Chicago Jazz Magazine Interview with Troy Neihardt

A lot of musicians never stop giving you their resume. They go on and on about all of the places they’ve been, people they’ve played with, all of the recording sessions they’ve been on, blah, blah. Piano virtuoso Troy Neihardt, on the other hand, was reticent about talking about himself for this article. For the record, Neihardt is a tremendous, classically trained piano master, an excellent blues and roots harmonica player, a good blues/rock singer and a consummate entertainer.

“You know me pretty well,” said Neihardt.

“A gross understatement—we’ve clocked thousands of hours onstage together,” I replied.

“Why don’t you just write the article by yourself?”Neihardt responded.

“No way!”

So I twisted this gem from him.

“A favorite night of mine includes Harry Belafonte and his band in Oslo, Norway,” said Neihardt. “A bunch of them wandered into my hotel bar after their concert. Once they recognized that I was an American musician, they immediately came up and politely introduced themselves. They wanted to know if there was a place that was having a jam session. I had been in the town for about five weeks and had tracked down every music spot I could find by then, of course. I asked if their keyboard player could cover and play a few songs for me and I would check on it for them. I ran across the street to the Filmcaffeen because there was a Swedish jazz combo playing that night. I went in and told the manager that Harry’s band was across the street and wanted to jam. He said, ‘Bring them over!’ So, I finished my set and arrived with the whole ‘posse.’

‘The place was full, so the manager locked the doors to the outside and brought up bottles of wine for the band. The music director called Harry at the hotel to let him know what was going on and to invite him. He had already gone to bed, but insisted they bring me to breakfast the next morning. I showed up at the Grand Hotel the next morning and Harry acted like I was an old acquaintance and thanked me for showing his band a great time the night before. I got to see a bit of their show later that night before I had to go play my shift, and the band showed up again. This time the sax player did some songs with me and it turned into a party really quick. After my show, I took them to another place, this one a bit swankier. This time the lock-down jam session lasted until five in the morning.”

Neihardt has hundreds of these stories, yet he remains largely unknown in Chicago, where his style is too hard to pigeon hole into anything that would make him known as a blues guy, jazz player or straight-up rocker. He is all of those things, plus an excellent player of Irish-style accordion (I know, because every March I bribe him to stay in town to play with my band, the Chicago Rovers). It’s oompah-style German polka accordion (something I’ve yet to acquire a taste for), and he has at least two hours of classical concert music memorized.

What he is known for—at least in the piano bar fraternity/sorority—is as one of the greatest, currently touring practitioners of dueling pianos, one of the only gigs that consistently pays well enough to make a steady living as a full-time musician. Recent Neihardt gigs include: Tobacco Road, in Times Square, N.Y.; Dueling Pianos at Foley’s Irish House in San Francisco; Howl at the Moon, New Orleans; and Molly Darcy’s in Charleston, S.C.

“Most of the music students I knew in school make their living outside of music. Many don’t really even play anymore. So, if Dueling Pianos is the difference of me playing music for a living or not, I’m happy that I make money in Dueling Pianos,” adds Neihardt. This wasn’t the plan, of course. Like everybody else, he had dreams big enough to match his talent, but reality has a funny way of making you need to eat three times a day.

When he was a 13-year-old local whiz kid piano prodigy in his working class hometown of Portage, Ind., a friend of Troy’s parents was the concierge at the Holiday Star Theatre in Merrillville, and arranged for him to play piano for Roy Clark and his entourage/touring band at a special pre-concert dinner. “At the concert later that evening,”Neihardt continues, “I saw Roy Clark perform an amazing virtuoso rendition of ‘Malagueña’ on solo acoustic guitar. I had never experienced that kind of live display of mesmerizing technique before, and I decided to start working on that piece right away. It was way ahead of my level of playing at that time, but Roy’s performance inspired me to work on skills that led me to more proficiency all around.”

Years later, his mother reminded him of this when he was lamenting the kind of music and venues he’s had to play in order to get a check. “Roy invited me backstage. He was very gracious, and told me that when he was growing up, he wanted to be a concert violinist, but he couldn’t get a job playing that kind of music where he lived; so he started playing guitar and singing so he could make enough money to move to a city where they had an orchestra. As life would have it, the moneymaking skills he acquired took him down a completely different path. Instead of being a concert violinist, he became a staple on the lowbrow country TV show, ‘Hee-Haw.’ That sure wasn’t what he set out to do!”

In 1989,Troy was a part of the same process that auditioned well over a hundred pianists to staff the very first dueling piano bar north of the Mason Dixon Line––the Baja Beach Club at North Pier. He was in the final eight competing for the four full-time spots. I was picked and was asked whom I’d like to partner with, and I asked for him, thinking that with my guitar and his harmonica we could turn the piano duet into a blues/rock band. But management wanted more of a comedy-style, combining good players with good cabaret-style performers. So they passed on Troy and teamed me with Randy Herman (now a successful cantor and singer/songwriter of religious music in New York City), a terrific comic improv actor, as well as a great musician. The show turned into a bizarre rock ’n’ roll cabaret act that emphasized lunacy over music, and continues as such throughout the world today.

Though we did eventually get to do our bluesy version of dueling pianos several years later, when I became music director, Troy was disappointed that he didn’t get hired for the opening of the Baja Beach Club. Instead, he headed off to Europe, where in that Mecca of piano bars, Scandinavia, he “… was asked to play for the graduation ceremony for the Royal Color Guard and got to go horseback riding with the Royal Princess of Norway.” From there, he trekked literally all over the world.

“One night, a show got canceled in Barbados,” said Neihardt, “and a local chauffeured me around to the local hot spots, where he was known by the owners. It is amazing the things you can pull out of your bag of tricks when you have a harmonica and chutzpah! The same kind of thing happened in Hong Kong, a ski-town in Austria in a basement bar and some crazy nights in Singapore.”

Being a musical emissary from America, “Sweet Home Chicago” is a song that Troy has a love/hate relationship with. “To serious blues players, it’s the equivalent ‘Piano Man,’” says Troy. “I don’t like playing it in Chicago, but I have had an enormous amount of joy from that song all around the world. One night in Singapore, some English lads came in where I was playing in a band with guys from Toronto, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia and another cat from New York City. When I played Chicago-style blues harp the crowd went wild. Another favorite time with that song was in Ireland in a tiny pub on St. Patrick’s Day.”

There is no Troy show without some Gershwin. “The ‘Concerto In F,’ which I performed as a senior recital piece with an orchestra at the American Conservatory, introduced me to the world of Gershwin, my favorite composer,” said Neihardt. No matter what bar he’s playing in, he quotes liberally from “Rhapsody In Blue,” and swings the hell out of many Gershwin standards. These performances may have served as a point of entry to the “Great American Songbook” for countless bar patrons with no prior interest or even awareness of this great music.

Currently, Troy and some other blues/jazz oriented performers (pianists John Talmadge, Paul Cocsino, Alan Gresick; blues harpist extraordinaire, Jeff “Hyper Harp”Grossberg; and big band singer Amanda Wolfe), work with me in a project called the Blues 88s, a no-nonsense blues piano duet that also features guest vocalists and players, forming a versatile trio. I recruited Troy and John to try something different with the same kind of music: a blues/jazz based dueling piano show that was not driven by the tip jar.

Among Troy’s events, he comments, “I’m involved with Tunes For Tots. As the Chicago area director of events, I produced a show at the Underground Wonder Bar in June and have another one at the Uptown Center for Performing Arts in Michigan City, Ind., later this year.”

As for touring, that is still happening, but not just to do piano bar shows. “This winter, I am traveling to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the Patagonia Wilderness of Chile, in South America, to continue shooting for my travelogue photo book and travel video series with an original soundtrack,” said Neihardt.