Peter Nero: Fabled Pianist and Philly Pops Maestro

Victor L. Schermer By

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Peter NeroLiving 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

All About Jazz: Which recordings would you take to a desert island?

Peter Nero: One recording would be Erroll Garner, Concert by the Sea (Columbia, 1955). Anything by Art Tatum—anything! And there are always things by him that are being discovered—bootleg 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 Frank Sinatra of course, I've got to have his recordings. And the Count Basie Band. I guess my tastes are along the more popular jazz artists—I'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), Ray—but 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 generosity—that 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.

AAJ: In the concert with Diane Schuur, it felt as if you had a big band sitting in the middle of a large orchestra.

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 Firth—he'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.

High tech maestro

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.
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