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First-ever Piano Bar Convention

I was invited to an important event in New Orleans last month: the first ever, and presumed to be annual, Piano Bar Convention. Due to my teaching schedule, gigs and other issues, I was not able to attend. But my friend and colleague, Troy Neihardt, went and I’m turning over this space to him so he can share his impressions.

Troy, the notion of a piano bar convention has been tossed around for years among the small group of full-time solo and duo piano bar artists who work the circuit, regionally, nationally and internationally. Usually when a handful of players are dropping names and telling stories, someone brings up how great it would be to all meet up in a city and see old comrades and meet new players, swap stories, jam together and such. In reality, the likelihood of this always seemed ultimately dismal. Who would organize such an assembly? How many entertainers would actually cough up their own money to attend something that would probably end up being a costly time of drinking, telling braggadocios lies, and, if lucky, a nice brawl to talk about? But I attended the First Annual Piano Bar Convention at Ticklers Piano Bar on Bourbon Street. Whatever skepticism I had was extinguished; it was a raging success.

Last year, around October, I first heard a rumor that Tim Buie (see previous issue of CJM for Mick Archer’s interview with him), part owner and player at Ticklers, was seriously considering making such an event happen. I met Tim in Norway in the mid-‘80s. We were both “holding court” in Oslo, Norway, which at that time, was regarded as the mecca of piano bars. Tim has always been a visionary, driven and ambitious, but I wondered if this might be overly optimistic, even for someone as magnanimous as him.

Last year, I was invited to fly to New Orleans to be in a piano documentary by Steve Savage, one of the hosts of the Piano Barbarians podcast, held at Ticklers Dueling Piano Bar. It was then when I realized this was going to be a reality. When I found out that Mark Weiser, player/manager of New York’s Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Piano Show, Drew DeFour, an entertainer/recording artist currently working with Savage on the documentary, and many notable players, agents and owners were going to be at the event, I made the commitment to be there.

New Orleans was the perfect spot for the Convention. As the cradle of jazz and the birthplace of Dueling Pianos (started at Pat O’Brien’s back in the 1930s), it is one city where gifted musicians are showcased and appreciated. The culture of live music is alive and well in the clubs and streets of the French Quarter, which includes a history hearkening back to the turn of the nineteenth century when sporting houses had piano players, called “professors,” entertaining the guests of the working girls.

Stemming from an industry with roots in “The Big Easy,” about 90 piano players from across the country gathered with international agents and piano bar owners; the importance of the event cannot be overstated.

“The willingness and excitement of this large a pool of performers, to gather in unprecedented numbers and discuss issues of importance and trade ideas and licks, is a sign of the deeper unity in this profession that binds the players together despite the superficial differences in style and approach,” Weiser said.

Ticklers Dueling Piano Bar on Bourbon Street was the perfect venue to host “PianoCon”—two fire engine-red grand pianos with a drum kit positioned in between. Players at different stages of their careers were present and jam sessions were held every night. The rotation of players was spectacular, as each one was keeping the edge on fire as they swapped songs and riffs throughout the evening.

On the second day there was a traditional Mardi Gras-style parade with two pianos and a drum kit on the back of a luxury-class pickup truck with a police escort. True to form, a large group of piano players had fun parading around the streets in the French Quarter, inspiring folks to sing along, clap their hands and be part of the show.

Other aspects of the conference included business and technique seminars from industry professionals, auditions with booking agents, a Haunted History Tour of New Orleans, a Louisiana crawfish boil and a performance fundraiser for the Norwegian Seaman’s Church. (The organization does local outreach programs with the city’s musicians and an international cultural exchange program with Scandinavia.) There was also a formal buffet meet and greet and an awards ceremony with speeches and presentations by Tim Buie, Mark Weiser and well-regarded talent agents Pat George, Jason Scarcelli and Geirr Dippner. A concert, featuring guest players, a jazz band, and a choir performance at a beautiful concert hall with two 9-foot Steinways followed, as well as many other opportunities for socializing and playing music together.

I admit that the term “jazz” is generally not what comes to mind anymore when referring to the genre of piano bar entertainment, though most of the practitioners are players and fans of that style. But it seems that this specific niche of sing-along/audience interactive entertainment fulfills—for many—a very primal need. Much like congregational singing or chanting at sporting events, it appeals to a human inclination to use familiar rhythms and melodies to be a part of a joyous group.

“It is an activity that has been going on for as long as humans have been able to vocalize a pitched sound,” said Kris Whitenack, an east coast player/contractor. “It is a remarkably unifying activity that seems to bridge generations.”

The inaugural Piano Bar Convention was a confirmation to those who attended that we are onto something valuable and worthwhile. It was invigorating to be present and soak in the presentations and performances of these exceptional musicians.

Kudos to Tim Buie and his wife Rita for being such gracious hosts, and for working so tirelessly for many months despite the “naysayers.” The event was a solid success and helped us all reconnect with our calling, our audiences and each other.

Next year’s Piano Bar Convention is already in the works and may remain in New Orleans for one more year before it moves on. It has been suggested that Chicago is the next to likely host the event. However, there are bids placed by Orlando and New York at this time. Wherever it ends up, I strongly suggest that if you are in the world of piano entertainment, you will want to be at the next one.

Mick Archer - 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.

#pianobar #chicagojazz #jazzmagazine #jazzpiano #redheadpianobar

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