A tribute to Roy Gerson

Volume 124, No. 3March, 2024

Corrine Gerson Manning

My husband Roy Gerson, died on Dec. 2, 2023 at the age of 64. He had been a member of Local 802 since 1978 and I want to share the following tribute to him.

Roy’s music was the explosion of a thundering swing band at the height of the neon-splashed 1940s. It was the elegant artistry of a sophisticated keyboard artist in the heyday of Swing Street. It was the ebullient good humor of a Dixieland band under the jumping baton of a fun-making master of ceremonies. It was a tinge of the blues that touches the melancholy of the heart. Above all, it was the love for life, the joy for jazz, the sweet sweep of swing that made audiences snap their fingers, stamp their feet, and clap their hands for the pure delight of music.

It was the sound of pianist extraordinaire Roy Gerson.

Roy’s love for music began at a very young age in his home in Malverne, Long Island. Young Roy would soak up all the jazz standards of Miller and Basie, the showtunes of Gershwin and Arlen, the arrangements of Jimmie Lunceford and Louis Jordan. Soon, Roy took piano lessons, mastering the complex harmonies of Chopin and Liszt. By the time he was 11, Roy had formed his own big band; by the time he was in ninth grade and was playing jazz piano professionally in local restaurants.

His talent took him to the Manhattan School of Music, as a classical piano major. But soon he fell under the sway of the sounds of Lester Young, Buddy Rich, the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” recordings and, above all, the pure entertainment potency of “Ambassador Satch” himself — Louis Armstrong. Roy moved quickly and easily into the professional arena, gigging with clarinetist Sol Yaged’s traditional jazz band and becoming the regular pianist with the Widespread Depression Orchestra, playing all over the country in the early 1980s.

But, like the song says, Roy wanted to have Manhattan, so he formed his own band, the Roy Gerson Swingtet and stayed in the city, becoming one of the most in-demand performers of the 1990s. He played the swankiest parties and the most prestigious corporate events, taking his newly made fans with him when he branched out as a club and concert performer. Roy headlined the top jazz clubs in New York, such as the Village Gate, Michael’s Pub, Tavern on the Green, and a two-year stint at the club Zanzibar.

It wasn’t long before Roy branched out and was embraced by other media. He made his film debut, as part of a 1920s jazz orchestra, in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club,” swinging some of the classics of the Harlem Renaissance. Soon after, he was hired by Woody Allen for a cameo in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and his nearly dozen subsequent films included “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (directed by and starring Barbra Streisand) and “The Associate” (with Whoopie Goldberg).

Producers and fans were clamoring for Roy Gerson to commit his unique sound to posterity and his debut album, “That Gerson Person,” was recorded by the Jazz Alliance label under the supervision of the renowned Helen Keane, Tony Bennett and Susan Crow in 1999. The album, with its dozens of classic jazz standards, received rave reviews around the country. For his follow-up album on First Take Records, Roy decided to swing upon a star: “Gerson Swings Disney” captured some of his favorite bouncy tunes and his enthusiasm for the Disney catalogue was shared by Michael Feinstein, Rosemary Clooney and John Pizzarelli, who each contributed performances on the album. Roy’s final album, “Gerson Live at Stoney’s” will be released posthumously this year.

Roy once said, “You gotta swing. If you’re not thinking about swinging — actually, it shouldn’t be on your mind, it should be happening. If it’s not happening and you’re forced to think about it, there’s trouble. Because if it’s not happening, nothing else really matters!”

Let me end on a personal note. My husband Roy played every gig with an intense passion for making beautiful music and an immense joy for entertaining his audience. He was truly one of a kind!

(This obituary was submitted by Corrine Gerson Manning and is based on Roy Gerson’s bio from his website.)