Piano Man

After 69 years of tickling the keys, Jim Poletti still finds magic in his routine
Sunday, April 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:49 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It’s Thursday night at Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant, a little after 6 on one of those surprisingly warm spring days. The pale lights on the gray wall cast a silence that not even screaming red leather seats can break.

Jim Poletti is there to play piano.

“I never know what’s going to happen,” he says. After 69 years of playing, the unexpected doesn’t trouble his routine.

He walks in slowly, standing tall. His salt-and-pepper hair is gelled back, his white striped shirt is crisply ironed and his dark-blue jacket fits perfectly. At 81, he is the chic old grandpa you envision in a wooden rocking chair, telling stories in a dusty, hot town on the coast of Italy.

Tonight he tells the story of a comb holder, a small pocket he attached to his glasses case. That way, he won’t misplace his red comb. Poletti touches his temple to assure you of the genius of his idea. “Someone’s going to make a million bucks on it,” he says.

He brings a briefcase and a canvas bag with him to his weeknight gigs. One holds his piano scores, the other newspapers, which he says the waiters use for crossword puzzles. He sets both down on his black piano bench and then takes out the scores. When he was younger, he had more music on the piano than in his head. Now, it’s the other way around. He doesn’t generally use the scores; he prefers playing “head songs” — enough to cover the two-hour gig.

“If I had all those scores memorized, I’d probably be in a nuthouse,” he confesses.

He pulls out a glass resembling a huge snifter that he uses for tips and his business cards, which read “Jim Poletti — journeyman pianist.”

Monday through Thursday, this is the calling card for an all-around piano player who prefers to stay in the background. “When you’re playing for the party, you don’t join the party,” Poletti says.

It was Sister Clementia in an elementary school in Sacramento, Calif., who introduced Poletti, then 12, to the magic of the piano. He has carried that magic onto ships sailing to the Far East, in classrooms, at weddings and “pretty much every retirement home in Columbia.”

Poletti and his wife of 30 years, Kathy, moved to Missouri in the early 1980s. Soon after, Poletti started playing at Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant for $20 an hour.

“Never had a contract — just a handshake,” Poletti says of his arrangement with Jack’s owner, Ken Applegate.

For Poletti, those 15 minutes before he sits down to play are like checking off a list: “flatter the bladder,” get a glass of tea, put a beer coaster on the piano, set down the drink.

At home, in his basement, he is more strict. “No drinks on the piano” reads a sign in the “music room,” as he calls it. It’s actually two rooms, and they overflow with music.

It’s hard to focus on something; folders of piano scores flood the room. By browsing his collection, Poletti’s roots and musical sympathies are easy to trace — Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Art Tatum, “Fats” Waller, Charlie “Bird” Parker, Duke Ellington. It’s the age of swing, Dixieland and bebop.

“These are all my teachers,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the Afro-Americans here, I wouldn’t be playing what I’m playing.”

The folders and records are arranged in briefcases, file cabinets or stand on shelves and even wine racks. “Me and my wife are both garage sale nuts,” confesses Poletti.

It’s now 6:30 at Jack’s. Poletti adjusts the two cushions on his bench and thrusts his arms forward once before he brings them down slowly over the black and white ivory keys. You know it’s going to be magic before he even touches a key.

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