I don’t worry about Johnny Knapp anymore. No need to. But I used to, and it kind of bothers me that I don’t, because it’s another reminder that he’s not free for lunch at the IHOP or supper at the Dan Thai or that little Chinese place next door to the gas station, where the restaurateurs never charged him for a meal. It was a takeout place but it had two obligatory booths with sticky vinyl seat covers. “Mister Johnny,” the gentleman who owned the joint used to say, genuinely happy, shaking the old piano player’s magic right while Johnny steadied himself on his walker with his magic left hand.
Back then, I worried about him because you just never knew when he might slip and break an ankle, or cut his toe on the wheelchair lift in his house. For a guy who played little miracles on a keyboard, he could be clumsy as hell. The polio probably had something to do with it, though he wasn’t the kind of guy to make excuses. Usually.
Johnny was a player in the whiskey-soaked, smoke-filled New York in the 50s and 60s, making cash money playing society music on weekends and jazz on the weekdays, jamming in his soundproof basement with Charlie Parker, who always wanted to read his yoga books. “Thanks to yoga, I took the braces off my legs,” said Johnny, who brought the books to Charlie in the hospital, where the saxophonist, “was listening to music, but it wasn’t Stravinsky, who he loved,” said Johnny. “It was Delius, and that really surprised me.”
Yoga notwithstanding, Johnny’s infantile polio still had lasting effects. It definitely slowed his gait, a handicap that actually led to his famous parking pass at the Apollo Theatre in New York. The legend, as Col. Bruce Hampton told it and retold it, is that Johnny Knapp was the only guy who had a parking pass at the Apollo Theatre. He got the pass because he was slow afoot.
He had a regular gig at the San Su San in Mineola, a club owned by the mob out on Long Island. He didn’t have a handicap parking pass. So Johnny often had to park a strenuous (for him) walk away from the club. Consequently, he was showing up tired, and just in the nick of time. “The manager wanted to know what the hell my problem was and I told him,” Johnny said. “He said I needed a handicap parking pass and that he’d take care of it. Next gig, I had parking pass. Well, that pass was good for anywhere, including the Apollo. So whenever I played the Apollo, all the other cats wanted to ride with me because I got to park right next to it.”
That was one of the stories that flowed like syrup at the IHOP during lunches that stretched into 2 or 3 p.m. sometimes. The sound of Bruce slapping the back of his hand into his palm and cackling at something Johnny said. They were like a comedy team, the two of them. It’s a shame they didn’t know each other for years and years. But there was a history.
When Bruce’s band (the Fiji Mariners) had a standing gig Saturdays at the Brandy House, Johnny had one on Sundays. This would have been the 1990s, early 2000s. But they didn’t know each other. That took Jez Graham, the spectacular Atlanta keyboardist who knew both men. He introduced Johnny and Bruce and started the Tuesday lunch thing. Bruce or someone would bring Johnny, who wasn’t driving any more, and a small crowd of musicians, writers, and at least one deity (Joe Zambie) would gather. Food would get cold (but eaten) as talk flew across the table and Sue the waitress kept bringing Bruce glasses of watered down iced tea.
I’ll never forget the first time Bruce told me about Johnny Knapp. He told me to meet him an Arby’s just inside the perimeter. It’s in the book I wrote about Bruce. It was a late afternoon in July 2012:
Bruce Hampton was stealing my curly fries, punctuating each theft with, “Shhh, don’t tell my wife.” He’d just come from the YMCA swimming pool in nearby Doraville, and he smelled of chlorine. The restaurant was a block or two from where the old Pearson Gulf Station used to be, where Bruce had worked in the early days of the Hampton Grease Band.
Then, pointing a curly fry at me, he said, “I’ve got to tell you about the most amazing cat I’ve ever met. His name is Johnny Knapp. Piano player. He’s in his eighties, and he’s a beast.” Bruce continued, “He played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. He was born in Lower Manhattan and got polio as a baby. When the doctor told his parents they should move to the country r his health, they moved to Brooklyn. A bunch of us meet him for lunch on Tuesdays at an IHOP and just stare at him like he’s Babe Ruth.”
He recited the Johnny Knapp legend, stories run through Bruce’s hyperbolic lens: The son of Czech immigrants, Johnny jammed with Charlie Parker, backed Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, and gigged with Louis Armstrong. He saw the Hindenburg crash while on a Boy Scout trip to New Jersey. Johnny was slated to perform at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Robert Kennedy was shot, and in the aftermath of the assassination, Roosevelt Grier knocked him down. Finally, Johnny was Steve Allen’s band director, and he had the only permanent parking space at the Apollo Theatre.
“Sometimes Bruce is full of shit, but some of that stuff is true,” said Johnny, who didn’t see the Hindenburg. Nor did Rosie Grier knock him down. But the other stuff was real.
He’d hooked me. I went to the Tuesday lunch and kept going. It was like a scene from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, bunch of dudes sitting around a table eating fatty food and drinking coffee, telling lies, asking trivia questions and sometimes making up the answers. Jez, who is a healthy eater, chose the IHOP because it was the only place where Johnny could get cheap crepes the way he liked them.
We used to celebrate birthdays at the IHOP. Look at Facebook, you’ll see plenty of pictures from Unknown Vincent or possibly my brother from another mother, Andy Estes. Looking at them puts a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Bruce was a friend and Johnny became a very close friend. The kind you worried about.
Johnny was born and died during the month of November. As I sit here wrapping this up, it’s his birthday, November 25, one day before my mother’s. He would be 92 now. He had a squeaky Brooklyn rasp and a sweet nature, could curse like a sailor, knew the filthiest jokes. He liked to eat crepes at the IHOP and wor wonton soup at the Chinese place and used to come to my house on the holidays and play our electric piano. He loved Bruce Hampton, who introduced Johnny to a new generation of fans and musicians and one my mother’s three sons, who kind of misses worrying about Johnny Knapp.