A Hip King

‘Now if someone tells you in dreamtime that you better do something, you better do it.’
— Abdullah Ibrahim

I see the grey of his hair first as he walks up. He does the namaste greeting and then sits down, much more frail than the last time, at a beautifully miked Yamaha piano in the upstairs theatre. The old stained glass windows of the church it once was are boarded up, but the light of late summer is crashing against and around them, outlining the vaulted shapes. The concert begins at 4 pm.

His hands are tremulous when not on the keyboard. Often he takes his right hand away entirely and touches the corners of his mouth. But he still hits the piano hard when he needs to. Hands trembling above the keys, then smashing down on them, even though the muscle mass has been winnowed away. I see the hands, the hands through which so much has flowed, reflected in the Yamaha. He starts to play Blues for a Hip King, disembodied fragments of it anyway, and my throat closes a little.

After the performance, he takes in the applause, then shuts one ear with his hand and sings a strange, tuneless song that sounds like a spiritual. At one point he stops and seems to glare at an usher who has perhaps opened the doors too early. People are coming out of the main theatre down below, a new musical called Langarm, its posters all over town reading: ‘He was white. She was not. They broke the law to dance’.

The maestro glares at the usher, one hand at his ear, the other palm lifted as if to say: What the – ? Wie’s die moegoe? Still a difficult man, still a badass. ‘A jazz pianist so excessively bitter, rueful and astringent’, wrote Lewis Nkosi in 1966, ‘that anyone able to endure his music for any length of time must often feel compromised in some obscure reluctant corner of the heart’.

The maestro resumes singing, and I can just make out some lines about crossing over the River Jordan. Then he walks off the stage and out, going down into the bright sunshine.

Into Darkness / Darkness Pass