4 Valencia St(between Mccoppin St & Market St) San Francisco, CA 94103
By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Seals Stadium is a memory, as are 50-cent kids' football tickets. The piano bars of yesterday are gone, too; The Mint is even a karaoke joint. When San Francisco real estate began commanding ludicrous prices, a number of establishments disappeared, along with the middle-class folks who patronized them. Live entertainment has always been the first item tossed overboard in sinking bars. Americans, through the years, have placed less and less of a premium on live music. A sound system costs less than a piano, and you don't need a pro to play or tune it. And, hey, when the piano's gone, there's more room for tables.
Piano bars were already on the ropes when the AIDS crisis of the 1980s wiped out a generation of entertainers, staff, and patrons. "AIDS hit piano bars especially hard," recalls longtime cabaret singer and pianist Houston Allred, who began playing in 1962 after he was denied a job in the office of Vice President Lyndon Johnson for being "seen in the company of a known homosexual." The ascendant generation didn't dig the repertoire of pianists who considered Your Hit Parade to be new music. Piano bars showed their age and inflexibility. "The older generation would stay all night and drink a lot," Allred recalls. "But the kids would meet someone, have one drink, and go off with them."
The piano bars of yesterday kept that "sense of sameness," catering, in the end, to a dwindling older gay clientele. The reason Martuni's still survives — and packs 'em in midweek, even — is that it pulls off the delicate act of appearing to never change while, in fact, constantly changing. It's a wholly different bar on a Monday, when Joe Wicht and a room thick with working performers sing show tunes and standards, than three days later, when Joe Magdalena pulls out a horn and plugs in a disco ball. Martuni's even changes hour to hour. Not long after Allred plays a Saturday afternoon show to the delight of silver-haired homosexual gents who can sing along to "Surrey with the Fringe on Top," Dina Rao, pianist Dee Spencer's weekend sidekick, may tell a largely heterosexual crowd sprinkled with the inevitable tiara-bedecked bachelorette party contingent, "We've got a classic for you now" — "Lights" by Journey.
And the crowd goes wild. But not as wild as when Spencer hits a button and a canned drum track thumps in the background. Contrary to what Billy Joel professed in "Piano Man" — a song that may yet induce the dead to rise from the grave and turn off the radio — at 9 o'clock on a Saturday no one is in the mood for a melody. They want the beats, and popular music has grown progressively more beat-driven through the years.
"You've got to bring piano bars into the 21st century," explains Spencer, a jazz pianist and S.F. State music professor. The heavily bridge-and-tunnel weekend crowd doesn't want to hear show tunes and ballads. They want what's on the charts, and in their Spotify accounts. They want the drum track. If the "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" crowd wasn't already long gone, nothing would drive them from the room faster than Journey, let alone Journey and a drum track. But Spencer's job is to keep the room lively and the drinks flowing. The place is crowded and everyone's looking for a good time. She's giving the people what they want.
There's a term for change in reaction to a dynamic environment with the aim of ensuring survival: evolution. Dark moths' advantages on sooty English walls notwithstanding, it's hard to "see" evolution. But, during a recent Maddaline Edstrom Wednesday night set, Martuni's seems downright Darwinian. As the night begins, a solid quadrant of the room is populated by an older, exclusively male contingent outfitted in coats and ties. They stand in stark contrast to the younger, mixed, and casually dressed crowd occupying the majority of the room; the generations do not mingle.
The piano bar's natives do not have the fortitude of the younger, invasive species. Hour by hour, the older generation cedes more ground. By a little after 11, the last man to have been assigned a draft lottery number has left the room. "Some of my older regulars aren't coming in anymore," notes Edstrom. As the room is gradually overtaken by noisy, texting younger people, there are fewer chances for old people to sing and enjoy the songs old people want to sing and enjoy. It's sad, but it's the way of things. "If you just cater to your regulars, you don't get new blood in. It gets old and stagnant. You've got to keep a piano bar going. You've got to sacrifice for the sake of the whole room."
Not long after the last graybeard has departed, a spat breaks out in the corner while a statuesque drag queen murders Elton John's "Your Song," even while reading the lyrics off her iPhone. A martini glass bursts on impact with the wall, and a young, bearded drunk stumbles out of the room while being berated by the man who was his erstwhile target (in more ways than one). "He threw a fucking drink at me! That is fucking disrespectful! Fuck you!"