In basic training during World War II, Buddy Charles was playing piano and singing at noncom clubs at Fort Bragg, N.C. "And then," he says, "they stationed us up in Alaska and I was on a garbage truck detail . . . It was one of those things that happened very quickly -- I said, 'What the hell are you going to do? You love to play so why don't you do it,' and that's what I did."

The nearly four decades since that revelation have seen Charles at the pianos of countless bars and show spots. He is in his 13th year at the Acorn in his hometown, Chicago, and he will be at Cates in Alexandria through Saturday.

A Charles performance is eclecticism itself, and might include anything from American show tunes, French, German and Greek songs to Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway jive, Fats Waller stride, blues, boogie-woogie, comedy and dance. "You get momentum going," explains Charles, whose last local appearance was in the late '50s with Muggsy Spanier's band at the Blue Mirror. "Let's say you start out with a '42nd Street' medley. And if there are lots of young people, there are things they like -- songs about dope and drinking and bad guys. Maybe you'll end up with a Stephen Sondheim number or some of the Oscar Brown stuff. You kind of pace your show and even if they're a low-key crowd, by the second set they should be rolling. But it depends -- I don't know how the audiences in Washington are now."