There are pianists and then there are piano players, according to Mike Greensill, who is of the latter persuasion.
Greensill, longtime inspired accompanist/arranger/husband of the great cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield, makes the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow keyboard artists in a recent interview. Musical lowbrow that I am, I much prefer listening to piano players to classical virtuosi. Vladimir Horowitz and Emmanuel Ax are fine, if you dig that sort of thing, but I’ll take Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, Bobby Short and Peter Mintun any day.
Pianists like Feinstein, Ross, Mintun and the late Short make/made the piano sing– literally, which is why I much prefer them to their classical brethren. If Horowitz and Ax had sang more show tunes I might feel otherwise. Even great jazz pianists don’t often do it for me, with a few major exceptions–Teddy Wilson, mainly, but also Erroll Garner, Art Tatum and Joe Bushkin. Wilson’s light-fingered touch is unsurpassed, and he’s not so jazzy that he loses his way in the melody, which is always where I get badly lost.
I actually encountered the silky smooth Wilson when I lived in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and would eat dinner at a little place called The Cookery, never realizing that it was a famous jazz club as well. They usually had a piano player tinkling merrily away, and one night I saw a sign outside that said, “Tonight: Teddy Wilson.” Surely, I thought, this couldn’t be the Teddy Wilson of Benny Goodman renown. But it was indeed the very selfsame legend. I was instantly transfixed and paid little attention to the grilled cheese sandwich on my plate. Wilson gave his usual effortless, modest performance, full of thrilling trills and flourishes all nonchalantly tossed off without expression, as masterful a performance as anything by Horowitz.
For me, listening to a song’s melody, even played by a superb jazz musician, is still incomplete without the lyrics. Purist and square that I am, I’m not even a fan of jazz singers when they venture too far from the original tune, turning it into a vocal tour de force rather than interpreting the lyrics as written, but that’s another column. A little embellishment and distinctive vocal styling is crucial, but when it crosses the line into scooby-do and scat, I’m outta there. I much prefer the early Carmen McRae and Peggy Lee to their later, hipper jazz versions. But I digress — like any fine jazz pianist.
The best piano players and singers of the great American songbook give voice to ballads and comedy songs that we treasure from the great musicals and movies of yore. Even a second-rate film musical like “Moon Over Miami” (which I just saw on Turner Classic Movies) usually has at least one or two great, if forgotten, songs of the kind resurrected and showcased by pianists like Feinstein, Ross, Mintun, Ronnie Whyte, Barbara Carroll and others, now a dying breed - one of whom just died, Blossom Dearie.
These great “cocktail pianists”–a disparaging term, really–keep the tradition alive for great Broadway and Hollywood songs too easily dismissed or discarded. New York was once rich in such clever piano players, usually hidden away in hotel lounges where they were treated like Muzak by noisy guests and drinkers. When I first encountered Feinstein, he was playing in the lounge of L.A.’s Hotel Mondrian on Sunset Boulevard, singing his heart out and trying to be heard above the chatter of tourists just returned from a day on the town. Feinstein would put up with a lot, but at one point he could take the yammering no longer, quietly closed the keyboard and walked out. Nobody noticed but me.
That, alas, is the classic plight of most hotel piano players, but Feinstein kept plugging away and, after a wildly successful booking at the old Plush Room in San Francisco, where I (and others) wrote about him glowingly, he was booked at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel and never looked back. He claims I put him on the map but he would have found his way to New York sooner or later. He now owns, or at least runs, Feinstein’s at the Loewe’s Regency in Manhattan, home to many a high priced cabaret singer, where the tab can easily run into the hundreds of dollars for dinner and a show.
Saloon pianist-singers were often featured in films–most notably Hoagy Carmichael, who also acted; Dooley Wilson in “Casablanca” and many lesser knowns. They dutifully plinked out ballads in scenes set in fancy clubs and speakeasies where gangsters gathered with their girls (often the sultry singer). No film of the `30s and `40s was complete without a sexy singer crooning a slithery love song, usually written for the film by people like Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Some of the tunes survived the B-movies they were shoe-horned into and became hits, but most of the songs were just background musical embroidery to decorate a scene.
There are precious few hotel pianist-singers still working. Feinstein has moved on, if not always up (to me, he will always remain an irresistible saloon pianist-singer, not a concert crooner or recording artist). Peter Mintun ran out of hotels after a long stay at L’Etoile in San Francisco, where he was the most reliable and knowledgeable of pianists with a loyal following, even before he took up singing), Bemelman’s Bar at New York’s Hotel Carlyle and other venues. Steve Ross is still plying his trade wherever he can, specializing in Cole Porter, probably the best of this vanishing breed.
All of them have vast repertoires, and an equally vast knowledge of the songs and songwriters they sing. All are taken far too much for granted. Thirty years ago, a cocktail pianist like George Feyer was a star in the Carlyle lounge. The only ones who really broke through in a big way are Bobby Short, who defined the genre, and Michael Feinstein, who carries the songbook torch almost alone today.
I first got addicted to the sound of tinkling cocktail piano after buying the sound track of “The Eddy Duchin Story,” about the doomed society piano player (Tyrone Power at his sleekest, black hair pasted back into a patent-leather sheen) whose songs and elegant piano stylings were so indelibly interpreted by Carmen Cavallero in the film where they seduced the equally sleek Kim Novak, as Duchin’s society wife.
It was a huge kick to later dance to Duchin’s pianist son Peter, whose band was a mainstay at San Francisco’s Black and White Ball for years. When I first attended the Ball, it featured a different band in every venue (in the `80s the actual Harry James and Tex Beneke were still fronting bands!), with a token rock group for the Younger Set, Now, of course, it’s all rock bands and one dance band to mollify the Codger Set.
A sub-group of pianistic performers are comic players and singers like Oscar Levant, Victor Borge, and Tom Lehrer, the onetime Harvard and MIT math professor remembered for his lyrics not his piano playing. He only played his own wickedly satirical songs, usually genre parodies of folk songs, Irish reels, country ditties or some other genre, but as deftly as the lyrics we all still relish. A new boxed set of Lehrer singing his life work just came out from Shout! Records to commemorate the longtime collegiate’s 80th birthday.
The poor man’s Lehrer, Mark Russell, for decades sang topical songs of his own devising at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Still alive but negelcted, alas, is Max Morath, who played old saloon and ragtime songs with an engaging narrative patter about their history in a long-running PBS series.
The endlessly inventive Victor Borge found more wit inside his grand piano than anybody ever thought possible. He mocked the very idea of serious music, though he was a capable soloist whose wry, deadpan manner turned his Steinway into a straight man for jokes, verbal and physical, about music, musicians and composers. To quote a legendary ad, they laughed when he sat down at the piano.
Oscar Levant carved out his own offbeat niche in movies–maybe the least likely looking and acting guy ever to become a movie star. He was a serious concert musician and Gershwin acolyte who somehow wound up in a lot of Hollywood musicals, playing the wisecracking piano playing friend of the star–such as Gene Kelly’s pal in “An American in Paris” and Fred Astaire’s partner in “The Band Wagon.”
Levant was a demon piano player, amateur singer, non-actor and fake dancer who somehow cobbled together a career in films, on the radio and even TV in his final years, as a regular raconteur on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” discussing his ailments and dispensing devastating one-liners like, “I remember Doris Day before she was a virgin.” For a mere piano player, he made it big. He also wrote memoirs with wry Levantesque titles like “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” and “The Unimportance of Being Oscar.”
Easily the most infectious of all comedian pianists, Jimmy Durante, was one of the greatest performers in the history of show business, a raggedy piano player in a battered hat and raincoat with a perfectly matched ragged voice whose unique style of singing, playing and speaking has never been duplicated, nor will it ever. He was a beloved presence in movies, such as his unforgettably joyous duet “It’s Gotta Come from the (i.e., “de”) Heart” with Frank Sinatra in “It Happened in Brooklyn.”
Durante personified the lowdown saloon pianist, and in fact he owned his own downtown joint, the Club Durant (allegedly he didn’t have enough money to pay for a final “e” on the neon sign) with his partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, a longtime high-stepping strutter whose main function (when I saw them at the end of their careers in the late `60s at the old Circle Star Theater in San Carlos) was to jump on stage in a tux, top hat and cane and cry, “Sing it, Jimmy! Sing it!” Durante was sensational even then, in his 70s, as fresh and jubilant as if he had just arrived, and mangled words in his customary classic manner (the only one I remember is a reference to “Pally Alto”).
Durante is easily worth a column, if not a book, of his own. He elevated, renovated and decimated the concept of the piano-plunking saloon singer; his old nightclub act always ended with him physically destroying the piano. He shouting his funny, exuberant comic songs in that unmistakable meat-grinder Brooklyn voice–catchy one-of-a-kind tunes like “Inka-Dinka-Do,” “I Can Do Without Broadway but Can Broadway Do Without Me?,” “Umbriago” and his radio theme song, “Ya Gotta Start Off Each Day With A Song”). His TV show was equally sui generis, and always ended with Durante shambling upstage, hat on head, stepping into a gradually diminishing series of spotlights as he bid, “Goodnight, Missus Calabash, wherevah ya are!” Nobody ever learned who Mrs. Calabash was–long lost love, ex-wife, or just a sweet farewell to an old friend.
Nobody knows who wrote Durante’s nonsense songs (maybe he did), but only Durante could deliver them the way they were meant to be heard. As clownish as he was a comic singer, he was an equally touching ballad singer, warbling songs like “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Young at Heart” that gave Da Great Durante a brief, unexpected revival when Nora Ephron used them on the sound track of “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Good night, Mr. Durante–wherever ya are!
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