A couple of exuberant people who have bettered my understanding of music passed away this April. One of them I got to know well and considered a friend, the pianist and arranger George Mesterhazy. The other, gambler Amarillo Slim, I never met and at face value has absolutely nothing to do with music. But when I was running in circles musically, his example served to clarify connections that were only half-made in my mind. I'd say that he and George held in common the belief that a winning hand is useless if not played with conviction.
I happened upon the story of Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston about three years ago. I was at a bar, on one of those theme nights that forewarn of categorized music and dance. The theme was "60s Blues and Soul," and so the room filled with one grainy, beautiful song after the other. I asked someone nearby if they knew who was currently being played, and over the crowd noise and the drinks I thought I heard him say Amarillo Slim.
The name was familiar to me. It surely sounded right. I looked it up, recognized I had the wrong Slim (the true one was Memphis), but it was too late: I was already fascinated. I learned that Amarillo made his way up the ranks by traveling the south in search of high stakes poker games -- this kind of honest, illegal living has all but died out. Wearing ostrich-leather boots with the card symbols sewed on them, he won the World Series of Poker four times. The first thing to do when at a poker table is look for a sucker, he said. If you don't see a sucker than get up and leave, because you're it.
I rarely play cards, but what appeals to me in Amarillo Slim is the same that appeals to me in music. I like music as a kind of trick, and the trick as a measure of personality. I like music that is getting away with something, such as unguarded feeling or simplicity, that shouldn't be got away with. If there's a pulse behind them, the cards and the chord changes could mean less. Seeing someone who doesn't know exactly what they're doing and doesn't care, choosing rather to read the room and move on feeling, can be very exhilarating. Bob Dylan comes to mind, maybe the greatest bluffing songwriter of all time. But even he would tell you that you can't just sit at the table and smirk your way through. Bob and Slim had been at it since they were kids. It takes a lot of practice to play dumb successfully.
George Mesterhazy's influence was much more direct. I met George last summer during his run of shows with Paula West at Hotel Nikko's Rrazz Room. I lived close by and was going there all the time to play the lobby piano (this'll be the last time I take you to a lobby, dear reader). Between sets George would walk over and good-naturedly give feedback on what I was playing. Sometimes he'd write down notes for me to take home, and always he'd extend the offer for more advice should I be around the next day. I remember him relating music to architecture - the eye likes parallel lines in architecture and the ear likes it in music. Along with his matchless energy for teaching, this has stayed with me the strongest.
After the residency at Hotel Nikko he went back to the East Coast. We kept in touch occasionally, and then in April I saw his picture in the newspaper. There was no giveaway in the headline, and unaware that he had died, I started to read the article out loud, cheerfully, to a group of people I was with. Two paragraphs in, I finally catch on with the sentence on his passing at age 58.
Reading a newspaper aloud is something I don't think I've ever done before. But George was that kind of person, his enthusiasm wore off on you. No doubt I was lucky to have run into him when and where I did. This time, though, I'll take a cue from Slim and say luck has nothing to do with it.
Listen here: http://soundcloud.com/d-hunt-1/nikko