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A Certain Caliber of Pianist

Duke Ellington was. Count Basie wasn’t.

Diana Krall is. Marian McPartland isn’t.

Allen Toussaint is. Fats Domino isn’t.

Billy Joel is. Elton John isn’t.

Shirley Horn was. Mary Lou Williams wasn’t.

Cy Coleman, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin all made the cut. Hoagy Carmichael, Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin and Johnny Mercer didn’t.

Ahmad Jamal, Keith Jarrett, Marcus Roberts and David Benoit are. Joe Sample, Bob James and Herbie Hancock, no go.

Harry Connick, Jr., yes. Ellis Marsalis, yes.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, no.

Stevie Wonder, no.

Freddie Cole, yes. His brother, Nat King Cole? No.

And it appears Ray Charles never was.

I’m talking about Steinway artists: Pianists who are or were considered among the best in the world and therefore worthy to represent the Steinway piano company and play Steinways almost exclusively in performance.

Anybody who ever took piano lessons for any length of time knows that Steinway, or rather, Steinway and Sons, is touted as the gold standard among pianos. Whether you’re talking about a baby grand, parlor grand, or one of their massive concert grands that cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars up to millions for special editions, a Steinway is always going to sound better than most any piano out there. I go into piano stores just to play them. Well, play a few keys, since I’ve been out of practice for more than twenty years. I always ask permission first, though.

It was during my most recent trip to a Sherman Clay piano store that I found out about Steinway artists. A wonderful salesman ran off the list of all the wonderful artists who are Steinway artists.

“Is Fats Domino a Steinway artist?” I asked.

“Noooooo,” he assured me. “You know, you have to be a certain caliber of pianist to be a Steinway artist.” He then reeled off many notables on the list, including, of all people, Diana Krall and Billy Joel.

A certain caliber of pianist? I told him how Domino owned two Steinways, both of which were ruined in Hurricane Katrina. That when he finally returned to performing after Hurricane Katrina at Tipitina’s, he played a Steinway.

It seemed to me that many of the artists who are currently Steinway artists, such as Krall and Joel, are among the best, no doubt. But, unlike Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, or Fats Domino, they didn’t change music. They didn’t innovate. Isn’t there something to be said for those pianists who actually changed how we hear the piano, like stride pianists such as Errol Garner and Fats Waller, who influenced the likes of Diana Krall, and Ray Charles, who influenced Billy Joel so much that his daughter Alexa’s middle name is Ray?

Or Fats Domino?

The salesman then proceeded to show me some of the special edition Steinways built to honor certain people, including a Steinway built to honor the last Steinway family member to lead the company.

“There should be a special edition Steinway built to honor Fats Domino,” I piped up. “It should have a New Orleans Mardi Gras theme . . .” Off I went on my little tangent, describing how I would design a Fats Domino commemorative Steinway.

The salesman smiled politely, like he was indulging a schizophrenic.

Maybe it's because it’s so close in time to Michael Jackson’s death that I’m sensitized to issue of artists who actually changed music receiving the unqualified recognition they’re due.

So, when I’m done writing this, I’m going to print it, send it to the kind folks at Steinway and Sons in Long Island, and, just to show how much I’m willing to work with them, I’m even willing to provide them my vision and tagline for a series of Steinway ads, free of charge:

Imagine black and white poster-sized photos of great pianists playing passionately on brightly lit stages: Ray Charles at the Montreux Jazz Festival; Count Basie at The Apollo Theater; Fats Domino at Tipitina’s. Nat King Cole wherever he damned well pleased.

Here’s the caption at the bottom:

Great piano moments only happen on great pianos.

Steinway and Sons: Know the difference

They don’t have to thank me. They just need to make Fats Domino a Steinway artist. oh, and send him two brand spankin' new Steinway baby grands to replace the ones he lost in the hurricane. One black, one white.

For more information on Steinway artists, visit


Mike said…
I know from pianos and piano playing and YOU are absolutely correct. I think you might want to enlist the blogosphere to let the old fuddy duddies at S&S know that Fats, and the Count, and Marian, and Jerry Lee and Nat and Ray ought to be in the pantheon of Steinway artists. Especially Fats. I'm sure there are others, but trust me, this IS a snob issue.

Marian ought to be there too, but she's partial to Baldwins, if memory serves. Billy Joel studied with a fine classical teacher.

Get Winton onto this. What's with Ellis, by the way?

Keep on keeping at 'em.

Steve said…
To become a Steinway Artist a performer generally asks their local Steinway representative (dealer) to recommend them to Steinway & Sons in NY. You must own a Steinway to be considered and be a performing pianist.

It is not a snob issue, and I have not ever met an old fuddy duddie on my several visits to the factory. They are quite nice and very professional.

Mike and Steve,

Thanks for your comments. I've sent a copy of this post to the folks at Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. Let's see if they'll add Fats Domino to their roster of artists.

Steve, if indeed it isn't an issue of elitism, perhaps they Steinway and Sons should state on their website how they decide who becomes a Steinway artist? I was told that there's a long list of artists waiting to be decided on. I also read that Freddy Cole "finally" was named a Steinway Artist. "Finally"?

Again, thanks for your comments and making this a lively discussion.

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