‘What is New York all about’: welcome back to the piano bar

This story is part of an occasional series about New York nightlife.

Whether enjoying $20 cocktails in dimly lit lounges or bidding for song requests during a lively dueling piano show, there is apparently one tune that unites every piano bar in New York City.

“Go ahead and pull out Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles,'” said Nate Buccieri, a pianist who plays weekly at Brandy’s on the Upper East Side, Don’t Tell Mama in Midtown and the Duplex in Greenwich Village. “Everyone will be like, ‘OH MY GOD!'”

“I’ll pull out Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ in the Nines, and the whole room will start singing – it’s crazy!” said Sam Behr, who regularly plays in the Nines in NoHo and Bar Nine in Hell’s Kitchen. “I’m like, ‘Really? You?'”

Mr. Buccieri, who is “gently in his forties,” as he put it, and Mrs. Behr, 27, make a living at these venues, which have been around for decades but are seeing a resurgence with new artists and listeners. Some bars are completely immersive, with singing waiters, bartenders and performers taking requests in exchange for tips, while others are more subdued, with lone pianists playing arrangements of songs from their own playlists.

Ms. Behr began playing piano bars in 2014, when she was hired at a chain called Howl at the Moon while attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Two years later, when a new location opened near Times Square, she moved to New York.

Now, several nights a week, she performs at both Bar Nine — a dueling piano bar where customers can request everything from Billy Joel to Metallica — and the Nines, a chic cheetah-carpeted piano bar that opened in January (and a vogue crowd, serving a famous $95 potato topped with caviar).

“I’m often background music in that room,” she said, describing the more sophisticated atmosphere in the Nines. “But every now and then — and it’s even more special when it happens in this room — it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have these fancy diners to look over their shoulder and sing along to.'”

Some nights, she said, she prefers the boisterous and enthusiastic crowd that Bar Nine draws, but the quiet atmosphere in places like the Nines can also be liberating.

“I prefer a captive audience,” said Ms. Behr. “But with the Nines, it almost feels like a dream to walk into that room because it’s so lush and so beautiful.”

“I don’t feel the pressure of a room with ears and eyes really focused on what I’m doing,” she added. “I just feel appreciated as part of the atmosphere.”

Konrad Paszkudzki, 33, makes a living as a touring jazz pianist, but when he’s not on the road, he likes to pick up services from Melody’s, a bar that opened in April on the Upper East Side. As a patron and artist, he preferred spaces with live music.

“If someone is playing live music and a pianist is playing right in front of you, it changes the molecular makeup of the room,” said Mr. Paszkudzki.

He added that his focus on what’s going on is also about preserving the legacy of live music in New York City.

“That’s what New York is all about. You walk into a place and there’s live music, there’s a pianist, there’s jazz playing,” he said. “That’s why I live here — because it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

mr. Buccieri, who often works five nights a week, switching between three piano bars, said the unpredictability of the crowd gets his adrenaline pumping every night.

“When people say, ‘What do you like to play?’ I’m like ‘I’m a Libra! I like to play everything,'” he said. “I like it when it’s a mix of, this table here wants some old-school, classic show tunes, and they want modern show tunes, and these guys want ’90s rap and these guys want Taylor Swift.”

When he is in the Duplex, Mr. Buccieri also collaborate with other artists, such as Taylor-Rey J’Vera, a singer who goes by the stage name T.Rex.

Ms. J’Vera, 32, who is a regular at the Stonewall Inn and the Duplex, said she started working for the Duplex after becoming a regular herself.

“We have a lot of regulars who come alone — every week I know I’m going to see Martin; I’m going to Mark; I know I’m going to see these people coming in because there’s a family base there,” Mrs. J’Vera said.

Although she worked for the Harlem Repertory Theater and musical theater programs for a while, Ms. J’Vera said she switched to living in piano bars after having a baby with her wife. Another benefit of working in these bars, she said, is the interaction with the public.

“When you’re on stage, the lights are traditionally dazzling, and you don’t see who’s in front of you and you don’t know them,” she said. “There’s kind of that fourth wall that separates you.”

“As an artist, I think it’s pretty awesome to be right in the middle of your audience,” she added. “My favorite thing is getting to know the room a little bit and going around like, ‘What are you doing? What do you like to hear?’”

Ms. Behr, who plays in the Nines and Bar Nine, also said piano bars are an unparalleled way of interacting with artists.

“It’s an opportunity to see live music, but also to interact with the show,” Ms Behr said. In other jazz clubs, despite the good music, there’s “not a great opportunity to get involved and interact with the artists while they’re performing,” she said.

And even at the end of a long night, some New York pianists can’t wait to return the next day.

“If I won the lottery, would I be obliged to do a service? No, but at least I’d hang out there,” Mr. Buccieri said, laughing. “But I’d probably still work there too.”

uptown

midtown

  • Don’t tell mom343 West 46th Street, donttellmamanyc.com

  • size nine807 Ninth Avenue, bar9ny.com

  • Uncle Charlie’s Piano Lounge139 East 45th Street, oomcharliesnyc.com

  • New York Mansion236 East 58th Street, townhouseny.com

  • Mimi’s Restaurant & Piano Bar, 984 Second Avenue, mimisnyc.com

  • Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Pianos320 West 36th Street, shakerattlerollpianos.com

  • Sid Gold’s Request Room165 West 26th Street, sidgolds.com

Centre

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