Back to the Washington hotel scene. My sense is you don’t see as many politicians—senators, congressmen—in hotel bars these days. Is that right?
I’d say that at least since the first half of the ’90s, most of them don’t want to be seen in bars. I mean, you don’t need to go to a bar for a drink. And everyone’s got cell phones now, and they’ll take pictures of you.
Do you get a lot of lobbyists?
Yeah. A lobbyist who’s a regular at Quill told me he recently got a contract because the clients were impressed that he knew the piano player. We get aides, too, because it’s a go-to place for a nice night out. It’s grown-up.
I read on a website some customer comments about a bar I’ve played in—a nice place. A person wrote in and said, “A great place to score” or whatever and cited as evidence “the girl I heard moaning in the men’s room.” Of course, I’m not sure the bar would want that known.
Talk about raising children as a musician—you work at night.
Well, it was good when they were little because I’m there in the day. It’s the night that’s hard. I’m on a different schedule. I quit playing at 12 or 1 am, and I’m wound up on coffee and performing, so it’s usually at least 2:25 before I get in bed, or later.
And the kids have to be up and off to school.
Yeah, and the public-school children were getting on the buses at 6:20.
What’s the hardest part of playing in bars?
Over the long haul, you’ve got to find a way to not get used up. You’ve got to get a healthy pattern.
You don’t drink when you’re playing.
No. I used to, and now I almost never do. I find I get kind of draggy—or soggy.
The hardest part, to be frank, is wishing you could spend more evenings with your wife. She would like to have fun more nights of the week, but I play five—Tuesday through Saturday—at the Jefferson, so we don’t have many opportunities to go out. And I’m sure she wishes I made more money.
Oh, the finances of a piano player. You get a salary—are tips a part of it?
Yeah, though some places won’t allow you to have a tip jar. I may be one of the few piano players who reports tips on my 1040.
Are people generous?
It’s surprising how there is no correlation as far as I can tell with the product I put out. One night I can play really well, and there aren’t any tips. Another night you maybe think you’re not playing so well, and somebody will feel really touched and unexpectedly tip you.
What’s the best thing, the most fun thing, about what you do?
I get to play music. Was it Duke Ellington who said there’s only two kinds of music—good music and bad music? I try to make the best music I can. When it’s good enough, it makes customers happy. And that makes me happy. I love my job.
Senior editor Ken DeCell and pianist Peter Robinson played music at Princeton and worked on Capitol Hill at the same times. Hear Robinson’s original songs at bullenemusic.com.
This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.