So here I am presenting myself at the Larkrise Alzheimer Day Care Centre as the man to provide an hour's worth of entertainment for these people whose illness has taken them back to childhood. Should it be seen as an illness I ask myself, when it seems in some way to be the completion of life's circle, the return from life's cynical adult ego storms to a state of infantile innocence?
It's not as simple as that. In fact, this group seem somewhat subdued. This is a job for Sensitive Piano Man. It may not be the Wembley Stadium gig I had in mind thirty years ago when I started out on this drastic course of itinerant musicianship, but what does it matter? It is a far, far finer thing to re-kindle the musical memories of a dozen people whose ego lives have ended but whose souls still inhabit the ancient castles of the human form divine.
I kick off by boarding a Slow Boat to China, a song from the 1940s which often seems to the rouse the listeners – it's publication matches a time when many of my audience were growing up. It deserves two choruses, a key change and a piano solo in the middle. It usually hits the spot but today only a few frail voices are raised.
This is cause for concern. A lot of my repertoire actually pre-dates the birth of the oldest members of the audience. My musical realm is more ancient than the ancients before me. If even a modern 1940s number evades them, what hope for the rest of it? Time to jolly things up. It's time to unleash the Cockney Knees Up.
Smiling is part of the art of entertainment. Strangely it also improves the singing. When belting it out at a sing-along with no microphone, my voice often sounds harsh and unbalanced. But if I smile when singing, a warmer tone appears and the words sound more focused. The Cockney songs do the trick. Feet start tapping to the possibility that the reason we Love London Town is that we are all Londoners, not Dilly Dallying when following the van and patiently Waiting At The Church. A few lips mouth the words softly and one lady's face opens up in a radiant smile. This is the smile I am trying to achieve. The smile that tells you in spite of life's wreckage the Countenance Divine can still shine forth.
Making progress now. I plough through some Victorian music hall songs and having warmed them up, move into a Scott Joplin Rag where some real musical thought and sensitivity are required to waft over the great composer's Mozartian strains.
At this stage in proceedings I often find myself tiring a little. I glance at the clock. Only twenty minutes gone! I feel like I've given my all in a complete recital already but am only one third of the way through. The trouble with sing-alongs is that I spend nearly all the time singing – a problem for both me and the audience. Not being a professional singer I probably do terrible things to my throat and lungs as I attempt to connect with the souls before me. I start to get light headed. I feel peculiar. I begin to catastrophise that I am destroying my vocal chords.
The only solution is to steady things a little. A couple of Elvis ballads. They are the most modern things that have crept into the repertoire, and I assume the audience is more likely to have assimilated them over the years. But surprisingly there is less response here than for the Victorian parlour songs. This calls for an Edelweiss moment, then then a request to Sally not to wander from our alley (surely Gracie Fields is an “element spiritual” for the British, as Proust would have it). The volume of warbling increases and we move effortlessly over the half way mark.
A little bit of innovation is required before launching into the hard core of the Old Tyme repertoire. The Al Jolson impersonation (without blacking the face) usually raises a smile or two along with some puzzlement. There is a way of doing this which just manages to avoid falling into the vortex of poor taste. The American accent is only hinted at, the theatrical nasal tones kept to a minimum and only the occasional hand gesture is used to emphasise certain moments in the songs. Anyway, it works. The Red Red Robin bobs along, giving way to April Showers and we all say goodbye to Toot Toot Tootsie, which is a chance for me to unleash some blistering stride piano.
By this time I usually find myself getting a second wind. Energy returns. My head feels less heavy and an enthusiasm returns to make the last ten minutes a time of Communal Connectivity and Wholeness. It's as if my deeper psyche has remembered what the point of being a community minstrel is. The grail is found (for the moment). Once more Arthur's knights ride into battle, though on this occasion the knights are Leaning on a Lamppost before creaking into the Lambeth Walk.
And so to the Grand Finale. It's time for some deeper sentiments, and what more appropriate than a Louis Armstrong tribute? When You're Smiling reminds me to do so again. I then remind the audience that we live in a Wonderful World, with friends shaking hands meaning “I love you”. It's all too much. A lump in the throat stifles the last words of the song. These people are not long for this world and have lost their egoistic cognition. They no longer identify with identity, but their souls shine brightly in a last flame of earthly awareness.
Ah, Louis Armstrong. Never again will anyone have so much musical talent and such an ability to raise broken souls to sublime heights. But now my musical inner critic rears up as I attempt a hot solo on “Hello Dolly”. Louis managed to create a flexible system of melodic improvisation with timing that sent shivers down the spine. Why can't I do it? Why can't I break out of my rigidity and weave trumpet-like phrases as Earl Hines did in the 1920s? I bang out some fierce octaves but it fails to convince the inner critic. One day I'll crack it. I'll finally achieve that oozing swing that came so naturally to those past masters. And nobody will realise that I've cracked it. And that won't matter. For now it is best to concentrate on finishing off the gig.
And so to Daisy Daisy and Show Me The Way To Go Home. The hour is up. I'm tired and I want to go to bed. But alas, the manager tells me the mini bus hasn't arrived and could I play a few more songs? Five for the road. And of course I carry on through my exhaustion, too soft to insist on an overtime payment. I am here to serve, as Jeremy Corbyn would say. And of course there is no higher honour than to play for some of the elderly souls of the tribe, nothing more worthy. These thoughts help me to keep going until finally we have all flown Over The Rainbow back to our own worlds of imagination and solitude.
It's not a bad way to earn a crust. A slowly matured talent facing oblivion in this age of Rap and Grind still flourishing in little back-waters where it is most needed. I started out thirty years ago doing this sort of thing. For a while I toured the vintage jazz festivals up and down the country. For a time I shunned the community singing gig, but my path led me back to these back-waters playing for lives perched on the precipice of existence. It is a good way to keep the fingers active and to develop a voice that might one day have a hint of Bing in it. All is well. This is where the path has led me. You just can't fight it.
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