Pianist and composer Dick Hyman has played almost everywhere, with almost everyone. But his Venice studio is where his creativity begins. By Kay Kipling
Photos by Armando Solares
At age 87, with a lifetime of musical performances, compositions and recordings to his credit, you might think that Venice resident Dick Hyman would be willing to rest on his laurels.
You’d be wrong. From his Venice home and studio, Hyman maintains a busy schedule of touring, writing, and playing the piano that many younger musicians would find hard to maintain.
Case in point: On Feb. 28 he’s premiering a new concerto for piano and orchestra (his second) he’s written just for the Venice Symphony, at the Venice Performing Arts Center. (He’s still working on the second movement at his piano when we speak, and says the piece has various influences, from jazz to classical to pop.) He’s also performing variations on the Great American Songbook for the Sarasota Concert Association’s 70th anniversary celebration, Feb. 11 at the Historic Asolo Theater. And next month he pops up again at the Sarasota Jazz Festival with his buddy/collaborator, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, and vocalist Kitt Moran, climaxing the 35th annual fest with a March 7 performance.
That’s not to mention the concertizing he does outside of the area, at spots like Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at New York’s Lincoln Center, where he played in December, or the jazz cruise he just returned from on Holland America.
How does he do it? Well, Hyman admits, “I’m not really touring outside of the United States or Canada anymore.” That seems to be about the only concession he’s making.
Hyman, a native New Yorker, and his wife of more than 60 years, Julia (herself a sculptor), first began coming down to the Venice area about 25 years ago. He played frequently even back then with the Sarasota Jazz Festival, sponsored by the Jazz Club of Sarasota, and he and Julia liked not only the weather here but the friendliness of the locals, the excellence of services, and the cultural life nearby. Eventually they bought their home, near Venice’s downtown, and later acquired the house next to it to serve as Dick’s studio.
Fitted out with a grand piano, shelves lined with recordings in every format, a top-of-the-line sound system, books on music and some photos of the top musicians Hyman has performed with over the years, the studio is a daily haunt for him.
“I get up rather late in the morning and head over here,” he says. “I go to the piano and practice and work on whatever piece I’m going to be performing. You have to make sure the technique is still there. I do most of my thinking at the keyboard. When it comes to composition, I do what I’ve learned from the masters, but with reference to my own background. I played as much pop as jazz in the old days in New York City.”
That’s where Hyman began his career after growing up taking classical piano lessons from his uncle, Anton Rovinsky, himself an acclaimed concert pianist, and listening to the wide range of albums his older brother, Arthur, collected. (The Hymans are indeed a musical family; Dick’s third cousin, Bill Charlap, now heads the famed Jazz in July series at New York’s 92nd Street Y that Dick himself ran as artistic director for years, and Dick and Julia’s daughter, Judy, is a fiddler who plays solo and with the alt-rock group The Horseflies.)
“I really started playing regularly for high school dances in various bands,” Hyman recalls, “and then in bars around Mount Vernon, N.Y., where I grew up. Then I gradually did more and more freelance work for television, which was just becoming a booming industry [in the late 1940s and early 1950s]. I can remember playing piano for one live radio show early in the morning, then some of us would jump into a taxi and head over to work [comedian] Morey Amsterdam’s television show, Breakfast with Music. Later in the day, after rehearsing for the next day, I’d do a third show—playing the Hammond organ for a soap opera.”
It was an intense learning-on-the-job situation, one that also led him to such gigs as playing with the NBC orchestra the last year of the Sid Caesar show, and also on Your Hit Parade; touring Europe with Benny Goodman, serving as musical director for Arthur Godfrey for three years, and working with such prolific recording artists as Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith, as well as playing some rock ‘n’ roll for Atlantic Records (becoming good friends with that company’s co-founder, the late Jerry Wexler, who also lived in Sarasota County for a time).
But Hyman’s gifts extended beyond performing. Utilizing the training he received at Columbia University and Juilliard, he turned his hand to orchestrating and arranging, and in 1979 scored with what became a hit Broadway show, the vaudeville/burlesque musical revue Sugar Babies. Eventually his talents for composing, arranging and orchestrating, along with his encyclopedic knowledge of music, led him to scoring a number of Hollywood movies, including the 1987 hit Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, and a host of Woody Allen films in the 1980s and ’90s, from Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo to Bullets Over Broadway, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters and Sweet and Lowdown. Anyone who’s seen those films knows what an integral part of the overall mood and situations Hyman’s scores and arrangements were.
“That was all a wonderful experience,” he says now. “I had to call on just about everything I knew, and then some.”
In his studio today, Hyman has a treasure trove of his handwritten scores, carefully labeled and filed and currently in the process of being digitized. It’s a most impressive collection. (If you can get your hands on a copy of the book Dick Hyman: Piano Pro, you can play some of his piano music for yourself, as well as revel in anecdotes about some of his fellow musicians
It was only after he and Julia moved to Florida, he says, that “I began to play more concerts around the country. Last year I played a Hoagy Carmichael show in Wabash, Ind., worked with an all-star group in Santa Fe and played stride piano with some other pianists in San Francisco. Summer particularly is busy these days; I tend to have limited days off.”
When he does have time off, he and Julia socialize, dine out, and spend time with their three children and three grandchildren, all of whom love to visit them in Venice.
But he obviously continues to enjoy what he has been doing professionally for about 70 years now. Or, as he puts it with a smile, “The other side of enjoyment is obsession. I’m totally involved with music, all the time.” |||