Piano Man: At 87, jazz legend Johnny Knapp is still jamming

Knapp has gigged with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan in his seven decade career.
Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

Johnny Knapp is 87, and he feels it. He moves with a walker, his withered legs powered by wiry forearms and large hands that have flown over piano keyboards for 70 years. It’s Tuesday, and his ride is waiting.

Knapp had polio as a boy. He wears orthopedic shoes to compensate for uneven legs. He paces himself, his gait an iambic meter—one-two, left-right—past relics and mementos, past the gorgeous sculptures he rescued from a trash heap decades ago, a decision he is thankful for now because they remind him of the artist, his wife, Dee, who was never very impressed with her own talents and who died in February.

After the funeral, their son, John, asked his old man to move in with him, to Raleigh, North Carolina, but Knapp refused. “My life is here. I’d miss my friends,” he says. “I’d miss the Tuesday lunch.”

He pushes through his music room—one-two—past the grand piano, past the floor-to-ceiling shelves of CDs, vinyl records, folders filled with compositions, playbills from 1950s Broadway, and hundreds of volumes, including nearly everything Upton Sinclair ever wrote and a few remaining yoga books.

Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

“I gave the rest of them to Charlie Parker when he was in the hospital,” says Knapp, recalling the doomed Bird, their jam sessions, the polio-stricken piano player hosting the heroin-addicted saxophonist, the two of them unearthing and clarifying the melodies hidden within bebop’s frenzy. Parker asked him to go on the road, but Knapp couldn’t afford the pay cut and didn’t care for the drugs. “Yoga helped get me out of my leg braces. I figured it might help Charlie. It didn’t.”

This was around 1955. Knapp figured his worst years were behind him, like the discarded braces. Then he was rehobbled in a car crash several years ago, a bigger bummer than polio because it ended his driving days, making him feel crippled for the first time in his life, leaving him to depend on the kindness of friends—like Atlanta music icon Col. Bruce Hampton, today’s driver for the short trip to a Lilburn IHOP, where a core group of musicians gathers for the Tuesday lunch.

Johnny Knapp
A recent Tuesday lunch at IHOP included, from left, Col. Bruce Hampton, Knapp, Jez Graham, and Jack North.

Photograph by Audra Melton

Mostly they come for Johnny Knapp, who gigged with Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, who ghostwrote songs with legendary tunesmith and playwright Bob Merrill, who was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, and who performed in places like the Copacabana, Birdland, Basin Street East, and pretty much all of the great jazz clubs, then moved to Hollywood to play for movie stars and class-A directors.

“He’s the Forrest Gump of music,” Hampton says. “He’s been everywhere and done everything and played with everyone. He’s a beast. There are two great jazz piano players in my mind: Art Tatum and Johnny Knapp.”

Hampton has been known to exaggerate. Knapp hasn’t done everything. But he did have his own parking space at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, thanks to a pass that mobsters helped him acquire.

“I made a handshake agreement with a guy called John the Knife to play in his nephew’s band,” Knapp says. “When I told Dee, she couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘You’ve got to get out of that deal. That handshake is for life.’ So I called the guy and tried to be funny. I told him, ‘Mr. The Knife, I’ve reconsidered.’”
The mobster sent a couple of associates to see Knapp. Not to renegotiate.

“He wanted them to break my fingers. That’s what they told me,” Knapp says. “But they could see my legs, how I walked, and I think they felt sorry for me. ‘Looks like someone already got to you,’ one of them said. They told me not to make promises I couldn’t keep and left me alone.”

Lunch used to be every other Tuesday. But since Dee died, the guys get Knapp to the IHOP every week. Sometimes Hampton drives him. Sometimes it’s Jim Basile, the longtime Atlanta morning traffic guy who plays a fine bass. Sometimes it’s Jez Graham, the piano player for Francine Reed and the guy who started the Tuesday lunch thing because he wanted Knapp to meet Hampton. “They’re living legends,” says Graham. “They had to meet.”

Johnny Knapp
Photograph by Audra Melton

Usually six to eight people show up on Tuesday, most of them musicians. There have been as few as three and as many as 20-plus, like the week after Dee died. There’s the occasional soundman, actor, or writer, and they’ve all heard bits of Knapp’s life story, his high-pitched New York rasp conjuring memories and half memories.

Here’s infant Johnny, gliding over lower Manhattan rooftops in the arms of his terrified father, fleeing the cops who wanted to quarantine the child with other polio victims, flatfoots scraping the blacktop. Here’s 12-year-old Johnny, tied to the fire escape so he can’t fall, an accordion on his lap, the voices of Eastern European immigrant women calling from below, through the flapping laundry, “Johnny, Johnny, play us a song.”

Here’s 19-year-old Johnny talking his way into piano lessons from Clarence Adler, Aaron Copland’s private music instructor. And here’s Johnny outside Birdland, calling to Miles Davis, who defies the “Crow Jim” movement—reverse segregation, when a white man had no rights in the country of jazz—and crosses Broadway to hug Johnny. “Miles didn’t give a shit,” says Knapp. “He could be gruff. But if he liked you, he liked you.”

Dee and Johnny were immersed in the 1950s and 1960s New York music scene. He earned big paychecks for society gigs and smaller ones for jazz sit-ins, enough to buy a Mercedes with cash, enough to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to unlucky musicians—generosity he kept hidden from Dee, “because then she’d know why we’re so poor now. I’d never hear the end of it.”

They moved to Los Angeles, where he played for directors like Robert Altman and Sydney Pollack, movie wrap parties. He still flies out to the coast for similar gigs now and then, though Altman and Pollack (like most of the people he’s ever known or loved) are dead. He can’t remember the names of the directors who hire him now, and he’ll miss seeing James Garner (also dead), who usually stood by his piano and kept him company.

“I’m nose to nose with death,” he says, a little annoyed with Dee for taking her backstage pass to the universe, because 53 years together just wasn’t enough. “I know she’s in a better place. She wanted that. I’ve got to learn to be happier for her, but I can’t help being unhappy for me. If I love her, I guess it’s more important that she is where she needs to be.”

Johnny Knapp
Knapp’s wedding album

Photograph by Audra Melton

They moved to Atlanta about 30 years ago to be near his mother, who was close to the end, and he became known as a musician’s musician. Every week, still, Knapp plays somewhere, usually as a guest, though he has standing gigs at Northlake Mall and a few retirement homes.

The Tuesday lunches coincide with a late-innings career boost for Knapp, who last year finished work on a musical adaptation of Great Expectations, a project that playwright Bob Merrill left unfinished when he shot himself in 1998. Merrill’s widow is trying to move it into production. Also, Knapp is collaborating with a writer on what may or may not be a musical about the Tuesday gatherings, where every topic is fair game.

Once the subject turned to put-downs. Hampton asked Knapp about the worst criticism he ever received for a performance.

“A guy said to me, ‘You play music like you walk,’” Knapp says, laughing like a man who laughs last, because he’s still got the gig, because he’s still in demand and people are glad for it.

Following a jam last winter with Hampton’s band at Terminal West, a 23-year-old woman made him an offer he physiologically and morally had to refuse. “And then, this guy comes up to me and tells me he drove 75 miles so he could see me play before I die,” Knapp says between sips of decaf. “I told him, ‘Buddy, you made it just in time.’”

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.

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