The music in Cape May died Thursday, April 12, 2012 with the sudden passing of jazz musician George Mesterhazy, just days after celebrating his 59th birthday. His loss will be felt for a very long time.
It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday and the dinner crowd is shuffling in. There’s a man at the bar nursing a tonic and gin, but he pauses when the man at the piano begins.
The man sitting at the baby grand has a silver mane and thick glasses. He bends over the keys playing all the regular songs the diners like to hear, from Lara’s Theme, to Memories to The Lady is a Tramp.
Soon the prospective diners crowd The Merion Inn’s bar until they are standing in front of the piano and the man is obscured – his music the only audible proof of his presence. And it is curious to watch because, on this particular Saturday at the end of June, the diners are not the regular crowd, but mostly tourists who probably don’t even know that the man at the piano is George Mesterhazy. That he accompanied Shirley Horn at Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Opera House in 2003, and again at Lincoln Center in 2004 when she appeared with Ahmad Jamal. That he arranged, played guitar and piano on Horn’s 1997 album Loving You, which received a Grammy nomination, as well as doing the orchestration and piano accompaniment for Horn’s 2003 Grammy nominee album May the Music Never End. And that on Tuesday nights in the summer around 10 o’clock when the dinner rush subsides, he plays what he loves – jazz.
The room George plays in is dark and moody. It would be smokey if that were still allowed. There are a few dining tables placed in front of the baby grand piano. The bar is made of Hondoran mahogany and tiger oak pillars and stained with a cherry veneer. It is reminiscent of another era. Of a time when men wore hats and women gloves. Oil paintings and watercolors cover the walls, most particularly a black and white oil by George Gibbs which hangs on the wall next to where George plays. The paintings, along with stained glass windows and much of the decor was purchased by Warren Watson who took over The Merion Inn in 1970 when he moved Watson’s Restaurant from Wildwood to its Decatur Street location in Cape May.
Vicki Watson took over The Merion Inn in 1992 after her father’s death. She didn’t want to be a restaurateur. She already had a successful law career in Manhattan. As executrix of Warren Watson’s will she tried to abide by her father’s wishes and sell The Merion Inn, but the restaurant was losing so much money by then that there were no takers.
“I couldn’t afford not to run it,” she said. As a daughter, she had more invested in trying to make the restaurant work. Her grandparents, along with her great-grandmother, opened their doors in the 1940s with their own pots and pans from their Philadelphia kitchen.
But the history of The Merion Inn goes back a lot farther than 1970. The Merion Inn occupies the first floor in a large Victorian house, built in 1885 by Patrick Collins as a boarding villa. By 1900, Collins had expanded his business, which he called Collins Café, by serving food, specializing in seafood, whiskey and Milwaukee beer.
Andrew Zillinger, chief steward of the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia’s Main Line, bought the inn from Collins in 1905, changing the name to The Merion. Zillinger commissioned the mahogany bar to be built in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1904 and brought it with him when he purchased The Merion.
The Merion Inn has now been in continuous operation for 122 years. So, how did Vicki, with no background in food preparation, other than that absorbed by the daughter of a restaurateur, turn it around? “The music,” she said simply and without hesitation.
“I was looking for some hook I could use to advertise the place. Everybody always uses the best…as in ‘We have the best seafood, the best steaks.’ The music gave us something to advertise. My brother and I love music and I decided to put a piano in the bar and have a singer Wednesdays and Thursdays. I wanted to give people a reason to keep coming back.”
Vicki brought in Rosemary Benson to sing from time to time. Rosemary used George Mesterhazy as her accompanist. Eventually Mesterhazy became the full-time piano man and brought in his Steinway replacing the $400 piano Vicki originally purchased and costing her two more dinner tables. But the additional revenue from the bar sales paid for the musicians and set The Merion Inn apart from other restaurants in Cape May. Soon, Vicki and George became an item as well. With the music, came a new clientele. Then old timers returned.
When news of George’s Tuesday Night Jazz gig got around town six years ago, locals, tourists and cottagers found themselves drifting in.
At 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night in mid-June, seats at the bar are already filling up. The musicians who will be sitting-in are having dinner at a table in front of the baby grand. George plays a set of Broadway tunes, including Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin hits for the remaining diners and occasionally talks to the musicians.
Tim Lekan, a Tuesday night regular, will be on bass; Bobby Shomo on drums; and Paul Jost on vocals. When they start to set-up, one wonders where they’ll fit all this equipment – a full set of drums; a stand-up bass, including a quiver for the bow; and a mike for the singer. But like a well executed stage set, a table is removed. A drum set comes together. The mike goes behind the drums, and the bass player hugs the piano.
An empty seat is open at the far end of the bar nearer the dining rooms and farther away from the piano. Esther is sitting at the bar. She has already had dinner and thinks she should leave, but wants to stay and hear the combo. She is from New York and was supposed to come down to Cape May with her friend, Annette Sanders. Annette is a jazz singer – “Correction,” George says later, “Annette is an outstanding jazz singer.” George surely would have asked her to sit in with the band for a song or two, but a death in the family prevented Annette from coming down. Esther came anyway. She watches as a photographer tries to capture the mood of the room, which is happy, energetic and filled with the anticipation of a new summer about to begin. The room is a nice mix of both locals and tourists. The diners have pretty much vacated the white linen-clad tables, and are sitting, listening with an intensity usually reserved for the theater.
Jost sings scat and the music is smooth. The scene has the feel of a New York basement night club, but patrons are not dressed in high-tone black, but rather casual, colorful seashore tones.
The first set ends. The musicians talk music until the second set begins.
The next Tuesday, the musicians’ table is mostly a different mix. Tim Lekan, as usual, will be on bass. Another regular, Barry Miles will be on drums. George, says Barry, is actually a world-renowned jazz pianist who often accompanied Roberta Flack. He was a child prodigy on both the piano and drums. Sometimes George likes to switch with Barney and let him play piano, while George takes the drums. Alto saxophone player Dr. Bob Rawlins, another frequent visitor, will be sitting in tonight. Also joining the combo is a 20-something trumpet player by the name of John Barnes, a protégée of Dr. Bob, who heads the music department at Rowan University, where George teaches in the winter. And when they set up, the trumpet player leans against the wall near the piano leading out to the Decatur Room. The sax player stands close to George and the bass player stands close to the piano.
It’s a different crowd tonight, some locals, mostly out-of-towners. Gigi and Dave, visiting from New York, sit next to Sal. Their daughter goes to college in New Orleans and they’ve become jazz fans. They were surprised last summer when they booked a dinner reservation at The Merion and discovered George at the piano. Mary Carrington from Syracuse, New York, is a piano teacher and a frequent visitor to Cape May.
When the combo starts playing, the listeners are again transported to a smoke-filled New York nightclub. Sometimes in a bar people talk over the musicians and never hear the music, it being background for their conversations. No one talks at The Merion. If they do, it is in hushed tones, the way you would whisper at a classical concert. A different photographer is taking pictures of the musicians, with their permission, while they play, and the listening patrons express their discontent with the intrusion. The audience politely applauds for each soloist
At the break, George, Dr. Bob and Tim talk music. They talk about excellence in chords, synchronicity, bridges, A-flat versus A-flat minor and when they begin the second set, they play a version of Ray Henderson’s Bye Bye Blackbird that bows the heads of those listening.
The crowd at the July 3rd Tuesday Night Jazz session is mostly local. Anyone who has lived in town for a few years could easily go around the bar and name everyone there –Cape May is just that small a town. There’s a city councilman (a restaurateur himself} sitting at the bar with his pretty wife. Sal is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and an Indiana Jones hat this week, and taking up the corner of the bar next to a prominent businesswoman and guesthouse owner. A couple of regulars are seated at the end and talking across the bar to Sal.
It is standing room only, going all the back to the far dining room. The only seats left are in the corner by the bar under the oil painting. The painting is of a gondola. Before Warren bought it, it hung in the Old Lafayette Hotel, now the Marquis de Lafayette on Beach Avenue. Its sister, according to Vickie, is hanging in an insurance office a few blocks away. There is a hole in the bottom of the canvas. Talk around town was that it was a bullet hole. No, said Vicki. Her brother Eric poked a hole in it with his guitar one night.
Looking at the chairs under the painting, one would say – no one could ever fit into this corner, those seats will go empty. And yet, three of the slimmest, blond women in town manage to somehow magically fit right into them as though it were a custom fit.
The trio playing tonight is comprised of George’s core guys – Tim Lekan on bass; Barry Miles on drums. The busy chatter dies down and when they play the music is so smooth, it is hypnotic. By 11 o’clock, they were cookin’. Body and Soul and What a Difference a Day Makes end the set, and everyone in that room knows they are listening to musical excellence for the cost of a cocktail.
How does he do it? How can The Merion afford so many musicians? What determines how many will play or when they will play?
“Basically,” said George, “I save up my tips from playing the dinner crowd, and that’s how I manage it. If I get some good tips, I can bring in more guys.”
On any given night when dinner is being served, or jazz night is about to begin, the regulars – be they locals or visitors – glance over as they walk into the bar to see if the man with the silver mane is at the piano. Then they look up to see who the familiar face is behind the bar – Cody, Carol, or John. Vicki’s brother Eric used to bartend but is taking the summer off this year. They thank Betty, Richard, or Janis as they are ushered to their seat and glance up to see if Vicki is in the room, because coming to The Merion Inn isn’t like coming into a restaurant, it’s like coming home.