It’s a pretty good crowd for a Thursday night, to paraphrase the famous Billy Joel song, and pianist Jane Potter is warming to the motley audience in the Fairmont Copley Plaza’s resplendently paneled Oak Bar. An associate professor at Berklee College of Music by day, Potter, nearly 6 feet tall in high-heeled black leather boots and a knee-length black cocktail dress, is a piano vamp by night.
The tip jar - actually a crystal water glass - is filling up, and the drinkers and diners at the Oak Bar are half-attuned to her repertory of lounge standards - “You’ve Got a Friend,’’ “As Time Goes By’’ - and half engrossed in their own company, which is as it should be.
Potter makes more money playing weddings and private receptions but says she adores the freedom of sitting down at the Copley’s Steinway grand and playing whatever her heart desires. “I’m completely free here,’’ she exulted. “I was born to do this.’’
As the Irving Berlin standard suggests: Count your blessings. Potter and her colleague Bob Baughman, who share the three-nights-a-week Copley gig, are the last piano players standing in what used to be Boston’s thriving piano bar scene. Their perch is unsteady at best. In January, the Plaza is planning a soup-to-nuts renovation of the bar and the adjoining high-end restaurant, the Oak Room, merging the two spaces into one large “American brasserie.’’
The bar and restaurant spaces, under different names and layouts, have been woven into the fabric of Boston’s history for the past century. Such bygone celebrities as Amelia Earhart, Ty Cobb, and Helen Keller frequented the cafe that existed before the Oak Bar. After the Second World War, the space became the Merry-Go-Round, with a rotating bar and stage. The famous cabaret featured Carmen McRae, Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer, and other music legends.
During the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, the extended Kennedy clan occupied the hotel, with Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, and Arnold Schwarzenegger holding court in the restaurant. Tom Cruise’s eager-beaver lawyer strides past the Oak Room in a scene in “The Firm,’’ and Kate Hudson tickled the ivories in the Oak Bar while she was in Boston filming “My Best Friend’s Girl’’ in 2007.
What will become of the piano act? This isn’t a subject hotel management wants to discuss.
“The details haven’t been finalized,’’ said Copley spokeswoman Suzanne Wenz.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,’’ said Baughman.
There was a time not so long ago when an A-list hotel without a piano player was like a football team without a quarterback. The Park Plaza had live entertainment in two rooms.
“The Sheraton used to have three rooms with live music back in the 1980s,’’ Baughman said. “Isn’t that something?’’
Potter and Baughman are performing on hallowed ground. Pianist Teddy Wilson, who broke the color barrier in Benny Goodman’s trio, lived and reigned at the Copley for several years. He was followed by the legendary Dave McKenna, who propped a transistor radio on the bar’s glass-topped Yamaha grand to keep up with the Red Sox games.
Wilson and McKenna were “pianists in residence,’’ meaning they enjoyed room service, meals, and lodging while they played in the hotel. Potter and Baughman get a free meal in the employees’ cafeteria on the nights they perform.
During the 1970s at the Lenox Hotel, Gladys Troupin regaled visiting celebrities at Diamond Jim’s, with such tunes as “Love Walked In,’’ a song written for her by her fiancé, George Gershwin.
“Lily Tomlin, Yul Brynner, Jay Leno, Ali MacGraw - everybody came to see her,’’ said Roger Saunders, one of the owners of the Lenox. “Towards the end of her life, her fans used to walk her home to her apartment at the Prudential Center, they cared about her so much.’’
That was then. In the past few years, the Four Seasons, the Taj, the Ritz-Carlton, the Hyatt, the Millennium Bostonian, and several other hotels have phased out their piano acts. Boston’s new hotels, the W and the Mandarin Oriental, never had a piano bar.
What’s going on? For one thing, “the culture has really changed,’’ said Bert Seager, a pianist who played at the Taj and the Four Seasons. “A lot of these bars have TV sets in them with sports shows on, and news crawls running underneath. People are on their cellphones and texting each other.’’
Also, ever-younger hotel managers are catering to a youthful audience.
“The trend is people are seeking a more contemporary feel,’’ said Kristan Fletcher, spokeswoman for the Four Seasons. Where there was once a piano, the Four Seasons now pipes in recorded music, calm melodies before midday and up-tempo jazz in the evenings. “We loved the piano player and music, but at the end of the day our guests were looking for a modern sound that matched the restaurant’s buzzing ambience,’’ Fletcher explained.
The hotel piano player, she says, “is something you don’t really see any more.’’
Seager and several other denizens of Piano World see another factor at work: money. The grand piano and the space around it can just as easily accommodate two or three income-producing tables at a popular hotel lounge. “The managers took the pianos out because they could,’’ he said.
The few hotel piano players working have something in common with airline pilots and many civil servants: Their salaries have declined. In 1980 an evening’s hotel gig paid $200 - over $500 today, adjusting for inflation. Now the going rate is $125.
“This used to be a steady, well-paying job,’’ said Berklee professor Neil Olmstead, who often played six nights a week at the Copley Plaza, then went next door to the Sheraton to earn more money. “It was a $20,000 gig when I left in 1990. Between that and teaching at Berklee, I put kids through college and bought a house.’’
Now it seems possible that Potter will be playing her farewell number, “That’s All,’’ for the last time in just a few weeks. Surveying the muted confines of the dark-paneled Oak Bar, she points to the open area where patrons often dance near the piano, after requesting a favored tune.
“If they move the piano, I guess they could fill in all that empty space with a few more tables,’’ she said. “It’s sad, I think the corporate world is taking over.’’
A door closes, a window opens. Jon Crellin, who managed the Copley Plaza for 10 years starting in the mid-1990s, is back in town, managing the Boston Harbor Hotel. Like the other top hotels, the Boston Harbor featured live music 20 years ago in its Harborview lounge, where a young pianist named Diana Krall got her start after studying at Berklee.
There is no more Harborview lounge, and there is no more piano, but Crellin is thinking of bringing live music back.
“We do a winter festival in the Rowes Wharf bar, and we think live entertainment might work there,’’ Crellin says. “We’re still in the preliminary stages,’’ he added, “but it might provide a nice reason to bring people in.’’