On a warm night in June, 50+ people crowded into Maplewood Grill to listen to Sharon Springer sing a showcase of songs, and then have their turn on the open mic with Reinhardt Liebig at the keyboard. Sharon has a “day job,” and no one paid to hear her sing, but everyone in the restaurant and at the bar were tuned into her stylized performance of 8 standards, sipping on the emotions delivered with each lyric. In that 30-minute session, those 50+ people bonded over songs that tell the stories of love, loss, longing, and joy that listeners enjoyed when they were made famous 50 or more years ago by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. This type of Do-it-Yourself entertainment magic happens nightly in bars and restaurants in NOVA and across the DMV. Communities of strangers get folded into the broader community of active singers, their friends, and lovers of live-music who migrate to bars and restaurants around the DMV for this type of DIY entertainment.
Piano bars lure patrons with the opportunity to experience the live music partnership unfold between singer and pianist. For the singer, it can be the opportunity to share a favorite song, dedicate a special memory, or try a new arrangement. For the non-singer, it is listening to an unknown singer or tune, and appreciating the unexpected, or enjoying a standard tune made memorable by a new interpretation. In the space between these two partners, the interpretation of a lyric often leads to questions about personal interests and lives, and friendships form. Piano bar patron Michelle Sarson says, “I enjoy going to simply see my friends and all people sing because it brings them and me joy. Everyone is welcome and accepted, not ever pretentious.” And in a world where relationships are more often found via one’s fingertips on a laptop keyboard, this is a place where people can engage in direct, personal, authentic encounters made with its own background music. Cue “Cheers” theme song – where everybody knows your name and they sing it to you!
The Tysons region claims some of the original DMV piano bars. Maplewood Grill, in Vienna, originated as Le Canard by former Chef/Owner Marcel Kuchler. According to Kuchler, he copied the piano bar concept 32 years ago from a restaurant called The Company, behind the old Hechinger’s near Tysons II (had a piano bar led by George Maisel), and brought it to Le Canard on Branch street (off of Maple Avenue). It was novel and soon became very popular. Other locations copied them—Serbian Crown in Great Falls (now closed), and Alpine in Arlington (now closed), but when the owners retired these restaurants and their piano bars closed. Rather than retire, Kuchler now shares the duties of ownership with his son, Paul. Kuchler remains committed to the live music and piano bar scene because he believes that people enjoy the upbeat and lively music, and it creates community around the location for people who enjoy listening to and making live music.
Maplewood features two extraordinary pianists, Terry Lee Ryan and Reinhardt Liebig. With unique and diverse styles, both are equally adept as soloists, providing dinner music from 7–8:30pm, and then switching to piano bar style and inviting singers in the room to take turns at the microphone. Terry Lee digs into his New Orleans’ roots as a pianist and vocalist, performing on Thursdays 8pm-10pm & Saturdays 8pm–11pm. He plays blues, popular standards and especially N’awlins style funky piano music. On any given Saturday night, you can find people dancing in the aisles of the bar and restaurant area to his music. Thursday evening features Karl Anthony with a “Straight ahead Jazz Jam” from 8–10:30pm. Reinhardt’s style, heard at the same times on Wednesday and Friday evenings, is more a fusion of classical, jazz and Broadway, often blending one style into the next within a song. He has been playing there since 2000 and observed the transformation from Le Canard to the more American looking MWG in 2009.
As a pianist, Rein enjoys meeting people during his solo segment. “I think about what I’m going to play and what is happening in life; requests are taken and you can get to know people through their requests. Song choices reveal what people want,” says Liebig. “That first song is pretty cool. I use it to get a response from the crowd that could have me play “Clair De Lune” next and/or some American standards and Elton John in the mix after that.” He enjoys the open mic portion as well. Accompanying people is something he’s grown into after working with bands in 70s and 80s. Liebig maintains an exhaustive library of music in many different keys to accompany just about any singer. He believes that everyone has a voice; and to let it out in a public place is exciting. Diners, singers and music-lovers are invited to pull up a chair around the piano, which is treated with a polyurethane coating and protection over the hinge to shield it from drinks.
No job is without its challenges—even that of the piano bar musician. Liebig has learned not to get upset when people are talking “‘cause it’s a bar/restaurant,” and working with singers with the wide range of experience level—from first-timer to professional—often one after the other, keeps him on his toes and his ear sharp. Professional singers know their keys, intros, endings and solo sections, while beginners may need to be led through the sections. All of this requires enormous patience, decorum, and sense of humor as the MC of the evening. He sets a tone that says “all are welcome,” realizing that when we “strip away all of the responsibilities after ‘work’ we want some entertainment or go out into nature, and have connection with other people.” Patrons come to enjoy the vibe. Wayne Comer had been coming to Maplewood for years, and then after his wife died four years ago it became his home. Dick Galus says “I’d much rather listen to live music than watch TV,” and has learned over his years of piano bar interactions have similar tastes but different stories to their lives.
Tom Saputo’s two nights per week at Café Montmartre are standing room only and set the tone for great evenings of music-making and fun. A native Virginian, Tom began his keyboard career playing in Top 40 groups every night at clubs and hotels, and would often play solo during happy hour. He eventually met more piano bar types and became a one-man band at Mr. Henry’s in Adams Morgan in the early 80s, creating the first open mic night five times per week. Saputo says, “The owner forced me to do it. The Washington Post did an article about it and it became very successful.” The venue helped to launch the careers of “Sharon Clark” and “Steve Washington.” According to Saputo, the piano bar with an open mic dynamic has been around since the 40s/50s, but things started to change when comedians and rappers took over the scene. He also wanted to do showcases featuring singers, which he still does today. Over time, Saputo gravitated to Virginia and brought these concepts: Open mic and dancing with a keyboard—left hand base, right hand upper register with drum machine. In addition to Pistone’s Italian Inn, Saputo plays regularly at Alley Cat in Alexandria, Normandie Farm in Potomac, Captain Ma’s Seafood House in Sterling, Café Montmartre in Reston, and the Elks Lodge in Fairfax. Saputo believes that people come for the music and come back for the camaraderie that is created through the process—people become friends in this setting. “It’s a very similar type of person that comes out—not as many people with younger kids. Most people have good social skills, skillful at conversation, more so than the average person. They like the mix of people they can socialize with.” See his website for more details about times and venues; he is adding new venues all the time.
So, if some piano bars have changed course in recent years, does that mean that the community of support for this level of entertainment has dwindled as well? Not so, believes Tim Gavagan—producer, talent manager, singer and founder of the “Singing Friends” Facebook page, now home to 2350 singers* who post their singing activities (shows, concerts and open mics) on the page. Gavagan says that about 75–100 active singers use the page in DC metro area. The community of singers and patrons of open mic and performance venues has morphed into a network of opportunities to entertain and be entertained. Many people start with a song at a piano bar, catch the bug, and then develop their hobby into a professional level experience through workshops, private lessons, additional training, and performing at piano bars. Gavagan started the Singing Friends so he could find the locations of open mics. “Pianists who played at piano bars had email lists to notify folks of their locations. If you weren’t on the list then you didn’t know about dates.” But, he notes, even the Singing Friends system only works when someone posts. Some pianists, like Tom Saputo and Bob Stout, use Singing Friends daily to post their locations and performances.
The genre and experience needs younger audiences in order to keep growing, as does any type of entertainment. Enjoying singing and the camaraderie of getting up in front of others to perform is not an age-related event. Open mic is like Live Karaoke, and the pianists and musicians have the skills to follow or lead singers of any age through a performance of any tune. Getting younger people involved can be achieved through promotion and advertising using social media, says Liebig. Perhaps a talent night or a showcase without judging so that even a weaker singer can do something, as long as they relate to the audience and connect. The piano bar is a good lab to work on your craft; there are enough people to give feedback on what you do, and, as Liebig maintains: “We need an audience in life for some things. The eyes can be deceiving about what you are really doing for someone.” Perhaps we are building community: one song at a time.
Piano Bar Locations:
Maplewood Grill – Vienna
Epicure Cafe – Fairfax (3rd Sunday Night)