A Legacy of Piano Players

There is something special about a piano bar. First, as music historian Jack Stewart notes, the piano really gets the patron’s attention. “The piano is the entertainment – they turn off the television.”

New Orleans has always been a good town for piano bars (several are available today, including the revolving Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel, where Stewart spent a recent evening). “Tuts” Washington at the Pontchartrain Hotel, “Cousin Joe” (Pleasant Joseph) at Poodle’s Patio – the piano entertainers of the past left their mark on New Orleans memories

Piano entertainers past and present all provide different takes on entertaining as a single. One of the best-known jazz pianists of the past was Armand Hug. Even Hug’s 1977 funeral was “a quiet kind of thing,” according to his sister-in-law Lee Baker. “That’s the way his music was. He’d play all kinds of things, but he always played them quiet.”   

Armand Hug mainly played in a traditional New Orleans jazz style but he also had ragtime in his repertoire, a wide range of popular tunes he remembered and a fondness for jazz a little outside his usual zone.

Hug could read music but was mainly adept at “faking it.” Once he had a job at the Suburban Gardens in Johnny Dedroit’s band. The band was supposed to play “The Mexican Hat Dance” – always a New Orleans favorite – but Hug had trouble keeping up with the sheet music. Dedroit was not pleased and admitted he didn’t like “fakers.” On the next number, however, a girl singer wanted to sing “Who’s Sorry Now” but had no music with her. Armand Hug took over and Dedroit had to admit that the ability to fake it could be useful.

In the 1940s, Hug began his career as a solo performer, playing clubs and hotel nightspots. He was a fixture at the Royal Orleans in the St. Louis Street lobby in an area called the “Esplanade Room.” When arthritis stiffened his fingers, he had treatments, exercised and went on playing – even earning an award from the Arthritis Foundation for his determination.

In a 1965 interview with jazz writer Charles Suhor, Armand Hug said,  “Playing ragtime and Dixieland does not give you the full scope that you would really like to have. It doesn’t give you the real, full freedom of improvisation.” Playing solo piano would give an adventurous musician a lot of room to experiment. 

Playing solo piano can also be an economic necessity, according to Ellis Marsalis, renowned music educator and head of one of New Orleans’ best-known musical families.

Marsalis started on the clarinet and then went to tenor saxophone and ended up on the piano – which proved rewarding since work was often available for a solo performer.

A nightclub might have a bandstand piano not used during the week or the establishment might have only enough room for a piano, enabling a piano player to find weeknight work.

Marsalis brought his unique jazz piano style to the Hyatt Hotel for several years. “I was doing double duty. I would play for ‘Happy Hour’ in the atrium and sometimes there would be a band that would come in town that would use me, too. So, they didn’t have to bring a piano player with them because I was already here. They’d save on salary as well as transportation.” This gave Marsalis a chance to play with a wide range of groups. “You have to have a particular kind of mindset in order for it to work – not everybody is willing to make the adjustments to play with different people.”

Playing solo piano is a special skill. “If you just play piano you have all of the responsibility – melody, solo, the rhythms – you’re like a one-person orchestra,” Marsalis explains. Some piano players sing – Marsalis does so only occasionally, and he’s modest about his showmanship: “Sometimes I make an attempt to say something that turns out to be funny. But I don’t have a schematic approach to being funny.”

He prefers a grand piano to an upright: “invariably it’s up against the wall so that your back is to a lot of people. A grand piano, while good for audience interaction, can pose its own problems. At Snug Harbor one zealous female fan actually crawled under Marsalis’s piano and led the club manager on a chase around the stage before she finally exited.

Marsalis has a jazz group now performing at Snug Harbor on Friday nights (at 8 and 10). His band work and his solo work have been two intertwined parts of his musical career, along with his teaching (at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and at the University of New Orleans).

Marsalis has proudly sought his own musical truth: “You have to play in such a way that you allow your audience to find you. It may take a while. It usually does. But the main thing is to be as honest as you can be when you are playing.”

In the past, the piano itself was the entertainment center of the home. “Now it’s a 400 pound instrument that nobody plays. You can get them for free,” says Charles Farmer, who grew up in Oklahoma but now makes his home here and repairs pianos as well as plays them.

When he isn’t repairing instruments, Farmer has a regular piano gig – he plays from 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at the Oak Street Café – every day of the week except Tuesday. You can have breakfast and enjoy his music (Ellis Marsalis drops in occasionally). He works with a group at Le Citron Bistro on Thursday and Saturday nights.

Farmer’s repertoire is eclectic – spending 18 years in Greece gave him familiarity with European tourist tastes. He likes rhythm and blues, knows traditional jazz tunes (“Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” is his most requested song) and he can even play country. Since he was born in Tulsa, “that’s required.” In addition, he knows some of legendary country swing bandleader Bob Wills’ songs. “But I don’t play ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ ’cause I don’t want to go, except to see my mom,” Farmer explains.

The Oak Street Café job came up after Hurricane Katrina when Farmer was looking for something to tide him over until he could find nighttime work. Farmer enjoys his daytime venue and recognizes that it’s different from the usual job. “There’s no alcohol. There are older people and people with young children. I meet people there that I wouldn’t on a regular gig.”

There is a special effect when a piano player is in the room. “People come and sit by me. Sometimes there are rather surprisingly personal conversations,” Famer admits. “And, if I do the job correctly, there’s a feeling of intimacy and relaxation.”

All the more reason to respect the keyboard artists who have entertained New Orleanians through the years.

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