On the Rise
AAJ: So, your rise wasn't as slow as you suggest; a lot happened in just two years. From clubs to radio and the Boston Pops.
PN: During my stint at the lounges, I got my first concert gig, at the University of Maryland in College Park in their field house. That was $1,250 for the night, pay your own hotel, transportation and musicians, while the London House was $1,000 for the week with the same deal. So the pay got a lot better.
AAJ: Somewhere during that time, you started coming up.
PN: Well, that first concert really broke the ice. At that time, the colleges were a big venue to play. There were the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and The Limelighters. One time, Simon and Garfunkel, who were just starting out, opened for me. It was at a field house at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. I heard them warming up and turned to my musicians and said, "Who the heck is that?" They said, "That's your opening act, Simon and Garfunkel." I'd never heard of them, but they were getting popular with the young people with their recordings. They did the first half of the evening, and the kids tore the house down. A tough act for a pianist and trio to follow.
AAJ: That's indicative of the way the whole music scene was changing at that time.
PN: Yes, The Beatles changed everything. When they came over in 1964, the record companies made me go from standards to what were called "cover records." We'd look at the pop charts, and out of 12 top tunes, we'd pick out those we felt would get up the charts, so everything we did were instrumental versions of vocal hits.
AAJ: So around that time, you began to develop an audience and make a good living, making the necessary adjustments.
PN: But, look. Comedian Bob Newhart's first album sold a million copies, the first comedy album that sold that many. I went out on tour with him around 1963. The people that owned the London club owned another club in downtown Chicago, Mr. Kelly's, a supper club. It was Bob's home town, and he signed up with them, as he was breaking through with his album. During that time, I had to fulfill the remaining two years of my contract with them at the London House. Newhart had the same deal at Kelly's, which was ludicrously small for him, and he paid them three times his fee to get out of the contract.
AAJ: Frank Sinatra did the same thing with Tommy Dorsey.
PN: The point is, I started a heavy climb, and the money got betterthere was no doubt. I was building an audience. I did some singles but they didn't get on the charts, so I was classified as an album artist. I didn't have a million-selling album or single until The Summer of '42 (Columbia, 1973), which was in 1972. So it took me 11 years to get there. And in between, I'd already done about 30 albums! I had done 24 with RCA and six with Columbia.
AAJ: Did you use a particular group of musicians for those albums?
PN: Oh, yes. I used the same New York guys. Bobby Rosengarden was the drummer. George Duvivier was the bassist, although Milt Hinton was on my first album. Duvivier had a strong sound, he was a monster. For the recording with the Boston Pops, I used him, with Bobby on drums, because my regular trio at that time couldn't do orchestra work as well. George is a legendary bassist, a big guy, and he could play the fastest tempos anyone ever heard, and all with the wrist, no finger plucking.
On the first rehearsal in Boston with the Pops, which consisted mostly of players in the Boston Symphony, including the principals in each section because on one album I did Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and on the other I did the "Concerto in F." We did two rehearsals, two concerts, and then the next morning we recorded the whole album in three hours straight. We did it right in Symphony Hall, on the floorthey took the tables and chairs out, and let the drapes hang down as sound barriers. It was 1963 and I was 29 years old. The adrenalin was really flowing. In 1965 we did the "Concerto in F" pretty much straight through because it had very few solo passages I could re-record. It was the fastest "Concerto in F" ever recorded. One record reviewer wrote, "This is what the Boston Pops sounds like when they're double parked."
AAJ: Oscar Levant recorded "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F" a few years before that. Did you know him?
PN: No, but I could tell you a funny anecdote about him. Levant was so impressed with Vladimir Horowitz' technique, he was so amazed by it, as was everyone else, that when he met Horowitz, as Horowitz was leaving for Europe, Levant quipped, "When you go to Europe, do you take your octaves with you or do you ship them ahead?" [laughter]. Levant knew that Horowitz could play with blinding speed, color, phrasing, accuracy and dynamics. I thought that remark was so funny, because I thought to myself, "Yeah, Vlodya, ship them ahead, because they'll get there before you anyway!"
AAJ: I recently heard a vintage recording of Horowitz playing the Rachmaninoff "Third Piano Concerto" live with the New York Philharmonic. The speed and artistry that he displayed was truly amazing.
PN: Do you know that Rachmaninoff himself was an excellent pianist but after hearing Horowitz perform it, he never played it again. But it wasn't so much that he couldn't keep pace with him, it was the whole conception of it. It really takes someone from the outside to see what it is, because the composer himself is so involved in writing it. I myself have done some arrangements which I could only really understand two years after I wrote them because when I wrote them they were just coming out of me without knowing exactly why.
AAJ: It's very interesting to see how you have been evolving as a musician ever since you started out. I was talking earlier with your Philly Pops manager Ernest Toplis and he pointed out how you've kept evolving even during the time period that he's been working with you. Getting back to your bio, so your career is developing and then, at this moment of adrenalin rush in Symphony Hall, you have what psychologist Abe Maslow called a "peak experience," an electrifying moment when you make that key change in the "Concerto in F." It must have been a stunning moment in your life.
PN: Yes, but I was prepared for it because everything I've done in my life has led to what I've been able to do later on, as, for example, that story I told you in the previous interview about using ideas I got as a teenager playing Russian dance music for an album I made years later called "Midnight in Moscow," one of my RCA albums (Hail the Conquering Nero, RCA 1963). As a musician, you use everything you've absorbed, whether you realize it or not. The student musicians I meet always want to know what advice I have about being a working musician, and I always say, "Play whatever is thrown at you because whatever you learn and experience, take it in, because you're going to use it later as part of your entire being, and you never know when it will come in handy."
AAJ: So somewhere around the time you recorded the Gershwin compositions, you began to succeed on the world stage.
PN: Well, during that time, RCA put out three of my albums per year. It was by contract, and that's how they built their catalog. Each album kicked up the next one, based on the appeal to the fans. For instance, I did a Burt Bacharach album when his songs were hot. The fans loved his music, and they discovered me through that, and went back and bought my earlier albums. So my records really started to sell.