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Nichols travels world tickling the ivories


By Steve Penhollow


The hotel lounges of America are filled with cocktail pianists who do not merit a second glance, let alone full attention. Don’t make that mistake with Nat Nichols. Four nights a week, Nichols, an unassuming white-haired man with a Hungarian accent, plays electric piano in Pip’s Lounge at the downtown Holiday Inn in Fort Wayne. His attempts to put an unobtrusive musical backdrop behind your get-together belie a remarkable career filled with courage and passion. Jazz has never been just a hobby for Nat Nichols. It has driven his entire life. hide full article

”I came to the United States, after the revolution of ’57, ready to tackle the world,” says Nichols, whose birth name is Miklos. ”I was only 17 years old. I came here because I wanted to be free to pursue my art. In Hungary, I was from the wrong family. My name was on a blacklist. Theywouldn’t let me into the conservatory.” How did a Hungarian man who was a toddler during World War II and grew up under communism learn about jazz? He had an extraordinary grandfather. ”My grandfather was a philharmonic conductor and he taught

at conservatory,” he says. ”On the side, he would compose popular music. In 1948, when the communists took power, my grandfather was conducting the Budapest Symphony. He refused to become a member of the party. You were not going to hold on to that kind of position if you weren’t  willing to become a member of the Communist Party. They told him, ”Go home, old man.” So he did. He spent the rest of his life composing and teaching out of a small studio apartment. He never compromised. … ”My grandfather would listen to jazz and American popular music on the short-wave radio and make written transcripts of those broadcasts, often from memory,” Nichols says. ”He didn’t know English, so he didn’t know what the singers were singing or what the song titles were. He would just assign them all numbers. He would then sell thesetranscripts to other Hungarian musicians. I learned jazz from him and from his transcripts.” The infectious enthusiasm Nichols’ grandfather felt for music and his skills as a teacher – he taught Nichols and his mother – may have saved the lives of his family.

”It was 1945, the German fources were pulling out of Hungary,” Nichols says. ”The Russians were after them The German soldiers had already passed through and the Russians were coming into these towns and entering all houses. Most people were hiding in their basements, but not my father. When the soldiers saw our piano, they decided this was a good place to stay. The Russian soldiers pointed at the piano and held a gun to my father’s head.” ”He tried to tell them ’Not me, with hand gestures,” Nichols says. ”He managed to convince them to let him go and find a person who could play. He wnet to the cellar and told my mother to came up. She didn’t want to. She was afraid but eventually she came up. She played for four hours, Hungarian waltzes and fox trots. Music saved our lives that day.” After Nichols immigrated, he found himself in Cleveland in a Hungarian refugee enclave. ”After a year, I turned to my friend Rudy, another jazz pianist, and said ’We aren’t going to learn about this country by staying with Hungarians. Let’s close our eyes, point to a spot on the map and move there.’ ” That is how Nichols began his American jazz career, by making a blind stab at Kansas City, Mo. His friend later moved on to Milwaukee and signed with American Artists Corp., which booked him into places all across the Midwest. Nichols joined up, too. Nichols’ tireless touring brought him an unexpected reward in 1962. ”They booked me into a club in Valparaiso, Indiana,” he says. ”I met my wife there. She was a student at Valparaiso University and she came to see me play. Three weeks later, I proposed and we were married four weeks after that.” ”After we got married,” Nichols continues, ”we went to Hawaii where her family lived. As it turned out, the jazz scene on Oahu was very vibrant. We were only going to stay for a short time, but we ended up staying four years. …” ”Soon, me and two other guys had all the jobs on the island. I played with everyone: Jack Jones, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Jo Strattford.” Nichols’ huge tropical success was not enough, however, to supress the homesickness he and his wife felt for the Midwest. ”Everything fell apart when we came back to the mainland” he says. ”But we missed the change of seasons. We were getting tired of the heat.” After a frustrated attempt to find a steady stream of gigs across the Midwest, Nichols was thrown a lifeline in Fort Wayne. ”I first came here with my family 30 years ago in 1966 and got a regular job in a club called Johny’s Nightcap,” Nichols says. ”I stayed here a few years, recorded a couple of albums with the Nat Nichols Trio. Then I moved to a place outside Chicago. I’ve been working around there almost 30 years, playing gigs mostly in northeast Indiana.” There were times when Nichols made enough money that was able to take his family back to Europe for a couple of months, and there were times when he was barely ekeing out an existence. But Nichols never lost faith in music  or the Lord. ”I always put my trust in God,” Nichols says. ”I stuck with music because I knew that’s what God wanted.”


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