Peter Robinson, DC’s Piano Man

A veteran cocktail pianist talks about life in Washington’s hotel bars, the problem with politics, raising a family while working at night, and playing with a handicap.

By: Ken DeCell

In his dinner jacket and black tie, Peter Robinson eases onto the piano bench in Quill, the lounge in downtown DC’s luxe Jefferson hotel. It’s 9 PM and soon the strains of “As Time Goes By” fill the room. From there, Robinson segues seamlessly from song to song, mainly familiar selections by the likes of Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Hoagy Carmichael, plus jazzy interpretations of tunes by more recent artists such as the Beatles, James Taylor, and Carole King. Throughout the evening, he takes his cues from the mood—and requests—of the crowd, occasionally throwing in one of his own compositions.

After midnight, he retrieves the crutches stashed along the wall beside the piano, bids the remaining patrons goodnight, and heads home.

It’s a routine Robinson has followed most nights for the past three decades. The third of four children of a surgeon father and homemaker mother, Robinson grew up in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. In one of the rare cases of a child’s being stricken with polio in utero, Robinson was born with a paralyzed right leg and with limited use of his right arm. Like his siblings, he began taking piano lessons at age six. Soon music became his shelter and his passion.

Seeing Stars

Pianist Peter Robinson discusses celebrities he’s encountered through the years.

“Robert Goulet Couldn’t Stand It Anymore”

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Robert Goulet would come to town touring with Camelot, and he would stay at the Fairfax. I played piano in the bar and got to know him over the years. He was a great guy, a lot of fun.

“One time, an aspiring politician was in town raising money to run for governor. He fancied himself a Vic Damone-type lounge singer. I was playing piano in the back room, where he and some supporters were partying, and they yelled for me to let him sing. He grabbed the mike and started into his act.

“As he did, I could see Robert Goulet sitting on a couch in the front room of the bar. His Camelot performance was over, and he was having a nightcap. I could see him getting restless as he listened to the would-be lounge singer/governor. Finally, Goulet couldn’t stand it—he jumped up on the couch and literally sprang through a window opening between the two rooms. He looked at me and, mikeless, burst full-voice into ‘On a Clear Day’ in E-flat. He had perfect pitch, and I had seen him do this before, so I was ready. The other guy never saw it coming. Goulet took over the room and sang for 15 minutes. The pol didn’t make another sound. As far as I know, he was never governor, either.”

“Thank Angie Dickinson for Me”

“Once in the mid-1980s, I was playing piano at the Fairfax. My contract was expiring—a one-year extension was sitting on management’s desk, but it wasn’t getting signed and I didn’t know why. I was worried.

“It was Kennedy Center Honors time, and the hotel was filled with celebrities. I was playing for a Sunday brunch party—very fancy, people swirling around, ignoring the music but having a good time celebrity-mingling.

“When it was time to take a break, I got up and started walking through the crowd. As I passed Angie Dickinson, who was talking to the hotel owner, she turned to me and said, ‘Young man, nice playing—nice music.’ I mumbled thanks and walked on.

“The next day, the signed one-year contract was delivered by messenger to my front door. I’m sure Angie Dickinson has no idea how she helped me. If you see her, please tell her thanks for me.”

“Hugh Carey Nailed ‘New York, New York’ ”

“Hugh Carey, a seven-term congressman and then governor of New York, died last year. The memory I’ll always have of him is from the early 1990s. It was just after midnight, and the bar crowd was down to two inebriated yuppie couples standing around the piano trying to sing show tunes. The lights were low. In walked Carey, drink in hand. He was wearing a tux, but his bow tie was untied, his collar open. I knew him. He winked at me and joined in singing along.

“At the end of a song, one of the men said to him, ‘We know you from somewhere.’

“ ‘Oh, I’m a waiter,’ he replied. ‘That’s why I’m in this tux—just got off work. I’ve been doing it a long time. I must have been your waiter sometime.’ They stared at him a little more, but we went on singing.

“After a few more songs, Carey gave me the sign to play his favorite, ‘New York, New York,’ and he nailed it with great enthusiasm. At the end, he smiled and drained his glass and walked out. I don’t think any of them knew who he was or what they had experienced. It was great.”

Making it his livelihood took time. After graduating from Princeton, where he played in a jazz/rock band, Robinson moved to Washington and worked first in the office of Kansas senator Bob Dole and later for Congressman Larry Winn Jr., also of Kansas. While working on Capitol Hill, Robinson heard Washington’s now legendary cocktail pianist John Eaton and became his student. In time, Robinson left the Hill and became a full-time pianist, playing hotel bars, restaurants, and other venues.

Over the years, in addition to the Jefferson, he has played the Fairfax Hotel, the Georgetown Inn, the Old Ebbitt Grill, the Sofitel, and more. He recorded his first album live at the Jefferson in 1984 and has since recorded four more, the most recent being 2010’s Some of the Best Songs You’ve Never Heard, which features 19 Robinson originals.

He lives with his wife, Mary, a strategy and fundraising consultant for nonprofits, and their two college-age children in Bethesda. Robinson recently sat down over lunch on a day off and talked about what he’s learned.

Most people who hear you play never know it, but you had polio as an infant, right?

I had polio the day I was born. They looked at me and said this kid’s not moving enough. My right leg wasn’t moving at all, and the right arm was compromised. I saw a lot of doctors the first couple years of my life, had operations to release tendons that were constricted, and then more operations when I was 14 and 15. But my right leg still didn’t work, so I couldn’t play sports. But I started playing piano at age six and alto sax at age nine. Music has been my go-to place for a long time.

What was it like growing up?

To some degree your journey is different from other people’s. When people want to take walks or go skiing, you don’t go—or you sit on the sidelines.

In junior high, I went to cotillion because that’s what everybody did. But I couldn’t dance, and it was no fun. Same with high-school prom. Freshman year at college, I went to one or two mixers, but it didn’t make sense.

But then what evolved was, by playing in a rock band I got to be there, but instead of dancing I was playing for the people dancing, and that became a pattern for me—a way to be at the party. And you know, sometimes when I play it’s almost as if I’m dancing.

All in all, you’re pretty mobile.

I get around. But shorter distances are now the limit. Walking is not recreational.

But consider this: Our daughter has dyslexia, which I had never encountered. For her, reading is like walking is for me. Most everybody thinks: Let’s go for a walk. Well, I don’t want to take a walk—it’s not enjoyable for me. And everyone says reading is fun, but for her reading will always be uncomfortable.

Your surgeries didn’t solve all the problems.

My right leg is basically flail. So I have a brace, which is effectively a steel splint. My left leg is compromised somewhat, but it’s functional.

Your arms and hands work the piano very well. Is there pain?

No, I’m fine, though my right thumb is weak. That’s why I don’t play classical music. It asks you to do things I can’t do—stretches I can’t make. But I can self-express. The model on that was the guitar player Django Reinhardt. He had a couple of fingers missing. So you learn how to do what you can’t do. There’s a saying: Classical players play what’s on the page; jazz players play what’s not on the page.

Did you major in music at Princeton?

My parents were saying, “Be a lawyer—let music be a hobby.” But I wanted to be a music major. When I told the department that what I liked was pop and jazz and Broadway, they said, “We have no one in our department who has any interest in that.”

I was so disappointed, I dropped out for a year. But I came back as an English major because I wanted to graduate and I loved English—plus I’d already read a lot of books, so I figured I could spend time playing music as an English major, which is what I did.

After college you came to Washington.

I was trying to be a songwriter, but through a weird set of circumstances, I was offered a job working for Senator Bob Dole. I only stayed ten months on the Hill that time, but shortly after I arrived Vice President Agnew resigned, and right before I left President Nixon resigned. I had nothing to do with either. But what a time to be on the Hill.

Why did you leave?

I wanted to play music. But I wasn’t good enough to get full-time work. I was playing at a place near the Tune Inn one night a week and living in a really cheap place. But I ran out of money and moved back to Kansas City, where I could make a living. I played the Muehlebach Hotel there for 3½ years.

“Paying music, even in hotel bars, is a lot simpler ethically than politics,” says Robinson.

What brought you back to DC?

Eventually I saw there was a ceiling in Kansas City and I had reached it. I was going to maybe take grad courses in music, and then Larry Winn, the congressman, wandered into my life. I was playing in this country club on a Friday night, and he came in. I recognized him. I’d never met him, but I thought it would be fun to ask him some political questions, because he was known as a guy who couldn’t be riled into making controversial statements.

So after a drink he says, “You’re the piano player—why are you asking me these questions?” I said, “I used to work on the Hill.” It turned out a legislative assistant in DC had given him notice that day. So he says, “Come work for me.” That was October ’79.

But politics ultimately was not your cup of tea. Why did you leave the Hill?

Early on, a lawyer on a committee staff told me, “There’s a guy in town named John Eaton. You got to hear him play piano.” So I did, and it knocked me out. He was playing Rodgers & Hart and Hoagy Carmichael, and people were loving it.

I started going to hear him in the Fairfax Hotel bar as often as I could afford—in fact, more often. One night John said, “I see you here a lot, and frankly you don’t look like you can afford it.” And I said, “I play piano.” I ended up studying with him for two years while I worked on the Hill.

After a while, he invited me to sub for him one night. Then I started playing on the night John didn’t—Sunday night at the time. When John went down to five nights a week, I got Monday night, too.

After a while I realized, You know, the best part of my life is Sunday and Monday night. I mean, I’m working all week in a congressional office and don’t like it nearly as much as the two nights I’m playing in the Fairfax bar. So I got a job playing at the Marbury House, now the Latham Hotel. I kept the Fairfax job on Sunday and Monday nights, so I was working seven nights a week.

I left the Hill in January of ’82, and I’ve played full-time ever since.

And here you are playing the Jefferson hotel 30 years later.

Yeah, I first played the Jefferson in 1983, when it was owned by Edward Bennett Williams, the founder of Williams & Connolly. Actually, my contract was with the Baltimore Orioles, which Williams also owned. I didn’t know why it was set up that way, but Williams would come into the bar showing some important person around, and he would pat me on the back while I played and say, “We pay him to sit on the bench!” He liked the joke.

That was a great year. I made my first album and got engaged to my wife. Then Williams sold the Jefferson, and I moved over to the Fairfax. It’s great to be back at the Jefferson now. I’m three years into this run and hoping it lasts a long time.

Hotels are interesting places. You see different kinds of people in interesting circumstances. There’s often libation involved. What have you seen?

Well, I’ve never seen a bar fight. A couple times I’ve wondered if one might break out.

In the ’80s, there was a lady of the night I got to know—not in her professional capacity. She asked me to play “I Wish You Love” whenever she’d walk in, and I did. Usually she seemed to have an appointment to meet somebody. That was back in the ’80s, and she was the first person I ever saw who had a credit-card processor in her purse. It wasn’t electronic, but it would do the imprint. I said to her, “What do you write on that?” She said, “Oh, I just write, ‘Entertainment.’ ”

Does a good bit of that go on?

Ask Eliot Spitzer.

Along those lines, a man and a woman used to come in and hear me play—more than once a month, and it went on for years. They were charming, and they obviously enjoyed being together. A couple of years into the deal, the woman came up rather nervous and said, “Tonight I’m coming in with my husband. Act like there’s nothing going on.”

I had always thought it was her husband. But here’s this guy I had never seen before, and I had to act like none of that other stuff had ever happened.

Do you ever miss politics?

Not really. Really, not at all. Playing music, even in hotel bars, is a lot simpler ethically than politics.

What do you mean?

This may sound naive, but you know, on the Hill letters to members get personal responses. Staffers ghostwrite most replies, which get sent up to be approved and signed with the member’s name.

Back when I worked for Senator Dole, a letter came to my desk from a Kansas farmer’s wife. I wrote the response, and it was signed and sent off. Weeks later, another letter came from her saying, “Senator, we had no idea you would have time to read my letter, let alone answer it, and we are so touched that we’ve framed your letter and hung it in our living room. Thank you!”

Somebody higher up in the office wrote “Great job” on the letter and sent it back to me. I doubt Bob Dole ever saw any of it.

That same person told me that a properly crafted response to a constituent letter translated to 4.8 votes or whatever, so answering the mail was very important. I’m sure that’s right—and it’s true, everyone does it—but it troubled me then, and it still does.

Back to music: You pretty much stick with the greats in your show.

If you have a restaurant and you know what people buy, aren’t you going to serve those things? At the same time, you play what you’re able to play—a pizza place doesn’t serve Chinese food.

My niche—my food—is Cole Porter and Gershwin. Richard Rodgers is maybe my favorite. Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, that kind of stuff. I love the Beatles and Carole King. And classic rock ’n’ roll—Elvis Presley and all that. Altogether, the repertoire is maybe 2,000 songs.

But it is limited to my ability. Some things are dependent on machinery. And you can’t do everything on an acoustic piano.

It’s hard to do a lot of Clapton—

Yeah, I don’t think I’d do a great “Layla.”

The stuff you write is similar to what you play, though you write in varied styles. Is there a natural Peter Robinson style?

Here’s a story. When I was just out of college, some family friends knew John Kander. He wrote the music to “New York, New York,” Cabaret, Chicago. It was 1973, and I got to spend a couple hours with him. I had sent him tapes of my songs, and his advice was don’t write using an instrument—it limits what you’re able to do.

If you can free yourself from your instrument, you can free yourself from your limitations. Write what you can hear in your head because, hopefully, that’s more open. The goal is to write in different styles rather than to find your style. This is so different from the singer/songwriter model that dominates today.

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.

Really?

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.