Tony Vagneur: An epic jam session

It was an oasis for a young man with a thirst, still in college, after a meeting on the other side of the city. The well-polished bar glistened under soft lights, only six or seven people at the dark-clothed tables. No one enjoying the plush leather bar stools, except a very welcome customer, me.

Vic, the able bartender, was maybe on his last gig, shiny pate, small stature on weary legs, a history of hardship in his fingers but also of bright success through his serving of customers with a laser-like flair and just the right amount of savoir-faire. Topped off with a gold coat and tie, cuff-linked shirt and an ivory smile. We were an odd couple, he and I, but we became fast friends almost from the start.

In addition to being a senior in the University of Colorado School of Business, my dad and I worked together in a business he had going in Denver and parts of northern Colorado. About once a month, I was responsible for conducting a motivational meeting in south Denver for some of his distributors, a fortuitous assignment which was sometimes shared with well-knowns in the sales world, like Zig Ziglar.

Which explains why I walked into Vic’s nightclub one night after a meeting, around 9:30 dressed in a black three-piece suit and tie, shined shoes and a certain practiced, developing gift of gab still rolling off my tongue. Not only city-slicker, those were my scotch days, always on the rocks, and likely trouble if I had too many. Not a big deal in the late ’60s, it didn’t seem. If I had a willing accomplice of the opposite sex on my arm, Vic’s eyes would dance and shine while his excited smile was impossible to disrupt.

Along a side wall on what was a small stage, sat a black grand piano, maker unremembered, but like the bar, shined to perfection with a keyboard smooth and clean as satin, just the right amount of hardness in pressing the keys to make one honest. Oh hallelujah. That became the main draw for me.

There was a house piano man, a big guy, black, salt-and-pepper around his temples and through his well-trimmed mustache and small goatee, usually wearing a brown suit. He came on at 10 p.m., and although we never talked much, he’d always let me finish with my novice set if it ran into his scheduled start. Like most jobs, piano playing can get like that, and the relish of a strong, relaxed drink before going on the night shift was welcome to him. If Vic didn’t cover it, I did.

One night, as I turned the bench over to him, he said in passing, with a smile, “Stick around, baby, it’s gonna get good.” He diddled around on that box for about a half hour, and in walks another guy, carrying a stand-up bass, all serious. While he was thumping around, getting his bass in the mood of the room, tune, heat and all, in came a saxophone in a case. Oh yeah, this was gonna get good. If you have to know, and I know some of you are wondering, it was diversity on display. Two black guys, one on the bass and a white guy with a sax slung around his neck.

They’d played together before, it was obvious, for there wasn’t much conversation and they seemed to know where the other guy was gonna pick it up without too much looking or nodding. Straight blues and jazz. Word must have been out on the street for the crowd started getting thick and the music better.

The piano player was getting into his own world. I’d heard him enough to know he was unfolding a roll of talent, something he didn’t do up there by himself, filling in the three-fingered chords with dress-up lemonade. No, he was laying down five-fingered chords on top of the strong bass which made the “lemonade” unnecessary with the sax man blowing between every relaxed beat and recovery there was.

And then, with a building crescendo that stirred and tensed my psyche, the piano was off on a soul-bending tangent that pulled the other two along with him. His contorted face and closed eyes brought the crowd in closer and closer, and as the peak of his riff was imminent, 10 million memories of every good and bad experience of his life seemed to flow from his brain straight to his fingers; and then, as the crashing climax was reached, forte bravissimo, a deep, guttural groan of pure artistic passion from deep inside his being could be heard. That was the essence of his life, laid out over those keys, sharing his soul.

That’s the last memory I have of Vic’s night club, and to this day, it’s impossible to sit down before a piano without that memory lurking somewhere in my mind.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at