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Changing Keys: Martuni's Piano Bar Thrives in a Karaoke World 

Wednesday, Jul 25 2012
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The piano bars of yesterday kept that "sense of sameness," catering, in the end, to a dwindling older gay clientele. The reason Martuni's still survives — and packs 'em in midweek, even — is that it pulls off the delicate act of appearing to never change while, in fact, constantly changing. It's a wholly different bar on a Monday, when Joe Wicht and a room thick with working performers sing show tunes and standards, than three days later, when Joe Magdalena pulls out a horn and plugs in a disco ball. Martuni's even changes hour to hour. Not long after Allred plays a Saturday afternoon show to the delight of silver-haired homosexual gents who can sing along to "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," Dina Rao, pianist Dee Spencer's weekend sidekick, may tell a largely heterosexual crowd sprinkled with the inevitable tiara-bedecked bachelorette party contingent, "We've got a classic for you now" — "Lights" by Journey.

And the crowd goes wild. But not as wild as when Spencer hits a button and a canned drum track thumps in the background. Contrary to what Billy Joel professed in "Piano Man" — a song that may yet induce the dead to rise from the grave and turn off the radio — at 9 o'clock on a Saturday no one is in the mood for a melody. They want the beats, and popular music has grown progressively more beat-driven through the years.

"You've got to bring piano bars into the 21st century," explains Spencer, a jazz pianist and S.F. State music professor. The heavily bridge-and-tunnel weekend crowd doesn't want to hear show tunes and ballads. They want what's on the charts, and in their Spotify accounts. They want the drum track. If the "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" crowd wasn't already long gone, nothing would drive them from the room faster than Journey, let alone Journey and a drum track. But Spencer's job is to keep the room lively and the drinks flowing. The place is crowded and everyone's looking for a good time. She's giving the people what they want.

There's a term for change in reaction to a dynamic environment with the aim of ensuring survival: evolution. Dark moths' advantages on sooty English walls notwithstanding, it's hard to "see" evolution. But, during a recent Maddaline Edstrom Wednesday night set, Martuni's seems downright Darwinian. As the night begins, a solid quadrant of the room is populated by an older, exclusively male contingent outfitted in coats and ties. They stand in stark contrast to the younger, mixed, and casually dressed crowd occupying the majority of the room; the generations do not mingle.

The piano bar's natives do not have the fortitude of the younger, invasive species. Hour by hour, the older generation cedes more ground. By a little after 11, the last man to have been assigned a draft lottery number has left the room. "Some of my older regulars aren't coming in anymore," notes Edstrom. As the room is gradually overtaken by noisy, texting younger people, there are fewer chances for old people to sing and enjoy the songs old people want to sing and enjoy. It's sad, but it's the way of things. "If you just cater to your regulars, you don't get new blood in. It gets old and stagnant. You've got to keep a piano bar going. You've got to sacrifice for the sake of the whole room."

Not long after the last graybeard has departed, a spat breaks out in the corner while a statuesque drag queen murders Elton John's "Your Song," even while reading the lyrics off her iPhone. A martini glass bursts on impact with the wall, and a young, bearded drunk stumbles out of the room while being berated by the man who was his erstwhile target (in more ways than one). "He threw a fucking drink at me! That is fucking disrespectful! Fuck you!"

Edstrom, a consummate pro — and mother of six who's seen it all — responds perfectly. She doubles the volume of her playing and induces the entire room to drown out the tiff by joining the song's astoundingly apropos chorus: "I hope you don't mind, I hope you don't mind ..."


When Brent Bailey wants to practice a new song, there's only one secluded place he can go — for a drive. Not long ago, his intonations were mistaken for intoxication. He was pulled over by police and run through a battery of sobriety tests: He walked the line, blew into the Breathalyzer, and counted backward from 100 with his head tilted back while standing on one foot. The one thing they didn't ask him to do was sing.

Placing his sheet music in front of Wicht, he gets a much friendlier response. "Yes!" says the pianist. "Yes, you should do this song. Because this is the song that made me gay! Elaine Stritch singing 'You Took Advantage of Me' made me gay." Everyone laughs, and Bailey, a physicist with a soft, charming voice, receives a polite reception from a room laden with professional singers and actors who have encouraged his musical hobby. When a pretty young actress asks Wicht if she can sing "Piano Man," he's less accommodating. "Maybe later. That song requires a lot of drunks."

In an era when society has grown wary of "gatekeepers" — the mainstream media, publishers, certified experts of all sorts — the piano bar is anachronistic in ways that have nothing to do with a roomful of men singing "The Trolley Song." The pianist here is most certainly a gatekeeper, an expert, and a professional — and bar patrons are expected to hand over the keys. Certain rooms need certain songs at certain times, and longtime patrons understand this: "What are we singing tonight?" is a common refrain among regulars approaching the keyboard. The flipside to this pact is that it's the pianist's job to make a singer sound as good as he or she possibly can. Novice singers may not even realize the amount of attention lavished on them by accompanists who switch keys and tempos to match quavering voices, hum the melody, cue lyrics, and turn pages — often simultaneously. Advanced singers form a synergy with the pianist; a gospel number may morph into a rock ballad or a Top-40 tune might turn jazzy. If a singer wants to hold a phrase that much longer or engage the audience, the pianist will follow; a deep breath or hand raised in the air will indicate the coming high note, and the accompanist is watching. At best, mere singing is transcended and the audience is treated to a performance. Subpar or mediocre singing lasts a few minutes. But a performance stays in the memory.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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