by Mick Archer
Doyle’s Duet with a Giant Pianist reminisces, recollects radio session with a jazz great
Of all the illustrious pianists I’ve written about, no one can top Elizabeth Doyle for bragging rights—she was once a guest on NPR’s outstanding program “Piano Jazz” with Marian McPartland. To me, that’s better than a Grammy. Doyle was a guest on the show on July 17, 2007. “Piano Jazz” is a weekly one-hour radio show produced and distributed by National Public Radio, which began in 1978. The eminent jazz pianist Marian McPartland (1918–2013) was its host.
How cool was McPartland?
Well, she’s the only white lady in that legendary Art Kane photograph, “A Great Day In Harlem.” That was a black-and-white group portrait of 57 notable jazz musicians photographed in front of a brownstone in Harlem on August 12, 1958. You can see Marian in the lower-front right, standing next to Sarah Vaughan. McPartland hosted
all of the top jazz pianists in the world until she retired at the age of 93 in 2011. She then turned the show over to former Chicagoan Jon Weber. You can still find it in syndication, on podcasts and you can purchase archived recordings at their website. Recently, I met up with Elizabeth at her Friday night gig, right up the street from
The Old Town School Of Folk Music where I have my “Piano Bar 101” class, also on Fridays. We usually have an open mic at Serbian Village or somewhere after the class, but since we had nothing booked that night a dozen of us took a stroll up Lincoln Avenue to Barba Yanni, a Greek “taverna” just south of Lawrence.
Doyle and I are both members of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals, and we were briefly in a vocal ensemble, Champagne Edition, in the early ‘80s and are both longtime Chicago piano bar survivors. We made a lot of chitchat after she was done with her set. Here are some of the things she had to say during our conversation: I was thinking back to my first five-night-a-week piano bar job in the Palmer House in the ‘70s. Smoking was allowed indoors. Seating wrapped around the piano and customers would sing, chat, drink cocktails, nibble nuts and smoke their cigarettes and cigars with wild abandon—literally a few feet from the entertainer. Group sing-alongs would start spontaneously on certain songs like “Piano Man” or anything by The Beatles. Guest singers would sit in for a number or two, some being wonderful, others being quite ear-shatteringly terrible. The room would fill with conventioneers, business people stopping in for a post-work martini or two, couples out for drinks and dinner and the occasional vice cop, drug dealer or prostitute. Of course, there were regulars who would stay until closing every night.
During this storied time, celebrities would frequently be attracted to live-music spots: One night while entertaining in the Metropole at the Fairmont, I looked over at the bar to see The Kingston Trio on a break from their show in the Moulin Rouge; at the Pump Room, I had a chat with Billy Joel about his daughter taking piano lessons; Maya Angelou would request the song “Midnight Sun,” and Cleo Laine and her husband, John Dankworth, invited me to sing at their home theater in England; [and] Paul Newman requested an Erik Satie piece two different times at Convito Italiano, a delightful restaurant in the Gold Coast. I remember magical nights in the Drake Hotel’s Coq d’Or or the lobby of the Swiss Grand with Studs Terkel sitting just a few feet from my piano. On another occasion in the East Bank Club’s bar/restaurant, Michael Jordan was snapping his fingers to my music, only to wave at someone coming down the stairs above us—a young Barack Obama. Every night was filled with a cast of characters from the famous to the interesting to the slightly dangerous. And by the way, I sang five times for “Ol’ Blue Eyes” while he dined and enjoyed his Jack Daniels. "All very interesting, but what I really wanted to hear from Elizabeth was her recollections of her radio session with Marian McPartland. “ … Out of the blue, I received an invitation
to be a guest on Marian McPartland’s ‘Piano Jazz’ on NPR. Unbeknownst to me, one of my fans had submitted my name and CDs to the famed lady of jazz. She and her producer invited me to fly to New York to record a show with them in a Chelsea studio. I was accompanied by my college friend and fellow pianist, Nancy Parish, who lived in New York. We splurged and hired a black Town Car to take us to the recording session. The program was
being sponsored by Fazioli in New York, so the piano store whisked in one of their gorgeous instruments for me to play. Ms. McPartland was
playing on her usual Steinway grand piano.
As some of you may know, the format contained solos by the guest artist, solos by McPartland, one or two duets and lots of conversation between numbers. As a special treat, Marian did a musical impression of me on the spot, something she had not done for some time. At this point in her life, what she lacked in speed she more than made up for with harmonic and melodic invention. At the time, I was researching songs Peggy Lee had co-written and ran across “In the Days of Our Love,” with lyrics by Lee and music by McPartland. We talked about their friendship and how the song came about. At one point the producer said we had to stop chatting when the mics were off so we didn’t lose some of our great anecdotes. As much
fun as talking was with her, playing together was even better. We seemed to be having a veritable musical conversation from one piano to the other.
She was also most gracious in making sure I got to sing and play some of my own compositions. My one regret is that I did not get a photo of her.
All I have is the memory of our three hours together as we endeavored to capture music and ideas on tape. After our recording session ended, technicians rapidly disassembled both pianos. Within minutes, the studio was empty with the two pianos off to their next ‘gigs.’
I never saw Ms. McPartland again, but we did talk several times after that by telephone. I sent her some of her favorite types of tea, for which she was appreciative. Her musical colleagues were her family and she stayed on top of who was doing what in the music business. She would always ask about her favorite Chicago bass player, Jim Cox, who was someone I saw often. Our taped show went on to be broadcast on over 200 NPR stations with a second broadcast a year or two later. I believe all of her shows, including the one with me, are available in the ‘Piano Jazz’ archives. Talk about a
treasure trove of music! … "Wow—top that for a piano-player-gig brag! As we concluded our conversation, I asked Elizabeth what she was up to now. Since most of the full-time, dedicated piano bar venues are gone—certainly many locations where a single entertainer does four, five or six nights a week—I asked how she’s staying busy these days. “ … My musical employment today includes private parties, group and solo cabaret shows,
performing in one-hour programs on specific topics like ‘Music and the Presidents’ at community venues and providing music for funerals, weddings and general church services. And I do have a weekly Friday piano bar job at Barba Yianni restaurant in Lincoln Square. But I am still working on my
skill set, which includes songwriting, composing full musicals, mass settings, choral pieces and art songs. …”
This month, Elizabeth Doyle will be featured in a Chicago Composers show on March 6 at Victory Gardens sponsored by the Chicago Cabaret Professionals. She will also be playing the Steinway in the Signature Room at the Hancock Building for a Saturday brunch on March 11 from
10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and is collaborating with singer Claudia Hommel at the Wilmette Library on March 16 in a show entitled “Vocal Canvas,” featuring French art songs. Her month closes out on March 31 with a backers audition for her musical, The White City: Burnham’s Dream, co-written with playwright June Finfer.
All very busy indeed—though not much piano bar, aside from Fridays at Barba Yann“ … Well, my creative life is full and satisfying today. Still, those golden days of piano bars past were a wonderful chapter in my career.”
Singers and pianists of all styles are welcome to join the class Piano Bar 101, taught by Mick Archer on Fridays 8 p.m.-9:20 p.m., at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Call for availability (773) 728-6000 or visit OldTownSchool.org