The Piano Man returned to the Tacoma Mall Nordstrom on Saturday, and things didn’t quite go as planned.
Juan Perez, who played piano at the store for 27 years, wasn’t sure what to expect when asked to play a two-hour set, and the unexpected was just what he got.
The three co-presidents of the company — Erik, Pete and Blake Nordstrom — stood waiting as Perez descended by escalator to the main floor. They were waiting, and so were a hundred or so fans, friends and people with stories to tell, memories to share and, as it turned out, tears to shed.
“When my grandson was little we’d come here, and Juan would play the Charlie Brown song. I would stand there. My grandson was in his stroller and he was very happy,” said Darlene Stanton of Chehalis.
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“I wouldn’t have missed this,” she said.
“My 89-year-old mother and I would come out here. We’d sit and listen. We always admired him.” said Andrea Jager of Puyallup.
Perez arrived to applause and stood hand in hand with his wife, Susan.
“I will always be grateful to the Nordstrom family,” he said. “Nordstrom will always be forever Number One. God bless all of you.”
Seated on a bench before the rented Yamaha baby grand, Perez began with Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five.”
“Juan has just been a fixture and a legend,” said Erik Nordstrom, as the music began. “We want him to know how much people care about him. We are all so saddened with the health issues he has.”
Perez turns to the crowd and says he has been given a special request, and he plays “Under the Sea.”
“This is good closure for Juan,” said Susan.
She said he has begun a clinical trial that may help to combat synovial sarcoma, a rare and particularly nasty cancer. Later this month she and Juan will travel to Lourdes, France along with 50 other patients on an all-expense-paid pilgrimage sponsored by the Vatican-based Order of Malta.
Lourdes is known as a place where miracles occur.
“We’re going to look for healing, but I cannot tell God what to do,” Susan said. “It’s just getting our hearts to be synchronized with God’s will.”
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After a former store manager decided in 2013 that shoppers would prefer recorded music over live performance, Perez went on to perform at venues including Tacoma’s El Gaucho, the Tacoma Country and Golf Club, Tacoma Yacht Club, the Space Needle and Bellevue Square.
He continues to play, but on Saturday he was not able to play as many songs as planned.
After each song, people approached the piano. Perez rose from the bench to greet each one.
Some offered handshakes, some offered hugs, some took Perez into a deep embrace.
“Thank you,” they said.
“Your music has meant so much,” they whispered into his ear.
A line formed. The crowd grew, and people took photographs and video, collecting memories with their smartphones and tablets.
“I just wanted to thank him, that’s all,” said Ann Armstrong of Olympia. “This is part of God’s plan, I think, bringing us joy.”
‘I’ve known him for 25 years. He’s a beautiful man,” said George Lund, a 40-year Nordstrom employee who is now retired.
“Juan was the face of this store. He was the personality of this store. He could be the mayor of this city,” Lund said. “It was a magical time for a lot of customers. He made them feel comfortable, relaxed.”
After 20 minutes of greetings, of hugs and embraces, Juan returns to the piano. Four friends gather behind him and sing along to “Edelweiss.”
Then Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”
The crowd fills the aisles between women’s shoes and fine jewelry. Shoppers ascending on the escalator look down and smile.
“He is a blessing,” says Patricia Reynolds of Steilacoom. “He is helping people with his music.”
Perez shifts from a swift boogie-woogie riff into “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel.
“He just brings such beauty into people’s lives,” says Maria Fleischmann of Tacoma.
“I don’t even have words for this,” said Juan and Susan’s daughter, Agnes.
Then, “The Way You Look Tonight.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Teresita Perez, Juan’s sister, tells a story of Juan as a boy in Manila. Times were tough and there was little money to be earned, but Juan found a job selling lottery tickets, earning a small commission.
“He took the money to buy powdered milk for other people in our shantytown,” she said. “That was common for him. He said, ‘They are poorer than us.’ ”
Some of the embraces linger. People won’t let go. They have brought cards that lay stacked, sharing a small table with a bouquet of white roses and eucalyptus. Some fans have brought other bouquets, spring tulips and crimson roses.
Juan slides through the bright glissando inside “Great Balls of Fire.”
Then, “Stand by Me.”
“You don’t need to do great things to change the world. You just need to do little things,” says son Andrew Perez.
“People say they’re sorry for my dad,” he says. “But look at this, the lives he’s touched. Look at my dad — the rock star.”
“Lean on Me.”
“Whether he knows it or not, my dad’s making a difference,” Andrew says.
A mother holding an infant approaches to offer thanks and she can barely speak, her voice broken, her eyes as red as those roses.
Then, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
Then, finally, “Piano Man.”
The crowd goes quiet, gazes drift, and suddenly they begin to sway, softly, and tears fall.
Then it’s over, but it’s not.
There’s one last song, for Susan.
“How Great Thou Art.”
And as Perez plays, his 3-year-old granddaughter Lucia approaches holding the string of a lavender balloon.
Juan smiles as he plays.
“I’ll always be grateful to Nordstrom,” he says when he finishes, as the crowd thins. “The people said said they were missing me, and wishing me well.”
His family gathers the flowers, the cards and small gifts people have left. Shoppers once again browse for jewelry and shoes.
That might have been the end, as expected, but the day does not end there. Juan has grown tired, but not so tired that he can’t play one more song.
“We made a special trip,” says the caregiver of a young woman in a wheelchair.
The caregiver explains that the woman has used a wheelchair all of her life, and how some of the greatest joy in the woman’s life derived from trips to the store to hear Juan play.
Could he play one more song?
Yes, he could.
“You Are My Sunshine.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535