Wednesday, January 26, 2011
George Mesterhazy at the piano at the Merion Inn, Decatur Street, Cape May, New Jersey
By BOB INGRAM
Cape May County Herald
The Merion Inn on Decatur Street in Cape May harkens back to more genteel, Victorian times. This particular evening, eight women of late middle age, in summery pastels, cluster at the near end of the stately bar, sipping wine and chatting amiably while they wait for their table.
At the handsome Steinway upright grand piano nearby, George Mesterhazy, 55, the house pianist, long hair and beard flecked with gray, moves easily from one standard to the next, graciously taking requests that he mixes in with his own selections, while the tip level in the giant martini glass on the piano slowly rises.
“Night and Day” moves into “Some Enchanted Evening” into “Side By Side” into “I’ll Be Seeing You” into “Younger Than Springtime” and so on into the long, easy evening.
Later, on the patio, Mesterhazy reacts to a comment that his status at the Merion Inn is not unlike that of the great jazz pianist Marian MacPartland, who for so many years was the featured solo attraction at the famed Hickory House in New York City. Miss MacPartland still hosts the popular “Piano Jazz” program on PBS Radio.
“It’s funny you should mention Marian,” Mesterhazy says. “I was part of her 90th birthday tribute in March. It’s supposed to air on PBS Radio. I don’t know when. They already sent me a check, though. It was great. I only did a few songs. I accompanied Jeannie Bryson, Dizzy Gillespie’s daughter. I love Marian.”
George Mesterhazy has a natural, accessible way and loves to talk about his life’s work and joy, which is jazz. He seems to know everybody in jazz and has an endless wealth of jazz stories. He is a gentleman raconteur of what has been called America’s classical music. He is, in short, a jazz man.
He has been at the Merion Inn keyboard since he was interim musical director at the First Presbyterian Church across the street from the inn eleven years ago. The church is itself a local jazz Mecca, holding regular jazz vespers since even before Mesterhazy became affiliated.
“I would get done playing church services,” he recalls, “and the inn was doing lunch in those days, so I’d come over here and play piano for nothing and get a free lunch and have a good time, the main motivation being to talk to Vicki.”
Vicki is Victoria Watson, whose family owns the Merion Inn. She and Mesterhazy are now a couple, living over the restaurant on the second and third floors. They also have an apartment in Manhattan for when Mesterhazy is working there, either as a pianist, composer, arranger, music director, or producer. He is involved in every aspect of his music.
“I just always dabbled in it,” he says of his piano playing. “I didn’t even know I was going to be a piano player until I was 18 or 19. I would play a friend’s organ or the piano in somebody’s house or high school. I played just to amuse myself.”
Raised in New York State, Mesterhazy moved to Somers Point and attended Mainland Regional High School and considers himself “a Jersey boy.”
He played rock guitar and trumpet until he jumped in for a less-than-sterling keyboard player and just went on from there.
“I had the house band in the Strand Hotel in Atlantic City,” he notes. “I was 17. It was great. I was still in high school and I had a band called the Penthouse Trio and we accompanied all the acts who came to the 500 Club and stayed at the Strand.
To pay for their rooms, they put on free shows for the other guests at the pool and one of my jobs was to accompany them besides playing at night with the trio. It was a great job!”
Mesterhazy continues: “I hung out in those days. I mean, it was part of my childhood. I knew Skinny (Paul “Skinny” D’Amato, legendary owner of the 500 Club) very well. I played a solo piano job at a club called the Apartment Lounge. I was 18-years-old! I worked in an auto parts store during the day and played piano at night at the Apartment Lounge.”
Since those long ago and far away days, Mesterhazy has literally traveled the world as a jazz piano player. One of the highlights of his career was a Grammy nomination on Shirley Horn’s 1998 album “Loving You.”
The story of how he came to play with Shirley Horn says a great deal about Mesterhazy’s outlook and career. He was playing with Boston jazz singer Rebecca Paris, he recalls, “in a dive called Twins in D.C. It was owned by twin Ethiopian sisters. I thought, ‘Who the hell is going to come into this bar to watch Rebecca and I play jazz with a trio?’ I’m just kind of closing my eyes and playing. I open my eyes and the place is packed! And then these two guys in tuxedoes come in.”
The two guys were Joel Siegel, Shirley Horn’s manager, and the composer (Sir) Richard Rodney Bennett; they’d been at a formal affair at the Kennedy Center. Siegel said he loved Mesterhazy’s playing and understood that George would be in Los Angeles producing a new album for Rebecca Parris at the same time Shirley Horn would be having a record release party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Siegel invited Mesterhazy to the party. There was one hitch: when Mesterhazy got to Hollywood, he had a suit with him, but he didn’t have socks. He called Hal Levy, Sarah Vaughn’s last manager, and asked to borrow a pair of socks. Levy said that was fine with him, “so I went over to his fancy high-rise apartment in the marina somewhere and borrowed a pair of socks,” Mesterhazy remembers with a chuckle.
He met Shirley Horn at the party, they hit it off immediately, and the rest is jazz history. George Mesterhazy counts Horn as one of his main influences, as well as Grammy winner Herbie Hancock, and points out that “there’s a direct lineage between George Shearing and Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, and I have pretty much followed that lineage, which follows a line of harmonic development that I really love. And I’ve always loved Oscar Peterson. We finally met last year, shortly before he died. It was a real honor to sit in a room and talk about music together.”
Among composers, he favors Johnny Mandel and Nelson Riddle, along with Don Costa, Burt Bacharach, Michel LeGrand, and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
“All you have to do is listen to a Sinatra record,” he goes on. “You don’t even have to listen to anything else to learn all there is to know about music.”
On Aug. 8, Mesterhazy will begin producing a new CD with singer Paula West at Sears Sound in New York City.
“It’s a good studio with great old microphones,” he says. “The new style of recording is you go in and lay your tracks down and you don’t even meet anybody. I’m writing for the Paula West record now and we’ll have everybody in the room together and we won’t even be wearing headphones.”
He says he’s in his third year with a production company called Razz Productions and also works for seven straight weeks every year at the Razz Room at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco with Paula West and a quartet out of New York.
“We opened the place so we’ll be the main headliner there again next year,” he says.
As to his playing at the Merion Inn, he says, “I treat it with the same care as I do everything, so it doesn’t affect me negatively in any way, even though I don’t play as jazzy as I would if I was in a real jazz environment.
On Tuesday night, though, the group we have at the Merion swings, man. It’s me and Tim Lekan on bass and Bob Shomo on drums. I pay for the band out of my pocket just so I can do it. For me, it’s mental health night. You ought to come out.”
(Thanks for the great article Bob Ingram - BK)