What Does It Do?


“I learned long ago that it does no good to complain about the piano,” my teacher Dwike Mitchell told me one day when I was grumbling about still another piano I had been hired to play that nobody had bothered to check for stuck notes, broken pedals, and other infirmities.

“Once you start complaining,” Mitchell said, “you’re throwing yourself into another state. You think, ‘This damn piano,’ and you get mad at it, and when you get angry you play angry and you can’t project who you really are, because you’ve been transformed into an angry person and all kinds of things are going through your mind.

“Instead you say, ‘What does it do? Will it do anything? Let’s check it out.’ You try to work with it, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun, because many pianos give you a different response from the one you’re used to, and that makes you play differently.”

That advice has saved me a lot of grief, not only at the keyboard but in negotiating the sharps and flats of life. Everybody is lugging around some kind of broken piano: the marriage with a few stuck keys, the job with bad vibrations, the boss who has long been out of tune. Getting mad at the faulty mechanism doesn’t fix it. You ask: What does it do? You work with it.

Dwike Mitchell is a jazz pianist, best known as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, the other half being the bassist and French-horn player Willie Ruff. They met as teenagers in an Air Force band in 1947, parted afterward to attend classical conservatories, and in 1955 formed the Duo, which Ruff calls “the oldest continuous group in jazz without personnel changes.” I met them in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Yale, where Ruff is on the School of Music faculty, and we have been on a triangular journey ever since.

As a part-time jazz pianist I’ve studied with Mitchell for many years, and as a writer I’ve accompanied the two musicians on their concert tours, including one in 1981 that introduced live jazz to China. What drew me to them, beyond their music, was that they seemed to be under some moral persuasion to pass their knowledge along. I wanted to know how that idea got stamped on them–two poor black boys growing up in small southern towns. Eventually I would visit those two towns and reconstruct their story in a dual biography called Mitchell & Ruff–a book populated by generous men and women who crossed their lives at crucial moments and showed them what they needed to know next.

As adults they took that teaching impulse with them and made it central to their work as musicians. Ruff taught himself Mandarin, his eighth language, so that he could explain American jazz to the students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. When he and Mitchell play at a school or a college, they also usually manage to squeeze in some kind of workshop.

One night, on a bumpy plane ride over Illinois, Ruff got to reminiscing about the many black colleges where the Duo has played. He remembered not only their names (Bluefield, Dillard, Fort Valley, LeMoyne, Morris Brown, Tougaloo, Tuskegee), but their location and their areas of excellence. (“Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina–that’s a place with excellent teachers.” “Talladega is probably the best black college in America–their students can go anywhere.”) But his memory of nonblack colleges was just as selective, and when he mentioned some of his favorites–Catawba, Principia, St. Cloud–I had never heard of any of them.

Dwike Mitchell is a pianist of unusual elegance, his harmonies rich, his touch deeply personal. To Mitchell, emotion is everything. When he plays a Harold Arlen song he isn’t playing a Harold Arlen song; he’s playing how he feels about Arlen’s song at that moment; I’ve never heard him play a song the same way twice. It’s a style that deserves a great piano, and when he walks onstage and sits down at one that is merely serviceable, one that won’t repay his emotional gravity, I often wonder whether the sound I’m about to hear will sound like him.

But it always does. I watch his large and beautiful hands feeling their way over the keyboard and I know what he is thinking: What does it do? Before long he has begun to figure out the answer.

[For more on Mitchell and Ruff, visit williamzinsserwriter.com. Click on “Passages” and “Picture Gallery.”]

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up