Back Story

The glory days of saloon piano players in North Beach

Tickling the ivories has entertained the locals and visitors for decades in North Beach photo: robert jinks / flickr

The other day I cleaned out a closet and found a March 1970 Holiday magazine, then a big glossy publication read by big, glossy, discerning travelers with lots of discretionary income. That issue, which I saved all these years, devoted a 120-page special to San Francisco, “The city of infinite possibilities.” Tucked into those pages was a piece called “Culture and Counter-Culture.”

A full-page color photo of a group of serious and determined San Franciscans at the Minimum Daily Requirement —a North Beach coffeehouse — accompanied the article. It was captioned: “The literati gather at the MDR.” In the center of the portrait was a small man in a blue work shirt identified only as Don Asher. He was surrounded by a group of heavy-hitting, high profile, local writers: Jessica Mitford, Paul Jacobs, Evan Connell, Jr., Don Carpenter, Barnaby Conrad, and Herbert Gold. Gold had written the Holiday article. Asher stared out of the photo of that powerhouse circle displaying both confidence and modesty.

He’s been gone now since 2010. Seeing his image in the old Holiday magazine got me reflecting on saloon pianists, a wonderful subspecies of professional musicians that bring a high degree of excitement into our saloons — a few standards from the Great American songbook, some blues, a little Harlem stride, and maybe even a bit of lock-hand boogie woogie like Meade “Lux” Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train.” That’s the essence of saloon piano. It’s like having a pianist playing your favorite tunes in your living room. So here is the quintessential saloon piano player Don Asher and a few comments on some of his keyboard compatriots.

NOTES FROM A BATTERED GRAND

Asher came to San Francisco in 1959 from his hometown Wooster, Mass. and discovered that the city did have “infinite possibilities.” He became house piano player for Enrico Banducci’s groundbreaking nightclub-theater the hungry i.

“I used to go almost every night to the hungry i to catch Don Asher, the pianist. Or Mort Sahl or Woody Allen when he was just starting.”
— Barnaby Conrad
Author, artist and nightclub operator, in his book Name Dropping

“I needed a piano player to back up the acts. It was as simple as that. Asher was a nice quiet man. He said what he had to say with the piano and also with words on the printed page.”
— Enrico Banducci
Dean of the talent spotters who brought 19-year-old Barbra Streisand and many other soon-to-be famous stars to the hungry i

“I had no idea he was a writer. I thought of him only as a piano player. He asked me to read some of his short stories. They were good. I told him to tell the story of his life as a piano player and make it funny. He did. He wrote a memoir called Notes from a Battered Grand, and a fine, semi-autobiographical novel, Piano Sport.”

— Herbert Gold
Prolific San Francisco writer of award-winning novels and nonfiction

PIANO LESSONS FIFTY CENTS

Many years ago, I interviewed Don Asher for a magazine piece. This is what he told me:

I am the product of a nice middle-class Jewish family from Wooster (he pronounced it “Woosta”). My mother pushed me, and I took lessons from a classical piano instructor. One dollar for a half hour lesson. I did well with my scales and arpeggios but something else was in the air, or rather the airwaves — Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, just to name a few giants. That was when there was two-a-day vaudeville in movie houses, and I heard Charlie Barnet and the Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey bands. And 40 miles away in Boston was the Hi-Hat, and playing there was the piano god of us all, Art Tatum. Like many other kids at the time, I made an exciting passage from classical piano to jazz.

Right in my hometown, I met a piano-playing demon named Jaki Bayard, who later became a jazz legend. He was the fire by which all of us warmed our hands. So I dropped my one-dollar classical piano teacher and gave Jaki fifty cents a lesson. I got good enough to play in dives, gin mills and stripper joints. Then it was on to resorts and dancehalls along the Boston Turnpike.

BANDUCCI’S HOUSE PIANIST

One day something stopped me cold in Time magazine. It was a photo of a buddy from Cornell, which I had attended. The photo showed Kenneth Rexroth reciting his poetry to a jazz accompaniment in a San Francisco club called The Cellar. And there was my buddy from Cornell playing tenor sax behind Rexroth. This was in 1958, near the end of the Beat era. At that moment I decided San Francisco was where I wanted to be, so I moved west.

In North Beach, I ran into Faith Winthrop, a girl singer I knew from Cape Cod. She was singing at the hungry i. She needed a piano accompanist. I got the job. After the last set, Enrico took me aside and said, ‘When can you start steady?’ Suddenly I was house pianist at the hungry i. I played the acts on and off stage, accompanied them, or played soft background music throughout their routines.

PIANO PLAYERS AND COMICS

For some reason comics always think the piano player is funny. Frequently they direct parts of their routines at piano players, actually including us in their acts. Jack E. Leonard thought it was open season on piano players.

‘What key are you in sonny boy?’

‘D-flat.’

‘And you certainly are.’

One night after playing introductions for Mort Sahl, I slid off the piano bench and headed for the bar. Sahl’s voice knifed over the speakers.

‘Mister Asher, have you ever contemplated another means of livelihood?’

‘No, have you?’ I replied. It got a big laugh.

But I’m not a comic; I’m a saloon piano player. You have to be fast with your fingers and be able to improvise. Once, a very good piano player, Jess Stacey, said, ‘I don’t look for every note to be a pearl. Sometimes they turn out to be meatballs. If you sense a meatball, a clinker or a clam coming on, you have only a few seconds at most to figure out how you are going to use it to your musical advantage.’

THE GLORY YEARS

I am indebted to Mary Etta Moose, one of the treasures of North Beach, for helping me recall the glory days of the saloon piano players, many of whom

I had forgotten.

Ed and Mary Etta Moose and their business partner, Sam Deitsch, brought many top saloon pianists to their much-missed Washington Square Bar & Grill, and later across the park to Moose’s. I was around for those glory years.

There was a Sunday afternoon when Norma Teagarden, sister of the legendary jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, played at The Square (as we regulars called it). Norma and her mother, Helen, played fourhanded piano. Jack played his trombone and his brother Charlie blew trumpet licks. What an afternoon.

Mike Lipskin, stride piano man — now an entertainment lawyer — had an intellectual exercise when he played The Square’s old upright. He propped a copy of the Wall Street Journal on the music stand and affected reading it while he played. I was suckered into believe him.

And you might remember Dick Vartanian, the saloon piano player who wore a turban when he played at the old Rickshaw Bar in Chinatown’s Ross Alley. I thought I owned the Rickshaw, I hung out there so much. Whenever I walked in and Vartanian spied me from the piano bar, he stopped playing whatever tune he was into and began a slow, sexy version of “Teach Me Tonight” — my favorite show tune to this day.

But digressions are creeping into this Back Story, and there’s no room to expound on other saloon pianists who frequently made my day — and my nights. Other artists like Lou Levy, who played for his partner-vocalist Pinky Winters; Burt Bales; Mike Greensil; Jeannie Hoffman; Gini Wilson; John Horton Cooper; and the incomparable Earl “Fatha” Hines. I’m sure there are other giants that I have forgotten. My memory needs refreshing.

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