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Cy Walter: The Art Tatum of Cocktail Pianists

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 29, 2023 3:00 am

Cy Walter: The Art Tatum of Cocktail Pianists

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 29, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our storyteller's father was more than a virtuoso of the American Songbook. He was a circumspect, gentle, and incredibly generous man.

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For more information, visit blackeffect.com slash Nissan. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a listener's story from Mark Walter about his father, whom he knew only a short time but dedicated his life to. During this piece, you'll be hearing the music of his father, Cy Walter. Let's get into the story. I was 11 years old when my father died of cancer in 1968 and he was only 52 and had had cancer for some 15 years, but I wasn't aware of that. I was a child and my mother and father made the difficult choice not to tell we children of his illness and he worked what were late night nocturnal hours and they decided that it would be better for him to live separate from us and he moved into an apartment on 73rd Street between 2nd and 3rd and this was in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and it allowed him to sleep late because he would be working from six in the evening until you know one or two or three or four in the morning and it also allowed him the privacy and an ability to deal with being ill. So my relationship with my father was a very loving parent. Well, as I grew older and he lived apart from us, I would visit him frequently. I remember very happy times doing so, getting my hair cut with him, wandering through the neighborhood where everyone seemed to know him.

He was very much a beloved figure in that sense and he was very kind and I'll give you a wonderful memory about that. My mother and father, Cam and Cy, had a rule that I was not to ride my bike from 87th Street to 73rd Street. I was about eight years old at the time and it was a rational rule because New York City traffic was dangerous obviously but I was a rebellious kid and one day did exactly that but unfortunately got a flat tire just before reaching my father's apartment and I was sort of standing on the street staring at my broken bike wondering what to do, fearful of my father's reaction, expecting justified and condying punishment for breaking his rule and as I was befuddled there a young black kid I'd never met came up and generously offered to help. He and I, my newfound friend, dragged the bike to my father's doorstep and when my father opened the door he introduced my new friend and he never said a word about the bike, never brought it up, just took it inside, invited us in and explained explained what had happened. He turned to my my friend and said well you know I'd really like to thank you for helping Mark and he brought us to the piano, sat us down and proceeded to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow for us.

Every once in a while there comes along one of those infuriating melodies which is so beautiful and yet so perfectly simple that every other tunewriter is disgusted with himself for not having written it, such as Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It was just a magical gift on his part. I remember that moment for the kindness of it but he also was very humble and and modest and I knew he was a pianist and I knew that he was a respected pianist. I was not aware however as a child of his stature. He was an acknowledged virtuoso and his contemporaries on so many levels revered his talent. My father was very much a star and his career spanned, well his career spanned what was the the halcyon days of the great American songbook to 1968 when he passed. He knew all the greats and he knew all the titans and bold-faced names of society as well because they were his audience.

My father kept a mailing list. I mean just a few of them Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, Judy Holliday, a very dear dear friend of my mother's. She actually nursed her sadly through her last illness. A couple of musicians that were really family were Alec Wilder and Mabel Mercer. Mabel Mercer was an amazing Chanteuse who hailed from Britain and came to America in 1938 and my father was the first pianist to accompany her. She was also my godmother and around 2004 my mother pulled out a timberland boot box that I still have that was filled with my father's published sheet music and unpublished scores that he had written. She handed this box to me and she said about a decade ago I had a conversation with Michael Feinstein, an amazing performer and talent who is also passionate about preserving the American popular songbook and as Cam explained to me then she had gotten a call from Michael around I guess 1995 or so asking her what she still had of Cy's artistic legacy and when she told him that she had this sheet music Michael said well you should get it into the Library of Congress because if you just keep it in your closet nobody's benefiting from it and she didn't do anything at that point you know other pressures of life interceded I'm sure and but she did pull it out in 2004 and asked me to do it. My jaw dropped because I didn't even know at that point that Cy was a composer.

I had no idea of my father's stature. I was a rock and roll kid growing up during the 70s and my mother really didn't proselytize the music so I decided to take an early retirement which would allow me to do that but it all goes back to the fact that my mother god bless her out of love for my father and out of love for his artistry retained everything. And you're listening to Mark Walter tell the story of his father Cy.

His father was only 52 when he died a world-class musician a first-rate talent. When we come back more of Mark Walter's story the story of his father Cy here on Our American Stories. This is Lee Habib host of Our American Stories the show where America is the star in the American people and we do it all from the heart of the South Oxford Mississippi but we truly can't do this show without you. Our shows will always be free to listen to but they're not free to make.

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Let's continue with the story here again is Mark Walter. Cy had a God-given talent there's just no way around it. He was his own unique style and there's never been anyone like him and never since or before. He grew up in Minneapolis and his parents were both musicians. Raymond was a talented tenor highly respected in the Twin Cities and Flossie as she was nicknamed Florence. Flossie was a very well-respected and very long-standing piano teacher in Minneapolis.

Cy was unquestionably her most successful student. He acknowledged that he learned everything he learned about piano knew about piano came from her but they weren't wealthy it was you know a very sort of middle class existence I'm sure. Well in terms of Cy's learning how to play piano I had always thought until a few years back that he took up the piano after initially learning how to play the cello of the bass because of the liner notes that he wrote to one of his albums A Dry Martini Please. He wrote there that he took up the piano because it had become clear to him that it was so difficult to transport the cello on the Minneapolis bus system. I remember thinking well you know it's probably harder to transport a piano but however and this is sort of a story that reflects the amazing journey I have had. My discovery of my father's music has altered my life in a way that is is wonderful. I'm blessed with friends I never would have met and a perfect example of that is a fellow named Bob Wood Jr. who had found the Cy Walter website I guess about four or five years ago called me up out of the blue lives on the west coast to tell me that his father Bob Wood Sr. was a dear friend of my father's they knew each other in Minneapolis they grew up together Bob Wood Sr. was perhaps six years older than Cy and had his own orchestra at the time and at age 19 or so he was an orchestra leader. He was approached by Cy who was then about 13 wanting to join the orchestra and Bob Wood Sr. said to Cy I'm sorry Cy I don't really need a string instrument we've got plenty of cellists but you know your mother is a wonderful piano teacher why don't you go to to her and ask her to teach you the piano and if you when you learn the piano you can be part of my orchestra and so I said okay deal. When he was ready he came back and said I'm ready and Bob Wood Sr. wrote in his memoirs he was already playing like a virtuoso at that point and it was only three months he had learned how to play the piano in three months. I now understand why people marveled at his abilities clearly he had the perfect environment to do it but he also just had an amazing god-given talent. At one point I found a list of pithy quotes by different musicians over the centuries one of them was attributed to Art Tatum I shared it with my mother and when she read it she read it aloud Art was attributed as saying to another pianist listen you come in here tomorrow night and anything you play with your right hand I'll play with my left hand better and the left hand is considered this emissive the right hand the dominant hand in piano playing so that was quite a statement and my mother after reading that looked up with pride in her face and said and Art always acknowledged that Cy had a better left hand than he did but he went from Minneapolis to New York in part because of his having a sort of mentorship having a sort of mentorship with an American songbook great a fellow named Johnny Green who composed The Beautiful Standard Body and Soul. Johnny Green was performing in Minneapolis Cy wiggled his way into the performance backstage and introduced himself and when he came to Manhattan to New York in 1934 Johnny Green took him under his wing and essentially got him a job coaching a some aspiring singers initially and helped him meet many of the then stars of the great American songbook firmament people like George and Ira Gershwin he came to know Vernon Duke he came to know Richard Rogers and as he started playing in different venues people got to know him Fred Astaire and he had been friends and when Astaire decided to basically sort of retire from the film industry and in 1947 he decided to open up his own dance studio and to do that he created a swing trot dance that he called the Astaire that he purposely designed to be accessible to a new dancing student and he turned to Cy to create a song to celebrate and publicize the dance and his launch of his new dance studios and Cy composed what was also called the Astaire. The Drake Room he didn't own it in a literal sense it was part of the Hotel Drake which was torn down oh I guess about a decade ago now by a developer that built this monstrosity 432 Park Avenue one of the billionaire skyscrapers but the Drake Hotel was one of the apartment hotels that was built during the early 20th century and it was an extraordinarily elegant classy place that catered to its guests in a way that was truly special and I'll give you an example of that famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein lived there and he wanted his own personal grand piano logically in his apartment and as it turned out it was too large to fit in the Drake Hotel's elevator the freight elevator just wouldn't accommodate it and in a classic example of going the extra mile Stanley Turkle and his talented staff arranged for the city to close down Park Avenue and for Crane to lift Arthur Rubinstein's piano up through the window of the 20th story or something wherever it was it was that kind of elegant hotel the Drake Room was opened in 1945 by Walter Riddell who was a man about town and owned the hotel at that time and he immediately hired it was opened essentially for Cy because Cy and he were friends and Cy was then and remain the highest paid pianist popular pianist in New York because he was so beloved by his audiences by others he was famed for his memory somebody could come in the Drake Room that hadn't been there in years a patron that had made a request in past years for Cy to play a particular song and when that patron came back in maybe five years later Cy would immediately recognize the person and remember that song and start playing it he was a marvelous entertainer I told you the catalyzing event and that that afternoon when I was visiting my mother out in Long Island where she lived and she pulled out my father's sheet music and told me about her conversation with Michael at that time I really did not know much about this the great American songbook or the musical genre that it encompasses I you know if you had talked to me about Cole Porter or George Gershwin or Richard Rogers or I would have looked at you largely blankly so it was for me a a an enlightenment that again is a gift from my parents as I went through all these materials and I read the articles about my father I came to realize that you know he really was at the heart of an a musical era that was very very special a special thanks to Mark Walter for sharing his story of his father who was the preeminent piano accompanist and piano player in New York City at a time when New York City was the center of everything in American music and also what a love story of a son pursuing the story of his father all the way down the story of Cy Walter is told by his son Mark here on Our American Stories to bring your fave holiday classics to life and world-class noise cancellation ensures a not so typical silent night and an epic holiday party of warmth it's everything music should make you feel taken to new holiday highs visit bows.com forward slash iHeart this holiday season and shop sound that's more than just a present congratulations to the Walt Disney Studios technology team first place award winner for innovation in employee enablement at the 2023 unconventional awards presented by T-Mobile for business. 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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-29 04:26:02 / 2023-11-29 04:35:05 / 9

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