It doesn’t take a rocket engineer to play the piano — or does it?
Most Americans who were alive to see the first moon landing say they will count that as one of their most memorable moments in life. For some, however — it’s so much more than even that.
Jim Stack is an 89-year-old jazz musician who works seven nights a week as a full-time pianist. Anyone who has heard the pianist/vibraphonist play (since 1981 at Charlotte Country Club and 1988 at Cajun Queen) would likely think music is his calling, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
What they might not know is he has had more than one calling.
A surreal moment in time might be described as one in which the pianist who, at the completion of his set that commands the room at the cozy New Orleans-style bar, can then sit down and talk specifics about the center of gravity, moment of inertia and mass.
Stack said he once played for Jacqueline Bouvier (before she was Kennedy), Mamie Eisenhower, Senator Lyndon Johnson and President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess. In Charlotte, he was a regular on the WBTV program Nocturne from 1955-1956, playing the vibraphone for a live audience.
Even after playing to such high-profile audiences of the past, Stack doesn’t let the magic wane even for one moment with his captivated Charlotte audience. Diners simultaneously enjoy their Etouffee while also taking in the moments that his music and the rest of Cajun Queen’s 7th Street Gator Band provides, soaking in the future memories that Stack is gifting to them.
The pianist, who uses two canes to walk and takes slow, deliberate steps, always tears up when he’s talking about his dad — or Neil Armstrong.
That’s because in 1963, the musician with a math degree saw an ad for engineers needed for the moon program in Long Island, New York. He knew immediately he had to be a part of it.
Stack said he quickly found himself working on the Apollo program alongside hundreds of other engineers. “It’s the most interesting job anybody ever had in the world,” Stack said. From 1963-1966, he said he worked for Grumman Companies, contracted by NASA to design a Lunar Excursion Module.
In 1969, Stack watched the moon landing from a musician friend’s house in Burbank, California. “I had my fingers crossed, good gracious,” Stack said. “I mean, that thing could have toppled over, you know. They didn’t have much fuel left when they landed. I just said ‘please, please.’
In 1970, music called again, and Stack moved back to the Charlotte area where he’s been a full-time musician ever since (except for 1979, where he spent a year in Greenville, South Carolina, working with big band leader Charlie Spivak).
At Cajun Queen, the music is advertised as jazz, but Stack said they often change it up. “We can do country music, we can do some rock. We do New York Broadway music. We play all kinds of popular music.”
Roy “Mr. Roy” Williams is a Cajun Queen regular who has known Stack since the early 80s when he heard him play at a place on South Tryon called Lizzie’s (now Lynn’s Dance Club). “I kept up with him after that,” Williams said. “We’ve been friends a long, long time. He’s a super cat, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Williams said he’s not the only one who feels that way. “A lot of people come here especially for him,” he said. “He means a lot to this place.”
Doug Henry, 68, plays clarinet and saxophone at Cajun Queen on Sunday and Monday nights, and he counts himself as one of Stack’s closest friends.
Henry can’t quite remember how he and Stack started regularly playing together at the restaurant, but there was a moment where the cards aligned. “One night I was playing with one fellow, and the next I was playing with Jim.”
That was in 1989, and it’s been that way ever since.
“There’s a musical telepathy that goes on between us,” Henry said. “His talent is unbelievable.” He is amazed by the fact that Stack still plays seven nights a week. “That’s what he does; that’s his calling.”
Henry said in a city as big as Charlotte, which has a lot of live music, it would be difficult to find someone as universally loved as Stack. “If you mention his name, you’ll never hear anything ugly. It’s hard to get that in the music world.”
Being a rocket engineer isn’t the only thing that makes Stack smart, Henry said. He gives his friend props for attending Queens College from 1954-1957 — when there were only 20 male students and about 400 women. Those were great odds, Henry said.
Drummer Reed Battim, 78, plays on Mondays at Cajun Queen. The musicians and regulars have a good time together, Battim said. “It’s as much fun as old people can have with their clothes on.”
In all seriousness, Stack’s music is part of what makes the moments there so meaningful. “Jim makes it sound so easy. I’ve never heard him say a bad word to anybody,” Battim said. “The nights that Jim plays are kind of magical.”
Kevin Riggs has been bartending at Cajun Queen for seven years, and he said Stack’s connection to the other musicians and his little stories add to the cozy vibe of the restaurant. “Monday night is my favorite night to bartend. Jim comes in early, picks what he’s going to have for dinner and hangs out,” he said.
Stack is a quirky eater, Riggs said, with four or five dishes in his rotation and some nights his order is as simple as a bowl of rice with ketchup. He always has a crossword puzzle with him. “He gives off a very relaxed and fluid vibe. He’s not loud or aggressive. The band knows how to read each other very well.”
There are two main things that draw customers into Cajun Queen, Riggs said: the online food porn and live music. “They point at a photo on social media of the dish they want, and they request to sit by the live music.”
The restaurant offers seven nights of live music each week, and each night offers something just a little bit different, Riggs said. Cajun Queen’s Facebook page often broadcasts the music live on Sundays and Mondays, for those who would like to hear the 7th Street Gator Band but aren’t able to make it out. “It’s nice on Monday nights when it’s relaxed but you can hear the conversation over the band. If you want to hear music, you want to come on Monday.”
Mondays it is, and after enjoying the New Orleans B.B.Q. shrimp appetizer, look for the man with two canes, the slow walk and a big presence at the piano. Stack turns 90 in September, and he has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
He said, “I’ll keep playing as long as I can play, you know?”