Orlando Hightower – or “Keys” as he was known by everyone – was probably the hottest black jazz pianist since the legendary Scott Joplin. He was the real deal, on top of his game at the tender age of 17. The world was his oyster.

Times were dangerous in Harlem, New York. The year was 1923 – the United States’ era of Prohibition and racial segregation.

Orlando was born with fingers wiggling and toes tapping. He had an innate talent to play whatever popped into his head and danced out of his hands. Once he heard a tune it was carved into his memory. He created songs on his grandmother’s rickety upright as easily as someone writing a shopping list.

When Orlando was 12 his mother got a job as chief housekeeper for the Gale Family. Orlando would tag along with her, making himself useful and staying out of trouble. Mrs. Hightower kept him on a short leash knowing how easy it was for young boys to get caught up in the allure of unsavory activities. She always said Orlando was destined to be a man of noble position. A life of crime only led to the destruction of morals; once that happened you had nothing in your future except misery and a jail cell.

Moe Gale was co-owner of the world-famous Savoy Club and an extremely wealthy man. Orlando would entertain himself for hours at the Gale’s baby grand by penning original songs. One of his favorite things to do was write pieces in the pentatonic scale using only the black keys of the piano. Orlando’s talent did not go unnoticed by Moe and he was determined to have him play at The Savoy. Unlike many clubs, The Savoy had a no-discrimination policy. Moe implored Mrs. Hightower several times a week to allow Orlando to play at the club and her answer never changed: “When he’s old enough. Let him be a boy.” Moe would always ask when that would be but Orlando’s mother just shrugged saying “When I know, you’ll know.”

After almost five years of pleading with Mrs. Hightower, she finally relented and gave permission for Orlando to play at the club – on a trial basis. Moe was ecstatic; he knew a sure thing when he saw one. Moe became Orlando’s manager and kept him on the straight and narrow.

Orlando started at The Savoy as pianist with the large house band and his skills were quickly noticed by the clientele. Soon he became a member of the jazz quartet and shortly was featured as accompanist for some of the biggest singers of the day.

Finally the night arrived for the premier of Orlando’s solo performance and his career took off like a starship. Mrs. Hightower sat at the best table in the house, her face beaming with pride as she watched her son play. But the thing that brought her enormous joy was the marquee out front –

Appearing Nightly At The Savoy:
The Incomparable ‘Keys’ Hightower!”

Mrs. Hightower could now rest east knowing her job was done. Orlando had turned into an accomplished, successful and noble gentleman of high character. He made his mother proud.

NAR © 2021


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