The Perfect Accompaniment

They tend to fade into the background as we go about our business, making life at the mall or the restaurant a little more lovely. But these Baltimore-area piano players are a noteworthy duo

June 05, 1999

They play the piano. Sometimes we listen. Mostly we eat, we shop, we talk. It's not that we don't appreciate the music, it's just that we aren't paying much attention.

They play in department stores, in malls, in restaurants. They provide more than background music, but they're not performing in concert halls. They make our everyday lives a little more lyrical, but for most of us they are nameless and faceless.

Here are two of their names and faces:

The lamps on the dinner tables add an air of romance and gentility. Couples quietly toast special occasions; a family enjoys dinner after a theater outing. The men are dressed in well-cut suits and expensive ties, the women wear stylish dresses and high heels. Soft jazz is their soundtrack -- perfect accompaniment to a special evening out.

For the man easing into a flawless rendition of "The Days of Wine and Roses," the scene is far removed from juke joints where the beer bottles flew and ducking was a required skill. Pianist Claudie Hubbard, Jr. has paid his dues.

If you've had dinner at Baltimore's Prime Rib restaurant at Calvert and Chase Streets in the last 16 years, you have probably seen Hubbard. At least you have heard him. He's there four nights a week playing mellow tunes while diners eat, court, celebrate, break up and make deals.

"It's a good job. I've worked a lot of different clubs and some were pretty rough places. When I think of all of the times I've had to duck beer bottles, glasses flying all over the place...," he shakes his head. "I think I am blessed now. I know I am blessed."

"I must have worked at every club in the city," he continues. "Not the new ones, of course. But clubs on the Avenue." He means Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue, in the 1950s, when it was a magnet for big name acts.

"We were the house band," he says. "Back then, big stars didn't travel with their own backup bands. House bands played behind them. Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Miles. I got to meet them all.

Hubbard, born and raised in East Baltimore, is seventy years old now. He is a portly and distinguished-looking gentleman. Plenty of people would love for him to play in their clubs, but this is what he wants to do. At first he speaks hesitantly and reflectively, not wanting to seem too proud of his musical past. But then he warms to the topic and smiles. It's been, and continues to be, a good life.

Yes, the thought has crossed his mind to retire to his front porch and watch time go by. But that thought doesn't stay with him for long.

"Sometimes, I think about jumping up and quitting but if I quit, then what would I do? I'm going to play as long as I can," he says.

It's what he's been doing most of his life.

"I've been playing music, from my early childhood. There was this aunt of mine who first sat me down at the piano. She said that was the only thing that would keep me quiet."

He attended Peabody and Morgan State University after high school, though he joined the Army before he could graduate. When he returned to Baltimore, he found "regular" jobs but the music was always there.

"I took lessons when I was in school," he says. "And when I went into the Army, they put me right into the band."

Hubbard, who lives in West Baltimore, retired from his "regular job" at the post office in 1983 when his first wife died. He second wife passed away and his children are grown. He had the opportunity to work every night at the restaurant then, but he decided to take it easy. If playing four days a week, from around 7 p.m. until 11 p.m., could be considered taking it easy.

Although, he's been a regular at the restaurant since 1983, he began in 1975 playing one night a week.

"For about a year, I played there by myself," he says. He's also played with a bass and drum player. Now he's joined by a bass player. He loves what he does, but flinches when talking about the downside: requests.

It's not that he dislikes accommodating his patrons, but it's a little embarrassing when they stump him. He says he knows "85 to 90 percent of the songs they ask for," but there's that pesky 10-15 percent. "That's the only troubling part of the job," he says.

Still, it's a forgiving crowd. No one's tossed a beer can in his direction and he is earning a living doing something he enjoys.

"I have always loved the music," he says.

Ed Rouch shares his musical stage with a fine assortment of shirts, ties and suspenders. Better jewelry is a few feet away; an amazing selection of shoes is nearby.

Fact is, most people browsing around the Nordstrom's in Towsontowne Center give little thought to Rouch's music. Who really thinks about the piano player as they hunt down a new outfit?

But there is Rouch, resplendent in black tux during wintertime, currently wearing more casual summer attire of jacket and tan pants. (An outfit, Rouch points out, that's conveniently available for purchase on that very floor.)

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