"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."
— Maya Angelou
Q: What’s gentler than a jazz venue, more informal and fun than a supper club, and is also where Jimmy Durante and Billy Joel got their starts?
A: The piano bar.
Piano bars first caught on at speakeasies in Greenwich Village in the 1920s as havens to have a drink and sing along in. I recall nights spent around the ivories at Bob Burn’s steak joint in Santa Monica. The Dresden on Vermont was credited with a revival of campy, raucous sing-alongs after it appeared in the movie “Swingers” in 1996. The last great gay piano bar, The Other Side, closed after 40 years of operation in Silver Lake in 2012.
“People love to sing,” says pianist Ann Louise Christensen, “but there aren’t a lot of places that have piano bars anymore.”
So she created Piano Bar 101, and holds classes at her recording studio in Glendale.
Students told me they were attracted by Ann Louise's encyclopedic knowledge of popular tunes, gained from years playing 5-star hotel piano bars from Scandinavia to Japan. (Locally, you can find her at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena and Larsen’s in Encino and Valencia.)
At Piano Bar 101, Christensen covers vocal technique, ear training, performance tips and repertoire, with group-singing giving way to passing the microphone around for spots of solo belting.
“I’ve gotten a lot more confident with microphones,” says Marsha Shumer from her stool around the Steinway. “I’m willing to try something new and not feel afraid.”
“I learned that I can make mistakes, and that those mistakes can make my singing better,” adds a colleague from College of the Canyons, Debbie Zednik. And Sally Snow, a designer from Sherman Oaks who sang in a band back in Canada, finds the Christensen class, “more organic” than singing in a bar.
“This is more fun,” she says.
The piano was the center of home entertainment and nightlife in America at the turn of the 20th century. Those days have given way to karaoke bars in Koreatown. But in an entertaining town like L.A., folks still sing the impromptu solo at house parties, perhaps with a cocktail or two in hand or down the hatch. Now there’s a class for piano bar fans — except there's no cover, no drinking, and no snifter-glass-for-tips.
So no need to moan how there aren’t many piano bars left. Crooning with friends is good fun and good for you, too. Researchers found that elders with dementia increased their memory capacity by singing show tunes three times a week, compared to those who just listened. So sing us a song, we’re all gonna be the piano men and women someday!