One reason so many places had pianos ‘way back then’ was because the piano was kind of a self-contained orchestra. A single piano player could simulate a full band or orchestra, and recreate not just the melody, but also the bass and the harmonies and the individual parts or flourishes that were reminiscent of a particular recording or version of a song. We were something like human juke boxes,
not as fixed or limited as real juke boxes, responsive to the requests of the audience, and able to add our own distinctive style to familiar songs. Those of us who survived in the business tended to develop very large repertoires of songs, through a combination of taking requests, searching through fakebooks, sounding tunes out by ear on the fly, listening to music wherever it was played (at the grocery store for example I would tune in to the background ‘Muzak’ as a way of filling in gaps in songs I partially knew), and, of course, actual practice and study.
Another thing that a piano offered in public places was a volume level that could fill a room but nonetheless allow for conversation. Unlike the high-decibel frenzy of a live band, where people communicated mainly through body movements and occasionally leaning over and shouting into each other’s ears, a piano bar was a place where you could actually talk while something musically interesting was going on in the background. The music could reward the attentive listener without intruding into the attention of those not there for that reason. It could fill in awkward silences in conversation, or provide relief from an overly intense discussion, or evoke memories and moods through familiar songs.
Although there were some truly amazing pianists playing in such venues, these gigs were less about the music and more about connecting with what the customers were there for. Those who were successful in the trade understood that we were there as much to fill in the background as to serve as a center of attention. Customers might not be there expressly to hear you play, but might come or linger longer because you were playing. The reduced attention level gave you some freedom to explore things musically and experiment with improvisations, and also presented challenges to see whether you could draw a person’s attention away from whatever else they were doing. I would often try to guess a person’s favorite songs from their age, style of dress, and other demographic cues. If I overheard a song mentioned in conversation, I would love to float it out in the middle of whatever else I was playing and watch for a jolt of recognition. That, or a glance over to the piano, a tapping foot, a thumbs-up, a request, and, let’s not forget, a tip, would be my rewards for a successful connection.
Sometimes people were much more into the music than others, and this was when it was most fun. I would always try to read the mood of the room, tap into it and enhance it, and sometimes even steer it in a particular direction. It could become a very communal experience under the right circumstances, with the familiar songs providing the mythology and triggering shared memories and feelings. Ideally, you would want the lively emotions to peak during the next-to last set, and then quiet things down in the end so that the bartenders and waitstaff could close down and get home at a reasonable time.
Over the years, as much perhaps through developing technologies as changing tastes, piano venues have become fewer and harder to find. In the twenty-first century steady solo piano gigs are very scarce, as fewer and fewer venues even have pianos, let alone employ local piano players. Listeners are accustomed to having thousands of songs by their favorite artists at their immediate disposal, and seem less attuned to a local musician’s exploration of a shared base of familiar tunes. The quality of background music and sound systems has developed to where prerecorded music can sound almost as good as live. And unlike a piano, such systems don’t take up valuable floor space that can be used for tables to sell drinks.
This is progress of a sort, technology at work, and all that, but something has been lost in the process. It is now very hard to find a public place where you could go to talk or relax, and hear something new and musically interesting, but also familiar, tapping into a collective base of shared songs and memories.
One thing we hope to accomplish at AmbiDigital.com is to keep alive this style of playing and the legacy of what it was like to be a piano player in such establishments during the mid to latter parts of the 20th century. My recent CD, “Perambulations” is a tribute to this legacy, featuring many of the songs and styles that practitioners would perform in such venues. I hope you will enjoy that and the other material posted here and come back often to listen, share your thoughts and comments, and revisit our shared legacy of popular songs and musical expression.