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Seeing the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” on the life and work of Fred Rogers reminded me of two things I sometimes forget:

1. There is genuine goodness in the world.
2. A mind-blowing pianist is for some reason playing absolutely top-shelf jazz as Mr. Rogers changes his shoes.

I’ll leave the goodness to others. Let’s talk about that piano.

Rogers hired Pittsburgh jazz pianist Johnny Costa (who was called “the white Art Tatum” by the black Art Tatum, aka “Art Tatum”) as his musical director. Costa said yes because Rogers offered him the exact amount of his son’s college tuition — which, as the father of three kids halfway through college, I So Get. But Costa had a condition: he wanted to play sophisticated music instead of kiddy stuff, believing that kids could handle it. Rogers was an accomplished pianist himself, and not condescending to kids was a big part of his philosophy, so it was not a hard sell.

But jazz in general is one thing. What actually happens in the opening theme of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is seriously great jazz.

0:00-0:14  He opens on a celeste, the magical bell piano you have already met in Harry Potter. Already there are some gems, like the jazz chords at 0:07 and 0:10. At 0:11 you get those three sweet melting chromatic chords, very nice.

At 0:32 , the celeste hands off to a jazz trio as Fred enters, laying back to not eclipse the entrance, but still delivering gorgeous piano-lounge jazz.

Then the real fun starts. 0:43-0:50 is just so subtle and tasty, with the piano doing that straight-against-swing thing that’s so hard to master. He improvises the melody in such a way that it dances with Rogers’s singing, overlapping the lyrics but saving more complicated gestures for the spaces in-between — the kind of listening you only get from a skilled jazz collaborator.

But it’s the closing flourish at 1:22 that goes seriously Art Tatum and is so Italian-Chef-Kissy-Fingers perfect it makes my eyes water.


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Need more convincing? Check out these closing credits (h/t Gary Gibson):

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.