[JPL] Once a N.Y. jazz phenom, blind pianist Alex Kallao shines in S.F.

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Thu Dec 27 06:59:51 EST 2007


Once a N.Y. jazz phenom, blind pianist Alex Kallao shines in S.F.
Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Alex Kallao, a dazzling pianist who made a big noise in New York 50 years
ago and then vanished from the scene, sat at an upright piano tucked in the
corner of a bustling French bistro in San Francisco, pouring out melodies
that swirled through the constant buzz of chattering voices and clinking

A small man in a dark suit and wraparound shades, Kallao, who's blind,
seemed oblivious to the noise as he spun blues-flecked arabesques through
"Willow Weep for Me" and caressed "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."

"I hear the crowd, but I just focus on what I'm doing. I become possessed by
the music and what I feel at the time," Kallao said one night last week
between sets at Chez Spencer on 14th Street. He plays there for the dinner
crowd Wednesday through Saturday.

A prodigy who began at the age of 3 and was playing classical music and jazz
professionally in his early teens, Kallao was a sensation in Manhattan in
the mid-1950s. Billed as "the blind piano genius" or "the next Art Tatum" -
a reference to the nearly blind jazz piano giant - Kallao and his group
played top clubs opposite Ella Fitzgerald and Erroll Garner, toured the
country and opened for Count Basie at Carnegie Hall.

But when his first marriage fell apart, he left New York and the national
limelight for Detroit, where he'd grown up. He remarried, had three kids and
supported them by playing local spots like the London Chop House and the
Hotel Pontchartrain's Top of the Pontch, as well as the occasional symphonic
gig (he performed Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with the Detroit Symphony
under Walter Poole's baton).

For the past two decades, Kallao has been living alternately in Las Vegas,
where two of his three grown children are, and San Francisco, where he
jobbed around in the '90s and where he has returned to revive his career.
Born blind, he suffered a series of setbacks over the past few years - he
was laid low by sciatica, back surgery and the loss of much of his hearing -
but made up his mind to get back in the game.

"If Helen Keller can start from scratch, why should I give up?" says Kallao,
75, a gentleman with a sweet smile. "There's no reason I can't survive and
do what I do." He's sitting in the tidy O'Farrell Street apartment where he
has two pianos, an upright and a Baldwin grand, and rides a stationary bike.

The hearing loss makes it harder, "but I know that when you hear me play,
you can't tell that I have impaired hearing," says the pianist, who wears
hearing aids in both ears. "I still play the piano like I have perfect
hearing, don't I?"

Anybody who's heard Kallao (a Hungarian name pronounced "call-ay-o") at Chez
Spencer or Moose's, where he usually works Sunday and Monday, would say yes.
He brings forth Ellington and Gershwin medleys, de Falla's "Ritual Fire
Dance" and a Bach-laced "Autumn Leaves" with equal fluency. His playing is
informed by Tatum, Rachmaninoff, Garner, Horowitz and Bill Evans.

Born in Braddock, Pa., Kallao was first tutored by his father, a
professional pianist who saw to it his son studied with the best teachers,
including Gyorgy Sandor of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and
Robert Goldsand at the Manhattan School of Music. Young Alex attended a
school for the blind, where he learned braille, but quit before graduating
from high school.

"They weren't interested in my talent, so I quit and went out and started
playing," says Kallao, who takes cabs to gigs and gets some help from
LightHouse for the Blind and a friend and caregiver. He learned to play jazz
like most musicians, listening to records and radio. He was big on Tatum,
Garner and Teddy Wilson.

"It came naturally," Kallao says. "I would hear things and emulate them."

At 15, he was working Detroit clubs with future jazz stars like guitarist
Kenny Burrell, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Elvin Jones. A gypsy
fiddler friend urged him to go to New York. His father took him there when
he was 18, and in no time he was working at top-drawer joints like the
Embers, where in 1954 he recorded "An Evening at the Embers" with the
stellar duo of bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Don Lamond. The same year, he
was profiled by Time magazine, which hailed the newcomer who was "dazzling
customers with his flashing piano pyrotechnics."

The venerable New York jazz critic Ira Gitler hadn't heard Kallao's name in
nearly a half a century. He was intrigued to learn the pianist had surfaced
in San Francisco.

"He had his moment in New York, where he made a big impression as a pianist,
then seemed to just disappear," Gitler says.

Kallao, who didn't record for decades - he released his "In the Midst of
Miracles" CD on his own label in 2003 and sells it at gigs - doesn't like to
dwell on the past.

He made the choice to leave New York, settle down and raise a family, "and I
don't regret that," he says, although he split from his wife, Norma. "My
family was the joy of my life, and my children are doing very well." His
daughter Deanna works for Ramada Hotels in Atlanta, her twin brother, David,
is in real estate in Las Vegas, and their older brother, Franz, is a vice
president at the Mirage Hotel there.

"My dad has overcome so much adversity in his life, it's amazing," says
David Kallao, who, along with his mother, persuaded his father to move here.
There wasn't that much work for the pianist in Las Vegas and it was hard for
him to get around. San Francisco is not only a more musical town, it's also
"more empathetic toward people with disabilities."

Laurent Katgely, the chef who owns Chez Spencer, calls Kallao "part of the
family. I love his playing, and so do the people. You can ask him for any
song, and he goes for it. It's a blessing to have him here. It really adds
something to the restaurant."

Kallao worries about his hearing, but it doesn't keep him from practicing
his craft.

"I'm back in San Francisco where I belong," he says, "in a city that
appreciates music."

E-mail Jesse Hamlin at jhamlin at sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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