Jazz players keep a beat with a ping-pong paddle

By Aidan Levy (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-11 09:13
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Jazz players keep a beat with a ping-pong paddle
Jazz musicians seem to excel at ping-pong. Dan Tepfer, a pianist,
 competes at a jazz club. Below, Aaron Goldberg, another ping-pong
 player, on piano. Photographs by TY Cacek for The New York Times

It was 1:30 a.m. on a balmy Friday and the jazz musicians were still swinging. An air of sweat and cheap beer pervaded the dank walls of Fat Cat, a basement jazz club-cumpool hall in New York's West Village.

As the band played Miles Davis's "Nardis," pianist Aaron Goldberg drew back his pingpong paddle to launch a serve deep into the backhand corner.

The scene was not uncommon. Before, after, and sometimes even during gigs, many of New York City's jazz musicians flock to Fat Cat, where they compete for an elusive variant of a title once bestowed on Benny Goodman - the "King of Ping."

When they're not performing, they make a different kind of music with a paddle, the syncopated clave of ping-pong balls ricocheting off walls, bodies, and the familiar blue table.

"I was pleasantly surprised to discover that some of my jazz musician friends played ping-pong," said Mr. Goldberg, who has released four albums as a bandleader and performed alongside Joshua Redman and Wynton Marsalis recently.

Jazz players keep a beat with a ping-pong paddle

He had rushed downtown to Fat Cat to meet a dozen of his jazz cohorts following a performance at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center. "He's the new Forrest Gump," said the drummer Ali Jackson of Mr. Goldberg. "Jazz pianist by night, ping-pong extraordinaire by day."

Art Blakey, another drummer, once recorded a song called "Ping Pong." But the kinship between the two forms is not just sonic. "When things are going well, you're in the zone," Mr. Goldberg said. "You're just hitting the ball over the net. You don't even realize how you're doing it and it's pretty much the same with music."

The joint history of jazz and ping-pong is deep. Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims and Jack DeJohnette all wielded a paddle at one point or another, and in 1960, Monk bested Milt Jackson, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and others to win a musicians-only ping-pong tournament.

Among the musicians at the tables at Fat Cat that early Friday morning, no one could get a game off Steve Berger, a guitarist and composer of the television series "Schoolhouse Rock." Though he makes his living in jazz, Mr. Berger was once ranked among the top 20 American ping-pong players.

Noah Preminger, a tenor saxophonist and another contender that evening, with a crackerjack forehand and an even deadlier backhand, is known for fanning the flames of competition. "I think it improves my jazz game," Mr. Preminger said.

Many players believe that their instrument gives them a competitive edge. "There's definitely a correlation between ping-pong and the drums, probably more than any other instrument," said Bill Campbell, who plays often at the New York Table Tennis Federation in Chinatown or Spin, the actress Susan Sarandon's club by Madison Square Park. "With both table tennis and the drums, you play with power, finesse, and touch. You have to really have a lot of control."

The New York Times