Saturday, October 6, 2018

What's Life Like as a Piano Player in a Bar?


Jeff—Saturday

Mykonos’ legendary Montparnasse Piano Bar closed for the season Friday night, giving all of its fans the chance to say adieu to its proprietors, Jody Duncan and Nikos Hristodulakis.  They’re responsible for bringing Broadway quality singers and pianists to the island, such as Kathy “Babe” Robinson and Mark Hartman who performed on its final night.


All of which inspired me to share insights I’ve gained from years of conversations with its singers and pianists.  Those impressions are incorporated into the story line of my Spring 2019 Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, but I think they’re worthy of a bit of time in the spotlight on their own.  So, here goes….

Playing piano in a bar requires a certain mindset.  Think of it as trying to gain your balance on a surfboard...while playing a piano.

As the piano player, it’s up to you to read the room, and adjust on the fly to make sure everyone has a good time.  It could be the same crowd as from another night, but this time they show up with a completely different vibe.  The other night might have been their first night on the island, and everyone was up for a hell-raising good time. But when it came to their last night, it’d be all about nostalgia.


Unlike concert-goers, bar patrons show up with a mix of interests and expectations regarding the music: celebrants might come looking for upbeat tunes; friends on a night out might shout out song requests; business people might ignore the music as long as they can hear each other talk; and, of course, any alcohol-fueled seduction requires a background of romantic music.  Then there’s the solitary, glad-handing, over-imbiber who can’t resist trying to transform his evening alone into a communal sing-a-long
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Whatever the mix of audience members, the piano-bar player faces the ever-present background chatter of customers, waiters, and bartenders exchanging orders and quips, all searching for the right volume at which to conduct their discussions, above or below the rattle of glassware and din of competing conversations.

If you work long enough in piano bars, you develop a mindset to cope with all of that.  Or you go crazy. 


When starting out in the business, some shut their eyes as they play and drift off into the sounds of the room, listening for the evening’s competing tones and rhythms, crescendos and diminuendos, bursts of staccato laughter, trumpeting shouts, and unexpected bits of silence.  Whether working with a singer or alone, they view their job as something like an orchestra conductor’s: to unite all those disparate sounds into a unified, symphonic performance. And ideally to draw the audience into an appreciative, tip-giving state of mind in the process.

As I said, that’s their thinking when they start out in the business.  But, over time, they come to learn their true role in a piano bar, and with that realization achieve a Zen-like understanding of the meaning of their life’s work.  It’s so simple, so obvious, and so intrinsically calming to an artist’s soul:

Their job is to sell drinks. Period, end of story.

I’ll drink to that.  Thank you, David Dyer, Mark Hartman, and Bobby Peaco for all those wonderful tunes.

David
Mark
Bobby

PS. I'd be woefully remiss if I didn't mention the two brilliant vocalists in addition to Babe who bring their Broadway level talents to bear in making The Piano Par the place to be in the Cyclades for high end entertainment--Phyllis Pastore, who's been wowing audiences here for 27 years, and Sara Mucho, the youngest member of the Montparnasse musical crew.  Thank you all!

—Jeff

15 comments:

  1. That's called getting to the heart of the matter, Jeff! And I'll drink to the masters of the keys, Masters Dyer, Peaco and Hartman, for making it all sound so great and seem so easy.

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    1. And thanks to you and Nikos for bringing the music to Mykonos to 37 years. Thank you two, too, for encouraging me to bring the murder.

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  2. Well said. I would like to add my thank you to all the pianists who have entertained me and many many others over the years in Montparnasse, the lovely Piano Bar. As another wonderful season closes I look forward to the next. Thank you Jody & Nicos and everyone else who always make my visits to Little Venice such a treat.

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    1. Thank you, Lynn, and I heartily second your thoughts!

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  3. I raise a glass to the players and the composers (be they musical or otherwise).

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    1. They accept, I'm sure, as long as your paying.

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  4. Thanks, Bro! Now we're all in the mood for a melody...
    La La Dee Dee Dah...
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErEzQOFzPXU

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    1. I never realized until this moment how perfectly Billy Joel's rendition summed up the essence of the piano man's existence! Thanks. sis. Maybe I can get him to go on tour with me when the new book comes out. :)

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    2. :))
      If Billy is otherwise engaged, I have a friend who can play it on the piano, sing the words, and play the harmonica accompaniment all by himself! He may or may not be available either though. He is usually busy with his practice in endocrinology at Columbia Presbyterian!! Some people are just mega-gifted.

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    3. And others just plain medicated. :)

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    4. I'd offer you a high-five on that remark, EvKa, but I think you're already cruising at about a ten. :)

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  5. Beautifully written insight to those talented souls who entertain us and make it look so simple. Next year the goal is to revisit our favorite bar on Mykonos!!!

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    1. Thanks, J&J, and I can assure you the Piano Bar is waiting for your return!

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