Nine years ago, Greg Lundgren was in the thick of renovating Vito’s, the classic restaurant on Seattle’s First Hill, when a 90-year-old woman walked into the construction mess and demanded a job.
“I want to play here,” Ruby Bishop told him.
Lundgren had never heard of the tiny woman with the long fingers, even though Ms. Bishop had been part of the Seattle jazz scene for decades, playing at Martins Off Madison and the Mayflower Hotel. She used to hang out with Louis Armstrong when he came to town back in the day.
“There’s a piano,” Lundgren told Ms. Bishop, motioning to the new piano in the corner, the cover still on. “You don’t get a gig without auditioning first.”
Ms. Bishop sat down and played “Your Feet’s Too Big,” a classic by her idol, Fats Waller, and a song that Lundgren would learn to be one of her signature tunes, highlighting her spunk, her showmanship, her ease with the keys.
“I hired her on the spot,” Lundgren says. “Because she’s an incredible musician and there was a twinkle in her eye and there was this thing about her that I just loved.”
Ms. Bishop died Sunday, June 23. She was 99 years old.
“I’m not afraid to die, but there’s so much I want to do,” she said in a 2014 interview, on the eve of her 95th birthday. “I want to stay with my music. I enjoy it and people enjoy it.”
It would sustain her throughout her life.
Raised on a Thurston County farm, Ms. Bishop taught herself to play piano after her brother brought one home one day. By the time she was 6, she was dancing at state fairs; at 12, she was fronting 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,” she recalled in 2014, “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 for what I did.”
Her 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 24th and Jefferson and play. Ms. Bishop would join in and host dinners at her home to give them a break from “road food.”
Ms. Bishop loved to tell the story of the time Louis Armstrong walked into the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla with his band early one morning and saw a lobby poster of Ms. Bishop, who was performing there.
Armstrong called and invited her to his room: “Hello baby! Whatcha doing over here in cow town?” he asked her. “Why don’t you put on a robe and come on up here. We’ll drink some Courvosier and lie to each other.”
She did just that. And from then on, Ms. Bishop was Armstrong’s “beaucoup buddy” when he played in Seattle. She cooked for him and his band, too. They talked a couple of times a year until Armstrong’s death.
Ms. Bishop married a pharmacist named Alex Bishop, and during World War II, she worked as a mechanic and draftsman at Boeing. She was a court reporter, a beautician and learned cabinetry and rebuilt her kitchen, where the walls were papered with sheet music.
In her 50s, she was recruited by the Army to entertain troops in South Korea and later South Vietnam, then settled back in Seattle with her husband, who later died.
Ms. Bishop married again in 2002 — at age 82 — when Arthur Schelling reached out to her through a friend. They had met 40 years before, when she was playing at the Mayflower Hotel and he was a submarine officer. He had never forgotten her, and she had never stopped loving him. They only had two years together before Schelling died.
“Bless his heart, we were so happy together,” she remembered in 2014. “It’s terrible. We only had a very short time and he was a very brilliant man.”
Schelling had encouraged her to starting playing in clubs again. And so she did, first at Martins Off Madison, then at Vito’s.
Casey MacGill, who had a regular gig at The Pink Door, remembered Ms. Bishop coming in and sitting in with his trio. (“She had a big crush on Casey MacGill,” Lundgren said. “If she was looking down from heaven, she would love for Casey MacGill to sing her praises.”)
“Well, I think a crush, yeah,” MacGill said Thursday. “We had a great time. We got along well.”
MacGill was struck by Ms. Bishop’s playing style, which was influenced by Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole. She also had a fun vocal style, he said. A little talking, a little scatting, along with the singing. She had a mock operatic thing she would toss in.
“It was an appealing bag of tricks,” he said.
But it was her Armstrong impression that floored him.
“She slipped into his voice,” MacGill said. “It was eerie because all of a sudden I thought I was listening to Louis Armstrong. It was almost a shock because it wasn’t an impression. She was channeling him.”
Offstage, Ms. Bishop would tell MacGill stories of Armstrong and seeing Fats Waller play in a suit that was “tomato red,” MacGill said. “I appreciated that detail because most of history is the details that will take you to that moment. Ruby could do that.
“Sometimes she’d get rowdy, sometimes she’s be a diva and give the wait staff a bad time,” MacGill said. “But all in all, she was a treasure, and we had an amazing time, hanging out with her.”
At Vito’s, Ms. Bishop arrived every Sunday in a sparkly jacket or dress, and sat at a booth before her set, working her way through a meatball grinder and washing it down with sips of red wine served with a teaspoon of sugar. (“The bar staff knew exactly what she liked”).
Lundgren paid her $150 a night, which he said was “pretty standard.”
“She would come in, be very flirtatious, very sassy, and she acts 70 years younger than she really is,” Lundgren said. “So I kind of played with that. She is, by every measure, a diva. And I just wanted to make sure she played.”
She drew a regular crowd of fans from the nearby Skyline at First Hill and Horizon House retirement communities.
Her repertoire was mostly standards, all performed with a Ruby Bishop flourish, helped along by her long fingers (“I play tenths,” she liked to brag, meaning that her left hand was big enough to span an octave and a third on the keys) and even longer fingernails. Lots of Fats Waller, along with classics like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Ragtime. Oldies. Christmas songs, some so tender they could bring the crowd to tears.
Ms. Bishop was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2016.
She played weekly at Vito’s until two years ago, when her memory started to fail and she and Lundgren agreed that, at 97, it was probably time to retire.
Services are pending, but Lundgren planned a tribute concert for Ms. Bishop Sunday night at Vito’s. He’ll be handing out a limited number of posters of Ms. Bishop, and is encouraging people to wear fur and sequins, as she liked to do.
MacGill will start his set at 6 p.m., and open with “Sugar (That Sugar Baby of Mine),” which Ms. Bishop always played when she sat in with his band at The Pink Door.
“She had a good long run,” MacGill said, “and we were really amazed that she was able to play as well as she did.”