Lounge Performer, Nearing 100, Has 88 Keys to the Good Life
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On a recent Sunday, as a mother and her son ate brunch at the upscale Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan, they did a double take to stare at an older gentleman playing spirited lounge-style piano to the otherwise empty dining room.
Noticing their interest, the pianist, dressed impeccably in a double-breasted blue blazer with a matching tie and pocket square, asked where they were from.
“We’re from El Paso, Tex.,” said the woman, Yolanda Armendariz, sitting with her son, Ethan Ayub-Touche, who is 8.
“Texas? Well, why didn’t you say so?” the piano player roared. “I love Texas.”
With that, he started banging out a medley of Texas-themed songs, including “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Soon, they were buying his CDs for $20 apiece.
The pianist, Irving Fields, is 99, but he is still playing and still promoting himself, the way he did as a 14-year-old in the late 1920s, when he would get his band hired for parties with a repertoire of only a half dozen tunes.
“The people would get drunk and dance, and not even notice we were playing the same five or six songs over and over,” recalled Mr. Fields, who has been performing in New York ever since, becoming a fixture in the most exclusive hotels, lounges and piano bars.
He was recently hired for a continuing engagement in the Park Room at the Park Lane, on Central Park South, working Fridays through Sundays, from noon to 3 p.m.
“Steady gigs are getting to be unheard-of in New York these days,” he said. “So to be hired at 99, I really couldn’t be happier.”
A news release promoted Mr. Fields as the oldest working piano player in the country, something he admitted would be difficult to prove.
“But who knows, I might be the oldest pianist still working steady, in the world,” he said.
It was at the Park Lane that he first met Leona Helmsley, a former owner of the hotel, and had the distinction, he recalled, of being bitten by Ms. Helmsley’s notorious dog, Trouble, the famously coddled Maltese who became known as the world’s richest dog after Ms. Helmsley died and left him $12 million.
“When I handed her my card, her dog bit my finger,” Mr. Fields recalled. “The waiter whipped out a Band-Aid and said, ‘The dog bites everyone.”’
“Leona said she heard me playing ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ ” — Ms. Helmsley was married to the real estate magnate Harry Helmsley — “and she told me, ‘I’ll break your fingers if you don’t become my house pianist,’ ” he recalled. “That’s a true story, and here I am again.”
On the piano, in addition to his CDs, Mr. Fields displays fliers, including his “Secrets for Longevity” — No. 13 is “Eat four hours before bedtime — you’ll digest better.”
Before playing, Mr. Fields puts in his hearing aids and parks his walker next to the baby Grand. His big gnarled hands are afflicted with arthritis and he has carpal tunnel syndrome. But once he spreads them out on the keyboard, he plays with a spry spirited swing that seems ageless.
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“Honestly, it’s like I’m giving a Carnegie Hall concert in a restaurant,” he said. “The only problem is that my fans don’t know I’m here. The place is empty.”
But after two months performing at the Park Lane, his fans are beginning to find him, including, on a recent Saturday, two young men from Philadelphia: Domingo Mancuello, 22, and Adam Swanson, 23.
Both were students, and aficionados of ragtime and early jazz.
Mr. Swanson, a musicology student at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, has become perhaps Mr. Fields’s biggest curator and champion. He owns folders of Mr. Fields’s sheet music and recordings and has memorized and rearranged many of Mr. Fields’s original compositions.
“He thinks I’m Moses or Jesus or something,” Mr. Fields said during a break, as Mr. Swanson sat at his table.
“Well, to someone who studies American popular music since the 1930s, you practically are Moses,” Mr. Swanson responded. “I looked you up at the Library of Congress, and they have like five files of your music,”
Mr. Swanson pulled out an old 78: the first record Mr. Fields ever made, Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which he recorded in 1937 for the long-gone Liberty Music Shop in Manhattan.
“I got paid $25 to record that,” Mr. Fields said. “Right over there on Madison Avenue, on the corner.”
Mr. Swanson, an expert ragtime pianist, said he first learned of Mr. Fields when he saw him on YouTube performing his “YouTube Dot Com,” an original that has been clicked on nearly 900,000 times.
Mr. Swanson sat at the piano and played a catchy number called “10 Dancing Fingers,” Mr. Fields’s first published piece of sheet music, and then shared the piano bench with Mr. Fields for some improvised four-handed duets of Mr. Fields’s hits from the 1940s and 1950s. One of them was “Miami Beach Rumba,” which became a hit for the Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat, and was more recently used by Woody Allen in the movie “Deconstructing Harry.”
“He plays with a wonderful sense of melody and a lot of feeling,” Mr. Swanson said. “A lot of people today don’t play with that kind of feeling.”
Mr. Fields says he can accommodate any request and arrange songs into a multitude of musical styles and shadings.
“People ask me, ‘How do you remember so many notes?’” he said. “It just comes to me. It’s like God is in my mind.”
A film crew was in the Park Room to shoot Mr. Fields for a documentary, “The Unstoppable Irving Fields,” which they hope to complete before he turns 100 on Aug. 4.
Mr. Fields was born in 1915, and grew up on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, taking classical piano lessons and improvising on the popular songs of the day as well as material he heard in Yiddish vaudeville shows. As a teenager, he played on cruise ships headed for Havana and San Juan, where he grew to love Latin music.
He was a fixture in the 1950s at the Mermaid Room; he played the Copacabana, the Latin Quarter, El Morocco and the St. Moritz. He appeared with Milton Berle, Kate Smith and Jackie Gleason on television.
Mr. Fields says he has recorded over 90 albums, including his Latin-Jewish “Bagels and Bongos,” a fusion which helped usher in the Yiddish mambo craze and led to scores of other recordings the 1940s and ‘50s.
He has lived for the past half century in a modest apartment on Central Park South, a short walk from the Park Lane. He still drinks a martini every night. He does not have a piano at home.
“I get paid to play,” he said, sipping a martini. “You think I need to practice, at my age?”
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