What Is Cocktail Style Piano?
I wear many musical hats. One is “cocktail pianist.”
Recently, I watched a YouTube video where the presenter claimed to teach “cocktail piano.” He advised pianists to play simple, repetitive chord progressions for hours claiming now that they know to “add the seventh” to each chord, they had the secret. “Don’t worry if you’re not playing in time,” he said. “No one will notice.”
While there may be some cocktail pianists who subscribe to this thinking, I’m not one of them. As a pianist, I spend hours every single day working on my craft. I memorize tunes. I transcribe the playing of the masters. I train my ear. I work to become a better sight-reader. I play with a metronome.
My first jazz piano teacher always told me to “play to the gig.” That means do what’s appropriate for the night. (You satisfy your employer to keep getting hired!) If I’m playing dinner music in a small room, I may very well be playing quietly, but that’s not the same as playing thoughtlessly, or rambling. It’s an decision, based on the situation, not on the inability to do anything else. I’m also capable of playing with a lot of intensity, power and emotion. (Come see me play with a trio at Palio’s or elsewhere sometime.)
As a cocktail pianist, I have an interesting job. Sometimes I’m part ambience, part decor, part novelty. Other times I might be putting on a performance in a dinner club, or as part of a concert series. I might be providing music for a special occasion. Maybe I’m doing my part to make a wedding reception the best day of someone’s life. I have quite a few people to keep happy. Grandma might have just come to the piano to request “Moon River.” An uncle may have come over and said, “I’ll give you ten dollars to stop playing Moon River.” The mother of the bride my have just asked me to “play quietly so people can talk.” The bride may be asking if I “play any rock music we can dance to.”
I do all of that at the same time. (Or, more correctly, I make everyone feel like their needs are being taken care of while ultimately satisfying whoever is writing the check.)
Sometimes it’s impossible to predict how a particular evening will unfold. Will retired couples be slow dancing to ballads? Will the best man be singing Piano Man? So for me, being a cocktail pianist means having as many songs at my disposal as possible. (So I can play what needs played whether it’s requested by grandma or granddaughter.) It means being able to improvise tastefully and appropriately. (Not mindlessly, but melodically.) It means watching to see who is tapping their toes even if they’re not clapping between songs. It means paying attention to what tunes get a response and playing more like them. It means playing in time. (How else could you swing?)
It does not mean “no one will notice.”