I met my husband in a piano lounge. We were in Fanny's, the restaurant on Sheridan Drive. We were sitting next to each other at the bar, listening to Al Tinney, the beloved Buffalo jazz pianist.
The first thing the guy I was to marry said to me was, "Do you know what tune this is he's playing?"
And I played dumb, hesitating a moment, before saying I was pretty sure it was "Sophisticated Lady."
Howard now says that performance of "Sophisticated Lady" was the last time he was able to listen to Al play, because after that I was always talking.
Whether or not that's true, there's no denying the magic of the sound of a piano.
Even if you aren't listening closely, hearing a piano in a bar, lounge, restaurant or club creates a special mood. A real piano, we're talking about. Not an electric piano, not a fancy electronic piano. These substitutes produce an artificial sound.
A piano, be it a spinet, upright or grand, carries with it a certain elegance and intimacy.
It speaks of yesteryear, suggests Henry Gorino, the owner of Oliver's, the plush restaurant on Delaware Avenue.
Every Friday and Saturday, diners at Oliver's listen to pianist George Jones play "Over the Rainbow," "It Had to Be You" and other classics of the Great American Songbook. The notes fall softly over the quiet conversation, the clinking of silverware, the occasional rustle of fur coats. It's a tradition that goes back decades.
"When I bought the place -- we opened in 1983 -- it was a little different. It was more of a supper club," Gorino says.
A piano went with that atmosphere, he muses, more than it goes with the more modern, relaxed ambience Oliver's offers these days.
But customers have told him how much they love the piano, and Gorino has made up his mind to keep the music playing. "If George ever leaves, it'll be his decision," he says.
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You don't find as many pianos as you used to. Too many club owners are unwilling to invest in one, figuring that musicians can bring their own keyboards.
That's a pity, because an acoustic piano can create an atmosphere that is, to quote Nat "King" Cole, unforgettable. Yes, even in Western New York, the birthplace of the Moog.
With its signature boat-shaped bandstand dominated by a big Samick grand, the Anchor Bar holds on to its unique 1940s atmosphere. Fridays, you can hear singer Dodo Greene, whose Blue Note record with saxophonist Ike Quebec is considered a classic. Saturdays, a Latin jazz band holds sway, led by Kevin Doyle at the piano.
"Music has been a tradition here at the Anchor Bar for at least 70 years," points out manager Ivano Toscano, with a forgivable touch of pride.
"It's like wings and the Anchor Bar. They go together. Years ago, Frank and Teresa Bellissimo used to call New York City every two or three weeks and get new bands. They started the musical tradition, and we want to contribute to that. This is a little extra, to add to the Anchor Bar."
In the Anchor Bar, the well-loved piano complements its historic surroundings. But a piano can be what you want it to be. At Shanghai Red's, the restaurant built two years ago down by the waterfront, the piano plays up the place's glistening, expensive newness.
It's very warming, on a chilly night, to walk past the outdoor fireplaces and torches and settle in to listen to Les Davis and his trio in the cozy piano lounge. This piano is unusual, too, with a built-in shelf for drinks.
The music is part of the vision of David Tallichet, the 84-year-old war veteran who is the CEO of Specialty Restaurants, the chain the place is part of.
"He's kind of a Howard Hughes eccentric," says Mark Beeston, the chain's Northwest manager. Tallichet owns the Memphis Belle, the plane that inspired the Harry Connick Jr. movie. He has the nation's biggest collection of warplanes, which he still flies himself. "He lives to fly and ski," Beeston says.
Tallichet, whose wife is from Buffalo, enjoys the ambience of songs he grew up with, like "Night and Day" and "The Way You Look Tonight." Customers savor the music, too, Beeston suggests, even if it's on a subconscious level.
"People do enjoy it," he says. "Especially on the waterfront, there's something so calming about the water already. You sit and relax, kind of turn the rest of the world off a little bit."
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Shanghai Red's cuts its music back during January and February, when business is traditionally slow. Fanny's also tends to take a break in deep winter. The music at Fanny's will pick up again in March, owner Michael Delmont promises.
Delmont says that even when there's no pianist on duty, guests sometimes like to try their skills. One night when I was there, a waiter sat down and treated patrons to his creative rendition of "Freebird."
"The piano's not only beautiful as a piece of furniture, but it's functional," Delmont says.
To say the piano at E.B. Green's is functional would be understating things a little.
From Tuesday through Thursday every week, the steakhouse in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo downtown plays host to Buffalo's most formidable piano man, Jackie Jocko.
"He comes from Cleveland -- he comes from Cleveland," Jocko might sing to the bar, alluding to a guest entering or exiting.
As he plays anything from "Moon River" to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Jocko keeps up a constant nostalgic patter.
"Who's going to replace Andre Previn? Who's going to replace Fred Astaire? Nobody," he wondered aloud recently, fingers skimming the keys.
"Cyd Charisse -- her legs were longer than my whole body."
Chatting about celebrities he has known, from Marlene Dietrich to Jack Ruby, Jocko brings back an age of bygone intrigue.
In one of his rare mellow moments, you could think of "Casablanca," with Ingrid Bergman saying, "Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.' "
Or how about the Humphrey Bogart classic "To Have and Have Not"? Lauren Bacall sings as lovable, dapper pianist Hoagy Carmichael plays.
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That was years ago, but the Great American Songbook transcends the decades.
"The Way You Look Tonight," the beautiful ballad made popular by Astaire, was central to the movie "First Daughter." The president's daughter, played by Katie Holmes, invites her beau to a ball at the White House, and they dance to the song.
That kind of romance inspired Andy D'Amico, 29, to open Sidebar, the elegant piano lounge on Hertel Avenue.
With its antique grand piano, Sidebar goes well with its neighbor across the street, the historic North Park Theatre.
The piano was D'Amico's parents' idea (he's the son of County Judge Michael L. D'Amico).
"My parents said that next to the bar, it had the feel of a hotel lounge," he explains.
He's glad he took their suggestion and moved in a piano. "I wanted to keep the games out -- no dartboards, no pool tables," he says. "I wanted to keep it a people bar, where the only entertainment is you're forced to talk to someone. A whiskey bar, maybe. You drink, talk, nibble on snacks, that's about it."
The Sidebar features the gospel-tinged Jaman Trio every other Friday. Lounge pianist Thom Diina plays Saturdays.
Here, there's no seasonal break in the music. "Business has been great," D'Amico beams. "My weekends have been solid over the last few months.
"I've been told my place is like the early days of the Tralf."
People who walk in off the street see the piano, D'Amico says, and their eyes light up.
"Everyone asks, 'Does anyone ever play this piano?' You say, 'Yeah, it's used six times a month.' Then they'll come back.
"People will see a piano even without anyone playing it, and think, 'This must be a nice place.' "