Oklahoma City August, 1898
Brun 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.
When this 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.
So early 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.
The wooden 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 City.”
That’s when 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.
He trailed 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.
Just inside 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 out loud.
At the 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.
The woman 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.”
Brun briefly 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.”
All commerce 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 shoulders.
Likely the 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?”
The man 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?”
If his 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 this, boy.”
Brun stared 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.
“What is that?” Brun whispered the words.
“That,” the 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 Joplin?”
“Not until now,” Brun said, in a strange, strangled voice. “But I’d sure like to know what other music he wrote.”
The spiffy 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.”
Saunders 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.”
It occurred 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 sable-skinned 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.
The woman 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 please.”
Minnie walked away without a word. Saunders rolled himself a cigarette, his long, slender fingers swift and agile.
“Bet you play a mean piano,” Brun said.
Saunders 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.
They lit 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.”
The woman 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, do you?”
Minnie took 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?”
The woman 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.
Once Minnie was past the curtain, Saunders said, “She a good woman. I likes teasin’ her when I can.”
“She doesn’t say much,” said Brun.
“She don’t say nothin’. Eight years old, they went an’ cut out her tongue. ’Cause her massa’s li’l daughter say Minnie sassed her.”
Minnie was 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.”
Brun swallowed a mouthful of collards. “George R. Smith College for Negroes?”
Saunders wiped 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 Sedalia.”
Brun left 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 somehow different.
On the 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?”
“All right, 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.”
Brun 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 his butt.