Peter Nero: Fabled Pianist and Philly Pops Maestro
Living legend Peter Nero is that rare musician equally at home with classical music, jazz, the American Songbook, the Broadway musical, movie themes and popular songs. Moreover, he is a masterful pianist, seasoned conductor, composer and arranger in all these genres. Just as exceptionally, he has become a cultural emblem, known to statesmen, entertainers, students, housewives and, it seems, all who listen to American music. He achieved his fame on the piano, with his unique capacity to meld concert style virtuosity with imaginative creativity and improvisational facility.
The occasion for this interview is the 30th anniversary of "Peter Nero and the Philly Pops," an organization he co-founded in 1979 and has continuously led since then. The group, consisting of local freelance musicians who also play for the ballet and opera, Broadway musicals, from the jazz community, and a few from the Philadelphia Orchestra, perform an eclectic repertoire of musical works under Nero's baton, featuring star-quality singers and soloists. Moreover, it is thrilling to see and hear the 75-year-old-but-still-spry Nero move effortlessly from the podium to the Steinway piano, whipping off complex solos at outrageous tempos. A natural entertainer, Nero interjects informative and often humorous comments between the musical segments and ends the concerts with a signature ritual clap-along that has the audience standing, waving their arms, and bending over in defiance of all concert decorum. Nero has not only brought a broad repertoire that caters to all musical tastes to Philadelphia, he has lightened up the well-known tensions in the Philly musical scene with much-needed irreverence.
- Peter Nero's varied musical tastes
- High tech maestro
- Coming up as a musician: the early days
- Philly Pops and Leonard Bernstein
- High tech maestro
AAJ: Which recordings would you take to a desert island?
PN: One recording would be Erroll Garner, Concert by the Sea (Columbia, 1955). Anything by Art Tatumanything! And there are always things by him that are being discoveredbootleg sessions, after-hour sessions. I also love Oscar Peterson, and Vladimir Horowitz. My tastes are pretty eclectic. My favorite vocalist is Carmen McRae. There was an album she did with Roger Kellaway, with whom I go way back, and he was the arranger on that album. At that time, I was going through a difficult period in my life, my first divorce of three. I always joke with people that I've been married for 50 years...but to three different wives [laughter.] Then there's Sinatra of course, I've got to have his recordings. And the Basie Band. I guess my tastes are along the more popular jazz artistsI'm not gonna mention anyone people haven't heard of.
AAJ: It's interesting that you mention Tatum, because Ray Charles once compared you to Tatum in terms of your ability.
PN: Ray Charles has always been very good to me in the press, going back to the early '60s, when I started to record. And then we finally linked up and met and played together. From about 1991-2000, I ran the Florida Philharmonic Pops, and they had a gala with their music director conducting, and I performed the Rhapsody in Blue on the piano, and then Ray came out for the second half with his conductor, and asked me if I would sit in with him. So we did a duet in which he played organ and I played piano. It was an experience I shall never forget, and it was repeated after that.
At that particular concert, we did an A-flat blues. He set it up so he had an organ bench and I had a piano bench, right next to each other at a 90 degree angle. Ray, playing organ, faced the audience, and I was seated in the usual piano position facing stage left. He gave me a big intro, and we just comped the blues, and he soloed first. And our shoulders were touching, my right shoulder touching his left. So I'm just comping for his solo, but now comes my turn to play choruses, and he's comping for me. And as you know, he's very vocal, moaning and groaning, and then when he likes something I'm doing, he digs his left shoulder into my right shoulder, [laughter] so my right foot is on the pedal, but my left foot is on the floor trying to keep Ray from pushing me off the bench [laughter]! It was really fun, just a great experience.
A couple of years later, we had a Fourth of July concert in Philly at the Parkway, with around a million people attending. Ray had his own band on that one. Interestingly, there was a problem in Ray's written contract with the city. In writing it, they neglected to put a few things in there. One, they wanted him to do "America the Beautiful." And more importantly, they made no mention of the fact that it was going to be telecast locally. When he found out about the mistakes, he said he would only do 15 minutes unless he was properly remunerated for performing that song and for the TV hookup.
He was angry they didn't tell him up front, and felt they were ripping him off. The city called me and asked me if I knew Ray. They claimed ignorance about negotiating a theatrical contract. Understanding that it was an innocent slip up, I emailed him and told him, "You're right (which he was), Raybut please understand it was an error and not a devious one." But when it came time for the show, nobody knew for sure what he was going to do. So at the concert, I did my segment with the Philly Pops, and then joined him in his trailer while another act went on. We just talked in general, not about the contract. The bottom line was that not only did he do the whole 45 minutes they wanted, but another five minutes or so doing the blues duet with me. And then he did "America the Beautiful." When I got home, the city representative had left me an answering machine message saying, "I owe you one!" But it was really Ray's generositythat when he understood what the situation was, he came through.
AAJ: I remember that performance of "America the Beautiful." It was one of the most memorable things that ever happened in Philadelphia. And you get credit for your diplomacy in that situation, which brings me to another question: In your job as conductor and music director of the Philly Pops, it must take an extraordinary degree of diplomacy and tact to reconcile between the tastes of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians and fans, jazz fans and players, and popular music lovers. For example, I know that sometimes Philadelphia Orchestra musicians get disgruntled when they come out of Verizon Hall and hear jazz played in the Kimmel Center Plaza. It hurts their dignity. Yet you seem to relate to all the musicians and the audience extremely well. So what helps you to bring these diverse groups together?
PN: You've got three loaded questions in there. The first is about the composition of our orchestra. We are basically a free-lance orchestra. The only members of the Philadelphia Orchestra who are part of the Philly Pops are those who want to participate, and they are mostly string players. We have also had the principal trombonist, Nitzan Haroz, but he also hangs out in salsa joints and plays in some of the bands there! So I have no problem with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nitzan sometimes plays second trombone with us with Brian Pastor in the first chair and raises the power of the whole orchestra, even though he's still feeling his way through. He's a superb musician and a very open-minded musician. And Blair Bollinger has played bass trombone with us and fits in very well.
I really have found that those players who stick their noses up in the air about jazz are those who can't play it and, in reality, they are in the minority. I never heard anyone who is capable of playing jazz put it down. It's easier to pooh-pooh it than to admit, "I can't play it and I admire those who can."
So when you see a concert of ours, and when you see our guys get up and play, like our two trumpet players, Kenny Brader and Bob Gravener; saxophones Joe Rotella and Kai Hansen, who blew us all away with his solo on Frank Foster's "Magic Flea," taking it fearlessly at Basie's tempo of 320 per quarter note on the metronome. Then we have Brian Pastor on trombone, as I said, and Ron Kerber and Andrew Neu on sax, all of whom can blow fabulous jazz solos. There's not an orchestra in the country where you have seven people stand up and blow like that.
PN: The arrangements in fact were big band arrangements that had been filled out for a large orchestra for that gig.
AAJ: Who does the arrangements for the Pops?
PN: A number of them are originals. Some we purchase. Like we get some by Bill Holcomb and Richard Hayman. We have a young guy out on Long Island, Tedd Firthhe's a pianist who does a lot of arrangements. And then I do some. I did some of Diane's arrangements for that concert. But for the most part, her charts play without any changes needed. She has several arrangers. "The Man I Love" was done by Clare Fischer and it's a gem. The harmonies and the textures are just sensational. But a lot of Diane's orchestral arrangements don't have saxophones. So I took some of her big band stuff and filled them out for full orchestra.
AAJ: Now the "gold standard" for Pops orchestras is probably the Boston Pops.
PN: That might have been so 30 years ago. Do you know their history? Consider this: the Philadelphia Orchestra started in 1901. The Boston Symphony started in 1881. The Boston Pops was started by the Boston Symphony in 1885, Arthur Fiedler was actually the 16th conductor. He died in 1979, coincidentally the same year we started the Philly Pops. And I recorded two albums on piano with the Boston Pops, in 1961 and 1965.
AAJ: Do you have any eccentric interests like Arthur Fiedler did? He used to chase fire engines as a hobby, and it became a tradition at Tanglewood for him to arrive there every year on a fire truck.
PN: No, nothing like that. My hobby is electronics. I'm very serious about it! Every five minutes, there's a new piece of equipment out. I'm the upgrade king, I go back a long way with it. My first computer was the TRS 80 Model One, a Tandy/Radio Shack product. I became a consultant to them for 22 years because of their involvement with both stereo and computers. So I fit the mold perfectly. I had my picture in the catalogues, and I would advise them. But the serial number on my TRS-81 was #26, which will give you an idea of how fast I jumped in. I got in around 1976, and I still have it up in my attic in storage. The one that had the serial number #1 is actually in the Smithsonian (Institution). It was owned by John Roach, who was the chairman of the board of Tandy Corp. It was full of bugs and only had 4k of RAM, and people used to call it the "Trash-80." A love/hate relationship, but that's what started it all.
AAJ: What do you use computers for today?
PN: Everything. I drag my laptop everywhere. I use it for word processing. I love iTunes. If one of the guest artists wants me to do a song I never heard before, I go to iTunes and download it.
AAJ: Do you compose and orchestrate on computer?
PN: No, I do my arrangements by hand, because that's what I've gotten used to and can work faster that way
AAJ:What early experiences stirred up your musical side, and what was formative and transformative for you in your younger days?
PN: First of all, I had two very supportive parents. Both graduated from Brooklyn College. In fact, when I went there later, I was the first offspring of two graduates to go there. Before that I went to the High School of Music and Art, which took forever to get to, 31 stops on the subway from where I lived. At that point, it was located at 135th Street and Convent Avenue in Manhattan. Later on, they merged with Performing Arts and moved down to Lincoln Center.
The original was a tough school. Not only did they have the cream of the crop of music and art students from New York, they were very bright and excelled in everything. Until that point, I aced all the academic subjects but at M&A, I had trouble with my grades in academics. However, in music I got the highest grade on the New York State Regents. I only missed one question. I fudged the fill-in question "After Handel wrote orchestral music, he turned to..." I didn't understand the question, so I answered "the wall [laughter]." What they wanted was "the Oratorio."
AAJ: You must have been a true prodigyyou performed on TV at the young age of 17.
PN: In those days, each network had its own orchestra. Like the NBC Orchestra with Toscanini conducting. At ABC, Paul Whiteman led their orchestra, and I performed Rhapsody in Blue with them.
AAJ: You were still in school at the time. You went to Brooklyn College and also to Juilliard.
PN: Juilliard at 14, in the Prep Division. At that time Juilliard was up on 125th Street and Claremont Avenue at a site that is now occupied by the Manhattan School of Music. I went to Juilliard on Saturdays, only 30 stops on the New York subway. At that time, my father was the director of a children's home with 135 kids who were orphans or from broken homes, and he was like a surrogate father to them. I worked there two nights a week accompanying the kids in their singing and dance classes. I kind of grew up with them, and some are still my friends. I went from $6 to $8 per hour salary while I was there. Interestingly, in light of my future career, I used to pooh-pooh the music because it wasn't straight classical.
AAJ: Apropos of that, you could have been a concert pianist had you so decided, but at some point you were turned on by pops and jazz.
PN: I was exposed to jazz early, but I had no idea it would come in handy later. When I do seminars for up and coming musicians, I tell them that anything you learn about music will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life. You may not know at the time that it is useful, but it will be. That's what happened with me. For example, later in my career, I did an arrangement of "Midnight in Moscow" on one of my RCA albums, and I did a kind of Russian dance arrangement, which was what I was playing in those dance classes.
So, getting back on track, I played with Whiteman when I was 17. I originally intended to go to the main division of Juilliard, and I requested one of three teachers, one of them being Beveridge Webster. I wanted a teacher who played recitals, which were common at the time, and they played once a year at Carnegie Hall. I wanted to study with them because I loved their concerts and wanted to learn from them. But I was told that it there was no guarantee that I would get
By chance, there was a new program on WQXR radio in New York. It was called "Musical Talent in Our Schools" and it was run by the noted pianist and pedagogue, Abram Chasins. They auditioned kids from all over the city on violin, piano and cello. Each of the seven winners of the competition would get to perform on radio in a studio setting with no audience. The three piano judges were Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolph Serkin, and Arthur Rubinstein.
I drew Serkin. I was not only accepted, but I got the position of honor, to close the series. I was a nervous wreck. I got a wax recording of itthey didn't even have vinyl records then, it was 1951. I listened to it and regretted the day I ever did it! [Laughter.] That was part of the problem with classical music for me. Much as I love it and it's still a part of me, you had to play it as written. You had to re-create the music, not create it. You had to re-create the composer's wishesthat was a key concept.
But Chasins was a fantastic pianist and composer who studied with Josef Hoffman. He had developed back trouble, so he couldn't travel by train. That ended his concert career, and he became head of WQXR. He has been credited with developing the format for all other classical music stations. WQXR had their own recital hall, and they had regularly broadcast concerts there. One day the guest pianist didn't show up, and Chasins substituted for him. It made the front page of the New York Times because he hadn't practiced in several years and nobody thought he'd ever play again.
Anyway, after my own broadcast, I asked him if he had any suggestions as to what I could do to improve my piano technique. At first he declined to advise me, saying I should discuss that with my teacher. But I nudged him, and he sat down at the piano. I was flabbergasted at the ease with which he played, the fluidity of his hands, the variety of tone color, between legato and staccato, and his relaxed approach to the keyboard. A lot of teachers misinterpreted the way Horowitz played. We had to sit low, and they thought he bent his arms, but in reality he sat up very straight, and there was no bending there. But we had to sit low and play with high fingers, which he didn't do. So the way that Chasins played was a whole new world for me.
It was June, and I had to do something quickly about college. I asked him if I could study with him. He said he only taught master classes, but that his protégé and wife, Constance Keene, taught a number of students privately. So I played for her, and she took me on as a student. So instead of going to Juilliard, I had already been accepted to Brooklyn College. I went there and simultaneously studied piano with Constance and Abram. It took me one agonizing year to learn to play the right way which is to use the natural weight of the arms, let your brain tell your hands what to do, and no impediments from high fingers or stiff wrists. I continued studying with them for the next four years.
AAJ: That learning must have sustained you through your careerthat's obviously the technique you used at the Philly Pops concert.
PN: All of that came together at the right time. I hadn't learned anything useful about technique until that time. My first teacher came from the high-fingered school, and my forearms got tired. My second teacher didn't bother with technique at all. Chasins and Keene straightened out all the problems. Their approach was correct. I was doing the Bach "Italian Concerto" at one of the master classes and I had a breakthrough. The other students applauded and cheered. There was great camaraderie, and it was like being introduced to a whole new world. The Chasins were very tight with Vladimir Horowitz, for example. But more about him at another time.
AAJ: Given that educational track, it would appear that you were all set to become a classical pianist.
PN: Yes, but after the master class, they broke out the bar, and at these soirées, I would sit down and start playing tunes. And everyone was amazed, because they could only play what was on the printed page, while I was able to improvise spontaneously.
AAJ: Where did that ability come from?
PN: I don't really know, but when I was 15, I was already into George Shearing, and I started to pick his records off because I liked his harmonic sense. And I was always interested in the jazz of the day when I was younger. But I was 19 when I really woke up and I heard Tatum. I was at a record store, and one of his albums caught my eye: The Genius of Art Tatutm (Black Lion, 1945). I bought it because I had to learn how a "genius" played, and that was the first album I could not pick off. I did his runs, but not the way he did. Here was a guy with concert pianist chops who was improvising, and had that feeling of swing, and he was right on the money time-wise, even when he suspended it in mid-air. I also saw him once on the Steve Allen "Tonight" show around 1953.
AAJ: That was a great house band.
AAJ: So you were being exposed to a number of different influences at that time. And people noticed that you could improvise well.
PN: Actually that started much younger, when I was four. I was a depression baby, and the only instrument the family could afford then was a toy xylophone. I started picking out tunes on it. Then, when I was seven, we went to a relative's house. They had a piano, and I started to knock out the same tunes. So they decided they had a budding genius. My grandmother persuaded them to put that piano in my house, and I started taking lessons right away.
I soon studied with a guy named Frederick Bried from New Jersey, who was very strict and taught those high fingers and stiff wrists and all that. I would start knocking out some boogie-woogie and stride piano or whatever, and my mother would yell from the kitchen, "That's not what you're supposed to be doing!" In those days, you obeyed your parents so I did the drills my teacher assigned me. I began piano studies with Constance and Abram when I was 17. After a year, my parents asked to speak with both of them. My mother wanted me to be a concert pianistChasins and Keene told her I needed to attend a conservatory to learn repertoire where you spent your life eating, sleeping and living classical music. They also said that there was no successful concert pianist at that time who attended a liberal arts college. For instance, Lang Lang, who was studying at the Curtis Institute, was suddenly called in to play the Rachmaninoff Third at age 19 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He ripped it, and a star was born.
But Connie and Abram said, "One of the things your kid can do that none of the others can do is sit down and play whatever comes into his head, which the others can't do. So why should he join the rest of the pack and just do what they do? He can do something more creative." They liked all kinds of music. They used to take Horowitz in his seclusion period when he was suffering from depression to hear Joey Bushkin, Sy Walters, and other jazz pianists of the day. Horowitz would marvel that they were playing whatever came into their heads, at their phenomenal technique; and how they could still play while blitzed. Horowitz wouldn't even drink a glass of wine 48 hours before a concert! Connie and Abraham opened my eyes and those of my parents.
When I was 19, there were a bunch of TV contests, mostly for professionals. One as for amateurs and teenagers, called Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club, televised from Philadelphia. My mother dared me to enter it. So, I had done an arrangement for piano and band of the theme from "The Brave Bulls" based on a Rafael Mendez recording of "La Virgen de la Macarena," the theme played and heard at every bullfight. So I auditioned, and got to perform. And I won the grand finals in March 1954. Then I got a call from Arthur Godfrey's sister, Kathy, who had a talent show called On Your Way. I got on that show, and won. Then, I went on Dennis James' Chance of a Lifetime, where the prize was $1,000 and a week of performing at the Latin Quarter. But I lost the second round on that show, and my father learned it was rigged and he came up on stage and wanted to kill Dennis JamesI had to restrain him! At that time he was deputy commissioner of the New York City Youth Board and he wrote a letter to the network. Next week, Dennis James had to go on and defend the show. What happened was that they had gotten a rigged cheering section from a local high school and since the audience judged the performers by an applause meter, the comedy team won. But then I won on the Arthur Godfrey show, and that was a big break. Won five TV contests in 4 months.
AAJ: OK, back to the Philly Pops. Give us a rundown.
PN: The Philly Pops began in 1979, and it was the brainchild of Moe Septee, who was then head of the All Star Forum, and local impresario. In 1977, I had appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra as guest conductor and piano soloist in an all-Gershwin program. That's when Moe got the idea for a Pops orchestra in Philly. We started in 1979, and I was the founding music director. Arthur Fiedler had died in the same year, so I dedicated a Gershwin concert to him, with the "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F."
AAJ: a couple of other questions. First, how did you choose your stage name, Peter Nero?
PN: That was chosen for me. My given name was Bernard Nierow. For background, in the early 1900s, my paternal grandfather deserted the Czar's Army in Siberia, went to the West Coast, and then came to New York. My father, his mother and brother came directly from Europe. My guess is the original Russian name was Nierov but the emigration officer must have used a "w." So my name was pronounced "Nero." I was playing intermission piano at the Hickory House in New York, a great job. I was 22 then, 1956, I believe. My manager didn't like the name Bernie, and neither did RCA when I made my first album for them in 1960. The manager's son's name was Peter, his nephew's name was Peter, and he managed Peter Palmer. So, he pitched "Peter" to RCA without telling me, and they liked it. I wanted to have my first name at least remind me of Bernard, like Brad or whatever, but he said, "RCA likes Peter, and we'll drop the silent letters in your last name, and it'll be Peter Nero."
AAJ: It's a great stage name for sure. The second question is that there seems to be an inevitable parallel between you and Leonard Bernstein, in that you were somewhat contemporariesyou are a pianist, he was a fine pianist; you both are conductors, and so on. I wonder if you had any interactions with him.
PN: Unfortunately, no. But, while I'm flattered by your comparison, Bernstein was without a doubt a true genius in many respects. And I am not. Bernstein at age 24, when the conductor Bruno Walter got sick, stepped up on the podium in front of the New York Philharmonic, and if I remember correctly, he conducted the entire concert from memory. And then there were all the marvelous lectures he did, and writing major pieces like Mass, and Broadway shows like West Side Story, which turned the Broadway musical upside down. Here was a musical where every song had a life of its own. Each song was a different style, a different meter, a different harmony. Next to Porgy and Bess, it's probably the closest thing to an opera that we have. Musically it's sensational.
AAJ: Are you ever going to have a Bernstein night with the Philly Pops?
PN: It's interesting that you should say that because on July 22 , we're going to do a night of Bernstein and Richard Rodgers at the Mann Center. We're combining them because, in addition to writing songs, both of them also wrote orchestral pieces. Rodgers wrote Victory at Sea and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and I'm going to write an arrangement of those, because the original was written for a dance group, and is fragmented; it confuses the audience. So I'd like to make it more seamless. We'll do that this summer. We've got Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story overtures, and we'll also do tunes with two singers, that go back as far as the '30s, like Rodgers' "You Took Advantage of Me," and so on.
By the way, Vic, I read your review of the Diane Schuur concert, and you referred to my "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm'" as "kitsch." I looked up the definitions of that and I couldn't find one that was a compliment. I've got to tell you that I think the problem was that it's meant as a parody. Five variations based on the styles of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Liszt, The parody tipoff was when I announced "and the very beautiful love theme from "Poltergeist II." I probably didn't set it up enough, although I believe the audience got it.
Peter Nero, On My Own & Other Broadway Ballads, (Intersound Records, 1997)
Peter Nero, It Had to be You, (Intersound Records, 1994)
Peter Nero, Peter Nero Plays Duke Ellington, (Concord Records, 1990)
Peter Nero, I've Gotta Be Me, (Columbia, 1974)
Peter Nero, For the Nero-Minded, (RCA, 1962)
Courtesy of Peter Nero