If at the Bar, Put a Tip in My Jar

In a past column (TST, September 2022) I mentioned a pub I played in with the Hot Cat Jazz Band called the Griswold Inn. It opened on July 4, 1776 in Essex, CT and has been open ever since—with only nine owners to date! I’ll keep coming back to this storied locale from time to time; if I focused solely on “The Gris,” I’d be able to write this column for the next ten years. From 1992-1998, I worked in the Tap Room of the Inn on Wednesday nights with the band, on Thursday nights as a solo pianist/entertainer, and Friday through Sunday nights as leader of the Griswold Inn Banjo Band (two banjos, a tuba and me).

As I played 19 hours over five nights a week, I got to know the staff very well from management to waitstaff to bartenders (these latter with whom I made EXTRA close alliances). While some connections were friendly, others were antagonistic. My relationship with the waiter Izzy fell somewhere in-between. Sometimes we’d liaise, especially when newbies got confused over receiving their change in two-dollar bills and Susan B. Anthony dollars—a long-standing tradition in the Tap Room that continues today: “Waiter, why did you give me 5 quarters and this play money with Jefferson on it as change for my twenty?” Inevitably, the band tip jar would be crammed with these “oddball” castaways: “Here, you guys. YOU think it’s so funny, YOU take them!” We’d always give a bit of payola back to Izzy and the other booze clerks working the bar.

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Izzy was a loud-mouthed show off (and this coming from me!!) who was always horning into the act, either making snide comments to try and embarrass me or interrupting the flow, much to my combined amusement and annoyance but most importantly to the delight of the SRO crowd. One particular trick he’d love to pull: if we were doing a more contemporary song he’d make a big deal of sending up a note to the stand or coming to the piano and saying “You better be careful; _______(composer/performer of the tune) is here having dinner in the back room tonight.” (N.B. On weekends we nightly played everything from marches and cakewalks a la 1885-1899 up through good 1960-70’s pop tunes—read: The Beatles, Elton John, James Taylor, Don McLean and Billy Joel to name a few.) He kept this up week in and week out, and got really out one time when, after we’d (gleefully) butchered a medley of music from Star Wars, he came up to inform us composer John Williams was staying at the Inn that weekend and was very upset with us! (N.B.II: he was off by a week—Williams did stay there the following weekend, accompanying director Steven Spielberg on an exploratory survey of the area for future films; smartly we eschewed including our Star Wars parody).

One Fateful Night

On the particular night I’m remembering, we had launched into our special version of “Piano Man.” Our rendition had evolved over several years into a production that would rival the Ziegfeld Follies. It developed from being asked to do it SO many times a night. Other tunes on the “Oh, hell, NOT again!” list included “New York, New York,” “The Saints,” and “The Entertainer:” this last selection was so ubiquitous that 3,000 miles away in the UK at a pub that he owned and in which he nightly played, stride monster Neville Dickie would shout out “Sting, where is thy death?” before reluctantly honoring the patron’s request. However, none of these received the deluxe treatment we reserved for “Piano Man.”

Our flippant homage was due to several factors. First, it’s a damn fine tune with a great story: the ultimate piano bar descriptor. Moreover, we created a version that could last up to 45 minutes, meaning that as energies waned and beer mugs drained we could kick into auto-pilot. Finally, it was a guaranteed tip-maker (see Susan B. A. and Thomas J. above)!! I’ll take you through it, though I’ll have to be coy since I’m pretty sure TST can’t reprint the lyrics without suffering severe shekel suckage. Feel free to obtain the lyrics from Google before continuing.

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Rather than state the time and night of the week Joel mentions in his first stanza, we’d sing whatever time and night it actually was (“It’s 10:46 on a Friday!”) and then, after singing the ensuing line, stop and ask for a show of hands who had been in the place more than ten times in the past month. We’d pick a half-dozen or so to leave the room and shuffle back in when we sang the line about them doing so (but only after revising our timing—“It’s 10:48 on a Friday:” one must be accurate). The oldest musician in that night’s band would be the old man sitting next to the piano player, and so on. In short, we’d act the entire tune out. A highlight included “Now__________at the bar is a friend of mine” because as the lyrics aver, the character is “quick with a joke.” We’d stop and either Izzy on the floor or Bill or Tanya behind the bar would tell a joke, and it had to be a new one every night or we’d call them out.

We were constantly tweaking and adding to the routine, while adapting to the make-up and energy of a particular night, but some things remained the same. I’d always paraphrase Joel’s first line of the final verse, singing “It’s a helluva good crowd for a (day of the week)” and everyone would stamp and cheer. By now, we had people standing on the center table in front of the piano and often on the bar as well. This song seemed to make everyone pretty rowdy. It helped that, as with all immortal tunes, the chorus was an ear-worm with easy lyrics that appeared again and again (x3) so everyone sang at the top of their lungs, quenching their insatiable thirst by quaffing bountiful amounts of their chosen refreshing adult beverages.

The whole travesty climaxed with the immortal line about sitting at the bar and putting tips in the band’s jar. Once we’d bellowed that, we’d stop and announce “Billy Joel is an incredible musician and lyricist and THIS one line we just sang is perhaps his best lyric ever…so we’ll sing it again.” We would, and stop once again to say “Really, this is as good as anything by Shakespeare…if Billy Joel had only written this one lyric, he’d be forever remembered!” We sang it over and over (x3) until someone—often one of those “shuffling regulars,” got the hint. Into the jar would go a tip. We’d then continue the tune. Over time we realized that if more tips came in before we’d completed the song, we had a hit by returning, no matter what part of the tune we’d reached, to the line about sitting at the bar and putting tips in the jar and continuing on from there as if the record had skipped (any under-forties reading this, please consult an elder). On one memorable occasion, we ended up stuck in that section of the tune for over twenty minutes. Hoarse, exhausted and much wealthier then we’d been at the beginning of the night, we took a break.

We continued to fine-tune this routine to the point where if the crowd for the ensuing set remained the same as the previous one, we’d jump back to that line whenever a patron placed a tip in the jar and then immediately return back to the song we’d been doing. Regulars began to try and find the least appropriate time to tip us (“Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are…AND THEY’D SIT AT THE BAR etc…calling, from glen to glen…).

On the rare singalong gigs I still do, this routine always works. I freely offer it to any bar performers out there; everyone wins.

Nauck

The Waiter who DIDN’T cry “WOLF”

On one fateful night, Izzy was up to his old tricks. He placed a note on the piano that read: “Not tonight. Just do it straight…BJ really is having dinner in the back room.”

“Stinking liar!” thought I. “We’ll see about that!”

And we poured it on. We added bits to the already insane version we’d fashioned, going farther than we ever had in the past: wilder, louder, more obnoxious then ever before. We finished, breathless, to thunderous applause (the manager had to come in three times to ask the bar to tone it down) and, while we were swigging our well-deserved grog, Maestro Joel emerged from the back dining room with his entourage, threw everyone a kiss, and left the bar into the lobby of the hotel!! I took an extra-long break and hid behind some beer kegs (with a refillable mug for fortification) until I surmised he’d left. I needn’t have worried. The manager actually did give me a smile and said, “Mr. Joel told me he was very amused and that it must be you they’ve been coming to see.” Whew! Mr. Joel is not only a genius musician, he’s a mensch, and I am sincerely grateful (as well as lucky) and send him my thanks!

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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