A fine romance

It was a few Saturdays ago in the Sheraton Grand, but it could be any Saturday, in any joint, in any city. That’s the bitch of it, and the beauty. The house-band gig is what you do with it, and what these guys had done was a no-frills trio, smooth and dependable. Piano, bass, drums. Tuxedoes, comfortable shoes. They played the open, carpet-muted room in the empty hours after dinner when nobody really listens and you can try, for better and worse, some harmonic experiments with the modal Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter essentials, or a thumping hip-hop variation on Thelonious Monk’s cubist lead lines. And when that gets tired, you can fall back on show-tune standards that actually mean things to people, like the silver-haired woman who sat low and alone in one of the puffy couches that evening, pitching requests.

“It’s the one you played a few songs ago,” she was saying. “You opened up the last set with it.”

“‘There Will Never Be Another You?’” asked the drummer, ostensibly the bandleader.

“That’s the one,” she said.

The piano player suggested trying it as a ballad. “Sure,” the drummer said, and he brought out his brushes. They slid into the tune, and the woman said, “Oh, yeah.” She worked her drink a little and tucked herself into whatever the song had to remind her, which seemed serious. The room slowly filled up with other sounds—the faraway clank of dishes, the ethereal volleys of female laughter from somewhere else, the blare of a football game on televisions mounted over the nearby bar, with spasms of shouting and applause from the bartenders—but the band and the woman weren’t distracted.

She applauded at the end, and said, “Wow, that was a thrill. That was very good, thank you. It’s like you guys dropped in from another plane.”

“We got a hip listener over here,” said the drummer. The trio gently goofed around. It started and stopped a few times, staying loose, deciding. A few more solitary hotel guests emerged, nursing laptops and repelling the advances of the circulating bar staff. The woman kept listening. Finally, the drummer signaled the others to take a break and came out from behind his kit. He got to talking with the woman and sat down on the couch opposite hers.

“I teach music in the elementary schools,” he was saying. “In fact, did you see that little girl? She’s one of my students.”

“Oh, yeah,” the silver-haired woman said. “She looooved you.”

Their exchange continued for a while, evenly, until the woman said something that perked the drummer up.

“You sing?” he asked, eagerly, and just loudly enough for the other musicians to hear. The woman got nervous and shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said. “I said it’s a blessing.”

“Oh, I thought you said you sing.”