Travel: 88 keys to happiness — have piano, will travel
I’ve been working as a pianist in a vibrant yet mostly unheralded music scene that flows throughout the world connecting musicians, venues, and agents since 1990. This is a scene apart from show clubs and concert halls, it’s an undercurrent without a splash, yet it’s absence would be as noticeable as a forest suddenly going silent.
Traveling to Asia and playing music never entered my mind during college. I wanted to be a business major. Or, a computer scientist. Then a geologist. Only when I began spending all my time taking music classes did I decide to go into music.
My jazz piano mentor told me that being a professional musician meant I had to immerse myself in the music scene in every way possible. Everything I did should be related to music, and the most important part of this equation was playing music as much as possible, even if it meant driving to another city to rehearse with a band every Thursday night.
Actually, that’s exactly what I did.
A big band run by the venerable Fred Radke at North Seattle Community College needed a pianist for their rehearsals and I jumped at the chance. Fred Radke is one of those guys from the old school of music, Frank Sinatra style. When he walks into a room you know it. This is a man that people come to when they need a band for things like dinner with the President.
One evening after rehearsal Fred asked me if I wanted to try something new. He said there was an opportunity to play music overseas and convinced me it would be great for my chops, then he gave me a phone number to call. Four days later I was playing in a rhythm and blues band in Seoul, South Korea in one of the most exciting live music rooms in existence at the time: J.J. Mahoney’s.
Before I was hired, the talent agency asked me if I could play rhythm and blues. I had no idea if I could do the job, I was after all extremely inexperienced, very young and had never played rhythm and blues before. Naturally, I kept those kinds of facts to myself and followed my own advice about being asked if I can do something: say “yes” and see what happens.
This tendency to say “yes” is part of who I am and has gotten me into some interesting situations at times. Once I landed a job in college as a behavioral research assistant in a monkey lab, even though I had never seen a monkey up close before. The interview went something like this:
“Have you ever worked with monkeys?”
“Of course. Who hasn’t?”
That gig in South Korea is what started my music career, and it’s been an adventure ever since. Not only because of the experiences and cultures music has given me the opportunity to be a part of, but what I’ve learned about the music business, life, love, and everything in between.
I’ve learned that the hotel music scene is an amazing world, full of drama and intrigue, plots and subterfuge. There is an agency booking battlefield behind every band you see at a hotel, and every band and musician has a story worth telling.
Hotel music contracts range from a couple weeks to several years. Sometimes an entire band will be replaced on a regular basis, while other times it’s the individual artists that transit from one venue to another.
Right now I’m in Hong Kong and have the privilege of playing jazz in a trio six nights a week at the Captain’s Bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, one of the most prestigious bars in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong hotel music scene is the same as it is anywhere – a competitive and rewarding experience, for both artists and listeners.
For musicians, the hotel scene is not only a necessary source of income, it’s a chance to meet people from all around the world. We often make lasting friendships that span the globe as well as years. For example, I have friends in Vienna I can visit at any time, friends I would never have met without music putting me in the right places.
For the listeners, the hotel music scene is a place they can go to consistently hear the kind of music they enjoy, confident that a particular band or artist will be there for an extended period of time.
I’m often asked by local music aficionados why more local musicians aren’t hired for these gigs. At first I wondered about that too because in Hong Kong and many other cities there are more than enough local musicians with enough talent to do the job.
As it happens, local musicians are often part of other projects that take them away from the job, and the one thing all hotel music venues have in common is that they demand consistency and quantity. We show up and play every night no matter what outside opportunities are available.
This still causes some friction at times between the local musicians and the hotel musicians, but even so, there is a fraternity amongst us and you can always find places where musicians meet after hours to relax and share stories. In Hong Kong one of those places is Peel Fresco, a jazz club in the Central area. Another place was called Gecko, an all night locals hang that unfortunately closed down sometime in the last year.
I’m also asked about getting burnt out. How can we play at the same place six nights a week for months or even years without going stir crazy? It all depends on how you look at it. In work and life in general, we all find a balance between what we want to do and what we have to do, and being a musician is no different.
Some musicians view the hotel scene as a death knell, a sign that they’ve accepted their fate and there’s no going forward. For others, it’s a chance to grow, to work out new chops, to compose and perform at a higher level every night and find that magical balance of playing the music they love in a way that engages their listeners.
For me this is natural and I love the challenge. The piano is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle, a mistress, it’s the blood in my veins. If I wasn’t at the Captain’s Bar, I’d be playing piano in my living room with the same passion, and the people I enjoy making music with share that philosophy. My evenings of music are more than a job, they are what I look forward to.
Music takes two kinds of people. Those who make it and those who listen to it. There are all sorts of people in those two groups, but we all share one thing. We want to be happy with what we’re doing, which means we have to follow our hearts and passions.
The musicians in your local hotel scene all follow their passions without fear and without reservation. They pass up other musical opportunities for the chance to embrace new cultures and make friendships that turn the world into a neighborhood pub.
When you meet people who live their passions, it’s easy to be inspired to live more of your own passions, and that is the first key to happiness in pretty much any culture.
Check out your local hotel musicians as soon as possible because it’s a unique scene where you meet artists from all around the world and their stories will amaze you. If you’re lucky enough to befriend a band or a musician, all the better because then you will become a part of those stories.
It’s up to you if you want to be in the good stories or bad, or one of those stories in between.
Just last night a fan of our music stood in front of the bass player trying to shake his hand in the middle of a song. As a pianist, I can shake someone’s hand without any musical repercussions, however if the bass player does this the music basically stops. Eventually the bass player poked out his little finger and the gentleman shook that instead and gave us a story we’ll never forget.
If you have never hung out with musicians after a gig, there’s an entire part of life you’re missing out on. Introduce yourself to the musicians you see, invite them over to your table and get to know them. Most of the time they will be friendly and receptive, and often a bit quirky.
Here in Hong Kong there is a wide variety of hotel venues that bring in talent from overseas. The Mandarin Oriental where I work, the Shangri-La, Ritz, Hyatt, Intercontinental, and others. Going out to see the music these in these venues is a must for any music lover because you never quite know who you’ll meet and what kind of musical magic you’ll be a part of.
Jazz pianist Scot Ranney has been performing internationally and delighting global audiences with his music since 1990. The words fun, exciting, and creative are often used to describe Scot’s music. Scot lives for the adventure and travel opportunities playing piano has given him, and writing and sharing stories about these experiences is one of his more serious passions.
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