Cool Mr. Rogers

Listening to: Shawn Colvin. Another Round of Blues.

I’m currently reading a laugh-out-loud-funny book, Piano Girl, Robin Meloy Goldsby‘s memoir of her life as a cocktail lounge piano player. I’ve only gotten as far as her college years, but from what I’ve read so far, I’m guessing that Goldsby came out of the womb funny, grew up with a funny sister and was raised by funny parents. She had a childhood I thought existed only in movies, full of off-beat characters and quirky adventures.

It’s like the book cover says: “Imagine Carrie from Sex and the City playing the Marriott.”

Early in the book, Goldsby talks about her father’s jazz trio, which was made up of Bob Rawsthorne (her father), the drummer, Carl McVicker, the bass player, and Johnny Costa on the piano. And she briefly mentions Bob’s regular gig, saying, “For thirty years, my dad was the drummer and vibes player for the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television program.” Then she goes on to describe Costa’s piano playing, his various eccentricities and her relationship with her father’s friend.

Being a struggling jazz pianist, I wanted to know more about Costa, so I went to YouTube to find videos of him performing. I discovered that Bob, Carl and Johnny weren’t just three musicians who did the music for Mr. Rogers. They were three amazing jazz artists who played live on every show. All that music that I barely noticed as a kid, as an adult, makes me say, “Wow.” One video I stumbled upon shows Costa explaining how he built the music around the song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which Fred Rogers wrote. Listen to it and pay attention to what’s going on. And keep in mind that Costa, Bob and Carl played that song (and all the songs) live for every show. As a kid, I considered “Neighborhood” something I had to sit through to get to the good stuff. Now, I am amazed that kind of music was being created for bunch of kids, like me, who couldn’t consciously appreciate it.

There’s another great video of Fred Rogers asking his audience if they’d like to know where the music comes from. Then he walks off the set and into the sound stage, to the area where the trio sits. Rogers breaks down the “Neighborhood” song by asking each musician to play his part. THAT’S what was going on in the background while we were traveling back and forth on the trolley between Mr. Roger’s house and Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers was a remarkable man. I’ve known that ever since I saw the 1969 video of Rogers defending PBS to the U.S. Senate and the night in 1997 when he brought every member of the Daytime Emmy audience to tears. After learning about his love of music and the jazz trio that played on every episode of his show, I realize there was so much more to Mr. Rogers: He gave us gifts we didn’t even know we were getting. Wrapped up in his puppets and rhyming lyrics, he was treating us to jazz from one of America’s best jazz trios.

Mr. Rogers was a total badass. And we were lucky kids.

Required reading: Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood: Letters to Mr. Rogers.