We’re going to see Ruby Bishop at Vito’s, I tell my home-for-the-holidays son. She’ll be 95 soon, and still plays three hours of piano every Sunday night.
I don’t know what the kid expected, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Bishop, in a Santa hat and a sparkly green jacket, shimmying in a banquette to a Motown song playing in the bar.
“How old do you think I am?” Bishop asked my son after we settled in across from her.
My son looked at me, then back at Bishop, and made a gentlemanly guess: “Late 30s?”
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Bishop let out a dusty laugh, took a sip of her wine then got up and moved — slowly — to the piano bench.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ruby Bishop at the piano,” she began. “Don’t ask me for any of these new things, because I won’t play them.”
The fact that Bishop is nearly a century old and is up, dressed out and dancing to Motown is one thing.
That she can play three hours of American standards as gracefully as she does — and from memory — is something to behold, and celebrate.
On Dec. 21, the eve of Bishop’s 95th birthday, Vito’s is holding a birthday party for the woman it refers to as “The queen of the grand piano.” Things kick off at 6 p.m.
“We really want to show her that we love her,” reads a post on the storied Seattle restaurant’s Facebook page. “We would love nothing more than to see you there, fill the room for her … We hope that there is standing-room only, we hope that the floor sags and the applause is deafening.”
A few days before at her Mount Baker home, Bishop listens to me read the post, and smiles.
“They’re sure going to have a party,” she said. “It’s done a lot for keeping me going. I play a lot of music, and it has kept me going for quite a while. I meet a lot of people.”
And how many songs does she know?
“Hundreds, hundreds, hundreds,” Bishop said. “Thousands. I’ve been playing piano since I was a little kid.”
She taught herself, for the most part, on a piano that her brother brought home one day to her family’s Thurston County farm.
By the time she was 6, Bishop was performing at state fairs, and at 12, she was leading a 12-piece band called the Centralia Buccaneers.
Her parents sent her to the University of Washington to study pharmacy, but she left after a year.
“I wanted to be a piano player,” Bishop said, “so I took off and I didn’t come back for a long time. And I didn’t look back, either. I wasn’t sorry that I did.”
Bishop’s brother was an agent for Local 493, the black musicians union. Touring musicians like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington would gather at the union hall at 14th and Jefferson and play. Bishop would join in and host dinners at her house to give them a break from “road food.”
One oft-told Bishop story involves Louis Armstrong, who walked into the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla with his band early one morning and spotted a lobby poster of Bishop, who was performing there.
Armstrong rang her up and invited her to his room: “Hello, baby! Whatcha doing over here in cow town? Why don’t you put on a robe and come on up here. We’ll drink some Courvoisier and lie to each other.”
She went. And from then on, Bishop was Armstrong’s sidekick when he played in Seattle. She cooked for him and his band, too.
She married Alex Bishop, a pharmacist, and during World War II, worked as a Boeing mechanic and draftsman. She was a court reporter. A beautician. She learned cabinetry and rebuilt her kitchen.
But always, always, Bishop played the piano. In her 50s, she was recruited by the U.S. Army to entertain troops in South Korea and South Vietnam, then settled back in Seattle with her husband, until he died. She can’t remember the year.
Bishop now lives surrounded by clothes, shoes, music and memories — although they are slow in coming.
Two years ago, a man and a woman broke into Bishop’s house and threw her down the stairs while they ransacked the place, she said. She broke her hip and still has pain in both sides of her neck. Her memory suffered, too, which frustrates her to no end.
“I was doing fine, raising Cain and everything until that happened,” Bishop said. She didn’t press charges.
“There were several small children involved,” she said of the couple. “I didn’t want them to know that their parents were capable of killing people. But I let them know that I knew who they were.”
There is plenty in the house to jar her memories loose. Posters from former bookings. Glamorous photographs of Bishop, her hair high, her head tilted to one side.
On the music stand of her piano is a photograph of her second husband, Alfred Schilling, whom she married at 82. They had met 40 years before, when she was playing at the Mayflower Hotel and he was a submarine officer in port. They reunited in 2002. The marriage lasted only two years before Schilling died.
“Bless his heart, we were so happy together,” she said. “It’s terrible. We only had a very short time and he was a very brilliant man.”
It helped her to start playing out again.
Back at Vito’s, Bishop started her set with “But Not For Me,” her long fingers light and confident over the keys, her mind quick.
From a seat at the bar, longtime fan Glen Campbell called out a request: “‘Mason Street!’”
“How’s it start?” Bishop asked. Campbell sang a little and then, from the front table, Max Braun sang a few bars before Bishop started playing. She was off.
Braun is part of a group of residents from the nearby Skyline at First Hill retirement home who have a standing reservation every Sunday night.
Campbell has been coming to see Bishop for years at clubs all over town. Sorry Charlie’s. Martin’s on Madison. Now here.
“She used to drink Champagne splits and play ‘Your Feet’s Too Big,’ ” he said. “She’s the last connection to the real jazz world.”
Bishop hears this gracefully, but would rather focus on the moment, the next gig, the next song. It’s what has gotten her this far.
“I’m not afraid to die, but there’s so much I want to do,” she said. “I want to stay with my music. I enjoy it and people enjoy it.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.