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Marina Jack pianist Rock Lee celebrates 30 years of making music

Rock Lee plays the keyboard during his 30th anniversary party.
Rock Lee plays the keyboard during his 30th anniversary party.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Rock Lee said he recognized just about all the faces crowded around his keyboard at Marina Jack the night of May 15.

They were there to celebrate his 30th anniversary of playing music in the Deep Six Lounge & Piano Bar, where's gotten to know them all over the years as the lounge's piano man.

“I've had people propose at the piano bar, people meet each other for the first time at the piano bar and then get married,” Lee said.

That wasn’t what he expected when he signed a one-year contract with the restaurant in 1993, with thoughts of paying the bills and supporting his daughter Donna Saenz, who was 9 years old at the time.

“I never dreamed I’d be here this long, but I’m certainly happy that it happened,” he said.

Key to his happiness? The connections that flow naturally out of his music.

“They let me know what they like. I start playing some of those songs, and then it reminds people of wherever in their life they were at when they heard the song. And that always leads to a conversation.”

One pair of friends is Sharon and Phil Semmer, who remember Lee's warm welcome when they first moved to Sarasota in 2000.

Phil Semmer, a former member of the United States Marine Band, will challenge Lee, who plays by ear and usually works up his music at home, to bring in particular tunes.

“Rock always comes through with the music,” Sharon Semmer said.

Playing it by ear

While Lee said he is largely self-taught, his upbringing heavily influenced the direction of his career.

His parents were Lewis Lee, a drummer, and Bettie Lee, a singer, who both belonged to large bands in Oklahoma, where he grew up. Having learned drums at age 12, Lee took a group summer course in piano at Oklahoma City Community College.

After becoming a pianist, Lee toured the country. Lee said the reason it’s uncommon for musicians to spend so long at one venue is because many like to travel. 

Yet after he stayed at the Holiday Inn on Lido Key and a resident lent him a bicycle so he could explore, he knew what place he wanted to call home.

Since 1985, he has lived in Sarasota, and he went on to play at venues that now survive only as memories. 

He played at Nick’s Vineyard in The Quay, once found at the intersection of Fruitville Road and U.S. 41; Tail O’ the Pup, a restaurant that once existed on St. Armands Circle; and Café on the Bay, at one time a restaurant on Longboat Key.

He’s also played at locations including Beach Club at Siesta Key, LeBarge Tropical Cruises and Lido Beach Inn.


'No one is an island'

Lee often spends his free time formulating and memorizing new songs to bring to Marina Jack – although that means he can’t pursue his other passion, golf, as often as he would like.

But his music enables him to hone in on on another passion – people.

“I'm a very positive, forward-looking person. I like to meet people, always have,” he said. “I have a great friendly spirit. I love doing things, just enjoying life. And people are all part of that. No one is an island.”

Rock Lee plays the keyboard, while Beth Ann Ortiz and Gail Fitz sing "30 Years of Rock," a song about a "piano man" they wrote with "a little help from Billy Joel."
Photo by Ian Swaby

He said he loves meeting people from other places and cultures, and discussing his favorite topics, like include food, which often means swapping recipes.

Lee also noted he hopes to recenter local clientele as the focus in Sarasota, having seen the group slowly become more peripheral during his many years at the piano bar. He'll also play at venues frequented by locals, like Clubhouse Tavern on South Tuttle Avenue, if he gets the chance.

“I have a pretty good reputation, so a lot of times I go places and, ‘Aren’t you Rock Lee? Aren’t you the piano guy at the Marina Jack?’ or something like that,” he said.

In difficult times, it’s being able to make others happy that keeps him going.

One face he no longer sees in the crowd is that of his wife, Vera Parker, who died 13 years ago and whom he called “the most selfless woman I’ve ever met.” From 2001 to 2005, when he operated a studio, Parker helped with his recording, engineering and graphic design.

After her passing, he didn’t take any time off at Marina Jack.

“The people that have been coming here for years, and years, and years – being able to make them feel good, helped me feel better,” he said.

He felt touched by the songs he remembered she loved. Yet his playing has also touched other hearts as well. Any service member or veteran who enters the bar will hear the familiar tune of “God Bless the U.S.A."

"When he plays that song, I still cry," said Ronald Nesser, whose son, Sgt. Christopher Nesser, was killed while on deployment in Iraq in 2006. 

Nesser recalls that on the last night his son spent at the restaurant, he took napkins and folded them into roses, giving them to the women there.

"There are good memories here and there are sad memories, but Rock's a good person," said Nesser.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful guy,” said Lee. “We were all just heartbroken. ... I do it always for them, and I do it always for any service member that walks into this room. I love our country. Anything I can do within my realm, that can help that cause, I will do it.”

The song is personal for Lee as well; his oldest sister Betty Lucas, younger brother Rodney Lee, and niece LaRonda Lee are all veterans.

Rock Lee has played at Marina Jack for 30 years.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Most important to him, he said, is his faith. 

“I’m a Christian. I love the Lord. I think that actually says all of it. Without Jesus in my life, nothing would happen. It impacts everything, every phase in my life. Not one little space is empty from that. It impacts every part of my mind.”

This community rock has no plans to leave just yet. He's not joking when he says he might be able to match the more than 35 years that singer and pianist Bobby Short spent at Café Carlyle in New York City.

Bill Ford, a Marina Jack regular, said, “I think we all have aged now, but he plays just as beautifully as he did 30 years ago."



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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