Play It as It Lays

The days of Sinatra and Sammy may be long gone, but Miami's piano men refuse to stop the music

"When you go to the Fontainebleau today, it doesn't have the same flavor, the same atmosphere," he comments. He sighs as he takes a cigarette out of the pocket of his black guayabera and leans back in a patio chair.

Inside the Palace Suites, an independent-living community for the elderly, residents shuffle into the dining room for the five o'clock seating. Hechavarria, who was a member of one of Cuba's most famous conjuntos -- Conjunto Casino -- at the age of sixteen, plays there one hour three times a week. His audience is mostly women, and they sing or hum along as he plays songs that remind them of the days when dancing actually involved steps: "It Had to Be You," "Born to Be Just Yours," "When You're Smiling."

"He played 'La Femina' for me," a vibrant white-haired Scottish woman coos to her friend, who has arrived late. "It's one of Paquito's charms," says the Palace's program director. "Paquito can tell, just by looking at a person when they walk in, what their favorite song is."

The last of the international pianists, Sir Lawrence is a 
Jonathan Postal
The last of the international pianists, Sir Lawrence is a survivor


Paquito Hechavarria Sir Lawrence plays from 7:00 p.m. to closing Monday through Saturday at , Spyro Japanese and Thai Restaurant, 7941 Biscayne Blvd, Miami305-758-0516. Walter Lena plays Wednesday nights at Magnum Lounge, 709 NE 79th St, Miami, 305-757-3368; and Fridays and Saturdays at La Paloma Restaurant, 10999 Biscayne Blvd, Miami, 305-891-0505. Paquito Hechavarria plays regularly at parties and events around town.

Walter Lena boasts a similar talent. The soft-spoken Juilliard graduate plays Wednesday nights at Magnum Lounge, probably the only true piano bar in Miami. Lena's "regulars" sing their favorite songs along with his accompaniment. Edgar, a Nathan Lane look-alike, captures a perfectly pathetic Amos Hart when he performs Chicago's "Mr. Cellophane." Ismael, who sings for the Florida Grand Opera, belts out the Mexican serenade "Estrellita."

Many patrons come just for the show. A boisterous fiftyish woman admits it's her first time to the club as she dances around giddily and waves a Japanese folding fan. "I'm a grandmother, I've had two knee replacements, and I'm having fun!" she declares. Most of Lena's clientele are over the age of 40; they are the ones who can either appreciate live entertainment or remember when it was the norm.

"There was a piano bar on every corner. And the hotel lobbies, they all had pianos," Lena recalls. "I would do a 45-minute show with a singer, then go across the street and do another one." When he was working in Coconut Grove's now-defunct Candlelight, Lena met his idol, Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. "My hands got cold and I said, 'Oh my God, I can't play.' I talked to him later and he was very nice, very complimentary."

Now, however, it's the dancing grandmothers who remind Lena of his purpose as a piano player. "I don't see music as entertainment, but therapy," he says. Which is why, even though he was playing concerts at age ten in his native Cuba, Lena doesn't see his current gigs -- Magnum, La Paloma Restaurant, and the Shore Club -- as beneath him.

"It's not an easy life, but it's what I wanted to do," Lena comments. "The fact that I never had to do anything but play piano is an accomplishment in itself. I'm pretty good at what I do, and at this point in my life I'm not interested in being a millionaire. I have a comfortable life, people appreciate what I do."

Hechavarria says he can't complain either. He admits he'd love to record another album ("They've got my number," he says of Sony) and that success is often simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Hechavarria cites Cuban bassist Cachao. "He was always the king of the bass; however, he wasn't known until Andy Garcia took notice," he says, referring to the 1993 film Cachao ... Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (Cachao ... Like His Rhythm There Is No Other) that Garcia produced and directed. "I got the hope. The hope never dies. Cachao, he became famous when he was over 80, so why not me?" In his Sixties, Hechavarria still has more than a decade to go if his rationale proves correct.

Not that he's counting the days. "I'm not a young fellow," he concedes, "but when I play in places like [the Palace], I don't feel that old. It makes me feel like a teenager." It's a mutual feeling, as Hechavarria makes his audience feel young again through his music. "Like the manager was telling you, when I see the faces, I already know what they like. I do this to make a living, but I want to be happy, and I know that they like what I play for them."

Whatever the reason for the demise of the piano player -- Lena cites disco, Hechavarria mentions DJs -- it's an evolution (or perhaps devolution) that all three have taken in stride. No regrets, they all say.

"God has been very good to me," Sir Lawrence states matter-of-factly. "I'm thankful for my talent (I was better lookin' in my younger years); my health, which I've so terribly abused; and my ability to reason -- just good old common sense. I try to be genuine, and I can't tell a lie because then I wouldn't remember it. I'm eternally grateful to whoever's in charge of running this show. I've led a wonderful life."

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