He was diminutive, red-haired, and freckle-faced, the epitome of the Huckleberry Finn All-American boy, a new and popular archetype in the late 19th century. Was it in the Palace Theatre in Cincinnati or the Madison Theatre in Peoria that he enjoyed his first standing ovation, received his first hugs and kisses from a large-bosomed patroness, or read his first glowing newspaper notice? I have one such item; it’s the only physical reminder I have of him...
There is no known recorded or oral history of his parents. All that has been passed down is that, as the eldest, Jackie was forced to give up his musical career at the age of 11 to support his mother and siblings after the unexpected death of his father. Through his life he tried his hand at many things: a lineman, an electrician, and an inventor, but he never gave up music as a way to make extra money. He was a raw, uneducated musical prodigy. He had absolute pitch, sang and danced, wrote music, and mastered any instrument he cared to pick up, but he preferred playing drums and piano. And part of his act included playing the piano with his toes. I grew up hearing these stories from my father, a professional musician who wanted more than anything to keep his father’s legacy alive.
Intrigued by the stories my dad told me, I tried to mimic Jackie, teaching myself to play the piano upside-down, my arms crossed over my head, and by writing normally with my right hand while simultaneously writing in mirror image with my left. I inherited many of his talents, but I never mastered playing piano with my toes. I like to believe he would be proud of me all the same.
I only knew my grandfather for a few years, and I remember only about four of those. He died of cancer when I was barely eight years old, but I’ve always been fascinated with him. Perhaps it’s because I was the only of his grandchildren who looked like him. Perhaps it’s because I too was a child prodigy and loved learning to play musical instruments. Perhaps I was merely captivated by the legend he left behind. Perhaps it's because I'd simply like to play the piano with my toes.