Donnie Heitler arrives for his gig at Minecci’s early, with a pack of smokes in his breast pocket, ready to play music. That will come later. First he has to relax a bit and enjoy a plate of spaghetti and a single meatball. When I ask him how he became the house piano player two nights a week, his response is to the point. He answers, “Actually, a good friend of me got me this job. He had heard about it at the old Minecci’s because he would go in there. And I wasn’t doing anything, so that’s pretty much it.”
He seems to have be man of few words, but I can tell from his interactions with friends around the restaurant that the words he does use carry a lot of weight. Heitler is blind and relies on public transportation or the assistance of friends to get across town. As his friend leads him to his table of choice, he’s stopped, like an elder statesman of jazz, by well wishers just happy to be around him. I’d heard that Heitler had attended the Jacksonville School of the Blind, and relayed the story of a beloved uncle of mine that had taught there. His face lit up when he said my Uncle Floyd had been a favorite teacher. After a few stories about our shared history, I asked him about his experience learning to play piano without the vision we all take for granted.
He states, “I started at the school for the blind. My second grade teacher asked if anybody wanted to study music. So I started early.” I asked him about the seemingly strange and difficult experience of learning music from braille, and he observed that for him, it was actually quite normal. “I learned braille music right along with literary braille. You’re a young kid, you don’t think anything about it.”
In my research, I had learned that Heitler spent some time as a musician in New York City. His time there was during the period where jazz was still booming. He told me humbly, “ I did recording dates with a lot of interesting people.” When I ask him who his favorite artists are, he pauses and with a sly smile states simply, “The usual suspects.”
It’s almost time for him to start playing, so I tell Heitler I’ll catch up with him later, and head to a my table to listen to him and play and get some dinner. Heitler’s playing immediately sets the perfect mood for enjoying some delicious Italian food. One of the first songs he plays is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” at the request of one of the servers. The server, Jessy, says, “I’ve never heard of a request he couldn’t play. And people try to trip him up!” Soon after, in between songs, an audience member’s phone rings. Heitler immediately mimics the melody on his keyboard, and that sly grin returns.
His playing throughout the evening is flawless and seems to flow out of him without effort. His hands glide from note to note with so little trepidation that his music takes a smooth quality; that smoothness is unique to Donnie.
Jessy stops by our table and notes that Heitler loves his audience and thrives on their applause. “Sometimes people just take advantage of live music, and have it in the background. They forget to clap.” From then on I note Donnie’s reaction at the end of each tune. On this night, there was no shortage of applause, as a table of regulars had filled the table closest to Heitler. At the conclusion of each song, as the applause rolls in, his face lights up completely, and he lowers his head a bit, happy and humble.
After playing for about an hour, Heitler turns off his amp and heads outside for a break. By the time I catch up with him, he’s lit a cigarette and is in conversation with a man outside. His friend tells him to put out his cigarette for the picture but I assure him not to worry about it. After taking the portrait, I thank him for his time and he warmly grabs my hand and graciously thanks me for taking the time to chat with him. Before I can go, he tells me that he has to go back inside the restaurant and say goodbye to my “bride”, as my wife accompanied me to Minecci’s. We exchange goodbyes and assure him we’ll be back to visit him and listen to him play in the future. Heitler’s playing is the kind that leaves you wanting more.