Cy Walter’s Cocktail Piano, With a Twist
Jan. 13, 2016 4:42 p.m. ET
It’s the grossest of understatements to say that cocktail pianists get no respect. They spend most of their lives playing for people who aren’t listening, a not-insignificant number of whom are either drunk or en route to being so. And while I never actually heard anyone ask for “Melancholy Baby” in the long-ago days when I gigged in bars, it’s usually safe to assume that when somebody does have a request, it’ll be for something you’ve played an octillion times. On the other hand, it’s also true that most cocktail pianists aren’t worth listening to, at least not very closely. Sometimes they’re just going through the motions (and who shall blame them?) and sometimes they simply aren’t very good. But a few such folk are true artists, and one of them, Cy Walter, was a very great one, among the finest popular pianists of the 20th century.
Walter at the Copacabana in 1949. His listeners included the likes of Marlon Brando, Noël Coward, Arthur Miller and Cole Porter.Photo: Jack Wasserman
Walter, who died in 1968, spent most of his career playing in classy hotel lounges for Manhattanites who got dressed up to do their drinking. He was closely identified with the Drake Room of the now-defunct Drake Hotel, where he performed off and on from 1945 until his death and where his listeners included the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Noël Coward, Arthur Miller, Cole Porter, Jerome Robbins and Tennessee Williams. From 1945 to 1953 he was also a fixture on network radio, performing weekly on a series called “Piano Playhouse.” But his celebrity, such as it was, dried up when he died: Walter’s albums went out of print shortly thereafter, and from then on his name was known only to connoisseurs.
Mark Walter, Cy’s son, is trying to change all that. He started by launching an uncommonly well-stocked website, www.cywalter.com, that is the online equivalent of a primary-source biography of his father. Now he’s commemorated the recent centennial of Cy Walter’s birth in 1915 by co-producing a pair of compact discs called “Sublimities” (both of which can be ordered from Amazon) that contain a total of 52 tracks by his father. Some are long-unavailable commercial recordings, others radio airchecks that have never before been released. On them Walter can be heard playing piano solos and duets (he frequently performed with Stan Freeman, a pianist of similar talent and stylistic inclination) and accompanying such singers as Marlene Dietrich, Mabel Mercer and Frank Sinatra. Most of the tunes are blue-chip standards, with a few original compositions by Walter thrown in for good measure. All are performed with a consummate elegance and technical wizardry that make you wonder how the man who recorded them could possibly have fallen into obscurity.
The main reason, I suspect, is that Walter’s playing was a bit tricky to categorize. He wasn’t a jazz pianist, preferring to describe himself as “a specialist in show tunes.” Instead of going off on melodic tangents, he played a tune the way the songwriter wrote it, embedding its familiar contours in a richly wrought accompaniment from which it shone forth like a well-framed painting. Though his playing recalled the equally virtuosic style of Art Tatum, his good friend and favorite pianist, Walter rarely employed the chromatic substitute chords that Tatum loved to deploy, nor did his playing swing the way Tatum’s did. He liked smooth, danceable tempos, and his most staggering feats of prestidigitation, unlike Tatum’s watch-me-skip-on-the-high-wire stunts, were tossed off with the puma-footed stealth of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, who worked his own miracles of discretion without ever raising his voice.
That‘s what made Walter so popular in hotel lounges: You could sit and marvel at his playing if you liked, or you could sip your martini and chat with your companion of the evening. Bob Bach put it well in a 1946 profile quoted in the liner notes to “Sublimities”: “To describe the magic that Cy Walter weaves around the babble of a crowded barroom is like trying to describe the feel of an expensive fabric.”
Such players tend not to be properly appreciated by critics, most of whom turn up their noses at the imagined taint of commercialism associated with cocktail piano. Musicians, by contrast, know better. It’s no surprise that Ethan Iverson, who plays piano with the Bad Plus, a brilliantly quirky progressive jazz combo, is a longtime Walter admirer. So was Richard Rodgers, who once wrote Walter a fan letter in which he said that “I have never heard better taste.” Listen to the gently rippling 1946 performance of Rodgers’s “Falling in Love With Love” included on the first “Sublimities” CD and you’ll hear what he meant. No, it’s not jazz, but who cares? It’s music, and it’s gorgeous—with or without an olive.
Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, now writes “Sightings” every other Thursday. Write to him at email@example.com.