Campbell heard a piano, and that was all she wrote. Any time Brun
heard a piano, that was all she ever wrote. The piano was Brun's
one true love, and when it called him, the boy dropped whatever he
was doing and attended.
particular piano summoned Brun, he was walking down the main
street of Oklahoma City with his friend Sam Mueller. The
afternoon before, Brun had dared Sam to run off with him for the
day and go to the fair in Oklahoma City, thirty miles down the
road from El Reno, where the boys lived. Sam's father, the town
doctor, was forever warning his son he'd find trouble associating
with that Campbell boy, and you know what the effect of that was.
For his part, Brun figured Dr. Mueller for a decent old guy, and
saw no reason to make him a liar.
that morning, Brun and Sam hopped a freight. Brun had been
bringing home good money, playing piano for tips in restaurants
and hotel lobbies, and he and Sam could have ridden in the
passenger coach like gentlemen. But no point throwing away money
you could otherwise spend at the fair.
sidewalks in Oklahoma City looked solid with people. As the boys
worked their way through the crowds toward the fairgrounds, Brun
set his mouth into just the right degree of sneer so as not to
gawk. More plug hats and swallowtail coats than he'd ever seen
before in one place at one time, and though it was only eleven in
the morning, some women were gussied up so you'd think they were
on their way to a fancy ball. The boys walked past a hotel
grander by degrees than anything in El Reno, saw restaurants with
white linen, gleaming glasses, and silverware shining in the
sunlight. Shops of every sort, groceries, coffee and tea, shoe
stores, leather goods, men's clothing, women's. "Hey, Brun," Sam
shouted. "I bet you can buy anything you'd ever want in Oklahoma
the piano sang to Brun. Soft, but loud enough to drown out
anything more Sam might have had to say, and Sam right with it.
The music made the shops disappear, the hotels, the restaurants,
the crowds of people. Picture a string between the piano and
Brun's neck. The boy crossed the street, came close to getting
hit by a horse and wagon, never heard the old farmer up behind the
horse cuss him out for a young whippersnapper, never realized that
by the time Sam got across, trying to follow, Brun was already
lost in the crowd.
the melody to a large music store, ARMSTRONG-BYRD in white letters
on a glittery black background above the door, then stood a moment
and goggled through the open doorway like the half-grown Reuben he
was. Rows of shiny brass horns, clarinets, accordions ran down
the sides of the store; guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles
covered the back wall. Music stores in El Reno couldn't hold a
candle to this. And all the while, the piano called.
the door, a woman considerably ample in the bosom and
hindquarters, and a little older than women like to say they are,
struggled to play a religious dirge on the house piano. Brun
walked inside to get a better look. The woman's cheeks were on
fire; water ran down in front of her ears. The boy nearly laughed
counter, to Brun's left, a clerk held up a small wax cylinder
under a customer's nose, then slipped the cylinder onto a tiny
mechanical contraption. Brun had heard tell of these talking
machines, but this was the first he'd seen. He edged a couple of
steps closer. Music, a band playing a snappy two-step, poured
through the little black and gold horn, scratchy and thin, but to
Brun it seemed a miracle. The customer, a stringy man with arms
and legs at odd angles that made him look like some sort of human
spider, pushed his wide-brimmed leather hat back off his forehead
and shook his head side-to-side in wonder.
finished playing her hymn, gathered up the sheet music like it
might've been Holy Scripture, and waddled toward the counter to
pay. Brun quickly moved sidewise, sat on the bench, and began to
play the same tune he'd just heard coming through the phonograph
horn. People all around stopped talking and looked at the boy.
The spider-man laughed and poked a finger into the clerk's vest.
"How about you sell me that kid, Marcus? He sounds a whole lot
better than this here phonograph of yours."
considered that his playing might be a bother to the clerk, but
when somebody praised his piano work, he likely wouldn't have
stopped if his pants were on fire. With all his energy, he swung
into “Hot Time in the Old Town,” playing it march-style, pounding
the keys for all he was worth. People commenced to sing; he saw
men nod approval. A pretty young woman in a frilly white blouse
slipped him a wink that nearly threw him off the beat. When he
hit the final notes, there were loud whistles of approval, and
everyone in the store applauded. But if Brun Campbell had any
say, the show was not over. A quick transition, and now he was
playing “You’re a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down.”
in that Armstrong-Byrd ceased. Brun had an audience of
nigh-onto twenty. A man and a woman beside the piano kicked up
their heels. Brun gave them “The Band Played On;” people whooped
and shouted and clapped their hands. The boy already had his next
two tunes in mind, but when he felt a sharp tap on his shoulder,
his hands froze on the keyboard. The dancers stared over their
shopkeeper, Brun figured, aggravated at the way “sales had gone
south since he'd sat down at the piano. He turned half-way around
on the bench, ready to cut and run. But the tall, slim man
standing behind him was smiling, friendly as could be. He looked
to be in his twenties, light-skinned but not altogether white. A
quadroon, maybe even an octoroon. Dressed to the nines in a
pinky-gray suit and vest, diamond collar-studs, no kink at all in
the black hair below the derby hat, and every hair slicked right
smack in place. The man turned up his smile. "You play pretty
good, boy. How old you be?"
raised his eyebrows and reached inside his suit jacket, whereupon
Brun commenced to feel a bit uneasy. Those days, in that part of
the country, nice as a man may seem, when he reaches inside his
coat, you'd better keep watch. "Mmmm, on'y fourteen, huh?" The
light-skinned Negro looked impressed. "Well, you pretty good
right now, and you got a passel of years ahead to get better. You
play any syncopation? Know what syncopation be?"
schoolteachers' questions were that easy, Brun thought, he'd be
class valedictorian. He swung back around to face the piano and
played a little of “Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose.” The Negro nodded
in time with the beat; his smile worked up into a soft laugh. He
brought a sheet of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it, and set
it on the music rack in front of Brun. "Let's see how you do with
at the pen and ink manuscript. It looked like no music he'd ever
seen. He put his fingers to the keys.
For the rest
of his life, Brun told anyone who'd listen that before he'd played
ten measures, he knew he was in the grip of something powerful.
Like the music was playing him, not the other way round. Mr.
Johnson, turn me loose? The notes seemed to reach down from the
manuscript, place Brun's fingers, push them down, then move them
along. As if from somewhere far off he heard the Negro say,
"That's good, boy, good. But you playin' it too fast. Scott
Joplin ever hears you play his tune so fast, he ain't gonna talk
pleasant to you. Slow it down, now...yeah. That's better."
As long as
Brun played, that room was dead-quiet, but the instant he stopped,
all Niagara broke loose. People whistled and cheered and pounded
their hands together. The Negro opened his eyes wide; one corner
of his mouth moved upward just a little. "You mighty good, boy,"
he said. "That is no easy piece of music to play, for sure not
the first time. An' for sure, not for a white boy. Why,
you only made two mistakes! One day you gonna be a great piano
player." He reached for the music, folded it, started to put it
back into his pocket.
that?" Brun whispered the words.
Negro said, then stopped like he was waiting for a trumpet to play
a fanfare. "Is called ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’ Composed and written
down by Mr. Scott Joplin. You ever hear of him? Mr. Scott
now," Brun said, in a strange, strangled voice. "But I'd sure
like to know what other music he wrote."
quadroon sized the boy up and down. Brun didn't stop to think how
his youth was all to his advantage. If he'd been a grown man, the
Negro would never have dared take such personal liberties with
him, and definitely not in that very public place. "I be Otis
Saunders," the man finally said. "Scott Joplin's my friend.
Lives in Sedalia."
laughed. "Ain't no other Sedalia I know about." He took Brun by
the elbow. "Come on, boy, you look like you could do with some
lunch. I'll tell you all about Scott Joplin, an' Sedalia too."
to Brun that if his mother were there, she'd already have two arms
around him, hustling him away from this colored stranger who was
going to take him God knew where to do God knew what. But Mrs.
Campbell wasn't there, and Brun followed Otis Saunders out of
Armstrong-Byrd, onto the wooden sidewalk, down a block, around a
corner, through a doorway into a hole-in-the-wall where he found
himself face to face with a huge black woman in a tent of a white
cotton dress, grease stains all across her white apron, and a
dirty towel over one shoulder. Below a red polka-dot bandanna,
she had a face on her that would have frozen the bogeyman in his
tracks. But Otis Saunders just smiled and motioned with his head
and eyes toward the back of the room.
glared at Brun, then led the way to a table all the way in the
rear, and snapped a curtain shut to close off Brun and Saunders
from the rest of the room. "Thank you, Minnie," Saunders said,
polite as if she was the queen of England. "Fix us up, if you
walked away without a word. Saunders rolled himself a cigarette,
his long, slender fingers swift and agile.
play a mean piano," Brun said.
laughed. "You pretty quick. Yeah, a man live in Sedalia, he play
something. Most musical town in the country." He passed
tobacco and paper across the table. Brun managed to roll a smoke
without spilling too much tobacco.
up. Saunders smoked his cigarette the way he seemed to do
everything, smooth, easy, and cool. Brun was more deliberate,
taking care not to embarrass himself by choking on the intake.
Saunders looked just this side of amused.
In a few
minutes, Minnie was back. Still without saying a word, she set a
platter of ribs on the table, then a bowl of collards. As she
started to walk away, Saunders chirped, "Hey, now, Minnie. You
done forgot the beer."
turned back, eyes bulging. Brun stopped breathing. But Saunders
just laughed in an easy manner. "You don't expect this young
gentleman and myself to be eatin' our ribs without no beer, now,
a moment to glare at Saunders, then pulled the stained towel off
her shoulder and snapped it into the mulatto's face. Saunders
lurched back, shrieking with mock fear. He jumped out of his
chair and threw both arms around the big woman. "Me an' Minnie,
we goes back a long, long way," he said to Brun. "She always take
good care of us young boys. Don'tcha, Minnie?"
gave Brun another hard look, then pulled away from Saunders and
started toward the door. "An' don't you be forgettin' the corn
cakes," Saunders called after her through a giggle.
was past the curtain, Saunders said, "She a good woman. I likes
teasin' her when I can."
say much," said Brun.
say nothin'. Eight years old, they went an' cut out her tongue.
'Cause her massa's li'l daughter say Minnie sassed her."
back directly with a plate heaped with cornmeal bread, and a
pitcher of beer. Brun forced himself to look the woman straight
in the eye. "Thank you," he said. Minnie nodded, then walked
off. Saunders grabbed a rib off the plate and motioned for Brun
to do the same. And for the next two hours, while they ate and
drank, Saunders told Brun about Scott Joplin and Sedalia.
No story in
any book Brun had ever read came even close to the yarn Otis
Saunders spun him that day. Sedalia was built on music, Saunders
said, all different kinds of music. Walk down a street where
white folks lived, you'd hear girls and ladies practicing their
Mozart and their Chopin, or playing waltzes by Strauss. Night
after night, bands and small orchestras played concerts in the
park, or on street corners. Jig bands played one competition
after the last. Clubs, white and colored, held dances. There
were wonderful musical shows at the grand Wood's Opera House. And
every night except Sunday, of course, a man could walk down West
Main Street and just listen to the music. Every bar, saloon and
parlor on West Main had a piano man, and what they played, they
called ragtime. "Ragtime music been with us colored forever,"
Saunders said. "When white folks first really hear it was in
'ninety-three, Chicago, at the World-fair, and you shoulda seen
their faces. Scott Joplin and me, we were there - fact, that's
where we first got ourselves acquainted. Afterwards, we go to
Sedalia, and Scott study composition at the George R. Smith
College for Negroes, an' what he learn, he show me. Mark me, boy
- one day you and everyone else gonna see his name and mine on
music sheets in that Armstrong-Byrd, and every other music store
in the country besides."
swallowed a mouthful of collards. "George R. Smith College for
at his mouth with the edge of the tablecloth. "Oh yes. Yes,
indeed. Mr. George R. Smith founded Sedalia in 1860, an' it was a
big outpost for the Union all through the war. Afterwards, the
railroads come on through, so they need plenty of workers, don't
they, good hard workers. Colored come up from the south, bring they
music with 'em. An' when Mr. George R. Smith die, he leave money in
his will for a school for colored, supposed to teach all the
subjects, but most of all, music. I say if a man don't like music a
whole lot, why, then he best go'n live someplace else besides
Minnie's that day feeling like he'd walked inside a building, then
come back out the same door to find himself standing on a road he
wouldn't find on any map, in a world he never knew existed, You
might think the beer had something to do with that, and you might
wonder if it was just tobacco the boy smoked with Otis Saunders.
But Brun always insisted it was “Maple Leaf Rag” working on him,
more powerful by a long shot than any drink or smoke. The notes
barreled through his head, rearranged his every thought, made
whatever he saw or heard or touched or smelled or tasted seem
sidewalk in front of Minnie's, Otis Saunders said good-bye. "Now,
you be sure'n keep up your piano work - do that, an' maybe one day I
be comin' to hear you play in a big concert hall. But before we go
our ways, you let me give you one li'l piece of advice. Okay?"
then. When you in a city, you got to be careful of some things.
Like best you leave your money in your front pants pocket. Or in
your shirt pocket, 'neath your coat or vest. But never - not ever -
in the back pocket of your trousers."
frantically slid a hand into his back pocket, where he'd put some
twenty dollars-worth of folded bills that morning. At the sight of
the boy's face, Saunders laughed, then reached behind his vest and
came out with a wad of money, which he placed into the boy's hand.
"They's bad people in cities, young Mr. Piano Man. You don't want
to be helpin' them to help themselves, you get my drift."
"I'd be pretty
dumb if I didn't," Brun said, though his voice shook considerably.
Saunders, still laughing, put out a hand; they shook. The boy
pushed his money down as far as it would go into his shirt pocket.
Brun told me
he could never remember what he did the rest of that day, or how he
managed to get back home. But he had no trouble recalling the
hiding his father gave him. "You worried your mother," Mr. Campbell
shouted, as he swung the thick, black razor strop. "You had both of
us worried to death." Brun did feel a little bad about that, but
having met Otis Saunders and learned to play “Maple Leaf Rag,” he
would not have taken the day back for the world. That strop his
father laid again and again across his bottom seemed to be hitting
another boy. It inflamed Brun's mind a whole lot more than it did
End of Chapter One
This historical mystery from Larry Karp is the first book of the
Ragtime Historical Mystery Trilogy and was released by Poisoned
Pen Press on November 4, 2006.