SI Vault
Joan Ackermann-Blount
August 30, 1982
The lady would just at soon play centerfield, but when given a whack at playing the organ at Three Rivers, she gave it her all, zinging the Phillies with a diminished seventh and some minor thirds
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August 30, 1982

Really Getting Organized

The lady would just at soon play centerfield, but when given a whack at playing the organ at Three Rivers, she gave it her all, zinging the Phillies with a diminished seventh and some minor thirds

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I was disappointed to find out that pipe organs aren't used at ball parks any more. I had hoped to locate a huge rickety old pipe organ, full of nests of little burrowing animals, with trapdoors, winged attachments, chutes, richly aged ivory keys, stops made of rosewood and flags and pigeons at the top that flapped in silvery currents of bellowed wind. No such luck.

Electric organs are pipeless; in some the tones are produced by electromagnets and rotating disks. The more electric organs have gotten, the less organic they sound. Personally, I can't stand the sound of an electric organ. When I hear one it feels as if a vibrating fluorescent object is using the top of my head for a runway, or someone just turned on tiny TV sets in my teeth. It's a fast-food sound; you might as well stuff polyester potato chips in your ears.

If pizza parlors can afford big pipe organs, why can't ball parks? Giant theater pipe organs are the latest fad in pizza, according to The Wall Street Journal. In the past few years some 60 instruments have been restored and installed as the main attraction at huge family pizza joints. One pizza parlor in Grand Rapids has a Wurlitzer that can emit more than 60,000 sound effects, including a whistling, hissing locomotive, chirping crickets and roaring lions.

Why have a digital growl when you can have a natural roar?

I think I should explain that I don't play the organ. I play ragtime piano. When I asked the Pirates if they would let me play their organ during a game, it was really because I wanted to play ragtime. It seemed the perfect match: ragtime and major league baseball both having gotten started around the same time, in the late 1800s. I thought playing during a game would be an appropriate step in my varied and often strange keyboard career.

At the beginning I spent about a year and a half wandering into country inns and saying, "I play ragtime piano," mostly to see what would happen, just to feel my mouth moving that way. That was before I could play very well at all. "I play ragtime piano." What a thing to say. If anyone responded, expressed interest in hiring me, I would say I was all booked up at the time. Years later, when I could say the sentence convincingly, without my voice cracking and without betraying my fear that someone might jump out of the wall, point a finger at me and cry "Impostor!", I could play fairly well.

My first job was at a bar in Canaan, Conn., where the piano looked as if it had been ravaged by an ivory hunter. The naked keys looked like rotting wooden teeth that had been steeped for years in inkwells. The piano was also missing a few essential boards. My music rested up against the hammers so that when I played, the hammers went "thwap, thwap, thwap" against the back of the music book. One old man, drunk, with his head resting on the bar, cheered even though I produced chiefly percussive sounds. He was looking toward the wall, not at me.

Then came my fish period. I played Saturdays at a bar in the Blackberry River Inn in Norfolk, Conn. There was an aquarium next to the piano and much of my playing was geared to the guppies, goldfish, and sunfish that prowled through the eerie green light. When one night a small carp floated lifeless to the top of the tank, I felt partly responsible. I played Scott Joplin's most Brahmslike slow waltzes. The first time I ever heard myself referred to as "the musician" was when I was hired to play at a fancy private party and someone said loudly, "It's behind the musician," referring to an enormous fish that was mounted on the wall behind me. It attracted many of the partygoers throughout the evening, eliciting admiring remarks.

I played ragtime at weddings, on beaches, at a General Electric conference in Saratoga where I had to dress up as a Gibson Girl and someone else dressed up in an animal costume came and thwacked me with its large green tail (Was it an alligator—a dinosaur?). I played a white baby grand in the Emerald Room of the Berkshire Hilton in Pittsfield, Mass., where the pedals detached themselves and retreated under the piano. My body sank lower and lower as my feet pursued them until my friend Sandy Lord crept underneath and reattached the pedals. I played a pink upright at a campground, where my husband was given a lobster and baked potato at half price. I played at gatherings for senior citizens who sometimes knew words to rags I didn't even know had words, and at Miss Ruby's restaurant in West Stock-bridge, Mass., where Andre Previn sat so close to me I could have dropped a bean down the back of his shirt.

I'll play just about anywhere except where people have come for the purpose of hearing me play; my hands shake too much when that happens. I don't want people to focus on me; I want to focus on them, to wrap them in strange textures, to wander around the room veiled in notes. I like to contribute to a din, to wrestle with it and augment its tones. Ragtime embellishes conversation wonderfully; it can roll steadily through the most raucous smoke-filled noise and not suffer a bit from being ignored. It's always both gayer and sadder than anyone it sidles up to. For all its razzle-dazzle glitter, I think ragtime is really just another form of the blues.

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