Sing us a song, you’re the piano man,
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feelin’ all right.
— “Piano Man,” Billy Joel
When I learned that Bob Rogers had died, I started humming “Piano Man.”
He wasn’t a barroom player, but he could make the piano sound — as it goes in the song — “like a carnival.”
There are a lot of pianists in Denton. A lot of good pianists, even aside from the faculty members at the University of North Texas College of Music, like Pamela Mia Paul and Vladimir Viardo and Steve Harlos. There’s David Pierce, who is a born accompanist. There’s Don Taylor, who made me break out in goosebumps more than once when he played the piano at the local Unitarian church I used to attend.
Bob Rogers was a pianist who could instruct you on technique, etudes and scales from the depths of a coma. He was an educator who taught young men and women how to teach others to play.
He could hold his own on the concert stage, sure.
But what made Bob Rogers the “piano man” to me was this ever-present playfulness he had.
I met Bob in 1996. I was a wet-behind-the-ears reporter, just arrived in Denton to cover the arts. I had a vague idea that Denton was an arts-friendly town because I lost a lot of my Baylor University friends to UNT. They had abandoned Waco to study music in Denton.
I still remember that first meeting. He and his wife, Daisy, swept me into the living room of their modest house on Ector Street, just across the way from St. David of Wales Episcopal Church. Friendly faces were gathered around a piano — Donna Trammell, Kay Lamb and Lindsay Keffer. They were rehearsing one of Trammell’s good-natured send-ups. Lots of puns. And lots of Keffer forgetting his lines.
After talking about the fundraising performance in the works, Bob (already silver-haired and slight) took a seat behind the piano.
I’ve always admired pianists. They can make their hands move at different rhythms, in different directions. They can read music — sheet music always makes me think I’m reading some sort of physics formula in some alien language. It’s always looked fussy and difficult to me. (Sometimes, I look at the simple lines of music in the Methodist hymnal and feel convinced those dots are tricksters, switching places on the page.)
I knew from the first chord that Bob was a special kind of pianist. His hands skipped along the keyboard, slowing down (and down, and down) as Keffer cast around his brain for Trammell’s punchline. His eyes were on Keffer, and he smiled.
Then he improvised a little patter of notes. Like a light clicking on, Keffer’s face registered an instant and joyful thing: He remembered that elusive punchline.
When Trammell took a turn to sing, she met a note that was a touch too high for comfort. Bob broke in.
“Want me to take it down to here?” He’d changed keys in a jiffy. There wasn’t even a hitch. Trammell soldiered on. Bob smiled the entire time. I loved how Daisy was still leaning on the kitchen doorway, caught up in this whirl of music, just like me.
It wasn’t until I pulled into my parking spot at my apartment that it started to dawn on me just how rare of a pianist Bob Rogers was. He was more than technically proficient, and more than artistically inclined when it came to making music. He was helpmeet for the singer, and an adventurer himself.
I still remember sitting in my car for a split second, wondering at the profound ability — and not just ability, but capacity — of this man I’d seen at the piano. One of his ensemble had been floundering for a line, and Bob had slipped him a clue without any of us knowing it. Lindsay Keffer probably didn’t even know it.
But that patter of music jogged his memory. It was Bob Rogers’ way of reaching out, patting a fellow performer on the shoulder as if to say: No worries. I’ll prompt you with this little tune. Kay Lamb never faltered that night, and I loved her soprano immediately. And when the writer of this parody they were doing needed to save her pipes a little, Bob reached out to her, too. He simply transposed the tune right there at the keys. No problem. No big deal.
Over the years, I’d sit in on many a rehearsal where Bob was accompanying singers. It was uncanny how he adjusted his tempos to catch up to a nervous singer, or how he slowed down to let them catch up to him. As the years passed, his admirers filled in the details of Bob Rogers’ considerable career. He was the interim dean of the College of Music. He played piano for the Dallas Summer Musicals. He was a pianist of renown and respect.
And yet he always seemed to love being on stage with volunteers, no matter how green a musician they might be. With his incredible talent for reading the room and his generous way of truly sharing music, he made music something that belonged to the trained singer, the clever parodist and the funny guy with a faulty memory.
He made music something that belonged to the blue-collar parent in the audience, and the kindergarten kid who just couldn’t help singing along during a show.
“Piano Man” is a song about regret and misspent talent, for sure. But it’s also a tribute to a musician who can make any room as important as the carefully designed concert hall because of how music can make people feel.
Bob Rogers wasn’t a regretful figure who spent his talents on the wrong rooms. He was an artist whose soul never withered under the demands of academia or the brutishness that conductors are rumored to wield.
He was our piano man. He made the instrument sound like a carnival, where wild joy is expected and a sense of adventure a must. Bob Rogers made the music a ride for all of us. He made us feel, and he made us sing.
He made me happy. He made me see that music is something almost all of us treasure because music speaks all languages, in all ages.
I like to think that Bob didn’t close the lid to his piano and exit quietly off the Denton stage. Instead, I like to think that he’s out there, somewhere — maybe heaven — whipping up a chorus with that song inside him.
I can imagine him taking the song down to where everyone can sing it. I can imagine him smiling as he watches them living in the song, belting it out to the rafters.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.