NYC's Lounge Singers
As we head to another hotel bar I discuss with Kelly the value of having a piano player working a lounge. While hotel bars charge more for a drink than a standard bar, they offer something most of those places don't have. We agree that a piano player lends a room class, which makes patrons want to act better?more mature, maybe even sophisticated. You want to dress better and be polite to the person standing next to you. New York can always use more of that.
"This is how my parents lived when they were younger," he says. "They loved to dress up on Saturday night and go out to hear some music. It's nice. Something we never really had?at least not on this level."
We hit a few more hotels. Kelly walks around pressing the flesh, taking notes, answering endless questions.
We enter the Park Lane and walk up a marble staircase into Harry's Bar. A trio of women sits at the dark wooden bar sipping martinis and listening to Fields play. The bar smells of fresh polish. The piano is in the dining area next to the bar, called A Room with a View. Fields wraps up a set and sits in a booth, where we join him. A waiter brings him a meal as we talk.
"You know, down the block at the Plaza they've cut off all live music except for a harp player during brunch," Fields notes. "Why should a prestigious hotel like the Plaza be so demeaning and disgraceful as not to have music? At a time like this when we're at war and getting over the World Trade Center attack, music is a psychedelic medicine. It's needed to lift people up."
He pauses, raises a finger and says something I have never heard another human being utter: a kind word for Leona Helmsley.
"I offer my sincerest compliments to Leona Helmsley for having live music at the Park Lane. It's a smart move on her part. Since I started playing here, business has improved for them. Where are all the musicians? Live music brings business. All they worry about is they want an extra table where the piano was. What good is an extra table if the place is empty?"
Fields tells us how he got his job at the Park Lane. He and his wife were having lunch at Harry's, and Leona Helmsley asked him to play "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
"My style is to play a big arrangement. After she heard my rendition of that song she wanted to know how soon I could come and work here regularly. People feel the music I play. I play the right music for the right occasion. Now people are hungry for the music of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The young people want that."
Irving Fields was born in 1915 and raised on the Lower East Side. He got into show business at the Yiddish Theater on 2nd Ave. as a child actor. He then studied the piano and got his break when he won first prize on the Fred Allen Amateur Hour Radio Show in 1930. He won $50 and a week's engagement at the Roxy Theater. After that he was on his way. Some nights he had to brush on a mascara mustache and wear a homburg to look older so he could get around the child labor laws. He always had work, and claims to have played almost every venue in New York that had a piano. From headlining Carnegie Hall to working on cruise ships, he has seen all of the city and a lot of the world.
He's cut scores of records over the years, and composed the tunes "Managua Nicaragua," "Chantez, Chantez," "Miami Beach Rhumba" and "Take Her to Jamaica," among others. Older folks might remember his Decca albums, with great titles like Bagels and Bongos and Bikinis and Bongos. Meanwhile, he raised two kids in New York, and now lives on Central Park S. with his wife, Ruth.
"I have a great commute to work. I walk down the block."
I ask him what changes he's seen in New York City across eight decades. His lively face gets sad for a moment.
"I think we have deteriorated in the quality of music and the quality of style. You see, it's elegance that is missing. Especially in the clothing styles. The way they dress now is appalling." Fields brushes the lapel of his own tuxedo and shakes his head. "I'm living in a different world now, I guess."
A middle-aged woman?even Fields might describe her as elegant?comes over to the booth and thanks him. Her mother works her way over as well and gives Fields a small kiss. As they walk out, Fields turns and whispers, "She's 92."
He offers to play a song for us. I ask for "As Time Goes By." Fields ambles over to the ebony piano and knocks it out with what he calls his "big sound." A few couples are finishing their meals. I observe the deep rich carpet, the huge candelabra hung from the vaunted ceiling, the polished oak walls with gold-framed mirrors, the northern view framed by huge windows with open drapes. All you can see are the night sky and the tops of the trees in Central Park. This is indeed a room with a view.
Fields finishes up with a flourish and comes down off of the bench. He sits down to a cup of coffee. It's 10?the end of his shift?and the last of the patrons are leaving. I ask him, given that he's spent a lifetime playing other people's favorite songs, what would be his.
"That's like asking me if I like steak or lobster. It's hard to select one. I can name a few. 'Somewhere in Time,' 'Moonlight Sonata,' 'St. Louis Blues' and the songs from My Fair Lady."
Asked if he has any secrets to aging gracefully, Fields breaks out in a big smile. "You need a sense of humor. People live longer when they have one. Also you should count the blessings for what you have. And if you get into an argument change the subject and the argument will usually end. Get into sports when you're younger?swimming, walking, cycling. Then keep at it. Don't watch too much tv. Learn to play a musical instrument, even if it's just as a hobby. Be in work you love. And never worry. Let the other person do the worrying."
We leave the Park Lane and walk across to 5th Ave., passing an apartment building where three ancient doormen mournfully sit gazing at the lobby floor. A block farther uptown you can hear the huge Canadian and American flags flapping in the wind above the entrance way of the Hotel Pierre. A uniformed doorman gets the door. We pass through the quiet lobby to the back entrance of the Cafe Pierre. Down a small set of marble steps?I almost trip over Joan Rivers, who's seated there attentively listening to a woman sing and play piano.
At the bar, Kelly tells me the singer's name is Kathleen Landis. She's been holding court here for the last 17 years. I look around at the rapt audience of maybe 50, a friendly, older, well-coifed crowd. We order two beers as Landis purrs into the mic that she's doing a seasonal program about "the romance of dance, especially the music from the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."
Landis lights the room up with "It's Wonderful" and, yes, "As Time Goes By." The Cafe Pierre is a long room; the front is dedicated to the bar and lounge, while the back has 20 tables for dining. A middle-aged couple gets up and walk hand in hand to the dinning area, where they dance cheek to cheek as Landis croons, "You must remember this...a kiss is still a kiss...a sigh is just a sigh..." A goateed lounge lizard chats up a young woman at the bar. He's telling her that he owns major property on some Caribbean island Christopher Columbus sailed by during his 1492 voyage.
"Go out and buy an atlas and look it up. A whole world could open up to you. Maybe I'll take you there someday."
On her break Landis takes me to a quiet back room. A beautiful woman and classic torch singer, she's also what we called back in the old neighborhood "a real lady." I can't bring myself to ask her age. I guess late 30s.
She sips from a wine glass and tells me that she grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. While her parents weren't very musical they did sing and listen to all the old standards of the 30s and 40s. The music rubbed off on her and she diligently studied singing and piano. She was a hit in Detroit, played all the major supper clubs there. I venture that I never knew that Detroit had supper clubs.
"I had to leave Detroit because I had already worked all the biggest venues there, and they were ready to turn the lights out on them."
Landis came to New York in 1982 and found work as a piano player in a hotel. The job she wanted?the Cafe Pierre?was auditioning new talent in 1985, and Landis gave it a shot. Her agent told her they wanted a man.
"At the audition there were 17 men and me, and I managed to get the job."
Through the years since, Landis has worked the Pierre as the leader of a trio and with a dance band, but since 1998 it's been just Landis and her piano.
"The music I play, from the 30s and 40s, I connect to the elegance of what New York was, and how sophisticated love was then. People today are missing out on the sophistication of love. There's no romance in the post-rock era. It's all about energy. But I see people in their 20s coming here looking for that?romance. Here they find it. I have a glamorous approach to the music."
I ask Landis about the crowd tonight, who are attending her performance with close attention and looks of something like love.
"Tonight it's my home team. I feel like this is my room. On Saturday night the people who are devoted to me come out. I create a feeling like this is a private club. I connect people here. I introduce those I know will get along or be right for a possible romance, and I make them all a part of the room. I have introduced couples who later married. Out there I can tell you 90 percent of the people's names and what they do. Coming here is part of their New York existence. It connects them to a lost tradition of New York. This room is truly what used to be called cafe society."
I ask Landis what having live music does for a room like the Cafe Pierre.
"Live music creates an ambience of sophistication. It separates clubs that don't have it. Music creates nostalgia, and people connect to you so they can reconnect to themselves and how they once felt. This is one of the places that makes New York a small, classy town. Twenty years ago there were clubs all around?now that is no more. People want that and miss it, and when they get it here they keep coming. My audience is dedicated to me and I am dedicated to them. And the wonderful thing about the Cafe Pierre is that I have never had to play bad music here. They let me play what I want."
I ask Landis if Rudy Giuliani ever stopped down at the lounge when he was living at the Hotel Pierre during the early days of his divorce. She tells me no. That figures, I venture. Giuliani and a little night music don't mix. Landis tells me former Gov. Hugh Carey "still stops in occasionally. He's one of my pupils. I'm teaching him piano."
It's time for Landis' next set. An attractive older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bernie Gussoff, asks me to sit with them for a moment. Bernie is a doctor by day, but in his heart he's a jazzbo. Landis is his piano teacher; his wife says he keeps getting better. Bernie tells me about his son's new restaurant, Red, on W. 44th St., and his wife smiles at him like they're on their third date.
At the bar I meet an old newspaperman, Ned Sherman. He tells me how he got out of the print racket years ago and went on to produce news shows for Channel 13. Sherman is cruising into his 70s?and still cruising the city on a Saturday night. "I always start the night downtown, and then I bring them all uptown with me." He excuses himself to sit at a table. I also talk to Edward Jones Jr., a top officer at Nextel. I peg him for a 10021 blueblood, and we both get a laugh when he tells me he grew up in the Bronx and went to Cardinal Hayes and CUNY.
I wander through the crowd, talking with everyone from a Park Ave. matron to a guy who sells potato peelers. At a side table a Joey Buttafuoco type is kissing his young and pretty date. Kelly sits at the bar and talks music with an ad executive. A mobbed-up looking man stands at the bar drinking whiskey.
Landis plays her last song and the lights come up. As people reluctantly file out, many hug and kiss her goodnight. The bartender breaks down the dirty glasses. When the place is empty, I watch Landis walk off. By herself. She has a smile on her face.
Along with the Cafe Pierre and Harry's Bar/Room with a View, you might want to check out some of these other places keeping the tradition alive.
The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel: One of the world's most famous cabarets. Dave Frishberg's there now through April 27.
Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel: Songwriter Earl Rose plays here on Mondays.
The Monkey Bar: "Alpha Male" Michael Garin plays everything from Piaf to Fats Domino at this famous room, Mon.-Fri.
The 1050 Lounge at the Skyline Hotel: Japanese fox Saturi Goto appears Wednesdays.
Journeys Lounge at the Essex House: Hyperion Knight, like Irving Fields, plays all the classics Tues.-Sat., packing the house on weekends.
The Four Seasons: Jon Davis brings the piano bar into the 21st century, most nights.
The Cocktail Terrace at the Waldorf-Astoria: Daryl Sherman plays a Steinway once owned by Cole Porter himself, Fri.-Sat.
The New York Palace: Veteran pianomen Ray Cohen and Dave Stettner share duties here, every night but Sunday.
The St. Regis: Rich Jenkins and Kurt Wieting perform just outside of King Cole Bar, every night but Sunday.
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