As Time Goes By…

Thoughts on Ray Cohen and the business of live music

Volume CX, No. 7/8July, 2010

Dutch Wolff

Earlier this year, I went to the Palace Hotel to hear friend and pianist Ray Cohen.

Ray had played in the lobby for 14 years, a lifetime. It was his last night. He had been terminated at the hotel’s convenience.

When the Palace Hotel opened in 1981, the Villard Houses on Madison Avenue were deemed worth saving as a landmark building. Why not Ray Cohen in 2010?

The evening was a heart-warming yet saddening experience. It was more than a pianist losing his job. It was watching another shred of a lovely culture disappear.

There was a time when almost every hotel, restaurant, and club in the city had music – pianists, violins, harpists, even light jazz.

Hotel lobbies literally bubbled with music. George Feyer at Delmonico. Bobby Short at the Carlyle. Darryl Sherman, Steve Ross, Ray Hartley and others at the Waldorf, the Commodore, the Astor, the old Ambassador, the Algonquin. They all had lobby music. Some like the Plaza even had tea time music.

Just off the lobby, in the Monkey Bar of the Hotel Elysee, Johnny Andrews played piano for 40-some years.

And there was always that delightful sound at the Biltmore while you waited for your date “under the clock.”

There were other venues too, cabarets like the Byline where Mabel Mercer appeared with her pianist Sam Hamilton.

Blossom Dearie at Danny’s Skylight Room, Jane Jarvis who played them all, Bradleys in the Village where sooner or later every New York pianist could be heard, strolling entertainers at Mama Leone’s in the theatre district, the glorious Tavern on the Green going from the Eddie Duchin glamour days to last December when it went bankrupt.

Even I played seven years in the Pierre Hotel Cafe.

There was a whole world we could visit. These hotel and club musicians built clientele and friendships for their employers all over the city. They cultivated and knew everyone, beginning with the bus boys, on up to international celebrities. With their music they reached out, creating a softness and warmth where none existed.

The accountants and managers who devastated this beautiful culture were themselves probably gone in months, leaving an irreplaceable void that new managers didn’t even know was there.

Most of the musicians had vast repertoires in their heads. They played for international guests and travelers, so they had to know a few Greek tunes, Middle European songs, German beer hall tunes, the latest Broadway show tunes, a few college songs – whatever.

Over the years there even developed a New York style of playing that was instantly recognizable. Even now you can hear just a few bars of music and know instantly the pianist is a New York player. It just has a distinctive sound.

You rarely hear it now. Gradually, like pieces of Central Park, it all just disappeared, one at a time.

Lobbies of the hotels now are modernistic chilling places where you buy a $20 soda. The lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel could be Grand Central, without trains. Rare is the restaurant with a guitarist or pianist.

Ray Cohen showed us what it was all about. He is the epitome of the New York player – unflappable, totally knowledgeable, charming and gracious.

He enjoyed an evening with friends and contemporaries in the business. Workers in the hotel gave him hugs. There were musicians I hadn’t seen in years.

All came to be a part of this kind man’s last evening, immersed in what has been his life’s pride. And here he was, presiding over its demise.

We’ve all watched shards of our lifetimes break off and disappear. It’s how things are.

Sometimes it’s understandable, as with the typewriter, black- and-white films and stick shifts. Something came along that was better. That we can understand.

But this fragile, lovely, harmless, delightful culture had done nothing to deserve dying. Unlike the typewriter, nothing better has come along to replace it.

Ray, we thank you and all the other musical creatures of that time.

You added glory to what would surely have been dismal without you.


While the loss of hotel music is real and tragic, we’d like to point out that live music still exists under a union contract at the Waldorf Astoria (piano at the Peacock Alley), Pierre (piano), St. Regis (piano and harp), Ritz Carlton Central Park (piano), Plaza (piano in the Palm Court; quartet in the Rose Club), Carlyle (trio and solo piano in Bemelmans Bar; various name acts at the Café Carlyle) and the Regency (various name acts at Feinstein’s).
– Jim Hannen, supervisor of the union’s club date field