by Dan Chouinard
Showing up to play piano at someone else’s holiday party, you can’t really know what sort of night you’re in for. For starters, it’s good to show up in the proper attire.
Saturday, December 13, 1997, I’d written “black jacket” in my calendar, but stepping through the polished doors and into the Presidential Suite at the top of the Hilton Hotel, I got the sinking feeling the voice on the phone had probably said “black tie.”
“They’d like you for 90 minutes after dinner, but come an hour early and be prepared to stay late if they want you to.” Lucky I’d shown up on time: the grand piano required some fussing over with a stack of wadded bar napkins before it sounded good enough for the Pillsbury Board of Directors and Spouses, who were now drifting through the presidential doors. Regal in holiday finery, they glided past the doughboy ice sculpture, past the piano (vague nods in my direction), past the glittering skyline view, toward the bar and the culmination of the evening’s festivities: cordials, flambé desserts, fine cigars, tasteful live piano music.
“Be ready for anything,” I’d been told, but the warning was probably unnecessary. Another night of wallpaper piano, I sighed to myself, settling in with autopilot renditions of holiday favorites, a no-man’s land of leather furniture between me and the shimmering mirage at the bar. My mind wandered down to my rusting subcompact car parked at an expired meter, the festive red and white envelope surely flapping on the windshield by now.
I disliked these wallpaper gigs, squandered sing-along opportunities as far as I was concerned. Every so often I lobbed mild musical provocations in the direction of the bar and waited for a response. Jingle Bell Rock. Nothing. Merry Christmas (War Is Over). Continued distant merriment. Blue Christmas. Melekalikimaka…
Eventually a plaid cummerbund and bow tie crossed over to the piano. “Paul over there’s wondering if you do any Buddy Holly.” Paul sauntered over and we got through Peggy Sue and Every Day with help from another tux or two. Then on to Wilson Pickett. And the Beatles. By the time we got to the Big Chill soundtrack, the entire shimmering mirage had coalesced around the piano, drinks in hand.
The next few hours are a blur. I remember someone asked my name. I remember someone swapped my club soda for something much smoother with a long, buttery finish. I remember we didn’t stop talking and singing till nearly midnight, mostly pop tunes from the 1960s and ’70s, plus the occasional holiday song at someone’s insistence, all with the same full-throated gusto.
I remember how tuxes and gowns gradually took on faces, faces acquired voices and names and stories. I remember a deep solidarity, as if we’d all been friends a long, long time.
Not much earlier I’d thought them such a remote bunch. But one by one they’d crossed over to the piano and proved me wrong. For two brief shining hours we were a single noisy clan, the Wailing Doughboys. Walking out to my car, smiling and looking up past the 25th floor and into the winter sky, I mused about our shared lot on this earth and about our craving for certain universal and utterly ordinary comforts. The company of loved ones at the end of the day. The songs you know by heart and aren’t afraid to sing in front of your friends. The old familiar stories with the old ridiculous embellishments.
Simple, timeless comforts. May we practice them often. And may they be as familiar as winter’s snow to our children’s children.
For three decades Dan Chouinard has been pianist and accordionist for a who’s who of Twin Cities performers, an enabler of community sing-alongs and a writer of hit shows for public radio, concert hall and theatrical stage. Every December finds him performing with Kevin Kling at the Guthrie Theater and hosting an annual community show in Lanesboro. Among his commitments early in 2018 are co-hosting St. Joan of Arc’s annual MLK Holiday event, hosting his variety show The Urban Farmer’s Almanac and performing with his classic country band Lush Country. For more information, visit danchouinard.com.