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Misha Piatigorsky: Invent Your Own Bicycle

By Published: March 17, 2008

AAJ: Did your father have a job lined up in the States?

MP: Nope. It was a 100% shot in the dark. We had some friends who invited us to come to New Jersey, to a community where there were no Russians. He was an artist and his wife was a piano teacher. What my father had started doing the minute he lost his job as musical director was learning how to become a piano technician. He started working with a great master and was really honing his skills to become a piano tuner and technician. He knew when we came to America he couldn't support a family of four being a musician.

By the time we came to the States, he was already a great tuner and a great restorer, and so that's what he became. He was prepared to do anything—work in a garage fixing cars, whatever needed to be done to support his family. But it worked out that he started getting calls. People would come to our apartment and pick him up and drive him to their homes. And today he's considered one of the greatest piano technicians and restorers in the area where he lives.

Misha Piatigorsky AAJ: Did any of you speak English when you arrived?

MP: My father spoke—or at least thought he spoke—English. He was studying English in school, I guess. He had an ability to communicate a little bit, but basically we all started from zero. I knew no English. I went directly to third grade, and I started learning English from my friends.

AAJ: This was in the early 80s. Were you in an ESL [English as a Second Language] program or just picking it up as you went along?

MP: ESL didn't really exist at that time. We were the second Russian family that immigrated to Somerville, New Jersey. I was like a Martian, like a freak show. People came around to our apartment just to look at us like, "Who are these people? They're from a different world." I had an ESL teacher that I would spend one hour with a week. But I became fluent in a year. When you're eight years old, you absorb everything like a sponge.

AAJ: When did you first start picking up the taste for jazz?

MP: My father always loved Oscar Peterson. There was always jazz being played at the house. He's always been a big fan of Ella [Fitzgerald], Satchmo [Louis Armstrong]... So I heard that growing up. Plus Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Beatles. That's the record collection that I come from.

AAJ: When you moved to the States, did you continue to study with a piano teacher?

MP: Yes. Even when I came to the States, I always had Russian teachers. I continued studying classical piano.

AAJ: You had Russian teachers even when you were in Somerville?

MP: Yes. [laughs] I've always had only Russian teachers teaching me classical piano. "The Russian School." [laughs] They always stay in the bag. My last classical teacher was a woman that I started studying with when I was about ten years old. I totally attribute my sound to her. All she did with me was work with me on sound for all those years from the age of ten until I was twenty years old. She taught at Rutgers too, and that's where I went. I completely attribute most of my musicality to her. She was a big person in my life.

AAJ: You were talking about your dad's record collection. Were you playing on a piano along with these records? How did you first decide that you wanted to try to play jazz?

MP: When I was about 16 years old, my father had this Claude Bolling record—this boogie-woogie jazz pianist from France. There was this one CD in the house, which was Claude Bolling's Original Boogie-Woogie (Philips, 1968). Solo piano. The first track was this tune called "3/4-6/8 Boogie." That was the first song I ever transcribed. I realized that I wanted to learn how to do it. My dad said, "OK, go ahead. Figure it out." And I did. That was sort of my start to understanding that I had to sit down and figure something out. Hear it five million times and understand what's happening in one measure. And when I get it, it's mine. I own it. That's how it all started.

AAJ: Did the other three people in your house get sick of hearing the "3/4-6/8 Boogie"?

MP: Yeah. It's so funny. My parents, my mother, had to fight with me for years about practicing. I've always hated practicing. Growing up, I came home from school and had to practice for two hours. I couldn't play ball or ride my bike. That's what I really wanted to do, but that was part of my daily duties—come home, sit down and practice for two hours. When I started playing jazz and realizing that this is something I really wanted to do...

Misha Piatigorsky I was about 17 when I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I always knew that I wasn't going to be a classical pianist. I used to play in some classical piano competitions, and I won a few of them. And I would get so incredibly nervous, and I hated that feeling of being nervous to perform. So when I started getting into jazz and spending hours and hours and hours at the piano—in a way, my parents were very happy, because they had never got that out of me.

My grand piano was always in my room. I had a little Steinway baby grand. It's now in my room. I grew up in a small, three-bedroom house in Jersey. I remember my dad walking in at two o'clock in the morning and saying, "OK, that's enough. We can't sleep. You've got to go to bed." But I moved out pretty soon after that and went to Rutgers.

I went to Rutgers because I got to study with Kenny. [Pianist] Kenny Barron was my man from the age of 18 to 22. I attribute so much of what I do to Kenny. I came in completely green. I had no idea what jazz was. I spent about one year studying jazz before college. Then I came to Kenny and I realized, "I need to learn everything that he does." I recorded every lesson, and I would go home and copy. Try to copy what he does and how he does it, measure by measure. His absolutely perfect lines. The most musical lines in the world. That's how I started learning.

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