New York City’s Piano Bar Players Spill Their Secrets
“Hey man, I just play the piano.”
“If I don’t catch you later, I’m going to be down in the Village for two weeks at a place called the Sonata Cafe. Stop by if you get a chance.”
Those are arguably the most important lines in Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s final film which was released 20 years ago this month. Well, the most important in terms of plot. They’re spoken to Dr. Bill Harford (played by Tom Cruise) by Nick Nightingale, a former med school buddy who dropped out to play piano.
If this chance reunion at a Christmas party was removed from the world of the film, Bill never would have stopped at the Sonata Cafe, a jazz club in New York City. He never would have overheard Nick’s phone call during which he writes down “Fidelio” on a cocktail napkin. And Bill never would have made it to the film’s paramount scene: the secret society’s masked orgy for which “Fidelio” is the password, during which Nick plays the piano blindfolded and because of which the movie will never be forgotten. (The most important revelations about the film in many years come from Vulture’s recent oral history of the scene.)
But no matter how hard illuminati conspiracy theorists have tried to tie the movie’s ultra-wealthy, libertine secret society to reality (“If I told you their names … I don’t think you’d sleep so well,” says Bill’s patient and society member Victor Ziegler), it remains fiction. The Sonata Cafe doesn’t exist, either (the movie was mostly shot in London). And neither does Nick Nightingale.
New York City, however, is full of real-life inspiration for Nick and the Sonata. Old-world jazz pianists still play and croon the Great American Songbook in golden rooms where Manhattan’s elite find peace over the borough’s namesake cocktail.
Thus, for the 20th anniversary of Eyes Wide Shut, we went to a different source to find the real story behind cinema’s most bizarre gig.
We spoke with the piano players of New York City’s best bars and clubs and asked them: What’s the most bizarre gig you’ve ever been hired to play?
Benny Benack III
Where you can see him play: While he’s a sought-after trumpeter and singer, at only 28-years-old, Benny can also be seen at the keys at Bemelmans at The Carlyle Hotel regularly as well as at The Craftsman in Upper Manhattan every Sunday from 8:30 to 11:30 p.m.. That is, when he’s not touring.
The most bizarre gig: “Quite recently, I played trumpet for a private party where an entire seven-piece band was flown out to L.A. to play at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Everyone in the band was stationed in a separate room of the house, and we all had in-ear monitors so that we could hear what the others were playing, and they insisted we all play together. While we played, gorgeous female models wandered in and out of every room, dressed in incredibly fine jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, etc. Apparently, the guests at the party were there to purchase the jewelry! That’s the one and only time I’ve ever been asked to play along with a live band, while standing in a room all by myself.”
Where you can see her play: If you visited New York between 2008 and 2017, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard Emilee’s jazz stylings — during that time, she had a nightly run (plus Sunday brunch) at The Waldorf Astoria’s legendary Peacock Alley. She plays both solo and with a trio at the private Harvard Club, and has graced revered rooms at both The Plaza Hotel (where she had a four-year residency) and The Carlyle.
The most bizarre gigs: “I played a New Year’s Eve gig in a fancy apartment on Central Park West. When I arrived, the doormen saw my keyboard, amp and other gear, and said that there was no way I would be allowed to set it up on the client’s floor, as he was ‘very particular.’ I had to convince them that I’d been hired for the party. Once upstairs, I was asked to remove my shoes. It turned out that every guest at this black-tie event was asked to don surgical socks upon entering. They did allow me to set up in a carpeted area. I kept glancing at the surgical sock on my right foot as I was using the pedal.”
“I also got a call once to do a private function at The Metropolitan Club. The booking agent said I needed to be ‘as glamorous as possible.’ I had never worn false eyelashes before and decided I should give them a whirl. About 30 minutes into the gig, my eyes swelled shut. Apparently, I’m allergic to the aldehydes in eyelash glue! I wasn’t in pain yet, but realized I needed to go to the ER. I tried to remain ‘glamorous,’ but when I removed the lashes on a break I could barely see. I thought I was free to head to the hospital when the client came over and asked me to do overtime. I explained that I was having an allergic reaction. She gave me a Benadryl and said, ‘We need you to stay.’ I played with my eyes closed for the duration. The Metropolitan Club was kind enough to have their driver take me to Lenox Hill Hospital after. Since I couldn’t see too well, I’m not sure what kind of car it was, but I think it could’ve been a Rolls-Royce. After a while, the pain was suddenly unbearable. Turned out I had corneal abrasions in both eyes from the glue. But it was a great gig with a great ride!”
Where you can see her play: You can catch her this summer at Talde in Jersey City. But when it comes to Manhattan, her favorite jazz club is Birdland — the place where she played her first gig in NYC back in 2003 (she’ll be back this October). Much of the time, though, Champian’s critically acclaimed jazz pianist and vocalist chops are required elsewhere, from Italy to Denmark.
The most bizarre gig: “It was years ago, and I was working off and on at this upscale restaurant in TriBeCa. It was a solo piano gig, and one night when I came in to play the whole restaurant had been rented out. It was a family dinner of about 50 people, and there was one older gentleman who was clearly the head of the family. He seemed to really like the music and was hanging around the piano quite a bit as everyone arrived. He asked me to play a certain song, I can’t remember which one, and when I played it for him he gave me a very generous tip. This kept going on throughout the evening. He was spending more and more time standing next to the piano and more and more money tipping me. After about an hour, he told me I should take a break, and then proceeded to sit with me at the bar and chat. I had no idea that the rest of his family, including his wife, was getting quite irritated with his behavior. After a few hours he was pretty drunk, and he began quite loudly to tell everyone he had fallen in love with me and even went so far as to ask if I would marry him. He ordered his driver to bring around the car, because we were going to drive to Atlantic City immediately. Since I was playing solo piano I really couldn’t get away from him. Also, I felt sort of odd because he just kept giving me cash every five minutes! After the marriage proposal, the manager of the restaurant came and escorted me to the kitchen. I knew what was going on, and I apologized for what was becoming an increasingly embarrassing and uncomfortable situation, but he understood that it wasn’t my fault. He handed me an additional wad of cash and told me I needed to leave immediately. They sent a waiter to the front of the restaurant to get my bag and jacket, and I was escorted out the kitchen door into the alley and put into a cab.”
Where you can see him play: The next time you’re in Nyack, New York, head to Maureen’s Jazz Cellar, named after his late sister. David runs the open mics on Tuesdays, occasionally plays piano bar nights, and is headlining this Friday with Joe Locke. He’s also a mainstay in the New York City scene, and the David Budway Trio performs regularly at The Carlyle.
The most bizarre gigs: “The strangest event was playing a Super Bowl tailgate party,” says Budway. It was back in 2014 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The audience? NFL coaches and their wives. “I had to hire a band and get three replacements for each member, even though they weren’t going to play. [We had to do] background checks for the FBI, passport photos, etc. Then we had to come a day early to do a soundcheck, but the day of the gig, some nutty manager re-arranged all of the PA settings so the sound was awful.”
However, NFL coaches aren’t the only high-profile clientele for whom Budway plays. On the more enjoyable end of the bizarre spectrum are the times they’ve joined him at the piano. One time at Bemelmans, Budway says, “I was approached by a woman on our break, and she said that her friend wanted to sing a song with us. Her friend’s name was Mariah Carey. I told her to introduce me when she arrived. It’s all on YouTube.” But Mariah is just the beginning. At The Carlyle, he’s also been joined by Cyndi Lauper and John Mayer (“We did a Grateful Dead set, then played jazz together.”). That’s not even including the audience members. “One night Bono bought us a $900 bottle of champagne, and apologized that he had to leave during our set.”
Where you can see him play: For over 30 years, Mosci has been a go-to singing pianist across the island of Manhattan. His favorite place to play after all that time? “Bemelmans,” he says. “It’s a New York classic with many good and knowledgeable listeners.” You can find him there this July and August, leading a trio from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 am. Tuesday through Thursday and playing solo from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
The most bizarre gigs: “One event that stands out was an incident at the now defunct Top of the Tower at the Beekman Tower Hotel, where I performed for 15 years. A very elegant room with a view of the East River. I was playing my usual mix of standards: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Broadway, pop tunes. The bar staff had been having a bit of trouble with a whipped cream machine for the past week, which used a CO2 cartridge as part of the system. Behind me was a table of regular customers, always very polite to the staff, who were known to be members of the Cosa Nostra from the Bronx. Around 11:30 p.m., the elevator doors opened and my cousin, who I had not seen in several years, walked into the room with his wife and waved to me at the piano. Simultaneously, a loud gunshot type of sound went off, and in a moment my cousin’s face was covered in white cream. At the same time, the guys from the Bronx behind me crouched down with an anxious look of readiness on their faces. The CO2 canister had accidentally exploded. My cousin thought he was blinded, but a cloth quickly remedied that. The guys behind me thought that they might be under attack, and told me as much. I kept playing, because my boss had told me in the past to always try to divert attention from any actual troubling incidents.”
Did these pianists leave certain stories out for their clients’ sake? Of course, some of them told us as much. But you can’t blame them for keeping the trust of the people who hire them.
As Nick Nightingale once said, “Hey man, I just play the piano.”
Answers have been edited and condensed for length and clarity