When I was a music student at the Hartt School in the late 70’s, Hartford had a calamitous event. During an unusually heavy snowfall the brand new Hartford Civic Center roof collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt, but repairs to the Civic Center would take years. This was a disaster for downtown merchants, tourism and hotels. The Sheraton Hotel, desperate for any reason to get people downtown, asked me if I would perform at their hotel café. It was called The Hartford Stage Café and it was always populated with theater people as well as many very interesting hotel visitors. Everyone who visited Hartford stayed at this hotel, from the members of the New York Philharmonic and Pavarotti, to the celebrities such as Angela Lansbury and Richard Thomas who would perform at the Hartford Stage Company across the street.
I told the Sheraton I would perform there for a month, and if they really still wanted me, I would stay. I ended up playing there six nights a week for three years. The money was great for (until this job) a penniless music student. Even more importantly, I was quite skinny, always hungry, and I could eat as much as I wanted. Occasionally the lines to get into my little bistro went out the door and through the hotel lobby. (As I recall, this was due to a savvy hotel PR lady who got me some well-placed interviews in the local press, which helped make the place popular.) I couldn’t believe my luck. I was getting paid to basically do what I loved- play the piano – and I could play anything I wanted. Unbelievably, my career playing club dates was born out of the wreckage of the Hartford Civic Center.
The rival Hilton Hotel snatched me away from the Sheraton in 1981. They gave me a newly rebuilt Steinway grand surrounded by comfy sofas, coffee tables and potted palm trees. People would come over to the Steinway with their glasses of champagne and request everything from Chopin Etudes, Beethoven Sonatas and Bach Concertos to Gershwin and Berlin, as well as the latest Broadway show tunes. I prided myself on being able to fulfill almost any request. By the mid 80’s my career as a concert pianist began to take off and I did less and less of this type of work.
This CD has become a homage and fond remembrance of my student days. Some of the cuts on this album (such as One, Over the Rainbow or the short Debussy and Satie selections) are numbers that I enjoyed playing literally thousands of times for patrons of these hotels.
Paul Bisaccia, Provincetown MA
About the Music:
Most of the composers on this disc were in days gone by synonymous with the word piano. Many of the pieces themselves were staples of the piano bar and café concert repertoire. In a broader sense, much of this music represents the old fashioned magic of the piano and piano music as it intersected with popular culture from the late 1800s to the 1970’s.
Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano, written in 1913, is ragtime pure and simple. It’s references to Steinway pianos (even back then the Rolls Royce of pianos) and Paderewski- believed by the public to be the greatest living pianist - makes the song even more delectable. Judy Garland’s old-fashioned rendition of the song in the film Easter Parade made it a popular showstopper for most of the 20th century.
Ignance Jan Paderewski was considered by the public to be the very personification of the piano. He had a golden tone and a charismatic personality, which established itself the second he walked on stage. His playing had immense dignity and grandeur. Listening to his old recordings takes one back to the almost forgotten grand manner of piano playing from the beginning of the 20th century. The Minuet in G is the composition of his that is most well known. The Melody in B major is almost completely unknown.
Robert Schumann was the first composer to write a Novellette. You may reasonably think that a short novel inspired this music. You would be wrong. Schumann came up with the name as a whimsical allusion to Clara Novello, the English singer who created a furore in Germany and was described by Mendelssohn as “the best singer we have heard in a long time”. Robert wrote to Clara Wieck, his great love, that he would call them Novelletten “because your name is (also) Clara and Wiecketten would not sound so well”. Thus the music was inspired by Robert’s love for Clara Wieck, but the title actually refers to Clara Novello. One wonders if George Gershwin and Zez Confrey actually were aware of this obscure music history when they wrote their Novellettes. Schumann’s Novellete in F has two of his trademarks – a chordal march, which contrasts with a gorgeous romantic tune.
Novellette in Fourths written by Gershwin was actually recorded by him on a piano roll in 1919. Zez Confrey’s Novellette was written in 1923. Gershwin and Confrey knew and admired each other. Confrey wrote what, in the 1920’s, were called “novelty numbers”. Kitten on the Keys and Dizzy Fingers (recorded on the Bisaccia CD The Great American Piano) were his most famous examples.
Eric Satie, unable to make a living as a concert pianist, made his living playing in the cafés of Paris. Indeed Je te veux and Le Piccadilly (a syncopated number in ragtime style) were written expressly for his nightclub performances. Around 1900 the slow waltz was very popular. Je te veux (I Want You) is the piano version of this love-song, made famous in its day by Paulette Darty, known as the Queen of the Slow Waltz.
Debussy knew and admired Je te veux. The Waltz La plus que lente is Debussy’s answer to the slow waltz. In fact the title translates as the slowest of the slow waltzes! According to my teacher, Luiz de Moura Castro, this piece was intended as a homage to the café style of playing with generous rubatos and much insinuation and flirting. General Lavine eccentric is Debussy’s musical portrait of Ed Lavine, a celebrated American juggler who made his fame on the international vaudeville circuit. He was a very tall man who appeared in a burlesque military uniform, and who was billed as “the man who has soldiered all his life.” Debussy saw him perform at the Marigny theater in Paris. He asks that the music be performed in the style of a cakewalk - another allusion to ragtime. Like a Picasso sketch, Debussy gives us a great musical character sketch. In Minstrels Debussy gives us a portrait of the English Music Hall. The whole of a stage act is hinted at in the compressed space of a short piano piece with musical fragments describing everything from an out of tune cornet to strummed banjos (played not too well) and tambourines. He instructs the pianist to play the piece “with humor”.
Pour le Piano (For the Piano) is Debussy’s own homage to his favorite instrument. The Prelude takes delight in creating sonorities big and small. The grand glissandos and crashing chords make the piece a favorite of pianists.
Fats Waller started out playing the organ in church (his parents were deeply religious) and studying classical piano. He never lost his love for the classics and his organ performances of Bach are legendary. Waller scholar Murray Horowitz says “ As a musician, Fats raised the art of stride piano (cleverly defined in Handful of Keys) to its highest level and in so doing became one of the originators of swing music.” In another time and place he might never have become a nightclub pianist/comic and might have been the classical artist his parents – and perhaps he himself- wanted him to be.
In the Mood was written by Joe Garland (no relation to Judy), an arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and also for Louis Armstrong. This is a familiar example of swing music.
The legendary musical A Chorus Line won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1975. The composer Marvin Hamlisch, as a Julliard student started out playing piano for club dates His career got a jump start when a date to entertain at a party for movie mogul Sam Speigel led to his becoming rehearsal pianist for Barbra Streisand for the Broadway production of Funny Girl. He helped start the revival of ragtime music in the 1970’s with his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s music for the movie The Sting. Notice the catchy opening vamp in One (forever recognizable) and compare it to the opening vamp in Le Piccadilly.
We have two performances of Over the Rainbow, by composer Harold Arlen, one of the great songwriters of the 20th century. This song has been named the number one song of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry Association of America and also claimed the number one spot by the American Film Institute. That Judy Garland’s performance of it remains forever ingrained in our subconscious goes without saying. The two versions on this disc represent a more classic version (with strains of Chopin at the end) and a very intimate jazz version as well.
Our Love is Here to Stay was the last song George Gershwin ever wrote before he died of a brain tumor at the young age of 39. In fact he didn’t have the chance to write it down entirely, but played it for the pianist Oscar Levant who wrote it out for him. It’s a masterpiece with Gershwin’s trademark piquant harmonies.
Erroll Garner, known for his own distinctive piano style, wrote Misty in 1954. The piece is perhaps the definitive piano bar song. It made Garner world-renowned.
So much of this music from Le Piccadilly, to snatches of Debussy’s General Lavine and Minstrels, to One from Chorus Line owes its inspiration to ragtime. The King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, is represented here by what Rudi Blesh calls “one of the masterpieces of ragtime literature” – a slow rag composed with Louis Chauvin called Heliotrope Bouquet.
I LOVE A PIANO. I love a piano. I love to hear somebody play, upon a piano, a grand piano. It simply carries me away. I know a fine way, to treat a Steinway. I love to run my fingers o’er the keys, the ivories. And with the pedal, I love to meddle, when Paderewski comes my way. I’m so excited, when I’m invited, to hear the long-haired genius play. Well you can keep your fiddle, and your bow, give me a P-I-A-N-O, oh, oh. I love to stop right beside an upright, or a high-toned baby grand.
Irving Berlin (1913)