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Post-Tribune 21 April, 1989


A look at the starring player – in piano bars


By Mark Taylor


Piano bars are places where the man making the music touches private places in your heart from across the room. He recreates tunes he might play 1,000 times a year, having no idea he’s re-ignited a torch. The drinks flow and so do the memories and sometimes the songs are more eloquent and poetic when played without words. Our hearts sing along. This musical conductor of moods makes listeners remember lost loves and misplaced youth, of people you shared these same songs with who are no longer around to hear them. hide full article

If the player is good, he recaptures the lost feeling for someone you knew in another piano bar like this one, many years ago. Like Bogey once said, ’Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to come into mine.’ You feel something moist surfacing in your eye for no particular reason when he plays ’Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It’sembrassing, because you’re not

really not really sure who the tear is for. Maybe it’s a past you thought you’d forgotten, drenched in a hazy, whiskey-soaked memory. Or perhaps it’s that wily ogre known as age calling in some chips. Whatever it is, it’s there and you have to face it, alone, in a smoky room, just you, the waitress and the piano man. Just when it begins to look bleak, he seems to sense your melancholy and tinkles a vibrant ’Hello Dolly.’ Saved by the bell. The grandson of the conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Nat Nichols plays the songs that keep customers at Chesterton’s Spa Restaurant coming back for seconds. He dishes out tunes like ’Crazy’ and ’Stardust’ to the backdrop of clanking glasses and talkative customers. No piano bar worth its ivory would exclude ’Mack The Knife.’ Certainly Nichols didn’t. The 50-year-old Gary resident and Hungarian native is a one-man band. His acoustic piano is attached to a bass and drum machine, so he can accompany himself. Nichols said his late grandfather, conductor Stephan Kovi, was his first musical influence. But the tutelage ended when young Nichols emigrated to America after the Hungarian Revolution in 1957. It was here he discovered Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson and English. ’One year after I learned to speak it, I was performing,’ the father of seven recalled. ’Music has been very very good to me.’ Nichols said he’s never signed a contract with a club owner. ’I shake hands If anyone doesn’t keep his word, I1m gone,’ he said. There are a few other pet peeves. He won’t play a room in which he has to complete with a television set. And he won’t play the song that they must teach in every piano bar school – ’My Way.’ ’I do things the Lord’s way,’ Nichols said. A well-dressed older man whispers something in Nichols’ ear.

Then Nichols passes him the microphone, and magic occurs. That urge to become Frank Sinatra sweeps over normal people who would never dream singing in public anywhere else. It’s one of those rare moments in life that seems to happen in piano bars more often than tax offices or laudromats. Nichols said he never gets tired of practicing his craft. ’If I’m bored, or I sense the audience is restless, then I speed up or slow down a tune until it becomes a new song,’ he said. ’That keeps it fresh for me. Although it’s a business, I do feel my interpretations of songs keep me constantly creating and re-inventing.’ Spa owner Christopher May said the piano bar helps earn customer loyalty. ’Nat’s a real professional. His playing gives customers a better value for their dollar. And we think of the piano entertaintment as an essential aspect of the ambience and atmosphere of the evening, a part of a package,” May said. ’But then I’m an incurable romantic.’


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