COCKTAIL PIANISTS OCCUPY the lowest rung in the musician’s hierarchy. While there are some whose performances approach true art, and others whose reputations place them ahead of the pack, they often battle condescension from their fellow musicians. Stereotypically, the cocktail pianist is stranded in a seedy lounge, playing limp renditions of ‘Melancholy Baby’ as requested by drunk patrons.
But as there are fewer and fewer jobs for musicians, many young pianists have decided they would rather play in a cocktail lounge than not play at all. Some, like Georgetown Marbury House’s Ellen Amos, are first-rate composers and performers, clearly headed for bigger and better things. Others, like Rib-It’s Michael Moore-Kelly, are engaging, ingratiating performers who neither challenge nor offend the ear. And even if most cocktail performers don’t have as much to offer as these two, the city’s numerous piano bars feature a variety of keyboard artists, each earning an honorable living pounding the 88s.
There are times, while playing with other people, when you are really cooking,” says Moore-Kelly, who has performed in many top-40 bands. “You know you have it musically. Here, you only have 10 fingers. But you can still get that feeling, when you know that everything’s right.” Cocktail pianists are solo artists in the truest sense of the word, responsible for not only the music but their own unelaborated sound and light arrangements. If radio or tapes are played between sets, they cue it up themselves. And when they play the result is all their own; the strengths and weaknesses of the final sound emanate from only one source.
With the help of synthesizers and rhythm machines, one person can almost sound like a whole band. But these props can’t salvage a no-talent. A bad cocktail pianist, synthesized, sounds worse than a monkey on an ocarina. Used skillfully, however, the new toys augment solo sound, flushing out paces and turning one musician into several.
Moore-Kelly has taken the artificial percussion concept one step further, prerecording about 20 rhythms with live drums and punching the cassettes into a piano side deck at whim. It sounds more realistic than a drum machine, but still has an automated feel. Rhythm machines, and this revision, succeed because the musical moves are so predictable. All the songs are familiar and the beat is steady. But some musicians disdain the technology. Amos refuses to use the new machine. If she can’t play with a band she’ll brave it alone.
“I don’t like the sound of rhythm machines,” Moore-Kelly says. “I use it only as a backup, as opposed to a structure to build the song upon. I mix it accordingly.”
During Happy Hour, many patrons are still absorbed in the day’s leftover business. A pianist is often ignored, becoming little more than live muzak. Cocktail piano, then, is not the right format for those who perceive themselves as ‘artists’ who need total silence during the performance.
Amos and Moore-Kelly demand feedback from the audience, even if they have to yank it out of them. “This is like election night,” Moore-Kelly said during one slow evening. “A little applause for each of the states.”
Moore-Kelly, who is situated close to the door, actively acknowledges the sometimes-shocked patrons, forcing them to respond to him and his music as they arrive and depart. “I want to get people involved with me,” he says. “I want to play songs that they’ll recognize. That’s all that entertainment is. People should feel comfortable when I’m playing. If I get a feeling they don’t want to get involved with me I’ll just play background.”
Cocktail pianists are often long on musical skill, yet short on the natural talent that catapults performers to stardom. But while original musicians maintain a sacred integrity by playing only their own tunes, they are usually sentenced to day jobs until they land their big break. Cocktail piano provides more lucrative, steadier work that allows freedom during the day and a chance to perform regularly – albeit in front of less than attentive audiences.
Amos is using her six-night-a-week gig to hone her performing skills, and while she is a good cocktail pianist she is hoping that the experience will help to make her a great performer. She doesn’t expect to be playing dimly lit lounges for the rest of her life, but while she does it will get her best shot. “You have to be satisfied where you are,” she says. “While I’m playing the Marbury House it is the most important thing. The Capitol Center might be my eventual goal, but that’s down the road. Tonight, this has to be my best performance.
If it is a pleasant surprise to chance upon Amos in the Marbury House it’s a shock to discover her future plans. Raw ambition in a cocktail pianist is rare. Amos wants to perform to huge audiences, doing running jumps over the piano and the speakers – a cross between Elton John and the Flying Wallendas. Her idols include Tina Turner and Billie Holliday.
“Playing lounges teaches you so much,” she says. “When you are playing in a bar no one really wants to listen. When people pay to see you then they will pay attention. But when no one is listening it takes ten times the effort. Audiences are much more critical of bar singers.”
While every performer has a threshold of pain, requests are a part of a pianist’s life. Amos will field a request, mutter that she doesn’t really like that particular song, then turn in a near-flawless rendition. If she doesn’t know the song she’ll do her best to figure it out on the spot. It’s musical roulette, and it’s remarkable how often it succeeds.
“If someone walks out of here and says that I didn’t play what they wanted to hear, then I’m not doing my job,” she says. “You shouldn’t be able to tell that I’m playing what I don’t like, even though on something I like, or on my originals. My enthusiasm will shine through. Otherwise, I’ll fake it, give people what they want to hear. My tastes really don’t matter. I might hate a song, but three people are in the corner crying because it means a lot to them.”
“I know a lot of songs,” Moore-Kelly says. “If someone asks for a particular song there is a 70 percent chance that I can play it. Either that, or I can play something related, by the same artist or from the same album.”
Cocktail pianists take their music seriously and hope it will take them to bigger and better places. Amos manages to sneak a couple of her originals in every night. Sometimes nobody notices, as the originals are written and performed in typical cocktail lounge style.
Amos, however, is trying to break all of the rules. She seems to parody cocktail pianists, trying so hard to please, asking for requests and then peppering the expected “feelings, whoa, whoa, whoa feelings” fare with her own acerbic observations. Her originals are gutsy and gritty, projecting a sensuality that belies her frail form. She may start with a song about how hard it is for a woman to go home alone, then swing into an accented ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’.
“I would like to be able to write songs and sell them,” Moore-Kelly says. “I want to be known locally as a good musician. As a musician you can either move forward or back. You can never be static.”
“I’m a minister’s daughter,” Amos says, priming her tip jar with $5 of her own money. “I teach music in Sunday school. I never saw this side of life. But I have learned to talk to people.”
© Charles Bermant, The Washington Times, 2 September 1983