In the spring of 1999, I was a pianist/singer on board the Carnival Cruise Ship “The MS Imagination.” This was a ship that frequently visited the tropics and it was SPRING BREAK. It was in this crazy setting that one of the most amazing events in my career took place.
The night started out as many often did on a “party cruise.” It was a busy night in my lounge, and I had a full bar of mostly college age passengers. In the midst of the mayhem I noticed that there was an old man in a wheel chair seated on the right side of me & my piano. He was with a small group of people, and they were watching me intently and seemed mildly interested in what I was doing as well the activity of the crowd—-yet they weren’t really “Involved in the action.”
My first cynical thought was: “UGH. They’ll probably end up complaining that I was too loud.” BUT, as I began to notice them I saw them looking at me and they all clapped as I finished.
(The “Old man in the wheelchair” gave me the classic “Thumbs up”.)
Being the “spontaneous guy” I am, and feeling quite relieved to have gotten the approval of the more “conservative looking guests” in the crowd, I decided to address “the man in the wheelchair” and his group.
(I also saw a very good opportunity to possibly set up some “good comments/positive feedback” later!! This may sound cynical, but as anyone knows who has ever worked for a corporation, getting good feedback from the customer is always a plus, and it’s almost always the older guests who take the time to mention “Who and what they liked” and who they didn’t!)
So, in my most diplomatic manner, I addressed the man in the wheelchair and asked him “If he was having a good time?” (He was thankfully!) and of course,”What did he want to hear?”
He smiled and said: “Can you play any Gershwin songs?”
Well I immediately felt like a fool !!
Don’t get me wrong—- I love George Gershwin!! But, it certainly didn’t feel like the right time to play that kind of music, and his request caught me off guard. I thought to myself: “You idiot! Now you’ve done it!! Never ask them what they want to hear!!”
My mind raced desperately trying to think of a song that college kids would tolerate.The only one I could think of on such short notice was “Summertime,” so off I went.
Now, “Summertime” is a great song: but its a song with a slow tempo!! As soon as I had committed to doing the song, it hit me: “Oh No!! You can’t do a slow song now!!”
So I made the split decision to do a much more “up tempo version” hoping that I wouldn’t lose too much momentum with the younger crowd and yet still achieve my objective in giving “the old man” what he wanted.
Luckily when I finished, he and his family clapped and luckily the crowd seemed OK with it. “Mission accomplished” I thought, and gave myself a mental “pat on the back.”
But, I wasn’t out of the woods yet!
Before I could start another song, the “old man in the wheelchair” said:
“Well, that was great!! However, the Gershwin piece I really wish you would play is “Rhapsody in Blue”———-Do you know that one?”
Now I had been playing “Rhapsody in Blue” in its entire version for over 5 years! In fact, it had been one of my favorite pieces to play when I WASN’T singing & was doing my instrumental set, and I had it down pretty well. But “Rhapsody in Blue”?? On a spring break night?
Normally, I would have said no. Don’t get me wrong: I WANTED to play this piece for him———but before I could answer him back, he said:
“Well, I know that’s not the right piece for right now. Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and you can play it for me then?”
My heart was touched. So in mad moment, I decided to “put it to the audience.” I told them:
“Listen everyone: This gentleman wants to hear me play Rhapsody in Blue,and I’m gonna play it for him. Does anybody mind?”
To my great surprise,they all cheered and I heard cries of “Do it man” and “Go ahead” etc.Then I realized “HA! They don’t know what they’re agreeing to!!” So I issued the following “warning”:
“Now look” I said, “This is a loooooong piece! Its about 15 minutes long!!! AND—-there’s NO SINGING IN IT!! BUT, I promise: When I’m done,we’ll go back to “The sing along”—soooo—are you with me???
Well,they all said “yes”—So off I went.
Realizing that I might lose some of the crowd if I didn’t say anything and “just played” for 15 minutes, I decided to “Narrate the music” and give little descriptions for each new section in the piece. It was something I had never done, and it was completely spontaneous. Luckily I pulled it off!!
In fact,I NEVER played it better than I did that night!! So the kids got it, and to my great surprise they all stayed!!
When I finished, the whole room cheered! But the real words of praise came from the “old man in the wheelchair,” who, when the applause stopped told me and the whole audience the following words:
“Brian—— thank you!! You know, I saw the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in New York in Aeolian Hall way back in 1924——–and you know something? You played that better than George Gershwin did!! Thank you SO MUCH for playing that for me.You made my cruise.”
After saying this to me, his wife (who was pushing him in the wheelchair) thanked me, as did the other members in his group who were members of his family.
As his wife wheeled by me, she whispered to me that he was “her husband” and “they had brought him on the cruise because of his age and his bad health”. She then smiled at me and echoed his sentiment. “Thank you so much” she said.
What a compliment!! Whether it was true or not,I was on Cloud 9 the whole rest of the night!
The next morning, I got up feeling very happy and satisfied. As I was heading to the “Crew cafe” for some coffee, I saw some commotion in the hallways. The hotel manager and several officers were walking around, talking on “Walkie-Talkies” and people were rushing past me towards the gangway. As I looked in that direction I saw the VERY FAMILY of “The old man in the wheelchair” standing by the entrance———but he wasn’t there!!
I then noticed that there were medics on the scene, and as I got closer, I heard the telltale noises of a helicopter approaching. I looked at the people in the group standing by the door, and they were all visibly upset. Fearing the worst,I asked the Hotel Manager “what had happened” and she told me brusquely that “a passenger had died the previous night” and that “the helicopter was taking his family home along with his body.”
As you might imagine, this was quite a shock!
I looked over at his family, and for a second I thought “maybe I should go over and say something”———–but none of them would look at me, or anyone else!
They all had their heads down.
Only his wife looked back at me for a split second. She said nothing and only wiped the tears from her face. I realized that I needed to keep my distance and let them have this moment. As I walked away,all the elation I had felt the night before was instantly overwhelmed with heaviness and pity for the family.
Today, 15 years later, as I write this down, I can’t help but feel struck by the obvious notion that I had performed for the “old man in the wheelchair” on his last night on this planet and had helped him to relive a moment from his childhood, and a very special moment at that. It truly was a lesson for me about the nature of life: How unpredictable it is, and how events that are completely impossible to plan and that seem risky or minor at the time can end up being so important later.
I took a risk playing that piece that night——–thank goodness I did!