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NYC piano bars and their pianists offer important 'release' for patrons

Pianist Billy Stritch performs at Birdland for Monday

Pianist Billy Stritch performs at Birdland for Monday night's weekly "Cast Party."  Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Some enchanted evening, across a crowded street, you may hear spirited singing seeping from a place you’ve never been. And you might enter that space, find something you love and never let it go.

It happened to Kenney M. Green. In 2008, having lost his job waiting tables, he walked into Marie’s Crisis Cafe (59 Grove St.), crooned a tune for management, confirmed he could tickle the ivories and has been employed at the piano bar ever since. Nearby, at The Duplex (61 Christopher St.), pianist William TN Hall, the waitstaff, and so-inclined audience members sing. While at “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” open mic, Billy Stritch is the man at the Yamaha grand piano, ready to deliver on your dream of stage time at Birdland Jazz Club (315 W. 44th St.).

All three vocalists/pianists have one thing in common: a vast mental reservoir of classic and contemporary songs, easily accessed in the service of giving guests a performance no mere karaoke machine can match. Arriving with sheet music in your key is appreciated, though, and knowing all the lyrics is in everyone’s best interest — especially yours.

“The audience can suggest material, but it’s strictly Broadway-only,” says Green, of Marie's Crisis Cafe. On any given night, selections from “Les Misérables,” “Chicago” and “Little Shop of Horrors” are likely. During amNewYork’s visit, singing waitress Yvette Clark rocked (if one can say that about a show tune) “Forget About the Boy,” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Green says regulars “email each other, to choose what they want to sing. It becomes a release for them. They’re living their best life.”

The Duplex, Hall notes, has its share of loyal amateurs, but also caters to “actors working through their books, or trying out new material. That’s the great thing about piano bars. You can do it for no cover, and a couple of drinks.” (And that tip jar banks away some good karma, for those who plan a return visit.)

Walk-ins from tourists add variety to the crowd, compelling Hall to dip into the country music catalog (“Friends in Low Places” is popular). Disney, Elton John and Billy Joel songs are among the usual suspects — but there’s one request that confounds him.

“She Used to Be Mine,” from the current Broadway musical “Waitress,” is “incredibly popular,” Hall says, “which is baffling to me, because it’s such a sad, emotional song. But people really like to feel themselves.”

At Birdland, Stritch says doing justice to any song that comes his way is “like being on a trapeze without a net.” Although, he adds, “I’ve been doing it for so many years, nothing is particularly jarring anymore … My sight-reading skills are pretty honed. And while I always hope people do bring music in their key, quite often, they don’t.” Sometimes they don’t even know their key. That’s when, Stritch says, “I’ll say, ‘Sing a little bit of it quietly,’ and I’ll go, ‘That’s a B-flat,’ and we [bassist Steve Doyle and drummer Daniel Glass] make it happen.”

Stritch says he feels “like it’s my job to give them the best experience they’re able to get at an open mic night. They don’t have to be the best singers in the world, as long as they’re able to pick a good song, and tell a story … We’re facilitating something that’s important to them, and that makes me feel good.”

As for what request makes a seasoned pro wince, Hall says, “I don’t really hate anything. But it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I didn’t have to play ‘Piano Man’ ever again. But I work in a piano bar, so I get it.”

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