Peter Nero: The Laughter and The Challenges

Victor L. Schermer By

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World War II Canteen Music

AAJ: All this nostalgia reminds me that I wanted to ask you about the upcoming concert of the Philly Pops on March 28, 2010, where you're going to recap WWII dance music in a show called Stage Door Canteen.

PN: We already did one show like that five years ago with the same singer, Lynn Roberts, the quintessential big band singer She's still the best. She comes out dressed in St. John's knits, and just sings, no vocal mannerisms, no choreography, no histrionics, just gets out there and sings like an angel!

AAJ: For those of us with an interest in jazz history, what some of these allusions to dancing and WWII add up to is the change from swing music, which was for dancing, to bebop which was entirely for listening. And you came up around that time. During the war years, there were Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Woody Herman, and so on, and people danced to their music. Then, after the war something happened—they stopped dancing to jazz. As leader of the Pops, do you think perhaps there ought to be a revival of dance music?

PN: We play a lot of big band music, and we've actually had professional dancers on stage, but you know something—we got complaints! The audiences felt it got in the way of listening to the music. I was surprised. I've sometimes encouraged the audience themselves to dance but there weren't any takers!

AAJ: Perhaps it reflects changes in the culture. But for the moment, let's continue with your career development. I was surprised by your earlier comment because I thought your rise was meteoric. But you were saying it was a bit of a struggle at the beginning.

PN: It was not meteoric but I think it was better that way because the faster you go up, the faster you go down. What do you do after the big success? In this business, you can't level off because you are going downward. You have to keep doing something creative that sells as well. I've always managed to incorporate the music of the day into whatever I do. It doesn't lock me in to any one idiom and I'm always trying to grow in all respects as well.

More About Coming Up on the Circuit

PN: Getting back to my bio, after I played Basin Street East, I then went on the national circuit. I did the London House in Chicago. Again, they didn't have singers—I don't know why, maybe because there was an excise tax on them—they mostly had piano, with an occasional horn player like Jonah Jones or Dizzy Gillespie. They were also restaurants. The London House was one of the best steak houses in Chicago. I did Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, which, as the name suggests, featured pianists. Toronto had two rooms, one was the Colony. And there was the Town House. Oscar Peterson used to play one of those two places all the time. I played at the Colony on the main drag. They had a bar setup, balcony and tables. It was a tough room to play, and all they had were piano trios. In Cleveland, a club closed due to a fire so everyone went over to the Hickory Grille. I used to come back and play there periodically. In order to develop a following, you had to play these clubs and the owners signed you up for a three-year contract.

AAJ: At one club? That's unheard of now.

PN: One club, once a year, three weeks each stint. However, the pay was absolutely horrendous. They knew it would be worth it to you because you could put their name on a resume and get reviews in their town. In fact, the first time I played the London House, I had to borrow money in order to make the gig. I had to pay the musicians, transportation and the hotel, so we guys stayed three in a room! The room had black and white tiles, like a flophouse! But it only cost $3.50 a guy for a night and it was right down the street from the London House, which is a pretty nice area. When I did Baker's Lounge in Detroit, I stayed at a motel.

AAJ: When did this take place?

PN: It started in the fall of 1961. The first album had come out April 1st of that year.

AAJ: You had told me that you met George Shearing on one occasion in Chicago.

PN: That was at the London House. The first thing RCA did was to send me on a promotion tour: 12 cities in 14 days. We started on the West Coast. I had come out of the clubs, and then all of a sudden, I heard my music on the radio! That was the biggest thrill of all. See, I had become very skeptical after playing club intermissions and piano bars. The singers made money because while they were doing romantic songs, $50 bills flew across the piano—they were being tipped big because the guys in the audience were romancing their girlfriends! When I played, I had my bassist and we played the fastest tempos I possibly could, and I felt very conspicuous because the audience did not consist of jazz fans, and the only place they loved my playing was at Jilly's in New York.

At the Hickory House, I played opposite Marian McPartland and Billy Taylor, the latter becoming a mentor for me. Much later on, I had him as my guest artist in Philly with the Philly Pops and in Tulsa with the Tulsa Philharmonic, which I worked with for nine years. I conducted for Billy, Dizzy and Shearing and at the end, sat opposite them at a second Steinway Grand and we just blew choruses for about 15 minutes. When we did the same concert twice, some of the orchestra players wanted to know how we had time to rehearse and learn two different versions (LOL). In the early 1980s, I became pops music director of the Florida Philharmonic and built the series from zip to 24 concerts per season. I had to coax Dizzy to let me sit in with him and he, being skeptical, finally agreed to run through a head chart on a B flat blues and at 200 mph. After the run-through, his rhythm section made a bee line for me to give me their business cards. Dizzy's gone but they're still here. Ask 'em.

AAJ: Did you do pops or classical?

PN: My pops consisted then and does now of jazz and classical.

AAJ: Who did the arrangements for these large orchestras?

PN: If they were for piano and orchestra, I did them. Also had a library of about 600 more that I had done for 50-plus recordings. I also wrote charts for orchestra alone and farmed out the rest. As Andre Previn said in his book, I got into conducting out of self defense and started in the early '70s. In the early '60s, I did two albums with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. One had the "Rhapsody in Blue" and six arrangements of Gershwin tunes and the second, the Gershwin "Concerto in F" and a piece I wrote called "Fantasy and Improvisations."


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