Play It as It Lays
"I once told someone that I'm so high up, the only way I can go is down. What I didn't know is I'd have to climb three flights up to get to the basement," Sir Lawrence the piano man laments. His one-liners sound as if they could be straight out of a Billy Joel song, but Lawrence hasn't turned his catch phrases into a Broadway show of blue-collar barroom melodies. He's merely reflecting on a life that has forced him to panhandle when he's not hammering the ivories at Spyro Japanese and Thai Restaurant. And though it isn't Madison Square Garden, the Spyro gig is steady work, and Lawrence is grateful for it.
Gone are the days when men like Paquito Hechavarria entertained a crowded Boom Boom Room at the Fontainebleau, or classically trained pianists like Walter Lena could find a place to sit their tip jar on any given night. Today piano men are lucky to find a place to play, let alone one that will provide a steady gig. Rat Packs and packed houses have given way to retirement homes and random holes in the wall, but while these piano men may grow nostalgic for a time when every night was a scene out of Casablanca, their passion for playing has never waned.
The crowd is thin on a Thursday night at Spyro Japanese and Thai Restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, right across the street from the Department of Immigration. The room's only air conditioner isn't working, the owner explains apologetically, and the air is stagnant and heavy. But if Sir Lawrence -- tall, thin, and reminiscent of an older John Waters (minus the pencil mustache) -- is uncomfortable in the full tuxedo he dons six nights a week, he doesn't show it. Instead he moves stoically through "Always Chasing Rainbows," "Am I Blue," and "Someone to Watch Over Me," occasionally looking up to make sure his audience approves.
Trade the spicy tuna rolls for caviar, the modern track lighting for chandeliers, and Lawrence's upright for a baby grand, and one could easily be transported to the lobby of the Ritz. Been there, done that, Lawrence could say.
"I played in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, Black Cat, Village Gate, Sign of the Dove -- Barbra Streisand was just across the street at this little coffee shop. Played with Bette Davis ..." Lawrence says as his Southern drawl trails off. "But I don't want to sit here and name a bunch of names."
He may be humble, but his list is impressive. He spent 22 years in London, where he was one of the highest-paid entertainers at the time, he says, offering an old business card that reads "Inspired at Enormous Expense." He played at Morton's, owned by Hard Rock Café founder Peter Morton; met Lady Diana; was friends with Queen Margaret; and married a countess -- second cousin to Queen Anne. "I went through three Prime Ministers," he says as if suddenly surprised by the idea. "That was the best part of my life."
Entertaining British royalty was a far cry from Lawrence's upbringing in rural Tennessee. He left home when he was fifteen and found himself in South Florida. Frank Sinatra, he says, gave him his first $100 bill at the Flamingo bar on 79th Street in the Sixties. "Then there was the Mai Kai on the 79th Street Causeway," Lawrence remembers. "But that's gone too. I think they've probably built a condominium there by now."
After stops in Nassau, New York, and London, he eventually landed in Miami, where he played in hotels like the Carlisle and the Seaview. Then in 1998, after a scheme that wiped out his life savings, Lawrence found himself out on the street. Now living in a hotel, he panhandles during the day and by night plays the songs of Cole Porter, Sinatra, and literally hundreds of others. He imparts all of this with a c'est la vie smile and a chuckle, as if he had merely lost a few bucks in a poker game, and then adds that money has never been important to him.
"All my life I've sort of taken everything and thrown it in a big pot, like a witch's brew," he theorizes. "I don't blame anyone but myself. I still believe there is good in the world. I don't hold a grudge." What he does miss, he says, are the people with whom he's lost touch because he no longer has a phone. "I lost touch with everyone I've known in the world -- and I know people from all over the world," Lawrence relates. "That's what I miss more than the money or the circumstance."
"When I played at the Boom Boom Room, there was dance music on Tuesdays and Thursdays," recalls Paquito Hechavarria, who spent close to a decade playing at the Fontainebleau in the Sixties. "There used to be a lot of dance teachers, because everybody wanted to learn how to dance mambo, cha-cha, rumba, tango. People would make lines to get into that room like there was someone famous inside." And during the hotel's heyday, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis, Jr. to Ann-Margret would come to hear Hechavarria play. Name any celebrity from that era, and there's a good chance Hechavarria played for them. He was at Caesars Palace with legendary Cuban musician Pupi Campo and has recorded for everyone from Ricky Martin to Carlos Vives. In 1995, Hechavarria even released his own record, simply titled Piano.
"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."
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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