Make Someone Happy

I spent 6 1/2 years on the piano bench at Vitello’s, a well-known restaurant and music club in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. I have a million stories. Most of them are weird.

Even though my job was similar to Ryan Gosling’s in La La Land, my bosses (fortunately) never told me what to play. I performed my original songs, covers, jazz standards, and everything in-between. I made my own set lists, but I always took requests. It was a huge part of my job. I still take requests when I perform live, whenever possible.

Every so often, people ask me “What’s the one song you REFUSE to play?”

I never have an answer.

Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes I say, “Any song I don’t know.”

Some musicians refuse to play certain tunes. That’s never made sense to me. (Side note: songs that include hate speech, make people feel unsafe, etc., are not the certain tunes I’m talking about).

Jazz musicians often balk at playing “Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves,” or “Misty.” I’ve certainly been guilty of this thought in the past. I want to be seen as someone who can play “harder,” more complex music. These tunes are thought of as “overdone,” not advanced enough, not inspiring enough. In truth, that’s elitist thinking.

Those tunes were at the top of my “most requested” list.

Is that because they’re better tunes? Is that because they’re more familiar to the general population than the Jazz Deep Cuts? I think it’s partially because they’re hooky and memorable. But the answer is simpler than that – people like them. People want to hear music they like. Music that connects them to the performer by the heartstrings.

Whether “Misty” is my favorite jazz standard doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget playing the request for a woman who began crying almost as soon as I started performing. When I was finished, she told me she was celebrating her anniversary with her husband. She and her husband had named their late daughter “Misty,” after the song.

It made her day to hear those lyrics, that melody. It connected her to her daughter beyond the physical world. It wouldn’t have mattered who was performing. That was her song.

The simple act of making someone’s day is not something to look down on. It’s not beneath us, as educated or technically-advanced musicians, to play popular songs that connect with other humans. That’s the very reason we do what we do, isn’t it?

Some musicians don’t want to keep playing the songs they’re known for. I’ve performed “Another Day of Sun” live over 300 times since La la Land came out. And I never, ever decline to perform it. That song gave me a career. Nearly every other piece of art I’ve worked on since has been because of my involvement with that film. I have extreme gratitude and joy in my heart because of that song. And beyond all that, it’s still a musically-challenging and fun piece to play. I believe some creatives don’t want to perform their signature tunes because they don’t want to be irrelevant going forward. They don’t want the world to think their 15 minutes of fame are up. I am SO guilty of thinking this about myself! But if people are still calling your name, still requesting, still telling you how much they love something you made – you’ve achieved the dream. You’ve carved out a tiny sector of the cosmos in which you live forever. That’s an achievement worth repeating on loop.

Sometimes, the arts feel like such a selfish pursuit. Crudely put, we artists seek fame and glory in exchange for our thoughts and our talents. Sometimes, it feels like we’re not actually making the world a better place. But music absolutely makes the world better. Music as service is a very powerful concept. Entertainment is a service, and there is such a deep reward in serving other humans. Creation or performance of something someone requests doesn’t automatically mean compromising an artistic belief. It doesn’t exclude you from making the music you want to make. But I do think it’s an opportunity to take a deep dive into what it means to connect with a fan. Listening to what would make their day. Being an impactful part of their lives.

When you make someone happy, “just one someone happy,” as Comden, Green, and Styne wrote, “then, you’ll be happy too.”

There is so much potential in the new artist model in the modern music industry. Potential to truly change someone’s world.

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