Piano Bench

In 1973, singer/songwriter William Martin Joel painted a musical picture describing each familiar face he saw after rising from his piano bench b joelto retrieve a complimentary ale from John, his friend and bartender. Glancing around the bar while John confided his unhappiness, Mr. Joel’s first broad stroke delineated the outlines of coquettish lady staff members and lonely businessmen, the latter sinking into bloodshot hazes while sizzling marijuana embers glowed in the backroom. Briefly meditating on his role within the framework, the poet deftly moved his brush to another area of the canvas next, capturing the forgotten shadows of two friendly career men conversing while a few pint glasses remained in front of each, emptied. Last, the pianist pointed his lyrical palette toward another smoky corner where a grinning manager leaned, nodding his head approvingly in the artist’s direction.  The watercolor completed, Billy Joel returned to his keyboard for his finale, where a collection a quarters formed a puddle in his tip jar.

Talented piano men have had the ability to coalesce a room of strangers into a community long before “Piano Man” peaked in the spring of ’74. The slur of undertuned keyboard keys being massaged characterized the Old West, where townfolk gathered daily to converse over a beer in nearby saloons. At the turn of the twentieth century, private clubs in the northeast bustled with personalities resembling those invented by Fitzgerald and Runyon, most sipping dry martinis and talking politics as music played quixotically in the background. It continues its sway in our current era, too, in trendy enotecas, toney shopping malls, and leather-boothed eateries which pay homage to the Golden Era of U.S. dining, when gatherings formed to enjoy favorite libations, listen to music, and celebrate their successes.

“I joined the staff at Christopher’s [after working] at the Orland Park Chi-Chi’s, where I was a busboy, host, and bartender, before moving to [being] general manager,” detailed Jeff Lawler, who has managed Geja’s Café since January, 1993. “[Christopher’s] was one of those unknown gems [with] a chef named John Bogan, who had some incredible dishes.

Dave Green“But the real star was this guy named Dave Green, the piano player.”

Dave Green, a former boxer who sparred in Chicago rings while concurrently teaching himself the art of piano playing, came to Christopher’s on a regular basis, outfitted in a tuxedo, his crown topped with a trademark bowler hat. Tucked under an arm, The Chicago Piano Man carried an almost limitless repertoire of 2,000 songs.

“The way he could play was amazing,” Jeff remembered, smiling.” One [regular] would sit by the piano for an hour or so, and Dave Green would make $2,000.00 off of him. He was that level of player.”

The keyboardist clearly was that level of player. As evidence, Geja’s Café’s general manager reminisced, albeit briefly, about a notable guest who rose from her seat unannounced to join the musician onstage. Her name was (and is) Liza Minnelli, and together she and Mr. Green entertained all who were in attendance.

Dave Green’s music would continue to play at Christopher’s for another eight months. Then, a Rolls Royce driven by an elite-looking couple would drive up to Christopher’s door, its occupants would alight, and then enter the establishment. Inside, they would be greeted by Jeff Lawler, of whom they had previously heard. They would get schmoozy, ask many questions about the establishment and its offerings, then request that Jeff visit them, when he had the time. Ultimately, the same couple would purchase Christopher’s from its owner, with the provision that Jeff Lawler find other employment.

Two months would pass. Within those months, Mr. Lawler would diligently look for work before decidedly trading his illustrious keyboardist in for a Flamenco guitarist. Today, nearly 20 years since his first day as a Geja’s Café manager, Jeff Lawler still employs a Flamenco musician regularly, to unite people’s spirits as their seasoned cuts of tenderloin sizzle to perfection in pots of hot oil.

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