It’s late at Jack Fry’s, and I’m talking with Larry Kaelin, the longtime piano player at the Bardstown Road restaurant. Larry (who has since passed away) asks, “Bill, what’s your favorite song?”
Well that throws me. I sputter out a couple of titles and give up. “Geez, Larry, I like a lot of songs.”
Larry fishes through his piano bench and comes up with a sheet-music songbook. Pop standards, big hits from the Swing Era and so on. “Maybe it would help to glance through this,” Larry says. And it does. Right away I find “Begin the Beguine,” which I never would have thought of, but it’s a song that just, well, sounds like a song. Kind of sophisticated and jaunty.
Larry says “Begin the Beguine” is a Cole Porter tune that became a big hit for clarinetist Artie Shaw. He also says it’s not played much because it’s hard. “I’d have to practice it,” he says.
Time goes by and it’s Derby Week. Some friends and I head to Jack Fry’s to celebrate. As we come in, Larry spots us and kind of fades out what he’s been playing and launches into another tune — and he’s looking at me and nodding his head up and down with this big smile. It’s “Begin the Beguine.”
And, boy, that song sounds perfect in Jack Fry’s. The place is buzzing with the Derby, and Larry’s notes hop along the booths and bounce off the tin ceiling, all the characters in the old photos seeming to hum along — mayors, boxers, racehorses, a dancing bunny rabbit and even Jack Fry himself, who had the tavern before it became an upscale hotspot.
Soon we’re in Booth One, which is right by the piano. I pick the filet, as usual. (Though I might have gone with the cheeseburger, which is conveniently located at the very bottom of the menu so guys can find it when they need to save some dough for the track. Add a Stilton salad.) One gal in our party picks the shrimp and grits, which is a dish you see a lot of places now, but I think made its Louisville debut at Jack Fry’s.
By and by, chef Shawn Ward comes out to hobnob with the customers. He squeezes in on a corner of our booth and gets right to business: “Who’s the Derby winner?” Shawn wants to know. “Silver Charm,” I say.
Larry has a chair by his piano where patrons may sit down to visit. But I just watch. Larry doesn’t bang from the elbows like, say, Jerry Lee Lewis. His fingers stretch out and his hands dance along the keys. Sometimes he touches his thumb on two notes that are right next to each other. Like the bottom of a chord might be a C, but Larry will straddle his thumb over to the next note down, very softly touching the B. Kind of an “inside seventh,” you might call it, that adds a tinge of tartness. He also could touch a black key to go with a white key, like a B-flat above an A, which is tricky. It’s the kind of thing Duke Ellington could have taught Larry, except Larry never met Duke Ellington. But he did know Babe Ruth.
Larry plays my song again, and that thumb thing adds magic to the melody. A wedge of lime to “Begin the Beguine.” My friend Rick says I must be going good. He says, “You know you’ve arrived when they play your song when you walk in the door.”
— Bill Doolittle
Photo Courtesy of: Louisville Magazine