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Peter Nero: The Laughter and The Challenges

Victor L. Schermer By

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Working with the Philly Pops

AAJ: When I think of Sinatra, I think about his musical resilience, his ability to do so many things well. Apropos of that, I notice that when you conduct, you seem to move so easily between the piano and the conductor's podium. It's almost mind boggling how you'll be conducting one minute, and a split second later, you're doing a very difficult piano part of the same piece, and then back again to the podium.

PN: Really? I don't give it a second thought.

AAJ: It comes across as effortless.

PN: One thing in my favor is that I'm left-handed. [Nero conducts with his left hand, so it's simple for him to turn from his right side, where the piano is located.] I put the podium very close to the piano leg, so I just have to take one step. It's harder for me to get back on the podium. Sometimes I'll give head cues while I'm playing. Also, I write the arrangements in such a way that when I'm playing rubato, I try to allow time to get up and conduct the orchestra. I rely a lot on my concert master, violinist Olga Konepelsky, part of the great pool of free-lance musicians in Philadelphia. But once we rehearse and we get on a roll, all the musicians are with me, and they watch my eye movements.

AAJ: Like Sinatra, the Philly Pops and you are very resilient—you guys can do anything that is called for.

PN: Not only can they play anything but how they can play the kind of schedules they have is beyond me. They have so many gigs, sometimes two or three a day, but they always give me and the music 200 percent.

AAJ: So what are your plans for the orchestra? Tell us more about the WWII music event. Is that a first?

PN: No, we've done it before. I've done a lot of research on those songs. And I was born in 1934, so I was seven when the war started in 1941. We all listened to those songs on the radio. Recently, I started to research them and the memories all came back to me. The lyrics and the titles were a history of what life was like during that time period. And they used metaphors and euphemisms, so "Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me"—you know what that means: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. "I'll Walk Alone" was another tune that captured the loneliness of that period for both the soldiers abroad and their girlfriends and wives at home.

AAJ: Clint Eastwood sang that song in his film, Flags of Our Fathers (2006).

PN: Back in January, we had Eastwood on recording do the narration for one of our Philly Pops pieces. Roger Kellaway was the composer.

AAJ: So this WWII thing has been on your agenda for some time. Some of the standards from then are truly beautiful.

PN: Very few were written for Broadway, and only some for a film. But most of it just consisted of popular songs, and they got air play because they reflected the feelings of the people of the time. They really tell the whole story of WWII. Last time we did this kind of thing, we closed it with "White Cliffs of Dover" which we segued into "When the Lights Go On All Over the World." Sadly, no one's doing those tunes anymore even though they are great songs.

AAJ: And they're such great tunes! The music of that time was fabulous. And all of the great bebop players came out of the swing bands if that era. Like Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and a host of others did time with Billy Eckstine's band.

PN: No kidding! I didn't even know that Eckstine had a band!

AAJ: Eckstine loved jazz, and he had all these great guys in his band. They'd have saxophone duels and so on. Few folks have any idea who and what came out of those swing bands.

PN: See, I woke up to jazz when bebop was in full swing, and all the pianists were trying to play like Horace Silver. He was a great pianist and he had this way of playing open sevenths in the left hand as he comped, so it was different from a cluster or a full chord there. Horace was impacted by Bud Powell in that way, but neither Art Tatum nor Peterson were.

Working the Audience: Humor and Music

AAJ: Now, I've noticed that you're very comfortable with an audience in a way only a few musicians are. Louis Armstrong, of course, was terrific with an audience.

PN: Yes, he had that great smile.

AAJ: And the growly voice. In a different way, you too warm up an audience by the way that you interact with them.

PN: You don't know how long it took me to get there. I used to be petrified. I was trained as a concert pianist—and they don't talk at all!

AAJ: Then you weren't a born entertainer?

PN: No, not at all. But I had a very smart manager. He got me my first recording contract with RCA in three days flat! But when I started in the saloons, I was petrified to speak and when I had to introduce the next act, I found myself just playing some blues while blurting out the words as fast as I could. My manager said, "When you play popular music for an audience, you're going to have to talk to them. I think I'm going to hire a writer for you." So he hired Bill Dana, the writer who created the "Jose Jimenez" role, and his brother was at one time concert master of the Indianapolis Symphony. Their real last name was Zathmary, a Hungarian name, I believe.

I flew out to California to meet with Dana, and it turned out he had listened to all my albums. He recorded our entire conversation on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. And he would improvise ideas by pulling things out of his repertoire. On one of my first albums, I had an arrangement of "Tea for Two" where I crossed it with the Tchaikovsky "Fifth Symphony." The two themes make a near-perfect counterpoint! It was meant as a musical joke. I went into dance time, and then did it as Tatum would do it, with half tones, very difficult, very fast, with a chord change every half-a-second. It became a trademark for me to combine tunes in that way.

I did the same thing with "Over the Rainbow" combined with the "1812 Overture." I did that because I got sick and tired of all the requests for "Over the Rainbow." I did the tune in all different ways, like Tatum, Garner, and then I used the harmony to changes styles from jazz to baroque, and then to Beethoven, then something Chopin-esque, staying in tempo, and then the theme from the "1812 Overture" naturally came in with "Rainbow" on top of it. And there was a slight dissonance there, but just enough to be funny and not ugly.

It was meant to be funny, and it was on one of my first albums. I like to get the audience to see what I'm doing. Sometimes, I'll show the audience how in 1923 Vernon Duke transformed the theme from Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 2, third movement, to compose "I Can't Get Started With You." And then Eric Carmen, in 1976, wrote "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" using the same theme, copping just about every note. Many pop tunes are based on the work of classical composers.

Getting back to "Over the Rainbow," it's interesting what happens when you do musical satire. The reaction to what I did was greeted with everything from absolute indignance to total hysterical laughter. Once, I did it at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. A lady started laughing so hard that she literally fell off her chair!

AAJ: Were you glad or dismayed?

PN: Oh, it felt great! Because she got the joke! Then, in another city, I was afraid of getting dismissed by the classical music purists for messing around with Tchaikovsky. Once, I come out of a TV studio after doing a show, and the secretary said, "Are you Peter Nero? I have a phone call for you." It was a lady who had just watched the show, and she said, "I have one question for you: Why??? Why do you have to do that to 'Over the Rainbow?'" I was worried they'd say I was mutilating Tchaikovsky but she was upset with what I did to "Over the Rainbow!" I never anticipated that. So one lady laughed her brains out, and the other was upset. You never know how someone is going to react to musical humor.

AAJ: When I reviewed one of your concerts a while back, you later told me that you were concerned that I referred to your "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm'" medley of horror movie themes as "kitsch." I thought it was silly and you told me I didn't understand your intent. Now I'm beginning to see that some of what you do is on the cusp between humor and serious.

PN: That's the trick—to keep 'em guessing.

AAJ: Well, you had me guessing on that particular shtick.

PN: Mission accomplished! That's part of it—you never know whether I'm kidding or not.

AAJ: It also makes me aware that as a reviewer, I might misunderstand the composer or performer's intent.

PN: OK, but let me get back to the "Tea for Two" thing, because there I am sticking in Tchaikovsky. So I'm talking with Bill Dana, and he says, "Now, let me tell you how I would announce it. You say, 'I'm now going to play my own arrangement of "Tea for Two." With my left hand, I'll be playing "Tea for Two." With my right hand, I'll be playing the theme from the third movement of Tchaikovsky's "Fifth Symphony." With my left foot, I will be tapping out the traditional rhythms of the Tahitian fertility dance [laughter]. My right foot will not be doing too much, it will just be excited by my left foot.'" By the way, another time, I also crossed "It's All Right with Me" with Beethoven's "Apassionata Sonata."

So at the college concert where I was afraid to say anything, I took a chance, and used that line from Dana, and the whole house came down laughing uproariously. I literally felt home free because I knew I could use the rest of the stuff Dana gave me. So I give the audience the truth, and then I add the humor.

AAJ: Humor is about the truth that's hard to take otherwise.

PN: So I tell them what I'm doing and then I make fun of it. I do the same thing with my "I Got Rhythm" variations that I did with the Boston Pops back in 1963. Gershwin did write "I Got Rhythm Variations" and I did "Variations on I Got Rhythm." I did it in the styles of different composers. I tell the audience, "You'll be hearing excerpts from Beethoven's 'Waldstein Sonata,' the Mozart 'Turkish Rondo,' Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and the very beautiful love theme from 'Poltergeist II.' Everyone laughs, it's a non sequitur. But when I did a Prokofiev thing, I played it with my fist! They think it's Poltergeist II! OK, this is a satire. But the thing about "I Got Rhythm" is that you can do anything with it because of the chord changes.

AAJ: That's what Charlie Parker did—he used the "I Got Rhythm" chord changes for a lot of his own tunes.

PN: "I Got Rhythm" was like blues changes for bebop players.

AAJ: So you bring together jazz, pops and classical. Parker listened to classical music, especially Stravinsky. Nowadays, we've got classical string players doing jazz improvisation.

PN: Are they jazz players?

AAJ: No. They have to learn it from scratch. Uri Caine has been doing that sort of thing with string quartets and so on.

PN: Oscar Peterson did a recording with Itzak Perlman. To me, it was like mixing oil and water.

AAJ: More seriously, jazz is a dialectic between European and African and music, and your crossover between jazz and classical reflects that tradition.

AAJ: I did an arrangement of Bernstein's "West Side Story" where I have about 14 minutes of jazz trio playing using a lot of that jazz rhythmic sense that you're referring to. Every tune in "West Side Story" has a life of its own. My favorite is "Officer Krupke," because it's like an old 1920s ragtime. He did it adiatonically—the first thing he does is get out of the key of C—he's all over the place. Like old time burlesque. Absolutely brilliant. Yet he lends a contemporary feeling to an old time tune.

Selected Discography

Peter Nero, Holiday Pops (DRG, 2001)

Peter Nero, More in Love (Intersound, 1997)

Peter Nero, All The Things You Are (Compendia, 1996)

Peter Nero, My Way (Intersound, 1994>

Peter Nero, Wives and Lovers (Pickwick, 1976)

Photo credits

Bottom Photo, Page 5: Chris Woods

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Peter Nero


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