Skip to content

His Best Friend at His Fingertips, a Pianist, 96, Plays On

April 18, 2012

Editor’s Note: Required reading for musicians and the rest of us, from the New York Times.

April 17, 2012, 5:42 pm

By COREY KILGANNON
Irving Fields, 96, at Nino's Tuscany in Manhattan, has been playing piano since the 1920s.
Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times
Irving Fields, 96, at Nino’s Tuscany in Manhattan, has been playing piano since the 1920s.

“That’s his fountain of youth right there: the martini,” a patron squealed the other night at Nino’s Tuscany on West 58th Street. She was pointing to a brimming two-olive vodka martini resting on the grand piano being played by Irving Fields.

Mr. Fields, 96, has been playing piano in New York City since the 1920s. For the past eight years, he has been holding forth at Nino’s, an upscale Italian restaurant that prides itself on its dry-aged steaks displayed right next to the piano.

As for the martini, a nightly staple, Mr. Fields said it was as good an explanation as any for his longevity.

“Don’t forget the ice cream sundae I have every night before bed,” he said, while dusting off a Latinized medley of tunes from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (He has never let his playing get in the way of his talking.)

“The real secret is that I love what I do, and the piano is my best friend,” said Mr. Fields, who was dressed in a velvet blazer and stylish tie as he table-hopped, chatted with customers and took requests. His wife, Ruth, 82, was also working the room.

As for other hints to his endurance, Mr. Fields has produced a flier, a stack of which sit on the piano, with his “Secrets to Longevity,” a list of aphorisms like “Eat four hours before bedtime (You’ll digest better)” and “Never make a decision intoxicated.”

He did not seem a day older than when I first met him, in 2004. I had been walking past the East River Cafe on First Avenue and 61st Street and, through the window, I saw an elderly, well-dressed man playing an old upright with a tip jar next to his nameplate: “At the Piano: Irving Fields.”

Something seemed strange about this distinguished-looking man playing next to a pay phone and being ignored by most patrons. Right about that time, he was hired at Nino’s, where he has been playing ever since.

“I’m big on authenticity, and you can hear the influence of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s in his playing,” said Vail Barrett, 61, whom Mr. Fields introduced as a grandson of James Grover McDonald, who served as the first American ambassador to Israel. “He’s lived through all the musical eras and styles. Plus, he’s always had the ability to play and charm his listeners at the same time, and it’s that charm that keeps you coming back.”

Mr. Fields says the six-nights-a-week Nino’s job is perfect for him because it is a two-minute walk from the apartment on Central Park South where he has lived for 50 years. Also, his career has been buoyed by a resurgence in interest in the traditional American songbook, he said.

“I get so many young people coming in saying they love Sinatra,” he said, “and they’re requesting the classics.”

Indeed, on this particular night, two young women were hovering around the piano. One, Deborah Lindenau, 21, was photographing Mr. Fields for a blog, Whatnowdeb.com, that she wrote about nightlife. The other, Cheryl Balestra, 32, got up with Mr. Fields to sing “Summertime” and “The Nearness of You.”

Mr. Fields was born Yitzhak Schwartz in 1915 and grew up in Brooklyn as the youngest of six children. He was studying piano by 1923, and by 1933, he was playing on cruise ships.

By the 1940s, he said, he was playing the biggest hotel lounges, piano rooms and supper clubs in New York City. In the 1950s, he was a fixture at the Mermaid Room, and he also played the Copacabana, the Latin Quarter, El Morocco and the St. Moritz. He was the regular pianist in the Oak Room at the Plaza from 1982 to 1990.

Mr. Fields remembers Ava Gardner dancing barefoot to his Latin songs, and Edward G. Robinson requesting Viennese waltzes. Mr. Fields was a pioneer of the supper-club-trio format and made more than 80 albums, with an eclectic style that seemed to combine the Catskills, Manhattan, Miami and Havana.

He found a niche with his Latinization of various ethnic styles of music. It began with a quirky hybrid of Latin-Jewish tunes that led to albums like “Bagels and Bongos” and “More Bagels and Bongos,” which helped usher in the Yiddish mambo craze. There were songs like “Managua Nicaragua,” “Miami Beach Rhumba” and “Miami Beach Rhumba,” which became a hit for the Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat.

Mr. Fields moved on to other genres, including Italian numbers (“Pizzas and Bongos”), French tunes (“Champagne and Bongos”) and Hawaiian songs (“Bikinis and Bongos”).

Nino Selimaj, the owner of Nino’s, said of Mr. Fields, “As long as his fingers perform, he will be playing here.”

“He’s one of a kind,” Mr. Selimaj added. “At 10:30 at night, when most people his age would be in bed, he’s going from table to table taking requests. I think it keeps him going.”

New York Times: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/and-once-again-the-stylings-of-irving-fields/

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: