Farewell, My Lovely: So Long Piano Bars, and even Pianos

A 1913 piece of sheet music (from the Duke University Library Digital Collections).

I grew up with pianos. For a Midwesterner of my era, pianos and piano lessons were a given of a middle-class childhood. The same for my parents: although one was a city kid, born and reared on the South Side of Chicago, and the other from rural Indiana, both had pianos in the house. My mother was a life-long amateur pianist sufficiently accomplished to accompany my father’s pleasant baritone in show music and the occasional operatic aria. After I learned myself at age 10 or so, I became the relief accompanist.

This do-it-yourself approach to musical activity was (and is) such a commonplace in my life that it makes me catch a breath to realize that it’s vanishing. “Playing” music now, for the vast majority, probably means pressing a button on a digital device, rather than a key on a piano. The piano, at least for amateurs, is on its way to be a specialized hobby or nostalgic memory (along the lines of the Ford Model T, about which E.B. White wrote a wonderful elegiac essay).

Perhaps it’s inevitable. After all, the piano’s salad days predate my childhood and that of my parents and grandparents too. It was really the musical paragon of 19th century, that era of Franz Liszt’s superstardom. The piano was the social and cultural engine of Romantic music and had a dominance that is hard to imagine now.

Things change of course and I’ve come across two stories that report on the inevitable:

First, paradoxical survival of pianos and even piano bars in Joe Eskenazi’s great (and well-reported) piece from the SF Weekly, Changing Keys: Martuni’s Piano Bar Thrives in a Karaoke World.

“It’s not easy to silence the room at Martuni’s. But she does. The tall, pretty, and painfully young woman ambles up to Monday night pianist Joe Wicht and asks if he knows “Over the Rainbow?” Wicht, a wickedly funny man who, moments earlier threatened to “revoke the gay cards” of anyone who didn’t sing along to “We Are Family,” is at a rare loss for words. Asking a middle-aged, gay musician at a piano bar teeming with gay musicians if he knows the most famous of all Judy Garland songs is akin to asking the waiter at a Chinese restaurant if he serves rice and tea. Incidentally, Wicht does know “Over the Rainbow,” and the young singer pulls it off. Were a Munchkin in the house, he might thank her very sweetly, for doing it so neatly.”

I think there is one piano bar left in Boston, but dBar isn’t it. Good food, yes, but musicals sing along night is to karaoke, and peopled by people (like the woman above at Martuni’s) who won’t be knowing their Sondheim from their Weill.

And the opposite of survival: Daniel Watkin’s report from the NYTimes, For More Pianos, Last Note Is Thud in the Dump on what happens to the pianos that are left behind. (I was grateful to find a happy home for my upright in my recent move; that said: it is an object, not a living thing, and the piano I’m contemplating now is electronic, that is, until I have quarters big enough for my uncle’s mostly unplayed Baldwin grand.)

The site, a trash-transfer station in this town 20 miles north of Philadelphia, is just one place where pianos go to die. This kind of scene has become increasingly common.

“We bust them up with a sledgehammer,” said Jeffrey Harrington, the owner of Harrington Moving & Storage in Maplewood, N.J.

My Baldwin Hamilton upright, now in a happy new home with somebody who knows his Weill from his Sondheim (not to mention his Beethoven from his Alkan).

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