Nearly 50 years Playing Nyc's club Dates
For Ray Cohen of Local 802 (New York City), making music doesn't involve synthesizers, digital recorders, or crews of stage technicians. This is because Cohen is the product of a simpler time in the music business, before iPods, CDs, and even Elvis Presley. With a love for American classics, combined with incredible skill, this New York City-based pianist boasts an impressive career. Born in Brooklyn, Cohen developed a love for music at the age of three, when he would listen to songs on the radio and replicate them on the piano. When he discovered he had perfect pitch, he began to study with a private teacher to build his technique. In 1951, at age 13, Cohen performed in concert at Steinway Hall. This marked the highlight of his classical career, Cohen says. That's because, after Steinway Hall, Cohen began to move in a different direction musically. The shift happened after Cohen listened to a record by Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. "It just blew me away, and I realized jazz pianists have so much more freedom to interpret and be creative than classical pianists, who pretty much have to play the notes the composer wrote," Cohen explains. With this realization, he began performing popular songs of the time at small local venues like American Legion halls. Still in his adolescence, the reward for these gigs was meager at best, consisting of a few dollars and some refreshments. "I got the five dollars, I got the ham and cheese sandwich, and I've been hooked ever since," he says. "I haven't stopped playing at parties, although the menu's a bit higher class now than ham and cheese." From 1953 to 1964 Cohen spent his summers in the Catskill Mountains, building his repertoire while playing the area hotels. After graduating from Columbia University with a bachelor's degree in music, Cohen needed to make a decision regarding his personal style. While he enjoyed playing jazz, the New York City jazz scene was a bit overwhelming. "I realized that the life of a jazz musician was a life that I didn't really feel comfortable with-playing smoke-filled clubs, drinking, and working till three or four in the morning, and not making the kind of money that was as exciting as playing your neighbor's daughter's wedding," he explains. For these reasons, Cohen entered the New York City "club-date" field-a circuit for musicians in the city to play one night, single engagements. Cohen focused on performing at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and debutant Ray Cohen of Local 802 (New York City) has been playing in the New York City club-date scene for nearly 50 years. balls across the city. He performed either by himself, with a small trio, or even with a large ensemble, depending on the event. "Everything was live music. That was the great part about it-there wasn't music coming out of elevators or walls yet," says Cohen. "Live music was a very important part of any party." As word of his abilities spread, Cohen began getting booked for bigger gigs. At age 72, he looks back on the highlights, which include performances for Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, the inaugurations of two US presidents, the 75th birthday party of Richard Rogers, of Rogers and Hammerstein, and work as pianist for Frank Sinatra from 1975 to 1980. Also, for 14 years, until 2010, Cohen was the pianist at The Palace hotel in New York City. As part of Derek and Ray, a duet he formed with pianist Derek Smith, Cohen performed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as The Mike Douglas Show and he produced five albums, four with RCA Victor records and one with Mercury Records. Cohen, now in his ninth year as pianist for crooner Vic Damone, continues to perform in New York City. He says his membership in the AFM, and the financial benefits it provides, have allowed him to continue doing what he loves and living comfortably. "Most importantly, at this age, I have a pension that eases the road in the later years," he states. "Without a union, I would not be nearly as comfortable." For the future, Cohen foresees himself being more selective in his choice of gigs though he doesn't see retirement coming any time soon. "If the phone rings and someone wants to hire me for next week, then I'm not retired," he says. International Musician 21
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