Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Make it Look Like a Tux

This morning, my wife banged on the bathroom door pretty urgently and when I opened up, she was holding the section of the paper with the obits in it. "I thought you should see this." My beloved godfather/piano teacher and bandmate of my Dad, Teddy Zee as he was known professionally, died on Sunday. He was 87.

Teddy had a larger than life personality that impacted our whole family. I'm not sure exactly when Pop met him, but by the time I came around, they were playing gigs on what seemed like every weekend, usually at Churchill Valley Country Club, or just "Churchill," as we called it in our house. It was just part of the family life - Pop was "going to play," and often me or one of my brothers shined his shoes for him and/or loaded his bass and amp into the car while he was getting ready. If the band's suits had to look especially spiffy, the order from Teddy was to "make it look like tux."

At the club, they'd play a continuous set, seguing one song into another. I mentioned this once to a sax player I met who had played with Teddy and he referred to the band's groove as "the businessman's bounce," where the tempo stayed the same but the melodies would change. It's a tradition that dates back to the lavish clubs in New York, like the El Morroco. (We have an album where the band does just this - going from one song to the next.) Years later it occurred to me how there's a skill that the band needs to keep this music swinging and not make it just bland background music. These cats had it going on.

One of the things that kept it lively was Teddy. My dad has tapes from the gigs and you can hear Teddy makes cracks mid-song, keeping the music lively, cheering on dancers and simply creating a festive atmosphere. He was like that offstage, too, lighting up a room when he came in. His laugh became part of the repetoire with me and my brother Tom, a two-syllable "huh-HUH!" that was sort of like an Ed Norton chuckle.

Because of that spirit, I remember always feeling like I should be cutting up when I had piano lessons with him. I was always looking for a joke and feeling hyper - something I see in Donovan when he takes forever between songs as he practices the piano. Teddy once recorded a piano lesson (there was always a tape recorder around) where I was especially wound up, and Tom and I listened to it a lot. We were especially amused with a section where I stood up and pointed at the metronome. "SIT DOWN," Teddy barked. "You're not going to use the metronome for quite a bit." [It's all in the delivery. I can still hear it in my head.]

He later bought me a metronome. He also gave me a lot of albums, including a Mongo Santamaria album and a Gerry Mulligan 10" which I still own.

When one of my cousins got married in 1998, the reception was at Churchill and Teddy played solo during the dinner. He was walked through the room before his set started, Pop stopped him and I talked to him. It was the first time I had seen him in over a decade, and the band with Pop had broken up about that long ago.  Later we made eye contact as I walked past the piano and he stopped the tune he was playing and launched into "The Way We Were" with a big smile on his face.

I later asked him if he could play "La Vie en Rose," which had been one of the songs at my wedding. "How'zat go," he asked. After I hummed about six notes, he said, "oh yeah," and launched into it.

His wife, who our family always referred to as "Chip" back in the day, passed away about two months ago and I stopped by the funeral home to pay respects. He seemed pretty lost without her and he wasn't in the best of health. But the thing that I took away from that was that he still encouraged me to sit down and the piano and run scales to keep my chops up. A few days later I did, and I'm glad because it wasn't as easy as I thought.

That's how I'll remember him.


Johnny said...

Nice tribute, Mike. Teddy did light up any room he walked into--especially if he'd pull out that serious, honkin' accordion, working it like it was an extension of his body--which he did on occasion in our living room at Landview St.

James Sidel said...

Beautiful post Sir.