Where Have All the Pianos Gone?
I’ll Take Manhattan
An Essay by Robin Meloy Goldsby
My taxi from JFK into Manhattan sits in traffic outside the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Every few minutes we creep forward a few feet. A pale blue sky frames vibrant billboards that advertise luxury condos and cosmetic dentistry.
Concrete, steel, cranes. The only humans I see are stuffed, like me, in cars—their tiny heads bowed to check text messages. Maybe they are praying.
I lower the window and a warm February breeze, greasy and choked with exhaust fumes, teases me with the promise of something better on the other side of the river. Lunch?
If we moved any slower we’d be going backwards.
New York City doesn’t play nice with musicians. It never has. When I moved here in 1980, at the age of twenty-one, I knew the city’s reputation for eating its young. Still, I showed up and managed to claw out a successful career for myself. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t care. Manhattan, a strutting, strung-out, skulking bad-boy in a distressed leather jacket, hypnotized me. Now and then I snapped to my senses and considered leaving, but the bad boy, aware of my displeasure, would toss a half-full swag bag in my direction and convince me to stay put. The stench of ambition wafted up Madison Avenue and lulled me into a state of contented numbness. I probably stayed longer than I should have.
I played the piano in hotels that offered live music as a swank perk for their five-star guests. Hotel musicians like me—the ones who caught the swag bag lob—had decent health insurance, a pension plan, and enough money to cover rent, an occasional new pair of glitzy shoes, and countless diner breakfasts. Note: Over the course of fifteen years I may well have consumed two thousand plates of poached eggs on toast. Coffee, regular.
Those years were terrible and wonderful and dramatic. And fun.
I left in 1994 at the age of thirty-six. I flew away, victorious, with a been-there, done-that attitude that carried me to Europe with a bassist husband and toddler son. I felt strong and lucky. I had survived an eating disorder, too much Valium, serial dating, and aching loneliness. I had also fallen in love, polished my music skills, and learned how to say no with confidence.
Countless people—some of them beautiful, some of them crazy, criminal, or worse—had passed my piano over the course of fifteen years. I played. They listened. They ignored me. I played some more. Back then, music floated through the lobbies, restaurants, and cocktail lounges of upscale Manhattan hotels. The piano soothed, entertained, and reminded guests who were paying too much for a Manhattan hotel room that a nice song can mean more than a double shot of Ketel One Citron and a bowl of salty nuts.
I’m returning to the city this afternoon on the heels of a small East Coast concert tour. I won’t be playing in NYC, but hope to visit friends, infuse my drowsy spirit with the city’s energy, and hear some music. Two decades after I started a calmer, more creatively productive life in a foreign country, I want to see what I left behind.
This tunnel is taking forever. What was that movie back in the eighties? C.H.U.D. Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Why do I remember such things?
At last. We come up for air.
Gramercy Park. I did a couple of shows at the Players Club in 1984. Nice place.
I could live here again, I think. No I couldn’t. Yes I could. See. This is how the bad boy gets you—he makes you drive through a stinky, gloomy tunnel thinking you’re a C.H.U.D, then waves a couple of brownstones and a Ginkgo tree in your face and tempts you back into his tattooed arms.
My husband, John, will arrive later this afternoon. Our good friends Norman and Ellen, the kind of hip, warm-hearted, smart people you’d expect to meet in the world’s most sophisticated city, will host us for the next three days. Their Fifth Avenue, window-lined apartment (with guest suite!) has offered a welcome refuge to many of their artist friends over the years.
John shows up, as fresh as one can be after a nine-hour flight from Berlin. In the last five days he has been in Maastricht, Bielska Zadymka (Poland), Berlin, and now, Manhattan. I have been in Charleston and Pittsburgh. He wins.
John and I haven’t seen each other for three weeks and we’ve got a lot to talk about. The last time we were in New York together without kids was twenty-five years ago. We walk a couple of blocks to the Knickerbocker for dinner, a place where John used to play duo gigs with some of the greatest pianists in the world. The place is packed—but there’s no music. The grand piano sits in the corner covered with mid-priced bottles of liquor. I can hardly see the top of the instrument. A baby stroller the size of a Hummer is parked where the piano bench should be.
The food is great, the wine is fine, but where’s the music? Oh, right. It’s back in Bielska Zadymka. Or Charleston.
The next day we visit the new Whitney, and walk the entire length of the Highline. We meet a street poet named Mary, who improvises a poem for me on the word of my choice. I choose “John” and she goes to town:
When he’s gone,
There is no dawn,
That’s the way you feel,
About your John.
I love the 34th Street grunge-themed Greek diner where we have lunch. It reminds me of a place on Eighth Avenue where a street person once blew his nose right into my friend’s plate, then, when he recoiled in disgust, grabbed his BLT and ran out the door.
I’m not sure why I’m nostalgic about health department violations and street poets.
We walk and walk and walk. Later we meet Norman and Ellen for dinner at Joe Allen, where—much to Norm’s delight—one can still order warm fudge cake with coffee ice cream.
Norman and Ellen head home. John and I begin our evening tour of places where we used to play. We stroll through the pedestrian park that used to be Times Square. It feels familiar, but slightly off—like a cheesy waltz version of a piece meant to be played in bashing, odd-meter time.
Where are the cars? Why does it look like Las Vegas?
We enter the circular band of elevators at the Marriott Marquis, and run around trying to find an available lift to take us to the eighth-floor lobby. I played here for seven years, starting in the mid-eighties. Eventually Marriott management replaced me with an awful-sounding player piano and a tuxedo-clad crash test dummy.
The dummy and the piano have vanished. I walk to the middle of the Atrium Lounge, stand right where the piano used to be, and look up. I remember the waitresses in their casino-inspired, organ grinder’s monkey costumes, the greeter who had a dwarf phobia, the breakfast buffet on top of the piano, the ladies’ room attendant who sold me evening gowns from her “shop” in the handicapped toilet stall, the stalkers, the moguls, the hookers, the stars.
But mostly I remember music. Seven years of solo piano—that’s a lot of notes. The current silence fills the lobby with despair. It seems hollow and pointless here—like a hospital cafeteria trying too hard to be cheerful.
Onward. We wait for an elevator, but give up and take the stairs.
Next stop, the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker’s former residence and home of the famous Round Table. The Algonquin, renowned for its literary history, also hosted New York’s finest cabaret stars. I spent many serene evenings in the Oak Room, listening to John accompany Susannah McCorkle. The Oak Room was Manhattan at its best. You could order a martini, listen to some Gershwin, and slip into your most divine self.
We ask the concierge about music.
“No music,” he says. “Sorry.”
“No music?” John and I respond in unison, a Greek chorus of disbelief.
“But this is the Algonquin,” I say.
“New management,” he says. “The Marriotts took over a couple of years ago. Sorry.”
Those damn Marriotts.
“So the Oak Room is dark?” John asks.
“Yeah,” says the concierge, who seems to be doubling as a doorman. “Sorry. Now it’s a conference room. Go see for yourselves.”
We peek inside and gasp. Florescent lighting, a fake wood conference table, folding walls, a beamer. They might as well call it the Plastic Room.
“And the Round Table?” I ask. “Please tell me it’s still here.”
“Yeah,” he says, “but they closed the library bar. Now it’s in the breakfast room.”
“Like Dorothy Parker ever ate breakfast,” I say.
“I used to play back in the Oak Room,” John says to the concierge. “With Susannah McCorkle.”
“God rest her soul,” he says. “I loved her. That ‘Waters of March’ recording is still my favorite.”
“I played that with her a bunch of times,” John says.
A moment of silence for Susannah, for Dorothy, for the confused cabaret and literary ghosts roaming the hotel lobby. Part of the lyric to Jobim’s “Waters of March” runs through my mind.
A stick, a stone,
The end of the road,
The rest of a stump,
A lonesome road.
A sliver of glass,
A life, the sun,
A knife, a death,
The end of the run.
“Hey,” says the concierge. “We still have the Alqonquin cat.”
“That’s something,” I say. “At least there’s that. There’s the cat.” I sound like Mary the poet.
We head to the Grand Hyatt, where John and I played for years. He worked with a jazz trio in the lobby; I played in the velvet and leather cave known as Trumpets. Back then the hotel was owned by Professional Son and future U.S. President, Donald Trump.
John and I met at this hotel. The Hyatt Corporation had a catchy slogan in the nineties. “Welcome to the Hyatt. Catch the wave.” John and I caught the wave. Twenty-six years have passed. That was a big wave.
We’re not expecting any music when we walk through the glass doors—we knew the Hyatt music policy had ended years ago.
Whoa. If the Marriott looks like a hospital cafeteria, this place looks like a mausoleum. This hotel was never a Mecca of good taste, but now it’s sterile and a little creepy.
Where’s the Crystal Fountain? Where are the crazy lobby people who hid behind fake ficus trees and muttered absurdities at the musicians? Where are the dancers and brawlers and hulking security guards who occasionally belted out Frank Sinatra tunes during the trio’s last set?
It’s sleek and sterile and corporate in here, a polished-stone shrine to mediocrity. We walk down the empty corridor to Trumpets, a bar I used to poke fun at for its eighties upscale lounge-lizard vibe. Smoky and slightly sleazy—it was, after all, named after the Donald—Trumpet’s once featured music six nights a week, five to midnight. I spent years at the Trumpet’s piano, finding my musical voice and fending off guys who sent me vague musical requests along with their room numbers.
“Oh, no,” I say when we reach the entrance to the former cocktail lounge. Another sleek, silent, and stupid conference room. It looks like a sheetrock shoebox. Remembering that this is where I fell in love with John, I try to conjure a little romantic nostalgia for the Hyatt—but I come up empty. Sad!
I never really liked Trumpet’s, but this nondescript space is depressing. No fun. I’d much prefer to see a musician, coaxing pretty music out of the Steinway and plotting an exit strategy. Who am I kidding? Just for a second I’d like to catch a glimpse of my former self, the younger, skinnier, goofier model, tossing bouquets of notes to a half-grateful crowd.
Next stop: The Waldorf Astoria, home to one of the last hotel piano gigs in Manhattan. Tonight, the Waldorf, recently purchased by a Chinese insurance company called Anbang, will close its doors for a three-year renovation that will turn the hotel into a condo residence for rich and famous globetrotters.
My pal Emilee Floor has been playing at the Waldorf for the last nine years. John and I, along with several of my good friends—Harlan Ellis, Greg Thymius, Carole and Emilio Delgado— will be there to send her off in style. A few of the Waldorf’s musicians, past and present, also show up. Daryl Sherman and Debbie Andrews, both of whom worked with me back in the eighties and nineties, wander into the lounge, looking a little wistful. Piano Girls forever, I guess. We may all be twenty years older and a few pounds heavier but we still have closets full of evening gowns, fleeting fingers, and too many songs left to play.
Emilee plays the 1907 Cole Porter Steinway, a gorgeous, blond mahogany instrument that needs a serious, expensive overhaul. It hurts to play this piano, which some of us call the Tendonitis Steinway. The Hilton Corporation, who manages the property, likes to brag about the piano’s pedigree, but they have never seen fit to invest in its restoration. It’s plopped in the corner of the lounge, facing exactly the wrong direction. Emilee, a singing-playing wonder in a purple sequined cocktail dress, does her best to capture the mood of the room.
John and I listen and watch as a sloppy and irritated woman in a too-tight business suit staggers to the piano and begins harassing Emilee. Smiling, Emilee chats between phrases and does that thing that great hotel players know how to do. It’s like watching a munitions expert disarm a bomb. The woman chills out and wobbles back to her Bacardi and Coke.
Emilee conquers the evening with her free-spirited, uplifting vocals and lissome piano arrangements. Her music paints the lounge with light, but the night hangs heavy. We have visited four hotels, three of them without music, one of them about to close its heavy brass doors.
What will happen to the Cole Porter Steinway? I fear the Hiltons, or the Chinese Anbangs, or whoever is running the place will shove it, unceremoniously, into a storage locker meant for cans of lard and bed linens. In three years, following the hotel renovation, they’ll have housekeeping dust it off. An overworked, deadline-crazed, junior interior-designer with no clue about music history will say, “Oh, that’s cute!” and place the piano, un-restored and out of tune, in a nook of the lobby surrounded by velvet ropes. There will be a meaningful plaque.
The piano, silent and stuck without a player in a cone of corporate silence, will become a museum piece. Occasionally, an underpaid Food and Beverage Trainee will use the closed piano as a surface to hold bottles of sparkling wine or a large vase of calla lilies.
I don’t think Mr. Porter, who would have adored Emilee Floor, had this in mind when he bequeathed the piano to the hotel.
“Get that piano in shape,” a modern-day Porter might have trilled. “You spent forty thousand to reupholster those ugly-ass sofas in the ladies’ lounge, the least you can do is fix the damn piano. And hire some musicians to play it. What good is a silent hotel lobby? Get the wine off the Steinway and put it on a table where it belongs. And for God’s sake, lose the lilies. It’s not a funeral.”
Live music has always been a glossy thing. Slippery, almost. It flows into the night like a delicate river and rolls forward into an ocean of collective memory. The loss of music in Manhattan’s hotels might seem inconsequential, but it’s not. The retreat of song marks one more indignity in an era clouded by corporate folly, desensitization, and greed. The river is running dry.
Take note: By discontinuing their music policies, Manhattan hotels have officially insulted their guests—a subtle slap in the face of expense account clients and international tourists hoping for a little New York City enchantment.
You take away music; you take away magic. That simple.
Over the next few days, we see a Broadway play, attend an Emanuel Ax rehearsal at Carnegie Hall, go to lunch with our niece, hang out with Betsy Hirsch at the new (and very corporate-looking) Steinway Hall, visit some Village jazz clubs. Yes, New York remains jam-packed with fanciful things to do and see. But I’ve come to realize that—had I stayed here—my career as a hotel musician would have fizzled and died. I would have found something else to do, because that’s the way it is when you live and work in New York City. You keep on keepin’ on, even when you’re tired and feeling like a C.H.U.D.
l love it here; I hate it here. We leave town on a Wednesday and get stuck in traffic, this time on the Manhattan side of the tunnel. It’s hard enough to get into the city, but I have to fight my own demons every time I dare to leave. I look at my handsome husband and think about our adult kids back in Europe, our home, our lush careers. Fifteen years in New York City almost cracked me, but it pushed me to the other side of who I’m supposed to be.
It’s the first of March. We travel under the East River and start our long trip home. Here it comes again, the Jobim song.
It’s the wind blowing free,
It’s the end of the slope,
It’s a beam, it’s a void,
It’s a hunch, it’s a hope.
And the river bank talks
Of the waters of March,
It’s the end of the strain,
The joy in your heart.
Robin Meloy Goldsby
Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir
RHYTHM: A Novel
RMG is a Steinway Artist