Ears Alford was one of my favorite piano players.  His right name was Giles, but everybody called him Ears, because when he was backing up a jazz group or a singer, he never missed anything.  Horn players who've played with Ears tell me you couldn't play a wrong note with him. Before you were finished making a mistake, he would find a couple of chords to play with it that would make what you played sound like a brilliant idea.  The word among the musicians at Tiny's Tavern was that Ears could hear dust settling and paint drying. Roy Eldridge once said Ears could hear a rat piss on cotton.  He was one of the best accompanists I ever ran across.  I picked up a lot of good ideas from him.

     Ears did have one problem.  For some reason he didn't think anyone liked his playing!  No matter what encouraging words anybody might say to him, he was sure that, in the opinion of the musicians who counted, he was falling short.  He hated to take solos.  He could play good ones, but he never enjoyed playing them in public because he worried that they weren't going to come out right.  If they did come out right, he still thought they weren't good enough.  He was convinced that nobody liked the way he played.  No amount of praise could change his mind.

     Bandleaders who hired Ears would naturally give him some solo space, but it made Ears suffer.  It was terrible to watch him writhe and groan while soloing.  He always looked absolutely miserable.  And even during his applause, he would look down at the keyboard and often groan out loud.  There didn't seem to be any help for it.  Ears lived in a continual state of misery about his playing, and that was that.

     None of this kept Ears from finding work.  He was a little too weird for the classy east-side rooms, but he didn't like the music in most of those places anyway.  He preferred the jazz clubs, uptown, on the West Side, and in the Village.  The customers in those joints weren’t put off by grimaces and groans from the piano player.  They came to hear the music.

     Jingle Belden always used Ears whenever he had a gig.  Ears liked it better when Jingle could book something for six or seven pieces, so he could hide in the rhythm section.  But Jingle often booked small rooms that couldn't pay much.  He would go in with just himself on tenor, with piano and drums.  Gigs like that were tough for Ears, because he had to work without a bass player, and he had to solo on nearly every tune.

     I was working a single as the house piano player at Remy's, a small jazz club in the Village, and Jingle came in there for a couple of weeks with a trio.  He hired Ears and a drummer named Ordway, a kid from Brooklyn who played pretty well.  On the second night they were there, Ears got into a situation that caused him to suffer worse than anything I'd ever seen.  He was in the middle of a solo on Skylark, groaning and sweating while playing some beautiful stuff.  I was sitting behind him, trying to see how he was voicing his chords, and I saw him look over at the front table.

     Sitting there was a heavy-set guy, all alone.  I was surprised to see that the guy was wearing an expression of absolute disgust.  When Ears noticed him, he was visibly disturbed.  I could see that he tried not to look at him, but his eyes kept going back over there, making sure it was no mistake.

     The man looked like the proverbial guy who found a turd in his lunchpail.  His nose curled upward, his mouth curled downward, and his head shook slightly from side to side with an involuntary movement.  He never took his eyes off Ears, and his expression never changed.

     Ears forced himself to concentrate on the keyboard. He played even more inventively than usual, finding exquisite chords, and turning runs into brilliant melodic adventures.  The rest of the audience responded with rapt attention, and at the end of his solo, with enthusiastic applause.  But Ears's attention was drawn relentlessly to the front table.  The man was slowly applauding, but the expression of disgust on his face was even more pronounced.  Ears withered visibly.

     Jingle led the trio through several more tunes, giving Ears plenty of solo space.  In spite of the fact that the man in the front row was clearly driving him crazy, Ears played wonderfully on every tune.  During the applause at the end of the set, he hurried off the bandstand, and I could see he was nearly in tears.  I followed him into the dressing room to tell him how great he sounded, before I went back out to play my own set.

     I found Ears crouched on the dressing room sofa, swearing, and punching the cushions. I tried to offer compliments.  "That was great, Ears! Wonderful set! Everybody loved it."

     "Did you see that sonofabitch?  Nothing was good enough for him!  I did everything I knew how to do, and he just sat there with that goddam look on his face!  Jesus, I should just give up, and go get a day gig!"

     There was a knock on the dressing room door.  I opened it and was surprised to find the man from the front table standing there.  He still wore the same expression of absolute disgust.

     "May I speak to Mr. Alford?" he asked courteously.  Then, seeing Ears on the sofa behind me, the man stepped in and addressed him:

     "Mr. Alford," he said, without changing his facial expression, "I just wanted to tell you that I have never been so deeply moved by anyone's playing.  You are a genius, sir."

     The man stepped forward and grabbed Ears's hand, shook it fervently, then turned and left.  His facial expression still hadn't changed a bit through the whole encounter.  Ears and I looked at each other and we both began to laugh.

     "Ears," I said, "the poor sonofabitch's face is frozen that way!  He absolutely loved the way you play!  He can't help the way he looks."

     Ears sat for a minute, trying to take it in. Finally, he shook his head and said, "Jesus, wouldn't you think he'd sit back a couple of rows where the light don’t shine on him?"

copyright 2001