The Blind Pianist
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Our jazz history professor brought in a guest speaker in lieu of a lecture one spring day. The presentation was to take place in my favorite recital hall instead of our satellite campus classroom, and we were privileged to hear one of North Carolina’s most brilliant jazzers play on the nicest piano at the university.
Professor Nolan's guest, Scott Utton, had been blind since birth, and traveled with two family members and a cane since he had given his guide dog the day off. He had perfect pitch, and could play any standard in any key, in a variety of styles; paying tribute to any well-known jazz great. He never searched on the piano for his starting chord – even when someone else called the key. His lateral knowledge of the instrument was flawless and instinctual, and in his lecture he did his best to explain his sightless intuition.
When class was over, Nolan announced that our guest would happily hang later to jam with anyone who’d like his feedback. My boyfriend Walt jumped at the opportunity, when everyone else was too easily intimidated and hustled to their next class. I stuck around to wait my turn, in hopes that the great Scott Utton wouldn’t mind playing with a green vocalist.
Walt got out his sax, and selected his tunes. He played decently well that morning, but not his best. I know that as his girlfriend I was privy to deeper, insightful observations with which to critique his playing…but he was lazy. When he focused his entire, and considerable, mental capacity on a tune, he'd give the best players a run for their money – but today he was lost in his head. Perhaps he was over-thinking it. He was clearly tensing up.
His tunes ended and he packed his horn amidst conversation, before Nolan noticed me waiting patiently on the edge of the front row seats. I was extremely late for my next class already, and skipping was not something I ever did, but I wanted a chance at this so badly.
“Jess, were you hoping to jam?” Nolan asked. “Scotty, you have anything pressing your time?”
“I’d like to do a tune, if you still have time, Mr. Utton.”
“Jess,” Walt interrupted irritably. “I have to get to class,” he muttered. “Good luck.”
And with that, Walt was gone. I had been willing to be late for his turn, even if I weren’t granted a turn to jam myself, but I guess not all significant others are as supportive.
“And you are…?” Scott stood up from the piano, his eyes ticking towards the light booth at the back of the recital hall. He extended his hand straight out in front of him, and I realized I was meant to grasp it. Quickly I rounded the crook of the Steinway to reach his handshake.
“Hi, I’m Jessika.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said with a firm hold of my hand with both of his. “What would you like to sing?”
After comparing my limited repertoire against his vast knowledge, we settled on the French composed jazz standard, “That’s All”.
“Could we try it in B Major?” I asked.
“A half step away from the Real Book key? Could we do it in the original – my voicings will work better there.”
We agreed, and he noodled out an elegant intro. When he landed daintily upon the dominant seven chord, it was my turn to begin the melody. I closed my eyes and furrowed my brow in concentration.
I can only give you love that lasts forever… He followed me like a hawk, instantly resting on a tempo and dynamic that complemented my phrasing.
…And a promise to be near each time you call… This was lovely – we were in a room with divine acoustics, and unlike in combo class, I had no loud, inexperienced, or amplified instrumentalists to be heard over without a microphone.
…And the only heart I own, for you and you alone, that’s all, that’s all… So this is what it means to be accompanied. He played between my notes, during my breaths, and allowed my pitches to ebb and flow, wax and wane. This is why someone would become a singer, to be able to do this for a for the rest of your life. This was pleasure, beauty, and collaboration – at long last, I was making art.
…I can only give you country walks in springtime… As the initial shock of artistry wore off, it was replaced by a tingling anticipation one feels while standing at the precipice of greatness. I opened my eyes. Scott was staring straight at me, unwavering and piercing, both eyes open. Previously his pupils had been askew and flickering apart from each other, now they both aimed steady and square at me, compliant with each other at last in their focus.
I locked eyes with that blind man as if I were being weighed and measured; as if looking away would somehow be disrespectful; as if maintaining it would ignite this music to insurmountable heights. I am typically shy of steady eye contact, but this made me feel equally unnerved and empowered. If I looked away, surely he’d see me naked in all my vulnerability. But this man wouldn’t fix his gaze on just anyone – I had earned this attention with musical merit and I was determined to be equal to this greatness. Earn your worth, my instinct told me. Don't back down.
…If you’re wond’ring what I’m asking in return dear
You’ll be glad to know that my demands are small
Say it’s me that you’ll adore, for now and evermore,
That’s all, that’s all.
This slight man with a physical handicap and two people to help him travel, had somehow shed himself of every inconvenience and disability and grown into a tremendous, formidable presence during our transcendental moment fixated in eye contact. My voice soared through a run on the last lyric, as I realized I was no longer fixated at a human, but at a Titan.
The song ended, and echoes of the last notes reverberated off the walls into silence. I broke the gaze and looked down at my feet, then gingerly inhaled. The two escorts and my professor released their breath with sighs that broke the silence.
“That was beautiful…”
“Jess, I’ve never heard you sing like that before…certainly not in class…” Nolan said.
I looked up and blinked at the reset reality. Scott had reverted to his mortal state once more, and his eyes flickered at the ceiling above me as he said, “You sound wonderful!”
Awakening from the reverie was a jolt. Goosebumps rippled over my skin. His family rushed in to shake my hand. My professor gave me a congratulatory hug. Scott reached his right hand into the space between us and when I offered my hand, he gripped it firmly in both of his for a long time.
By the end of the day when my classes had ended, I was bursting at the seams to call Walt and share the feedback I’d gotten from Scott that morning. He sounded supportive, even almost excited, as I rattled on through my adrenaline high that had lasted all day. Once I hung up, the phone rang again, and it was our professor Nolan:
“Hi Jess, listen – Scott Utton was very impressed with you this morning. He really enjoyed collaborating, and was wondering if you might be interested in putting a song book together for gigging?”
“Are you SERIOUS? Of COURSE!” My first gig offer, ever! -- that was based on my own merit and was not because I was the sax player’s girlfriend! And it came from one of the most esteemed jazzers in the entire region? Absolutely, 100 times over, YES!
“Great! Well, I thought so, but I didn’t want to just give out your info without permission. What would you like me to share with him? Your number? Email?”
“All of the above! Whatever’s most convenient.”
“Thanks! I’ll pass it on. I imagine you’ll be hearing from Scotty soon.”
Not 30 minutes later, my phone rang again. It was Scott!
He enjoys working with singers on occasion, he informed me, as he finds they can achieve a resonance with the audience that is unavailable to instrumentalists. He loved my voice, wanted to help develop my career, and thought that playing gigs would benefit that. He requested an emailed list of my tunes and the keys I do them in, and wanted to go from there.
I rushed over to Walt’s apartment.
“Babyyyy! I have to make a song list! Scott Utton called, he wants to work with me!!”
On the surface, Walt seemed excited. But never before had I been invited to gig without him. I could sense an underlying tension.
Nevertheless, I set to work. I collected as many standards as I could come up with, and noodled around to figure out which keys I should do the new songs in. I impressed myself in collecting more than 40 tunes. I made sure the body of the email was as professional and enthusiastic as possible, and hit SEND.
Scott’s reply the next day was elaborate, long, and affectionate. He seemed to find my passion endearing, without making me feel insecure about it. He relaxed his professionalism into a more conversational, personal tone, so I decided to follow his lead. He stopped referring to me as ‘Jessika’ and addressed me as ‘Jess’. As I’d heard my professor do, I began calling him ‘Scotty’ in place of ‘Scott’. And thus the email train continued.
But something in my mind nagged at me. Shouldn’t we be talking gig dates by now? Or maybe scheduling rehearsal times? Maybe I was just over-eager in my innocence, but chatty conversation felt unproductive. Why were we beating around the bush? Yet I continued to play along, still following his lead, because I wanted him to remain enthusiastic about the project.
A few days later found a message in my inbox, where he finally confessed to me that he didn’t like being called ‘Scotty’ – but that he didn’t mind me doing so because he thought it was affectionate and cute.
I was mortified, to the n-th degree. I immediately apologized, and explained that I swore I remembered Professor Nolan referring to him as ‘Scotty’; that I never would’ve casualized his name if I didn’t believe that’s what everyone called him. Never again would I be accused of referring to him with a pet name.
But…he thought it was cute?
Conversation resumed, and ambled around until Scott declared one day that he needed to discuss performance and interpretation philosophy with me, before we moved forward with our collaboration. I was very open to his input, I said.
He wrote back one Sunday afternoon, about how he believed in meditating together on the meaning of the lyrics. He wanted to discover jointly how they were enhanced by the chord changes and harmonizations, so that our interpretations would be distinctively unique to our artistry. I read his description of lyric analysis from the comfort of my boyfriend’s office chair, in his apartment. In my pajamas.
“Who knows what will be discovered as we meditate together,” I continued to read. “But we need to be open to any possibility, and willing to be vulnerable to the music and to each other. I invite you to join me on this journey, and I invite you to join me in a passionate romance, if that’s where this journey will lead.”
Join him in a passionate romance? Excuse me? Did he not see that our age difference was disturbing? Did he not realize I was only speaking to him because I believed him to be a professional contact and mentor? Did he forget he met me while lecturing as a guest in his friend’s classroom? Did he not make the connection that the sax player he jammed with right before me was my boyfriend?
My blood drained from my face and my jaw clenched. Walt read the email over my shoulder.
“Do you like him, Jess?”
“WHAT? No! How could you even ask me that?!”
“Well, did you flirt with him?”
“NO! Why would I flirt with him?”
Not even my boyfriend, who supposedly loved me, had been with me for two years, and knew me intimately better than anyone else, would believe that another man would simply assume I was being flirtatious because that’s what he wanted to believe, regardless of whether it was my intention.
How could I deal with this situation without losing my gig? Without damaging the professional friendship between Scott and Nolan? I decided to call Max Winger, the head of the jazz department, for guidance.
Mrs. Winger answered the phone and passed it over to her soft-spoken husband. Max was a kind and wise man, an unmatched vibraphonist, and a fantastic teacher. However Max suggested to deal with a situation is how it ought to be dealt with.
I told him everything, from the class jam to the networking to the song list, from me accidentally calling him ‘Scotty’ to the lyric analysis, and finally, the invitation to a romance.
Max listened in stunned silence and finally said, “Wow, that was tacky. To come to your colleague’s school and hit on his student? How tacky.”
I read him some of the correspondence.
“Yes,” Max surmised. “It seems like he misinterpreted the eager student as flirtation. Sometimes we have to be careful. You are a very attractive young lady--"
“But Max. He’s BLIND!” I exclaimed.
He softly chuckled, like Whinny the Pooh. “Well yes, so he is,” he conceded through a tension releasing laugh. “I guess that wasn’t a factor then.”
The more he mulled over the situation, the more upset he got.
“Don’t ever speak to him again,” he advised. “Not over email or phone or anything. And forward me those emails. I’m going to have a talk with Nolan and make sure he has a conversation with Scott -- and make sure he understands Scott is never welcome here again.”
“But Max, I chose to call you because I know Nolan and Scott are good friends. I don’t want to damage their relationship or blow this out of proportion. I just don’t want to get hit on.”
“Clearly he had other motives in mind when asking you to gig, and that’s inappropriate. You don’t need that in your life, there will be other opportunities.”
The next jazz history class, Nolan apologized profusely: “I didn’t know he’d stoop that low! You sang well, it makes sense that he’d want to work with you, and I thought it’d be a great way to help you make some professional connections. When I spoke with him it’s like he didn’t even realize it was bad form to hit on a peer’s student as a guest speaker. And to defend himself he said he didn’t realize you had a boyfriend. Well, he and I are through. You don’t jeopardize my reputation at work like that.”
My chest slumped. Everything I'd been avoiding had come to fruition. Their relationship was terminated, and I’d lost my opportunity to gig. The disappointment was suffocating.
Years later, I got a FaceBook message from someone I wasn’t friends with, but who’s name rang a bell. Scott Utton wrote:
"I want to say that I am very sorry. I don’t recall ever experiencing so much regret with respect to my own actions. I will not write again. Best to you."