Thirty Years in the Business

Thirty Years in the Business

Mike Petrone performs benefit concert for Cleveland School of the Arts

It’s difficult to know where to begin when writing an article about a sibling. Simply put, there’s too much source material. We’ll start with the obvious: Cleveland jazz pianist Mike Petrone is playing a benefit concert for the Cleveland School of the Arts on Sat 11/20. The presenting sponsor is Medical Mutual of Ohio. Details on how you can get tickets are at the end of this article. There, now that that’s out of the way, what do you want to know about this guy?

He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s celebrating 30 years as a professional musician, but he’s younger than one might think. As I recall, Mike’s first public performance was in the Coventry Road convent where the nuns from St. Ann School used to live. We were there with our father, and someone sat Mike down at the piano and he played The Entertainer much to the delight of the adults present. Even as a third grader, he had a good left hand for bass lines. His first paying gig came a few years later, when he was 14 and subbed for our father (also a jazz piano player) at the old Hanna Pub. Mike said the biggest surprise that night was that people “actually heard it. To that point, so much of my playing had been in the practice room. You’re just thinking about what you’re doing. Once you start doing it for people, you realize that they heard you. That’s when you get nervous. Not when you walk in, but when you realize people are actually listening.”

As long as I can remember, Mike has been playing the piano. I have vivid memories of leaning on the much-abused piano in the house where we grew up, watching his hands and fingers as he practiced. He would play the same complicated riff ten, twenty times in a row, until he had it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you make a mistake during a gig. Do you ever nervous about that?”

“No, I just get mad about it. I do make mistakes. Mostly I make mistakes that aren’t really mistakes. I’ll hit a note that I didn’t want to hit, but at this point hopefully I have enough savvy to do it twice and make it sound like I meant to do that.”

“How quickly does your brain have to work to react to that?”

“Sometimes it is remarkable. Sometimes I surprise myself. I can be playing, and singing, and having a conversation. I’m not even sure how I do it.”

The Cleveland School of the Arts had just started when Mike was in high school. We grew up in Cleveland Heights, and he had some opportunities to play at Cleveland Heights High School via the jazz band, but for a guy who had already been playing out for a couple of years, it wasn’t much of a challenge. The School of the Arts does challenge its students, both artistically and academically. And it shows. The school has a 100% graduation rate, and 95% of its students go on to higher education. Mike will be sharing the stage with students from their string ensemble, a competitive voice ensemble, and dancers. Guest artists include blues musician (and Mike’s wife) Kristine Jackson and singers Evelyn Wright and William Marshall. Many of the students are about the same age Mike was at his first gig. Click here to view a short video of Mike working with his students.

Mike got involved with the School of the Arts when he was part of Leadership Cleveland’s class of 2009. He toured the school during the program’s Education Day and was impressed. He knew he wanted to give back to the Cleveland music community. And when he realized that he’d be celebrating his 30th anniversary as a professional musician, the School of the Arts was a logical partner. Funds raised by the November 20 benefit will establish the Mike Petrone CSA Music Fund, which will provide instruments, private lessons, sheet music, summer scholarships, and more to support the students’ academic and artistic pursuits.

While the benefit will assist current and future CSA students, Mike has a second, more specific motivation: his daughters, ages 11 and 9. “I wanted to do something that the girls could be proud of,” he says, “so they could say, ‘That’s my dad. My dad did that.'”

“The School of the Arts would have been fun. I went to that place at the corner of Cedar and Taylor for a while…”

“Rap Art?”

“Yeah.”

“I knew I’d learn something I didn’t know about you doing this interview.”

“A few of my friends went there too, but it wasn’t really focused. I was. I was on a mission.”

“What was the mission?”

“I was on a mission to be great. But I knew it was gonna take a long time.”

“Are you there yet?”

“I don’t know. I have skills… better than most. I don’t know what great is.”

That drive to be great is what pushed Mike to practice six or eight hours a day, every day. I know—I watched it. He says somewhere around age 11 or 12, he knew that he had the talent to make music his livelihood and to be, well, great at it. The only thing stopping him was the hard work of practicing, practicing, practicing until his technical skills were flawless. “And,” he says, “I wasn’t afraid of the work. It was just a question of how long would it take.”

I don’t know how he sounded at that first gig in September 1980; I wasn’t allowed to go. (After all, he was playing at a bar, and I was 12.) He thinks he probably knew about 100 songs at the time. I remember driving downtown with my mother to take him to and from gigs. He wore the only suit a 14-year-old boy would have—the brown three-piece suit he wore for his confirmation—and dark blue Adidas sneakers with white stripes. He seemed somehow very grown-up to me, and at the same time I worried that someone was going to mug him.

“How many songs do you know?”

“I’ve always tried to learn three songs a week since I started. Three songs a week for thirty years—you do the math.”

“You’re the math guy. I’m a writer.”

[Does some quick figuring in his head.] “About 4,500 songs.”

“That’s a lot of songs.”

“That is a lot of songs.”

“I know 4,500 words.”

[He laughs.] “I don’t.”

When Mike started playing professionally, the piano bar was a staple of American culture. He estimates there was a minimum of ten piano players playing downtown when he started. There were even short-lived piano lounges on the early Boeing 747s. As Mike says, “Cocktail piano was everywhere. Then it just started dying off, as people know less about music and don’t care about the piano.” [Now it’s “keyboards.”] “There was a whole culture of people who liked it. They’ll still come in.”

And Mike can give them the piano bar experience—that’s how he cut his musical teeth. But he credits his versatility and the fact that he can sing with prolonging his career. Perhaps it’s because he grew up listening to The Doors and Jimi Hendrix alongside Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner, but Mike has an innate understanding of diverse musical styles. He notes that many of the piano players who were on the scene when he started out “took the same approach to the piano with every song they play.” That isn’t how Mike operates: “I play a classical piece, I play a jazz piece. I play David Gray or Jason Mraz the way that they do it and sing it the way they do it. And then I do something else completely different. I’m like your own iPod. Some piano players have a basic knowledge of how to play, but they don’t necessarily take the time to learn other styles. They think, ‘Oh, it’s just a melody and chords. I’m gonna play it and it’s gonna sound fine,’ but everything they play ends up sounding like Misty. People know the difference.”

People knowing the difference is at the heart of Mike’s drive. He knows that the audience is listening and wants to give them what they want. People come to hear him play; he doesn’t let them leave disappointed. And if someone asks him for a song and he doesn’t know it, he learns it. He plays five nights a week at Johnny’s on West 6th, and notes that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s going to play—when he sees a certain person, he plays her song or his song. “For a lot of people, there’s ten songs I know they like,” he says. “Depending on how long my relationship is with you, I can keep you entertained all night.”

“Why are the arts important? Shouldn’t kids be studying engineering or math?”

“Yeah, but there’s no difference. Music is math. It’s all wrapped up. The arts are good for your soul, good for all your cognitive skills. I read somewhere that a jazz pianist uses twice the brain power of just about anybody else, because it all happens so fast, all these synapses happening at once.”

“You just made that up, right?”

I mentioned earlier that Mike is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I have proof of this. When we were kids, we played baseball all summer long with the kids who lived behind us. One day, down at the old Coventry School, two boys came up and went into the old “girls can’t play baseball” spiel. Mike was in Rick Wise mode (his hero), pitching. I was in Andre Thornton mode (my hero) and batting. My big brother pitched me the sweetest, fattest grapefruit a ten-year-old could hope for. And when I smacked it clear to the other end of the playground, so far that the mean boys could only stand there in shock, my brother just smiled. How many guys would give their kid sister that moment of triumph?

Here’s more proof: On Sat 11/20, Mike will lead young musicians, singers, and dancers from the Cleveland School of the Arts in a benefit concert in front of hundreds of people at the Hanna Theatre. How many guys would give a group of young performers that moment of triumph?

Make sure to check out An Evening with Mike Petrone in Concert Featuring the Students of Cleveland School of the Arts (CSA) on Sat 11/20 at 8PM @ the Hanna Theatre. VIP concert tickets are $125 and individual concert tickets are $50. Pre-VIP reception runs 6:30-7:30PM @ the Hanna Theatre. Post VIP concert celebration starts at 10PM @ Johnny’s Downtown. For more information visit http://www.ClevelandSchoolOfTheArts.org.

Click here to view a short video of Mike working with his students.



When Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Petrone is not writing an arts or culture article for Cool Cleveland, she writes fiction. Her first novel, A Body at Rest, was published in early 2009 by Drinian Press. An excerpt from the novel and some of her published short fiction are available at http://www.SusanPetrone.com.

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One Response to “Thirty Years in the Business”

  1. Janet Held

    Very nicely done, Susan – your brother should be very proud!!! I’ll have to go to his downtown gig some night – and mention your name:) .. How goes your book? it was great to see you at Loganberry’s Author Afternoon this past summer – and I really enjoyed the little booklet of the excerpt of your novel. Hope to read more of you, and your brother!
    Sincerely,
    Jan

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