Riff Raff

Piano Woman

In 1975, Peter Mintun bought a piano. Seeing as Mintun is a San Francisco piano player, that wasn't a particularly remarkable thing for him to do. But the instrument in question -- a 9-foot Steinway grand piano built in 1915 -- is tangled in history. George Gershwin played it. So did Hoagy Carmichael. It was purchased in 1934 by Dana Suesse, and when she and her husband decided to move to the Virgin Islands, says Mintun, "she offered it to me at a very, very reasonable price."

Dana Suesse is a mere footnote in the history of prewar popular music, though Mintun has spent years trying to change that. He splits his time evenly between his home in San Francisco and New York City, where he performs Suesse's songs at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel. "I'll start playing her famous ballad 'My Silent Love,'" says Mintun, "and all of a sudden hear the audience go, 'Oh, oooooh, oh, that is such a wonderful song -- is that Cole Porter?' Or 'Is that Irving Berlin?' And I'll tell them, 'No, it's not. You've never heard of Dana Suesse.'"

Born in 1909 in Shreveport, La., Suesse grew up as a child prodigy on the piano, and made a name for herself as a talented performer and songwriter in New York City, where she moved in the 1920s. You've heard at least one of her songs: She wrote the music for now-evergreens "Ho-Hum" in 1931, "My Silent Love" in 1932, "The Night Is So Young and You're So Beautiful" in 1936, and, on a dare, "You Oughta Be in Pictures" in 1934. (As Mintun understands the story, Suesse and her lyricist, Edward Heyman -- himself the scribe of lyrics to "Body and Soul" and "I Cover the Waterfront" -- were sitting in the office of a music publisher and feeling a bit cocky; they told him they could write a hit song in 15 minutes, and so "Pictures" was born.)

Dana Suesse.
Courtesy of Dana Suesse Music Co.
Dana Suesse.

Thing is, Suesse wasn't just an author of jaunty pop ditties of the day; she also composed more serious works, like the elegant, panoramic "Serenade to a Skyscraper" and the Harlem meditation "Afternoon of a Black Faun," which Mintun himself has recorded. Suesse enjoyed a measure of celebrity in New York City, being photographed for the society pages and dubbed "The Girl Gershwin" in The New Yorker. "She liked Manhattan," says Mintun. "She stayed there and didn't branch out and go to Hollywood like many others did. I have a feeling if she had gone to Hollywood, she might have written some beautiful film scores."

Mintun describes himself as Suesse's "literary executor"; after she died in 1987, he was left with a wealth of scrapbooks, papers, letters, recordings, and scores related to her life and work. And he was, er, instrumental in the revival of her work in the '70s. When he visited Suesse in her Connecticut home, he encouraged her to stage a concert of her symphonic works, which happened at Carnegie Hall in 1974; Mintun wrote the liner notes to the CD of that performance, released in 1996 as The Night Is Young. He also penned the notes to another CD of her work and performances, 1997's Keyboard Wizards of the Gershwin Era, Vol. 2: Dana Suesse. "It makes me proud," says Mintun, "because in her own lifetime, she could not go to a record store and find a divider bin with her name on it. And now, sure enough, I go into Tower Records or HMV and there is her name, partly because of my promoting of her music." He says that last part of the sentence without any particular arrogance; he knows that piano players get a bad rap these days, and anything that encourages attention to Suesse -- and piano players in general -- is better than nothing.

Mintun was for years a San Francisco staple at L'Etoile in the Huntington Hotel and down the block at Mason's in the Fairmont Hotel ("The Vladimir Horowitz of cocktail pianists," Herb Caen once called him), though his local performances are now usually limited to single-night engagements. Because we tend to look at pianos as furniture, pianists tend to be treated as such as well. "I think audiences' attention spans are getting shorter," Mintun says, "and they're just so used to being bombarded with music, music, music, everywhere they go. You can't walk into an elevator -- or outof an elevator -- without hearing it. [So] many young people don't appreciate that there's somebody working, playing an instrument, using their brain, and it's not automatic." He recalls Moose's pianist Mike Lipskin relating how he was interrupted in the middle of a Fats Waller number by a fellow who wanted to know where he could hear some live music. Lipskin's response: "When I finish typing this letter, I'll talk to you."

Mintun gets that sort of thing himself. "Someone will walk through the bar and say, 'Can you play "All the Things You Are" when my wife and I walk out?' And they meanit," he says incredulously. "People think music is the soundtrack to their life, and if they don't hear it in every possible venue, then [they think] there's something wrong."

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