Piano technician Vinny Tagliarino tunes pianos in the key of cool.
His Depew living room sports a Steinway grand that was once played by Prince.
He has tuned at the Town Casino, the Glen Park Casino, the Lord Amherst, the Cloister and the Aud.
Years ago, he and Tony Bennett once held up traffic on Main Street downtown, moving a piano from the Town Casino and back again. The pedals had fallen off. “It didn’t even need to be moved,” Tagliarino said. “I said, ‘All I need are the pedals.’ He goes ‘No, no, I got 10 guys, don’t worry about it.’
Ten guys, a piano, and Tony Bennett, all in the middle of Main Street? To make stories like this all the more incredible, Tagliarino is blind.
Blind piano tuners, let alone piano technicians, are figures of legend. It is a career that has long been suggested for the blind, mainly because it involves sound over sight. Glenn Gould’s longtime piano tuner was blind. Britain is home to the Association of Blind Piano Tuners.
Tagliarino, you could argue, doesn’t need any help seeing. He sees more than almost anyone.
Running his hand along a piano, Tagliarino can tell worlds about it.
“This is between 1900 and 1910,” he guesses, in one customer’s home. Sure enough, the piano dates to 1905.
From his unique vantage point behind – or occasionally under – the piano, he enjoys a view of the world that ordinary mortals would envy. He knows, for one thing, which celebrities are naughty and which ones are nice.
Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull, kept him waiting at the Aud for hours, on Independence Day. When he finally checked the piano, Anderson complained that three keys weren’t right.
“The notes were fine,” Tagliarino fumes, still angry. “So I said, give me a few minutes. I pretended to tune them.
“Then I said, ‘Call him over.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re OK now.’ I said, ‘I didn’t touch a thing.’ I walked off the stage. I’ve been around. I understand this stuff. He was a wise guy. I didn’t care for him. I don’t care who you are. If I’m right, I’m right.”
A Rick James gig at the Aud also got off to an unpromising start.
“They told me to get there early in the day,” Tagliarino remembers. “Then I find I’m waiting around, for hours. It was half an hour before the show, and they’re still blowing up balloons.”
Inconvenienced by the long wait, he charged more than his usual rate. James had no objection.
“He said, ‘I’m not even going to look at this. You guys are pretty honest,’ ” Tagliarino said. “Then he takes out this big wad of money and pays me in cash. He was so laid back. So generous.”
Fussy with the fork
At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, Tagliarino arrives to tune the piano at the Anchor Bar. He has been the Anchor Bar’s tuner since 1960.
The bar isn’t open at that hour. And so, accompanied by Cathy, he enters through the back service entrance, threading his way past the kitchen, between industrial-sized drums of hot sauce. The Anchor Bar gets its piano tuned every three weeks. The instrument, a Samick, needs frequent tuning because it gets a workout.
“You can’t believe how hard those guys play,” Tagliarino said. “They break strings like crazy.”
He hits one note, then another, listening for the slightest waver of pitch, the slightest glitch. Cathy hands him instruments as he requests them. “She makes it easier, because she knows what I need,” he said.
He tunes the old-fashioned way.
“Get a good tuning fork” is his advice. “Mine is 60 years old, still going. I’m very, very fussy with that fork. People sometimes want to take it and try it themselves. I won’t let them. I always hit it on my knee. They bang it on a chair or something. You’re not going to do that to me. My fork is too important.”
Finishing up the tuning, Tagliarino tests the piano by playing a warm, lovely “Misty.” Told that he sounds like Errol Garner, he laughs appreciatively.
“I knew him!” he exclaims. Once, he said, they ran into each other at Birdland. Horace Silver was playing, and Garner sat in. “He yelled in front of everyone, there’s my tuner! Vinny! Vinny!” Dinah Washington was there, too. “She was beautiful.”
Local musicians love Tagliarino as much as Garner and Washington did.
The Tagliarinos pay regular visits to E.B. Green’s, to tune the piano there for Jackie Jocko.
“Oh!” Jocko shouts. “I love them.”
Joey Giambra, who leads a big band and chronicles the history of Italians in Buffalo, also knows Tagliarino.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” he said. “Always smiling.”
Tagliarino does tend to see the sunny side of life.
He grew up on Tenth Street on the West Side. At 11, he began losing his sight, because of an eye condition. His parents sent him to Batavia to attend the New York State School for the Blind. He took piano and organ lessons, and at high school level, he began studying to be a piano technician.
“That was a regular school,” he says. “They didn’t treat you like a blind person. If you couldn’t do it, they’d let you cry, cry like a baby.” He approves of that strategy. “That’s how you learned to get around. You had to do it.”
The school, he says, discouraged students from helping to lead students who had trouble finding their way. He remembered one younger student he was helping – until he finally had to stop, because otherwise the boy would never have learned on his own.
“ ‘Matthew,’ I said, ‘I can’t help you any more.’ He was bawling like a baby.”
Playing for Art Tatum
Compelled to learn Braille, Tagliarino became master of it. His tiny workshop is stacked to the ceiling with Tupperware tubs. Each tub is neatly labeled in the tiny raised dots.
“I’ve made some notes,” he said, smoothing out a sheet of Braille.
The notes prove priceless.
At the Castle, a club on Eggert Road and Bailey Avenue, Tagliarino played at intermissions, filling in on one occasion for the great Art Tatum. Was he nervous, playing for Tatum? “No,” he laughs. He liked that Tatum sat at the bar, to meet his fans. “A lot of guys go backstage.” He also liked that Tatum wasn’t fussy. “He played on the piano that was there,” he shrugged.
Oscar Peterson, in contrast, traveled with his 9-foot Bösendorfer, with 96 keys.
“What a nice guy,” Tagliarino said. “I asked him right out, ‘What do you do with those extra notes?’ He said, ‘Nothing. They’re just for effect.’ ” He laughs. “They’re so low, there’s no tuning point.”
Cathy shares a sweet memory of John Denver, playing Kleinhans Music Hall. Vinny had finished tuning and Cathy stood nearby with their two children, who were young.
“I was keeping them quiet,” she said. Suddenly, to her shock, John Denver walked over to them and leaned down.
“What would you like to hear?” he asked.
Startled, she found herself tongue-tied. “He never shook us off,” she marvels. “He even talked to the kids.”
It is a bittersweet story, she adds, because it took place not long before Denver died.
The old stories strike a lot of bittersweet notes.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, almost all the restaurants had music,” Tagliarino sighs. “The Williamsville Inn, the Lord Amherst, the Red Carpet, the Little White House. The Cloisters. The Clarendon – they all had pianos.” Now, restaurants are different. “None of them have pianos,” he mourns. “They all have TVs.”
Though times change, there always will be people who appreciate pianos and pianists. Because of them, Tagliarino found himself, four years ago, in the spotlight.
He was the technician who repaired the piano played by the late jazz pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop, a touching story covered not only by The Buffalo News but by the New York Times.
“The tuner healed the piano,” the Times writer wrote. “ ‘And that moved me,’ Mr. Dunlop said. ‘The notes by themselves – they were sharp.’ ”
Tagliarino laughs heartily, remembering.
“I had friends calling from New Jersey and Florida. They were saying, ‘You’re famous.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘You’re in the New York Times, front page.’
“You know, I love people. I have beautiful customers. I have a lot of them hug me, kiss me goodbye. Most of the groups are great. Even the guys that travel with them, the stagehands, their audio guy that sets up the sound system – I meet those guys. They’re all nice people. None of them are wise guys. I got a lot of nice customers, who say I’m the best. It’s nice to hear that.”