He’s played lounge piano near fistfights. He’s played when a Michelle Pfeiffer wannabe slithered across his instrument during “Makin’ Whoopee.” He’s played in empty clubs. He’s played while trying to watch an NBA playoff game airing silently on the big-screen TV over his shoulder.
He’s been told, “Play it again, Sam” so many times that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Yet David Bicknase smiles and accommodates all requests for “As Time Goes By” from “Casablanca.”
Or “Memory.” Or “Candle in the Wind.” Or “Piano Man.” Or anything by Duke Ellington – man, Bicknase loves Sir Duke.
“I’ll play everything,” Bicknase says, “but rap and opera.”
Since the mid-’80s, Bicknase, 49, has earned his living largely by working as a lounge pianist. In an era of karaoke machines, it’s an occupation as rare as a manual typewriter repairman.
Bicknase is not surprised.
“You’re doing a solo act, but it’s not a concert so you get little response,” he says. “I’ve learned over the years playing well isn’t enough. You’ve got to have a polite personality.
“And if you want your music to be salt of the earth, dress like Neil Young. If you want to play in fancy hotels and entertain people who don’t know much about music, you have to dress up.”
So sporting a sharp suit and black shoes, shined to such a degree they’re like a spotlight, Bicknase performs at Austin’s lounge in Crowne Plaza on Madison’s east side. He’s played there for 11 years on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights.
Bicknase also plays at the Cove Lounge in Edgewater Hotel and brunches at both locations on alternating Sundays.
That’s 22 1/2 hours per week playing piano.
Play it again and again, David.
“I have six or seven hours up here,” Bicknase says, pointing to his head and mentioning he doesn’t have a set list.
Like most nights, he plays at Austin’s while a whirlwind of activity surrounds him. The hotel’s piano, which is quick to go out of tune, sits near the bar surrounded by tables of talking businessmen.
Waitresses swerve to avoid spilling Long Island ice tea on the piano keys.
About 15 feet behind him is Pearl’s, a loud sports bar that offers a drink called a mudslide tonight for $3.
Bicknase doesn’t sing, and there’s no microphone. But he makes small talk on occasion.
“I’m just trying to put a smile on someone’s face when they’re sitting down with a drink,” he says. “It loosens stress in them.”
When there’s rare applause after a tune, Bicknase casually draws the person into conversation.
“I used to ask, `Would you like to hear something?’ But that puts people on the spot. Now I say, `Let me know if you want to hear something.’ ”
Tonight, the two dozen people at Austin’s are straight from meetings by New York Life Insurance. They’re talkative – to each other.
Bicknase tosses Ellington’s “Satin Doll” at them and wins some smiles.
He nods under his hat, a trademark black Caribbean one with a white ribbon around it.
“I asked a woman playing piano years ago at the Edgewater why she wore this beautiful Easter bonnet-type hat while playing. She said, `They remember me with this hat.’ And now people remember me from my hat.”
Bicknase – who’s married with a 5-year-old son (he has two other adult children) – says playing piano means living “check to check.” He supplements his income with home lessons and additional piano gigs.
He’s paid a guaranteed fee by the Crowne Plaza and Edgewater, and he says tips range from $5 to $40 nightly in a jar, placed on the piano, that could fit a cantaloupe.
“David is the lounge pianist,” says Amy Bodden, Crowne Plaza’s food and beverage manager. “There’s such a variety to what he plays, classic rock to songs from the ’20s.”
Bodden adds one other kudo for Bicknase – he’s played at both of her weddings, she says.
Starting piano lessons at age 5, Bicknase moved in 1970 to Madison, where he played in a variety of bands, rock to dance to country, with names such as Big Bodacious, Romance and Alonzo Foxx.
When Wisconsin reduced its drinking age, it became harder to find good-paying band jobs.
“And you had to travel further and further,” Bicknase says.
So he turned to lounges. His first regular gig was at the Mayflower Lounge, near the Beltline Highway and Park Street. That’s where he played while drinks were thrown in people’s faces, fights took place and patrons occasionally passed out.
It’s also where a former theatrical performer – “a grandfather-ish type,” Bicknase says – would stand alongside the piano and sing “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Everyone just froze when he would start. It was a showstopper.”
Bicknase still writes his own music and slips an original tune into his lounge gigs. He also self-financed the recording and production of seven cassettes.
With 800 copies sold, he adds, he’s “about $15 from breaking even.”
Sure, he’d like big-time music execs to hear him play and send his career into hyperspace. But he’s enjoying himself.
“This is what I love to do,” he says.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do, even when they’re older. I knew from an early age that I wanted to perform music. I was advised so many times that I shouldn’t do this because you can’t make a great living at it.
“But I’m a happier person doing this than any other job.”