This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife in New York.
Whether you’re sipping on $20 cocktails in dimly lit lounges or bidding on song requests at a lively dueling piano show, there is apparently one tune that unites every piano bar in New York City.
“Go ahead and whip out ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton,” said Nate Buccieri, a pianist who plays weekly at Brandy’s on the Upper East Side, Don’t Tell Mama in Midtown and the Duplex in Greenwich Village. “Everyone’s going to be like, ‘OH, MY GOD!’”
“I’ll bust out Vanessa Carlton’s ‘A Thousand Miles’ at the Nines, and the whole room starts singing — it’s crazy!” said Sam Behr, who plays regularly at the Nines in NoHo and Bar Nine in Hell’s Kitchen. “I’m like, ‘Really? You guys?’”
Mr. Buccieri, who’s “gently into his 40s,” as he put it, and Ms. Behr, 27, make a living at these venues, which have been around for decades but are seeing a revival with new performers and listeners. Some of the bars are completely immersive, with singing waiters, bartenders and performers taking requests in exchange for tips, while others are more restrained, with lone pianists playing arrangements of songs from their own playlists.
Ms. Behr started playing at piano bars in 2014, when she was hired at a chain called Howl at the Moon while she was studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Two years later, when a new location opened near Times Square, she moved to New York.
Now, she performs several nights a week at both Bar Nine — a dueling-piano bar where patrons can request anything from Billy Joel to Metallica — and the Nines, a chic, cheetah-carpeted piano bar that opened in January (and draws a voguish crowd, serving a famed $95 potato that’s topped with caviar).
“Oftentimes I’m background music in that room,” she said, describing the more refined ambience at the Nines. “But every once in a while — and it’s even more special when it happens in this room — it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I got these fancy diners to look up around their shoulder and sing along for a second.’”
Some nights, she said, she prefers the rowdy and rapt audiences that Bar Nine attracts, but the low-key vibes at places like the Nines can also be freeing.
“I do prefer a captive audience,” Ms. Behr said. “But at the Nines it almost feels like a dream walking into that room because it’s so opulent and so beautiful.”
“I don’t feel the pressure of a room of ears and eyes really focusing on what I do,” she added. “I just feel appreciated as part of the ambience.”
Konrad Paszkudzki, 33, makes his living as a touring jazz pianist, but when he’s not on the road, he likes to pick up shifts at Melody’s, a bar that opened in April on the Upper East Side. As both a patron and a performer, he said he prefers spaces with live music.
“When someone’s playing live music, and there’s a piano player performing right in front of you, that changes the molecular makeup of the room,” Mr. Paszkudzki said.
He added that his attention to what’s playing is also about preserving the legacy of live music in New York City.
“That’s what New York is all about. You walk into a place and there’s live music, there’s a piano player, there’s jazz playing,” he said. “That’s why I live here — because it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Mr. Buccieri, who often works five nights a week rotating among three piano bars, said that the unpredictability of each night’s crowd keeps his adrenaline flowing.
“When people are like, ‘What do you like to play?’ I’m like ‘I’m a Libra! I like to play everything,’” he said. “I love when it’s like a mix of, this table here wants some old-school, classic show tunes, and they want contemporary show tunes, and these guys want ’90s rap and these guys want Taylor Swift.”
When he’s at the Duplex, Mr. Buccieri will also work alongside other artists, like Taylor-Rey J’Vera, a singer who goes by the stage name T.Rex.
Ms. J’Vera, 32, who performs regularly at the Stonewall Inn and the Duplex, said that she started working for the Duplex after becoming a regular herself.
“We have a lot of regulars who eat alone — every week I know I’m going to see Martin; I’m going to see Mark; I know I’m going to see these people who come in because there’s a family base,” Ms. J’Vera said.
Though she spent a while working with the Harlem Repertory Theater and musical theater programs, Ms. J’Vera said that she shifted to making her living at piano bars after having a baby with her wife. Another benefit of working at these bars, she said, is engaging with the audience.
“When you’re onstage, traditionally the lights are blinding, and you don’t see who’s in front of you and you don’t know them,” she said. “There’s kind of that fourth wall that like separates you.”
“As a performer, I think it’s pretty awesome to be right in the middle of your audience,” she added. “My favorite thing is to kind of get to know the room and go around like, ‘What are you into? What do you like to hear?’”
Ms. Behr, who plays at the Nines and Bar Nine, also said that piano bars offer an unparalleled way to interact with performers.
“It’s an opportunity to see live music, but also to be able to interact in the show,” Ms. Behr said. At other jazz clubs, despite the good music, “there’s really no great opportunity to get involved and communicate with the artists while they’re performing,” she said.
And even at the end of a long night, some of New York’s pianists can’t wait to return the next day.
“If I were to win the lottery, would I want to be obliged to go do a shift? No, but at least I’d be hanging out there,” Mr. Buccieri said with a laugh. “But, I would probably still work there, too.”
where to go
Don’t Tell Mama343 West 46th Street, donttellmamanyc.com
Bar Nine807 Ninth Avenue, bar9ny.com
Uncle Charlie’s Piano Lounge139 East 45th Street, unclecharliesnyc.com
The Townhouse of New York236 East 58th Street, townhouseny.com
Mimi’s Restaurant & Piano Bar, 984 Second Avenue, mimisnyc.com
Shake Rattle & Roll Dueling Pianos320 West 36th Street, shakerattlerollpiano.com
Sid Gold’s Request Room165 West 26th Street, sidgolds.com