Piano Bar

 

by Mick Archer

 

 

Steve Sandner
The Quintessence of a Solo-singing Pianist as a Jazz Artist

 

In the four years I’ve written this column, I’ve discovered that being a good musician doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer. In fact, many superb musicians can barely string a coherent sentence together much less write a compelling autobiography. But my old friend Steve Sandner is a great writer and has an incredible story to tell.

 

But first a little background. Though never super-close, Steve and I enjoy the kind of casual, long-standing professional /personal relationship that makes being a musician such a joy. We’ve been bouncing into each other for nearly 40 years. During that time, we’ve hung out a bit, been to each other’s homes—I took my daughter to his place when she was little for piano lessons, and he used to attend the all-night jam parties at my storefront loft space near Midway Airport.

Steve Sander

During those South Side days, I used to organize a “White Sox musicians” outing every summer that he attended. Though very quiet and reserved, Steve is a social animal and likes to be around people, especially musicians and music lovers. In the waning days of Rush Street, we’d literally bump into each other crossing Division and State, rushing to and from our gigs. In the mid-‘80s I used to produce monthly singer/songwriter events at the legendary Lincoln Avenue club Orpahns, which moved and morphed into the equally legendary Beat Kitchen, and Steve showed up one night with a brilliant set of compositions. Both of us knew the exhilaration and loneliness of the road. We commiserated when we were both out of the country simultaneously—he in Morocco and me in Japan back in the early days—at the beginning of the internet revolution when it used to cost more to get online.

 

But here’s the twist.

 

During all this time, I never knew that Steve was at Berklee on a trumpet scholarship! I had no idea. Talk about somebody who did not blow his own horn.

 

I love this guy. Please enjoy his story...

“My very first gigs were in Crystal Lake in the mid-‘60s. My first paid gig was on May 4, 1963, with a junior high Dixieland combo called The Mad Hatters. We each made $2. On that first gig with me was Billy Panda, who later made his mark on the Chicago music scene as a performer and studio musician and, last I heard, now lives in Nashville. More gigs continued in high school, and I had additional influence from my band director Bill Laskey, a jazz tenor player who had played with Lenny Tristano. I played gigs on both trumpet and piano, and sometimes I would even hire Bill Laskey to play on my gigs.

My first solo piano gig was at Crystal Lake Country Club, and Hoyt Jones, great Chicago arranger, was a member there, and he became a mentor of mine. He was NBC staff arranger, and had previously arranged for Harry James and Les Brown. I sometimes switched to trumpet with Hoyt on piano, and he would play these fantastic changes. I also did gigs on trumpet with my dad, Wally Sandner. He was a pianist and had a small time big band, the Cavaliers, in the western suburbs in the early 40s. After the war, he played in piano lounges in Chicago. After he married my mom, who forced him to get a day job, he always played weekends in the NW suburbs. He had a unique entertaining style and was especially known for his boogie-woogie.

 

Summer of 1967 after graduating from high school, I had a scholarship at Berklee School of Music in Boston where I majored in trumpet. My one semester there I studied arranging and theory and played trumpet in a big band directed by John LaPorta. My classmate Michael Brecker got some of us students rehearsing together on the side, and we had an amazing night as a quintet at a local club called the Unicorn. I also played piano with the J Geils Blues Band, and later played a steady piano gig at a strip club on Washington Street in the “Combat Zone.”

 

After Berklee, I started at University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. I played trumpet, and some piano, in the main jazz band under the directorship of the great John Garvey. Some of the musicians in the band that year were trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater, Jim Knapp, Ken Ferrentino, and Ric Bendel; saxophonists Ron DeWar and Howie Smith; drummer Charlie Braughm; and pianist Jim McNeeley. There were also little combos and bands among the musicians, and we would often play gigs together.

 

1968 was a highly emotional and tumultuous year for me and for many others. I became disenchanted with the Vietnam war and with society in general. It was a personal crisis for me. I dropped out of school to study Raja Yoga with Oliver Black in Detroit. I felt like I needed a break, and I also felt a desperate need to find a conscious direction in life. I felt an attraction to the Indian culture, and I got a better perspective on the world and on myself studying yoga and meditation and being around the calm-spirited students of Oliver Black, among whom were Indian students. My choice was somewhat drastic, but I feel it turned out to be helpful in the long run.

 

So this started a years-long routine shuttling between Chicago and Michigan. I eventually got back to music studying both trumpet and piano at the American Conservatory of Music on Michigan Avenue, but soon concentrated primarily on classical piano with my teacher Vincent Micari. He was recommended to me by my high school piano teacher, Kurt Waniek, former head of the piano department at Northwestern University. This was my first experience of practicing long hours, and it was all classical pieces. I never did take “jazz lessons” on piano, and while at Berklee, piano class was the only course I had failed, since I never showed up! I didn’t tell Mr Micari that I was playing jazz piano gigs on weekends until I was leaving to move back to Michigan. He listened to me play a jazz piece and seemed horrified, but counseled me to at least strike the keys correctly and get a ‘good tone’ if I was going to play “that stuff.”

 

Back in Michigan, I got married and continued studying music, first at Wayne State, then piano studies with Dada Mehta, Zubin’s cousin, at Eastern Michigan University. Gradually I started playing gigs in the Detroit area, but they were few and far between. One of my first gigs was at a strip joint on Eight Mile Road. I didn’t tell my wife about that gig until many years later. My wife had a good job, but when she got pregnant, it was time to find a “real job.” After some struggle, I landed a short but important two-week gig with agent Graham Prince, who insisted that I start singing on my gigs, and he even gave me singing lessons during the breaks. This was the only vocal training I ever had. This gig was also good practice for transposing songs to the odd keys of the female singer. Then Graham introduced me to Max Gail, head of the biggest agency in Detroit, and father of Max Gail Jr of Barney Miller (70s TV show) fame. Max said he “needed a good piano player who could sing” and he gave a full-time year-round gig starting in December 1971 at Hidden Valley, an exclusive private club in Gaylord, a northern Michigan resort town. The gig started as a trio with Dennis Qualey on drums and Dave Mulligan on bass, then it was cut down to a duo. The gig lasted for four years. (Those were the days!) While I was there, I learned how to play a Hammond organ B-3.

 

I then spent a year in Detroit with a jazz/rock B-3 organ duo with drummer Tony Sertisch from the band “Frost”; then, in 1977, moved back to the Chicago area to accept a gig with the Gaslight Club at the Chateau Louise in Dundee, Illinois. I put a band together with Ed Williams on bass and Kevin Korschgen on drums and soon put a show together with the Gaslight Girls, singing waitresses. It was a good show using show-tune material, rock, pop, and even disco tunes. We had good crowds and a good run, but the Gaslight owner, Bob Fredricks, really preferred jazz. I told him that we were playing what the people wanted to hear, but we could play excellent jazz too if that’s what he wanted. Nevertheless, he hired a different band which included pianist DonWalker and singer Holly McGuire. (That band was fired after a month, and a top-40 band was then brought in). I was sent downstairs to the piano bar. This began my many years, off and on, of playing piano bars.

 

The piano bar gig was great, because it was steady, one location five nights a week, and, with tips, teaching lessons on the side, and some studio sessions, I could support my family. I began to appreciate having the listeners close by in an intimate setting. I would get helpful suggestions and requests from the audience, and I really got into learning a lot of songs, old standards, blues, and pop.

 

But the downside of playing such a solo gig is not having interaction with other musicians. I heard horror stories of solo players who lost their ability to play solidly with a rhythm section. So, I made it a point to go to a jam session, or at least sit in somewhere, once a week, sometimes on an off-night or sometimes after the gig, in Chicago. In those days there were some great open jam sessions like Get-Me-High-Lounge, Green Mill, Bop Shop, and other places, and there were a lot great players.

 

Eventually some of us northwest musicians found a place called Butterman’s in Elgin where we could jam once a week on an off-night. We each got $15 and a meal. The place was usually packed. Some of the musicians who showed up there were 16-year-old bassist Dennis Carroll, guitarist Dan McIntyre, Holly McGuire, saxophonist Jim Massoth, and drummer Dennis Becker. I played B-3 and a Fender Rhodes.

 

At some point around 1979 some of us were able to find a steady paying gig with a quartet on Sundays and Mondays at the lounge at Hyatt O’Hare. The Blue Max nightclub was also in the Hyatt, and, during our breaks, we were able to catch some great performances like B. B. King, Nancy Wilson, Mills Brothers, Temptations, and others.

 

Meanwhile, the other five nights a week I was at the Chateau Louise piano bar, and it was going great, I thought. The general manager talked to me and said, “Steve, you’re doing a great job, and, as long as I’m here, you’ll always have a job here.” I believe it was the very next day that he was fired, and a new manager came in. His new F & B director decided to go “in a different direction” and I was fired after playing there four years.

 

It was nice to have the steady Sun-Mon nights at the Hyatt to count on when my Gaslight piano bar gig ended, but I eventually got a gig as the early solo pianist at the Rib Exchange jazz club in Schaumburg. Here I was able to meet some great jazz performers, and occasionally my band was hired to play the featured evening sets.

 

Singer Carolyn Ford found me at the Rib Exchange and asked to join her at her opening gig at the Pump Room. Rich Melman had just purchased the Pump Room when it was still a very happening place, and our two-week gig was kind of an audition. The band included Dennis Becker on drums and Ed Hasse on bass. Carolyn was a savvy and experienced performer, and, with my recently learned skills in singing, transposing, and arranging, we matched up well. Rich Melman came in to hear us and he used the word ‘phenomenal.’ He offered us a year contract (even then, that was unusual) and insisted that Carolyn put my name on the contract too (also unusual).

 

This is where fate stepped in and Michigan called me back. My two kids from my first marriage were living with my ex in Michigan, and I was finding it impossible to find visitation time. At the same time my drummer Dennis Qualey from Michigan had purchased a club and offered me a gig in Traverse City. I agonized over this decision, but I knew my only chance to have any quality time with my kids was to move back to Michigan.

 

So it was back to Michigan in the fall of 1980 with my second wife and our three additional kids. The Michigan gig called for a different repertoire, old rock and country. I talked Dennis into having jazz one night a week. This was the beginning of the “Traverse City Jazz Quartet” with drummer John Knight, bassist Charley Hirschfield, and Kenton alumni Pete Asch on sax.

 

When the gig at Dennis’ club ended, I found a gig at the Waterfront, a newly built Traverse City hotel which featured a piano bar. Just like old times! I remember playing a lot of old standards, some 60s songs, blues, Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Billy Joel, material I still play at solo piano gigs today. Again, I talked the manager to having jazz one night a week at whatever he could pay. It turned out to be the price of a solo performer, $75 at the time, divided by four, $18.75 each. We joked about that for years. But I think we got free beer. And we did pack the place. The quartet played together on and off for about ten years.

 

About this time I took a renewed interest in the blues. There was a blues element in some of the music I played anyway, and I had recently “discovered” Mose Allison. During the first quiet winter in Michigan, I listened to Robert Barclay’s blues show on WCMU, and, when I was in Illinois, I caught Steve Cushing’s late-night show on WBEZ in Chicago. I taped all their shows and listened to them over and over. I started playing blues almost all the time on my gigs, even when it wasn’t appropriate! I’ve put together several blues bands over the years, and the audience response is usually great. And I try to play some blues-orientated songs at all my gigs.

 

I was very happy to be spending time with my kids in Michigan and work was plentiful then during the summer season. But, during the off season, it was brutal, and there was very little work. So I started going back and forth more between Michigan and Chicago. Agent Joy Dickens found steady work for me with Gene Sage’s restaurants in Arlington Heights and on State Street in Chicago. These locations were piano bars where patrons could sit around the piano, enjoy a drink, chat with the piano player, and listen to the music. At State Street, I would meet sports celebrities like Cubs’ announcers Jack Brickhouse and Harry Carey, Bears’ defensive end Richard Dent, and baseball legend Ernie Banks. Sage had two restaurants with the same entrance on State Street, and each restaurant had a piano player. I remember my very first night playing there and meeting the other piano player in the bathroom. He was putting his tux on, but he had a dilemma since he had no cuff links. I handed him my cuff links, since my shirt, unlike his, had auxiliary buttons on the cuffs. That was my first time meeting Mick Archer, though I had discreetly heard him play a few years before at the Northwest Passage in Cary, and I remember being very impressed!

 

I always played summers in Michigan and spent most of the rest of the year working in the Chicago area. I remember often working five nights at Sage’s, then driving eight hours back to Michigan to work Sunday night at the Grand Traverse Resort (also a piano bar). I would go to my son’s soccer game Monday night, then drive back to Chicago Tuesday in time for the gig. Another piano bar I would work was the Anvil Club, a private club in East Dundee where my dad played for 40 years. At this piano bar the management did not allow a tip jar, but patrons would often just lay bills on the piano in front of me. One evening, after a long drive back from Michigan, I literally fell asleep while I was playing. I woke up still sitting at the piano, and there was a huge pile of money in front of me. I had no idea how it got there!

 

The summer of 1986 I played at the Argonne, a short-lived club with a piano bar on Union Street in Traverse City, and I was hearing some enthusiastic remarks behind me after each song. I turned around, and met, for the first time, the legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave! As luck would have it, I had my trumpet with me that night, so Marcus picked it up and we played together the rest of the night. Marcus was with the original Ray Charles band, had played trumpet on the Motown hits, and also was a founding member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marselis. This started a years-long friendship and we eventually recorded two CDs together. We also played some memorable gigs in Chicago and Detroit. He asked me to play with him the first time he ever played Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, the oldest jazz club in the country. We played to a jam-packed room with unbelievable energy, probably the most memorable gig I ever played.

 

Lonie Walker’s Underground Wonderbar opened in 1989 and was one of the most fun places to play. Chicago pianist/singer Sami Scot had earlier introduced me to Lonie, who was then playing at the piano bar at the Holiday Inn on Ohio, when a group of us musicians used to hang out after hours on Rush Street. A couple of times we went en masse to the piano bar Acorn on Oak, since Buddy Charles would play very late, and he was a master entertainer. I watched him in awe one late night as he played, for an hour straight, one hilarious novelty tune after another! Dave Green was at the piano bar at Toulouse, and he was amazing. Johnny Frigo and Joe Vito would sometimes be at Toulouse. Yvette’s on State had two Yamaha pianos on the same stage, and I remember going there and jamming. Blondie’s and Billie’s were upstairs and downstairs from each other, open late, sometimes with some great jazz. I remember seeing pianist Irma Thompson with her trio including husband drummer Marshall Thompson, formerly the house drummer at the London House. Lonie helped continue the late-night tradition by opening the Wonderbar near Walton & State, and she survived even when other clubs quit staying open late. When she asked me to play there, Lonie told me, “Play whatever you want,” which was very freeing. I did late night Tuesdays there, 1 to 4 AM, as a solo pianist in a piano bar setting. Needless to say, it was a very interesting group of people who would show up during those hours, and “the blues” fit in very well!

 

In the fall of 1989, Joy Dickens booked my quartet on an overseas gig in Singapore for four months. She had already booked Judy Roberts’ band there several times. This was a fabulous gig, and I worked with bassist Carroll Crouch, drummer Darryl Ervin, and my Michigan buddy Pete Asch on sax. We performed in a large nightclub with an almost concert-like setting. The Asian audience loved American jazz, and the band got very tight. We all experienced a new culture, and, during the day, I studied classical Indian music, vocals and harmonium, with a very fine teacher from Bombay (now Mumbai). I still have a recording of my recital. The food was exotic, even in the employee cafeteria. Two months into the gig, Carroll had a heart attack on stage, so that slowed things down a little. He had to be sent home, and we got a local Singaporean musician, Frisco Soliano, to sub on bass for the last two months. Unfortunately, Carrol died a couple months later while playing on stage at the Bop Shop in Chicago. Darryl married a Singaporean girl and still lives there to this day.

 

[I found out later that Carroll was using heroine while in Singapore, a very serious crime there with a possible death penalty.]

 

Judy Roberts would often go to Singapore for months at a time, and I would sub for her at the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue. She introduced me to her sidemen, drummers Greg Sergo and Charles McFarlan, bassists Stewart Miller and Jim Cox, saxophonist Greg Fishman; and others. Judy had attracted and developed a savvy jazz listening audience, and I enjoyed the scene with these great musicians. During the week at the Intercontinental I would perform solo, and this was, in effect, a glorified piano bar, with an intimate audience sitting around the piano on couches instead of standing or sitting at the piano.

 

I invited some of my new Chicago musician friends to play a variety of gigs in northern Michigan. We played at the Suttons Bay Jazz Festival every summer for many years. In Traverse City we recorded a CD with Harry Goldson, former reed player with Claude Thornhill. We often performed at Tim Scully’s jazz series of outdoor summer concerts in western Michigan. In Chicago I played gigs at

 

Andy’s, the Metropole, Hancock’s 96th, and sometimes Michigan musicians like drummer Randy Marsh, sax man Chris Bickley, vibist Jim Cooper, and bassist Tom Lockwood would fit into the mix. Tom King, Chicago entrepreneur, musicians’ benefactor, and drummer, had me designate musicians for his annual (and well-paid) recording sessions which gave some of us a nice windfall!

 

Around 1995, after a divorce, I moved into an apartment on St Louis near Peterson and began spending more time in Chicago. Sometimes my band was featured at Andy’s, and I often played lunchtime solo piano there. I played at Tuscany on Clark, and in Oakbrook. Cucina Roma restaurants had a number of locations with piano bars, including Luciano’s on Rush Street. I played mostly at the suburban locations and, even though they were piano bars, the owner had me hire a jazz trio a couple days a week. I still worked at Sage’s and The Anvil Club, and I liked freelancing, since I could, and often did, block out a week or two to go hiking in Colorado, spend time with my brother in Tucson, or visit my kids in Michigan.

 

In 2002 I played on “The Jazz Cruise” on Holland America, and they placed me in the ship’s piano bar! Apparently, the previous jazz cruise used the ship’s regular non-jazz piano player, and now they were looking for a solo jazz piano bar entertainer. It was perfect for me. The first night I showed up, and sitting at the piano bar was Eddie Higgins (formerly the house piano player at the London House)! We had met briefly while boarding the ship. I made a lot of new friends, including “The Three Bills”: Bill Charlap, Bill Cunliffe, and Bill Mays, still three of my favorite jazz pianists. Two New York guys, Rich Petrone and Joe Corsello, great bass player and drummer, showed up most nights to play with me, and there was often a jam session late into the night. If anybody from management on that cruise is reading this, please hire me again―it’s been a long time!

 

In 2003 I heard about a gig in Morocco from a Wonderbar associate, pianist/vocalist Lynn Hilton. I called the Hyatt in Casablanca, Morocco and booked myself! This was a solo piano gig with a very nice Yamaha piano in a very large room. I played the song from the movie “Casablanca” about six times a night. Not too much different from my approach to a piano bar gig, and a very interesting cultural experience. One night after my gig I was guided by a local to a real neighborhood Moroccan piano bar. It was dark, noisy and smokey with a young, lively crowd and a lot of flirtatious women. A well-dressed, young pianist was playing, and he sang only in French, though the crowd conversed in both French and Arabic. It wasn’t jazz, but it was very nice, quality music.

 

November 2003 I visited Paris on my way back to the US, and that started my love affair with that city. I went back to Paris about six times over the next few years and played gigs each time; and eventually recorded a CD there with Parisian jazz musicians including a fabulous guitar player, François Homps. I also visited a couple of Parisian piano bars. One was in south central Paris in a very large lounge where the pianist played seven hours a night to an extremely noisy, indifferent crowd. He said he made good tips and didn’t mind the long hours. More recently in 2007, I went to the piano lounge at Hotel Crillion at Place de la Concorde, a very, very expensive area of Paris. I was there with two female friends, my girlfriend at the time, Sally, and Gail Kennedy, a New York Cabaret singer. Drink prices averaged about 50 Euros, cheapest about 20 Euros. (At that time, 1 Euro equalled $1.30) We listened to a very fine pianist while I wondered how I was going to be able to pay the tab. A large table of men nearby invited us to sit with them, since they were music fans also. The men were from various Arab countries and were in Paris for a film producers’ symposium, and they were extremely well-dressed and very spirited. In between songs, one of the men would stand up and loudly sing a portion of a random Italian aria, freely improvising. The pianist was very friendly, and Gail and I sat in performing the song “P.S. I Love You” (the old standard, not the Beatles’ song). We were a big hit with the group, and, yes, they insisted on picking up our tab!

 

Some have asked me why I left the Chicago music scene. In 2004 I was still freelancing while I was living with my dad after my mom had passed away. He needed minimal help with meals and errands, and general company, and I was still able to play gigs and travel since my sister lived nearby. Two things happened that caused me to leave Chicago. I was playing a few gigs with a young singer at Stetson’s at the Hyatt on Wacker, and she talked me into taking a block of gigs for 5 or 6 nights a week for a stretch of several weeks. The pay was quite good, and that lured me into breaking my “rule” about freelancing. I turned down virtually all the other gigs I had in my rotation. Then the Hyatt brought in a new F & B manager, he changed the entertainment policy overnight, and I was suddenly out of work. It’s customary to book these kind of gigs without a contract, and even having a contract doesn’t always help. I was furious, although I wasn’t mad at the singer, since it wasn’t her fault. I think I was mostly mad at myself. The other thing that happened was that my sisters hired a caretaker to take care of my dad, and they were happy to tell me that I was free to live my life as I wished. At this same time, I was spending long hours on the phone with a woman I’d met through visiting my brother in Arizona, and she lived in Sedona. Everything happened very quickly, and I suddenly found myself moving to Sedona, Arizona, and getting engaged.

 

Sedona is a small-town tourist area, similar in that respect to where I’d lived and worked in Michigan. I found work fairly quickly and soon formed a jazz trio with drummer Kevin McQuaid and bassist Steve Douglas, who had Michigan roots. I played various gigs accompanying several singers. I also found a solo piano gig in an Italian restaurant working for an owner who loved jazz! I played weddings and private parties and picked up a steady church gig where the minister, Bishop David McMannes, loved jazz, and together we started a monthly jazz church concert series. When my relationship and engagement ended (more blues material!) I thought about moving back to Chicago or to a bigger city. I reconsidered when my granddaughter was born nearby in Flagstaff. Also, I was hearing stories about how gigs were dwindling in Chicago while I was working 5-6 nights a week in Sedona. Occasionally I went to Phoenix or LA for gigs. But musicians these places were having a hard time too, especially after the 2008 crash. So I ended up staying in Sedona. My main difficulty was finding work in the summer when things slowed down in Arizona. So early on I started going back to Michigan in the summer where gigs were plentiful during the tourist season, and I quickly renewed my contacts there. One gig I’ve been playing the past several years in Charlevoix, Michigan is the Grey Gables which has a piano bar tradition since the 1970s. So, almost by accident, I found myself living in two beautiful small-town areas, and only rarely do I get back to Chicago to play gigs. Now it’s 2017, and this is still my pattern.

 

One common thread, a common problem that many of us have had is the level of pay we pianists, and musicians and general, receive for the amount of work we do. We all have stories on this topic, so it’s somewhat of a chiché. I’ve put in years of training comparable to that of a doctor. Somebody said that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve expertise, and I figure I’ve put in at least 50,000 hours performing music. Kelly Sill tells the story that, in the 70s, a jazz gig paid $75, and, guess what!? A jazz gig today still pays $75! In one sense, we are lucky to able to do what we do and make a living. But, lately, the possibility of making a living just playing gigs, even seven days a week, is almost impossible.

 

In the 90s I played a hotel lobby gig at the rather high-end Renaissance Hotel at Wacker & State. It was a duo gig booked through an agent, and I was able to ask Ron DeWar to play the gig with me. He was one of my jazz heroes from college, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune! In a short time, the gig was cut down to a piano single. This was sad, but I kept playing the gig. Then a while later I got a call from the agent, and the hotel was only willing to pay $75. My first instinct was to quit the gig. I asked the agent if the hotel knew they were going to get less quality musicians for that price. She said she raised that exact point with hotel management, and their answer was, “It doesn’t matter!” I ended up staying on the gig until I got something else.

 

A $100 gig is still common, though it’s good to see the 5-6 hour gigs are very rare now, and 3 hours is quite common. Some pianists making $300 a night in restaurants are using recordings and tracks. A pianist at a piano bar in Traverse City told me has his iPod ready, so when somebody requests a song like “Brickhouse” (and they do), he plays the recording. He says he spends up to half his evening playing recordings. Other pianists have background tracks to supplement their singing and playing. Now some of these guys are friends of mine, so I’m not going to rail against them. I’m glad they’re making a good paycheck. But, to me, it’s not fun to perform playing along with background tracks song after song. Also, as a listener, it’s just not entertaining to me. I sometimes wonder why this works for them getting more gigs and better pay. Maybe it’s the “wow” factor, and when a pianist auditions for a clueless F & B manager, his big sound gets him hired over the other guy without tracks.

 

Also, some piano players are doing gigs that call for a hard-driving, in-your-face kind of performance, often without tracks. I admit the performers, audience, and management all seem to have success with it! I have occasionally done this kind of gig before, at the Redhead and other places, but it is not really in my wheelhouse, even though these gigs often pay better. I’ve heard of gigs in Chicago where the management wants only songs from the past 15 or 20 years. That would be impossible for me, not just uncomfortable! I guess I have to accept that I’m from the old school, and I like the quieter, more intimate setting, where the great standards of the 30s and 40s are the mainstay of the repertoire. These kinds of piano bar gigs are becoming more rare. I wonder if the “in-your-face” kind of performer feels the same bond with his audience that I feel playing the quieter style of a piano bar setting, a connection I feel is subtle and magical.

 

This year I plan to record an album of originals, hopefully with a group of mostly Chicago musicians, in the swinging, bluesy style that I love, and that Chicago is known for. This is a little bit of anomaly, since most “saloon pianists,” including me, are more known for interpreting standards, not originals. I have a few songs already picked out that I’ll redo from previous albums, and I have some newer tunes from a musical I wrote with my Sedona writing partner Joyce Callahan. There is a whole new way of distributing music these days, and, it can be difficult, though some are being very successful in the digital marketplace by working hard and following the new methods. I’m immersed in learning this new concept of digital music promotion right now, although promoting my own music has always been difficult for me. I’m learning a lot, and I have a good feeling about it. Wish me luck. Wish us all luck!

 

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