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Performing Art
"I practiced (when I first started playing) as I do now — every day," Dick Hyman says of his 60-plus year career.
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012 8 years ago

Dick Hyman: Mr. Piano Man

by: Mallory Gnaegy A&E Editor

Most people who drive past a particular pale-pink, one-story home in Venice don’t realize it is renowned pianist Dick Hyman’s studio. But if someone were to travel through the unsuspecting entrance, he would clearly recognize it as the musician’s sanctuary of creation.

A Steinway & Sons baby grand is the focal point of the family room (even though Hyman says he’s more of a Yamaha piano artist). Strewn across nearby tables are large parchment paper compositions full of dots made of ink and Wite-Out. And although there is plenty of evidence that musical creation takes place in this space, based on the most striking feature of the room — an extensive vinyl collection — it’s hard to imagine how Hyman gets any work accomplished at all.

The walls of the studio are lined with white shelving that boasts a (mostly) mint-condition vinyl collection along with cassettes and CDs, all organized alphabetically. The inventory, which Hyman has been collecting since the late ’30s, would make any vinyl-lover drool.

He’s recorded about 100 albums under his name, and he’s got a lot of those, too.

Hyman loves to sit and listen to records with his grandkids, just as he did with his brother at an early age.

“There’s always stuff to be learned from those recordings,” He says.

He always comes back to the albums recorded by Art Tatum because, according to Hyman, “he’s the best.”
The foundation of his collection is a row of yellowish-brown vintage 78 rpm records that Hyman’s late, older brother, Arthur, gave him. But his brother also gave him something a bit more substantial.

Hyman was 10 years old, when, like many young piano students, his career started with learning “Chopsticks.” It was Arthur who showed him around the keyboard.

“The real lessons came on top of the great interest in fooling around with the keyboard,” he says.

To Hyman, improvisation isn’t something that can be taught, but it can be improved with a little bit of talent, daily practice and with knowledge of the fundamentals. Hyman likes to keep his fingers limber with Chopin etudes, playing Bach and other exercises for technique.

“You have to learn the tools first or else you just continue to play ‘Chopsticks,’” he says. Hyman has had a few great teachers, and has moved worlds beyond “Chopsticks.”

“I learned very early to be as versatile as possible — and that meant playing a lot of different ways, playing a lot of different instruments and learning to be in charge or to be the sideman if the occasion called,” he says.
His first job in 1948 upon graduating from Columbia University was playing at The Wells Music Bar on Seventh Avenue in Harlem, N.Y.

“I got to know a few musicians and was playing Café Society in the same year,” he says.

He has a poster from Dec. 15, 1949 — a date he quickly recalls — the time he opened historic Birdland Jazz Club playing piano for Max Kaminsky.

“At this club I played with Lester Young, in particular,” he says. “I sat in with Charlie Parker when his piano player was late.”

It was also at Birdland that video footage was filmed of Hyman playing alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gilepsie; it is the only recorded footage of Parker playing with a real soundtrack. Recorded footage of Parker is rare ,but playing with jazz legends isn’t rare for Hyman.

He has had an eclectic career. One interesting bullet point on his résumé is his work on Woody Allen films. He’s scored for the films “Zelig,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” and “Sweet and Lowdown,” to name a few. And, he’s also done scores for non-Allen films such as “Moonstruck.” Hyman says his work on these scores is what many people consider to be the high point of his career. But, he’s got plenty of other worthy accomplishments.

And it’s Sarasota Jazz Club founder Hal Davis, former publicist of Benny Goodman (otherwise known as the “King of Swing”), who led him to Venice. The club started booking Hyman in its early years, and Aug. 24, he’s playing a show with his friend — clarinetist and New Yorker Ken Peplowski. The duo has already played a number of times together and just finished recording the second of two duet albums. They plan to edit the second album the day before the concert.

The energy Hyman exudes is young, hip and cool — representative of a man who used to play at jazz clubs until 3 or 4 a.m.

His career has calmed down since those days, but there’s no lull in activity for the improv professional. He continues to play shows around the country, from Oregon to Manhattan, and even in Canada. And he is also composing a great deal of work, which he enjoys.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything,” he says.

At 85 years old with a career spanning 60-plus years, it’s no wonder he has stories to tell.

“Other people are beginning to say, ‘Wow, you’re pretty old and you’re still playing?’ That, in itself, is impressive to some people,” Hyman says.

But, for this cool cat, age is just a number.

August Jazz Jam with Dick Hyman and Ken Peplowski
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24
Where: The Players Theater, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
Cost: $10
More info: Call 365-2494

Career Highlights
• Plays piano, organ, harpsichord and Moog synthesizer

• Spent five years on the NBC staff playing organ and piano, and conducting for television shows

• Was the music director for Arthur Godfrey at CBS for three years

• Arranger for recordings by Tony Bennett, Andre Kostelantez, Doc Severinsen, Enoch Light, Jonah Jones and others

• Arranger for the Broadway show “Sugar Babies”

• Twenty-year artistic director for 92nd Street Y jazz series, “Jazz in July”

• Won two Emmy awards for original scores

• Played at Birdland Jazz Club with Max Kaminsky’s Dixielanders and Lester Young from 1949 to 1950

• Was Benny Goodman’s pianist at various times, as early as 1950

• Recorded a hit Moog synth record, “The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman,” in the late ’60s

• Hyman’s track, “Topless Dancers of Corfu,” was featured in a Busta Rhyme’s song, “Where We Are About to Take It.”

• Recorded “Dick Hyman’s Century of Jazz Piano” and later this month is coming out with the transcription in a book

• Was in the orchestra that played under Stravinsky in Ebony Concerto

• He led his own band, The Perfect Jazz Repertory Quintet, in New York in the ’70s

• Was the keyboard player with Mitch Miller on “Sing-a-long With Mitch”

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