the opposite experience when I attempted a speedy Scarlatti Sonata, K. 545. I worked hard on it and came to my lesson confident that I would be able to play it quickly and accurately, and I did. When I finished, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Gerber, that is the worst thing you have ever played for me.” It sounded cruel, but he was right; I had just gone for speed and accuracy and forgotten that I was playing a piece of music. He helped me learn to shape the piece so that even at rapid tempo it still made musical sense.

One incident that occurred during our relationship made a lasting impression on me. After a lesson, Piero told me that he had learned about a German musicologist named Wolfgang Boetticher (not to be confused with the cellist and conductor Wolfgang Boettcher) who had been invited to speak at a conference in the U.S. on Robert Schumann. There was no doubting Boetticher’s credentials as a Schumann scholar; he had edited the Henle Urtext of Schumann’s piano music. But Piero also knew that during the Nazi era Boetticher had worked for the government to help locate and identify collections of music and music materials owned by Jews so they could be confiscated. Apparently he was also a member of the S.S. Piero passed elements of the story along to his friend Anthony Lewis, then a regular columnist for the New York Times. After Lewis wrote a column about Boetticher’s background, the invitation was withdrawn. Piero was very proud and pleased, and I learned something about the strength and conviction of this  gentle man.

I had relatively little contact with Piero as musical scholar, although I still have my inscribed copy of the book of composers’ letters he edited. I did take a lesson once at Columbia University, where he was teaching, and I got to meet his office mate, Richard Taruskin, who later became a regular customer of my mail order record business. We had some conversations about Italian opera, a favorite topic of his and not one of mine. Although I had grown up in an opera household, and attended occasional Met Opera performances from the age of ten on, I had never become a real devotee of the opera. Piero did his best to convince me of the greatness of Verdi, but it has taken me until recent years to realize how right he was. I am still not convinced by his arguments in favor of Franz Liszt. Piero insisted that all of his music had to be taken seriously, but I still think Liszt wrote both masterpieces and bombastic trivia.

Eventually, not even Piero’s encouragement could keep me at the keyboard, and I reluctantly gave up my lessons, my piano study, and even my piano. But we remained in touch over the years, mostly with occasional phone calls. After he went to Baltimore to teach at Peabody, he told me with great pleasure that he had gone back to playing the piano in public and was performing at faculty recitals. Earlier this year, I spoke with him several times after our mutual friend Jacob Lateiner died, telling him that I was working on publishing a Lateiner memorial CD set. I last spoke with Piero a month before he died, telling him that publication of the Lateiner set was imminent. I regret that he never got to hear it.

I’m always in search of interesting material to listen to in my car on long drives with my wife. We like lots of different kinds of music, but her interest in audiobooks diminished after she suffered a brain injury. Her favorite listening has been Spike Jones and His City Slickers, but there’s only so much of that hilarity available.

Recently my car’s CD player started to fail, and I decided to replace rather than repair. Unfortunately the difficulty in obtaining a new unit which included a cassette player closed off a lot of possibilities in our old collections. But more possibilities opened up when I learned that my new player was capable of playing MP3 discs. I had a few of these but was able to play them only on my DVD player at home.

Searches on eBay opened up to me the world of OTR (“old time radio”) MP3s. Various dealers have an astonishing variety of old radio broadcasts, which they claim are public domain material and therefore free of copyright. (This doesn’t accord with my understanding of current U.S. copyright laws but wotthehell.) From the bewildering number of choices, I decided to try a few discs, one of which included 60 (!) programs of the old Groucho Marx “comedy quiz show” “You Bet Your Life.” They were big hits with both of us. Within a couple of months we had listened through the entire disc. As we neared its end, I did another search and found another seller (in the U.K.!) who was offering a disc with 209 “You Bet Your Life” programs. It arrived just before we exhausted the first disc. These listings come and go so rather than providing a link I’ll just suggest you try eBay if you’re interested.

There are also plenty of “You Bet Your Life” TV shows available on DVD. Some of them are very low priced “public domain” issues of variable quality. But the excellent Shout! Factory label has issued two boxes of programs. (The second one, “You Bet Your Life – The Lost Episodes” includes the appearance of Lord Buckley as a guest.) Some of the PD issues are of surprisingly good quality, but they include the now-boring De Soto-Plymouth commercials, edited out in the Shout! Factory issues. For most of the decade-plus run of the show, there were separate radio and TV programs every week. The Shout! Factory collections are the best ones, but if you’re willing to sit or fast-forward through the commercials the 13 episode collection “Comedy Legends Series – Volume 1” is good and cheap.

While we watched our way through a disc of TV shows during a recent vacation, I’ve been dealing mostly with the radio programs. When you listen to so many programs in such a short period of time (we’ve now heard over a hundred, some of them twice) patterns emerge. Groucho’s humor becomes pretty predictable. He will never pass up an opportunity to make politely suggestive remarks about women contestants, some of which would be considered offensive today. (He almost invariably refers to them as “girls.”) Another favorite type of joke consists of pretending he hasn’t heard a contestant correctly, or pretending he doesn’t understand an idiomatic expression and taking the words literally.

But damn, the guy is funny! He obviously got, and kept, the job because of the quickness of his wit, and it’s often pretty impressive. When his foil, George Fenneman (who also did announcements for “Dragnet”), got the chance, he could be rather funny himself. But he knew his role as straight man and performed it admirably.

One reason for the success of “You Bet Your Life” was the producers’ ingenious decision to record the programs in open-ended sessions and then edit them down to the desired length. On the MP3 discs, there are a few programs taken from unedited tapes, and it’s fascinating to hear the way the programs take shape. Groucho, freed by the knowledge that if a gag fizzled it would disappear, takes all kinds of chances. Plenty of them do fizzle. The editing is made plain when you are listening to a program with a readout of the elapsed time visible, and you can see how unequally the time is allotted to different pairs of contestants. Some of them get five minutes of air time, some fifteen.

The betting strategy is a constant source of amusement to me. In the classic radio shows, each pair of contestants was given $20 to start. They were then free to bet as much of their money as they wished on each of four questions. The couple which wins the most money then gets a chance to answer a big money question, for $1000 plus $500 for each week that the big prize hasn’t been won. Almost inevitably the contestants start by betting $10, obviously wanting to stay in the contest if they miss the question.

This makes me wonder if any of them had ever heard the program before. The questions in the first round are sometimes tricky but mostly quite easy. I answer most of them correctly except for ones dealing with current events. The contestants answer most of the questions correctly too. Sometimes they bomb out, and I remember one program where contestants wound up winning only $20 but still got the chance at the big money because the other two couples lost all their money. (When that happens, they get a chance to win $10 by answering a question like the famous “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”)

Do the math. If you start out winning $10 on your first question (total $30), and bet all you have on the three subsequent questions, your maximum winnings add up to $240 (and few bet all). If you start out winning $20 on your first question and bet all, your maximum winnings are $360. Since few contestants who miss any question wind up with the highest score anyway, it would have made sense to bet everything on each question. Sometimes I feel like shouting at these poor people, almost all of whom are dead by now anyway. The “big money” questions tend to be rather difficult; while I haven’t been keeping score I’d say they are answered correctly less than half the time.

The compilations we’ve been listening to aren’t ideally prepared. They aren’t strictly chronological (easiest to track by the amount of money offered in the final question), and the sound quality is variable. But they are almost always intelligible, which is all that really counts. It’ll be a while before we get through episode 209 on the current disc, but we’ll be sad when we do.

Recently my appetite for jazz and blues recordings, going back to my mid-teens, seems to have increased exponentially. As a result I have been taking advantage of some wonderful opportunities to acquire jazz and blues CDs in large quantities at very small prices. Over the next few weeks I will be writing about some of these acquisitions. Right now, though, I’m working on a couple of mysteries presented by one segment of a big box.

The History label, one of several such projects from German CD companies taking advantage of European laws on sound copyright, has issued quite a number of genuinely historical compilations of both classical and non-classical material. Some years ago I acquired History’s “From Swing to Bebop” when I bought a large CD collection. It consisted of 40 CDs, in two-disc slim-paks collected into a (rather flimsy) box. I listened all the way through the set, enjoyed most of it, and kept it. (It now lives in my vacation home, on Cape Cod, where it often serves as dinner music.)

Not long ago, while browsing through jazz and blues CD boxed sets on Amazon, I ran across another History 40-disc set, “Nothing But the Blues.” Someone was offering it at a quite reasonable price. Assuming that it was out of print–which does seem to be the case–I bought it promptly and have been gradually listening my way through it.

One of the two-disc boxes particularly attracted my attention: “Night Time Blues,” including one disc each of Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. They are both favorites of mine. History’s two-disc boxes (which may have been available separately, and do show up that way as used items) include little booklets with listings, brief program notes, and dates and personnel for each recording, very necessary information for my inquiring mind.

On two of the Memphis Minnie selections, one from 1935 and the other from 1936, she is accompanied by a pianist identified in the credits as “Black Bop.” This mystified me. And I was curious, too, because whoever he is “Black Bop” is a pretty hot pianist.

As he was indeed. It turns out that “Black Bop” is actually just a silly typo for “Black Bob” Hudson. “Black Bob” is described by allmusic as a “ragtime-influenced blues pianist,” which he certainly was. There seems to be little biographical information about Hudson, except that he had a banjo-playing brother named Ed who also recorded widely, often in the same sessions as his brother. Both were members of the Memphis Nighthawks; Bob was one of the Chicago Rhythm Kings. These are both groups I’ll have to investigate. Bob also recorded with a number of other well-known blues performers, including Lil Johnson and Charley West.

It’s a bit of a surprise to hear someone who plays that well whose work I was completely unfamiliar with. But my listening through jazz and blues sets and looking at the personnel listings have led me to many such experiences in recent years. It was in a compilation of Commodore label jazz recordings that I first noticed the saxophonist Don Byas, who has become one of my all-time favorite jazz performers even though until I was in my early sixties I’d never heard of him. Now I’ll be looking for more of the ragtime-influenced hot piano of Black Bob.

Another odd credit appeared on one of the Ma Rainey items. Most of this great singer’s recordings are decidedly in the “urban blues” style, and the ones on this disc feature such well known jazz musicians as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Thomas A. (“Georgia Tom”) Dorsey (later to become a famous composer of gospel songs). However, the first two, and earliest tracks, “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” and “Farewell, Daddy Blues,” are credited to “Guitar Duet, Possibly Milas Pruitt And Another.” This piqued my interest especially when I listened to the recordings, which I don’t recall hearing before. The guitar accompaniments sounded so much like the famous “Lead Belly” (Huddie Ledbetter) playing his twelve-string guitar that I was startled. (Incidentally, the sound on the CD is much better than on the link I’m providing.)

The first result of my research was, surprisingly, to rule out Lead Belly. If you know his work, and you hear these tracks, you’ll be astonished to learn that they are not his playing. They  so strongly resemble his style and sound that it’s hard to believe he’s not playing. But in 1924, Lead Belly was still in a Louisiana prison, and it’s not likely that he was released to make recordings with Ma Rainey.

However, Milas Pruitt did often perform as a member of a guitar duet. His partner was his identical twin brother, Miles Pruitt. While some sources claim Rainey’s accompanist on this record was Papa Charlie Jackson, most credit the Pruitt twins, and it’s quite believable that two guitarists playing in unison would produce a sound that resembles a twelve-string guitar. How they got Lead Belly’s style down so well is something I doubt I’ll ever learn. Actually, its very unlikely that they got the style from Lead Belly at all. They were from Kansas City, not Louisiana. (They also made recordings with another major early blues star, Ida Cox, and with other singers of the time.)

Well, here I am in my mid-sixties, still learning more and more about the music I love. As I continue to explore the wealth of new material coming into my collection, I’m sure I’ll be finding more new favorites. Watch this space.

Peggy Lee - Black Coffee
Peggy Lee: Black Coffee. Verve B0003093-02

Found this one at a genuine garage sale, one of eight CDs I bought for a dollar each. Most of them were for sale but this one I wanted to listen to. I also liked the packaging, which reproduces the original Decca LP jacket on the front and—as I could tell, since the disc wasn’t sealed — the original 10” issue jacket also, along with the program notes from both editions (they are almost identical) both in microtype and in readable size. I remember Peggy Lee from when I was very young. I had a 78 of her “Manana” (a novelty song, insulting to Mexicans, which she both wrote and sang) and I listened to her often through the years since. I liked an expression from the new jacket blurb, “a glamorous beacon whose sultry voice gave her performances a shimmering eroticism.” Yes. That same paragraph claims that the original 1953 10” edition of “Black Coffee” was the first jazz project by any “mainstream” singer. Maybe.

The reissue notes by Will Friedland, “jazz reviewer for The New York Sun” (not exactly a prestige gig), go a lot further. “Peggy Lee’s album ‘Black Coffee’ not only may be the greatest album of her career, it is also one of the top ten jazz vocal albums of all time.” Sorry, Will, that’s going miles too far. It’s a good album, yes, and it might be Lee’s own favorite and even her best album. But I can easily name ten better jazz vocal albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, or Billie Holliday, among others. In fact, any Billie Holliday album is better jazz than this one, with the sole exception of her very last, “Lady in Satin,” with its hideous arrangements. And what makes this a “concept album”? That all the songs have something to do with love? That they’re all accompanied by jazz ensembles? (There are two different ones, one for the original 1953 10” album, a completely different one for the supplementary 1956 tracks.) I don’t buy the idea. And if you want to hear a supposed mainstream pop singer singing jazz, try the live album of Frank Sinatra’s Australian tour with a group led by Red Norvo. That’s jazz!

Too much negativity here. I enjoyed hearing “Black Coffee” quite a bit. Lee sings beautifully throughout, if not very jazzily. The two different ensembles play quite well, although there aren’t any adventurous solos. (No room, with the longest track running 3:23. Each track had to fit on one side of a 10” 78 or a 45.) The format of the reissue is entertaining, especially to those of us who remember what a Decca LP label looked like.

But back to negativity for the close. This CD contains 35 minutes of music. That’s a travesty. The program notes mention that the 1956 supplementary session for the 12” version of the album resulted in six tracks, four of which were included on the LP. Where are the other two? I’m all for reissuing LPs on CD in a way which maintains the integrity of the original recording concept, so I’m glad this is not a “Best of Peggy Lee” CD with material from half a dozen different albums. But with 45 minutes of blank space to play with, Verve’s producers could have included the other two 1956 tracks and virtually any other complete Peggy Lee Decca album on the same CD. And they should have.