A piano bar (also known as a piano lounge) consists of a piano or electronic keyboard played by a professional musician, located in a cocktail lounge, bar, hotel lobby, office building lobby, restaurant, or on a cruise ship. Usually the pianist receives a small salary plus tips in a jar or basket on or near the piano, especially from patrons requesting a song traditionally written on a beverage napkin. Some piano bars feature a baby grand or grand piano surrounded by stools for patrons (or, somewhat humorously, an upright piano covered by a counter that makes it appear to be a grand piano). Others have a bar surrounding the piano or keyboard.
Jimmy Durante started as a piano bar player, as did Billy Joel. Joel's classic hit "Piano Man" is based on his experiences as a piano bar player. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli also played in piano bars to pay for singing lessons.
Theatre historian John Kenrick describes the piano bar as follows:
A piano bar is a hybrid creature: part performance space, part living room, part cruise-a-thon, and part saloon. The bar is there to sell drinks, the pianist is there to perform, and the crowd is there to sing, listen, drink and socialize. All of this means that it's impossible to predict what a given evening's chemistry will be, even if most of the people on hand are regular customers.... While every factor counts, the most important issue is the person at the piano. The pianist determines the type of music, the style of performance, and the general tone of the evening.... The experienced piano bar player knows how to take genial control of most any situation and generally keep the party going.
The American minimalist composer Terry Riley, who worked as a cocktail pianist when younger, later offered this "religious" view of the profession:
Having worked for years as a lounge lizard, I was smitten with the insight that the cocktail pianist is signaled out to conduct his ritual of group urban chanting on the themes of love and existence—a kind of medicine man at the ever-present altaric piano, surrounded by his boozy tribe sipping sacraments in the circle of our common misery.
The Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs presents annually several awards, MAC Awards, for piano bar performers: Piano Bar Instrumentalist, Restaurant/Hotel Lounge Instrumentalist, Piano Bar/Restaurant Singing Entertainer – male and female.
There are several types of piano bars:
- Instrumental only: the professional piano/keyboard player plays strictly instrumental music, which is usually classical, semi-classical, or easy listening; this type of piano bar is often found in hotel lobby lounges or fine dining restaurants and upscale bars.
- Only the musician sings: the professional piano/keyboard player sings to his/her accompaniment, usually on microphone, but no other singers are generally allowed. Examples include Carousel Piano Bar & Lounge.
- Musician and waiters sing: the professional musician sings and also invites waiters to sing solos.
- Sing-along: patrons surrounding the piano/keyboard sing as a group, usually without microphones, often preferring standards and show tunes, or very old songs like "Down By The Old Mill Stream", "Bicycle Built For Two", etc., but in some cases pop or rock. It is "a social venue for singing". Examples include Marie's Crisis Cafe and The Duplex in Greenwich Village.
- Dueling pianos: usually on stage with two grand pianos, each played by a professional player who sings and entertains; humor and audience participation are prevalent. Usually these types of piano bars have substantial sound systems, and most of the songs performed are rock and roll, classic rock, Top 40, R&B or country, sometimes played by request. The format is based on dueling piano entertainments offered at Pat O'Brien's Bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. Numerous popular clubs offer the sing-along format, while Howl at the Moon Piano Bar, Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Pianos (in New York City) and the The Big Bang Dueling Piano Bar feature full performance shows, often with singing and dancing by their wait staff.
- Open mic: individual patrons sing (on microphone) to the accompaniment of the professional musician; in some ways, this type of piano bar is like karaoke, except that the music is live and dynamic, and there are usually no lyrics available (although some piano bar players do supply some lyrics); like karaoke, the songs performed may cover a wide, eclectic range (show tunes, standards from the 1920s forward, jazz, country, R&B, rock'n'roll, blues, folk, soul, disco, hip-hop, etc.); the patron singers are usually called to the microphone in a rotating order; often, each singer is allowed 2 or 3 songs each time he/she is called to perform. The Alley in Oakland, California, uses this format.
- Combination: some piano bars include the characteristics of two or more of the above, either on different nights or combined on the same night.
- Cab Kaye's Jazz Piano Bar in Amsterdam where Cab Kaye performed, when not touring, five nights a week from 1979 until 1988
- Harry's New York Bar in Paris and its piano bar "Ivories" where George Gershwin composed An American in Paris
- Rick's Café Casablanca in Casablanca, Morocco, designed to recreate the bar made famous in the film Casablanca
- Wild Pianos is a mobile dueling pianoshow in the Netherlands. Able to perform at any location.
- Lounge music
- Swenson, John. "Pat O'Brien's: The Song Remains the Same", offbeat.com, August 20, 2012
- Kenrick, John. "Around Karen Miller's Piano", Musicals101: The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film
- Liner notes to Terry Riley and Zeitgeist, Intuitive Leaps (Work Music London, 1994).
- Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs
- Alavattam, Kris. "Play us a song at the piano bar", Swocol.com, Cox Ohio Publishing (Dayton, Ohio), May 05, 2008
- Maltese, Racheline. "New York City Favorite: Rose's Turn", gather.com, December 28, 2006
- Howl at the Moon website
- Big Bang Dueling Piano Bar
- List of duelling piano bars, Piano Bars Worldwide Guide, accessed 9 February 2010