"The most important thing about me has to be that what I did musically has always been the most meaningful music that I could make at the time. ...I did the most honest music that I could." As he approaches his 84th birthday this month, pianist, conductor, arranger, composer, accompanist and vocal coach Hal Schaefer is not a household name. And he's okay with that. He can still play a heart-stopping version of "No Business Like Show Business" like nothing you have ever heard and in conversation decades seem to fall away as he talks about music, his love of jazz and the many musicians (including some of the greatest jazz luminaries) with whom he has worked and shared warm friendships.
A native New Yorker, music was in his life early on. Schaefer learned his first songs note by note by slowing down the action of the piano roll on his father's player piano. Upon hearing "Blue Moon" on the radio he immediately walked over to the piano and repeated it exactly in key. It soon became evident that he was possessed of perfect pitch, which Schaefer calls "a great, terrible curse."
His early training was in classical music but it was hearing an Art Tatum record that he says, ..."changed my life. He was way ahead of his time harmonically. ...I never knew a piano could be played like that. I couldn't believe it was only one man." Possessed of a union card by age 14, Schaefer recalls that at age 15-and-a-half, "I didn't want to go to college like most Jewish kids." He auditioned for Lee Castle and was soon on the road, begenning years of touring with various big bands including Boyd Raeburn and Benny Carter.
Schaefer's voice takes on a special warmth when he speaks of Carter. "He nicknamed me 'Buck Rogers' because he thought my playing was so advanced. He became one of my dearest and closest friends until he died. I was the only white guy in an all-black band." This was during a time when he says, "Benny couldn't take me down South with them [because of segregation]. It was terrible, terriblethe other side of slavery in a sense." Schaefer recalls also how resentful many of the black musicians in the band were about having him, a white man, playing with them. "Benny stood up in front of the band said, 'I will fire the whole band and keep Buck Rogers if you don't get off his back. I'm hearing that he's white. I see now he's white. I thought he was blue!'"
Schaefer doesn't remember exactly when he met Duke Ellington, who also became a mentor. "He gave me my 21st birthday party and we met a little prior to that. He was playing a ballroom in Culver City and he asked that I be booked there." He recalls the thrill of seeing the sign out front saying, "Duke Ellington and his Orchestra also featuring Hal Schaefer and His Trio." He observes that Ellington was always somewhat self-deprecating about his own playing and recalls, "When Duke was ready to take a break he'd [introduce me by saying], 'Now ladies and gentlemen, you're going to hear a REAL pianist." Schaefer's voice lights up as he speaks of how "You'd always know it was Duke on 'Solitude.' The octave over the 5th was a favorite run of Duke's. And his favorite thing was to have ice cream first BEFORE dinner."
Schaefer also enthuses about "Count Basie...my all-time favorite swinging band" and his observation could as easily be applied to himself. "He was always COOKING and to me that's what it's all about. He was cooking and swinging right to the end."
Through the years Schaefer developed a reputation as a top vocal coach. Through choreographer Jack Cole he was brought in to work with Marilyn Monroe on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, orchestrating her biggest hit, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," and with whom he eventually had a deep romance. "Marilyn hadn't had much experience and [like many actors] didn't realize intonation is what it's all about. Pitch is the primary difference between singing and speaking. ...I got her to listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins' Ella Sings Gershwin. In her last interview before she died Marilyn said Ella Fitzgerald was her favorite singer."
As far as singers go, Schaefer's praise is most unqualified for his all-time favorite, Peggy Lee. "She was almost perfect. Her time, a wonderful, swinging singer and an immediately recognizable, very personal sound." Of another favorite, Billy Eckstine, he says, "As he got older he got vibrato happy." Schaefer continues to coach upcoming singers today just as he did years ago with a young Barbra Streisand and so many others. The subject of the popular overuse of vibrato is one about which he feels keenly. ..."Vibrato is unnatural, it's an affectation. ...Ella had a vibrato but it wasn't constant. It was subtle and a coloration as a part of [what she did]. Vibrato is to me something you can't disguise, unless as my late wife Brenda said, 'You have cloth ears and can't hear.'"