This is the sixth anniversary of one of my all time favorite feature stories.
A Ballad of New York, Lived and Played for All
By Martin Johnson
Updated Aug. 18, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET
Stephanie Stone is probably the only up-and-coming 89-year-old pianist on the New York jazz scene. Ms. Stone, who performed in the 1940s and ’50s, when clubs were ubiquitous in the city, has appeared regularly in the past few years with some of today’s leading jazz musicians.
In between, for more than four decades, she and her husband, the jazz scene regular Irving Stone, were among the most ardent lovers of experimental jazz. Their presence in the audience of a gig, whether at a top concert hall or an out-of-the-way dive, was a near guarantee of a quality show. Irving passed away seven years ago, and since then Ms. Stone has been performing more often—and making an impression. She’s had offers to record with bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, two of the leading rhythm players in jazz.
Ms. Stone, shown in an undated photo, has been performing since the 1940s. ENLARGE
Ms. Stone, shown in an undated photo, has been performing since the 1940s. Radhika Chalasani for the Wall Street Journal
On Wednesday night, Ms. Stone will appear on a program called “Three New York Women” at the Stone in the East Village. She will perform solo and in accompaniment of the poets Yuko Otomo and Eve Packer. Note the name of the venue: John Zorn, its founder and a highly respected saxophonist and composer, named the space for Irving, but he and his wife were an inseparable presence at numerous performances.
“They were the Godparents of the scene,” said Bruce Gallanter, founder and co-owner of Downtown Music Gallery, a record store in Chinatown that specializes in progressive rock, avant-garde jazz, and modern classical music. Mr. Gallanter fondly recalled meeting the Stones in the mid ’70s at a seedy West Village venue called Studio Henry. “They had demanding tastes,” Mr. Gallanter said by phone last week. “They had heard all the greats from the bebop era; they knew if you could play or were just fooling around.”
Ms. Stone hadn’t just heard them; she shared bills with these greats. Born in 1921 to parents who sang mostly as a hobby, Ms. Stone grew up on what is now the outskirts of Brooklyn’s Borough Park. She is mostly self-taught on the piano, but was rigorous in her approach. “I collected song sheets,” she said one recent afternoon in her Midwood apartment. “I taught myself 100 songs or more that way.”
Ms. Stone moved to Manhattan in the ’40s and quickly found work in nightclubs both in Midtown and in Greenwich Village.
“Back then there were nightclubs everywhere—two or three on every block,” she recalled. Initially her jobs were offstage; one was as the “camera girl,” offering to photograph patrons and having the shots developed for sale by the time the show was over. One night, while taking pictures for Kelly’s Stables (which was located on 52nd St., a famed strip of nightclubs), Ms. Stone was asked by the owner to fill in for an ailing singer in one of the acts that preceded legendary tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. It was her big break. Before long she was singing and playing piano in clubs all over New York City.
Pianist and vocalist Stephanie Stone outside the downtown club the Stone, which was named for her late husband and where she will perform Wednesday.
This led to several years of engagements both in the city and out. She played gigs in New Jersey and as far away as Birmingham, Ala. “Back then there were so many nightclubs that if you were a musician, you couldn’t not work,” she said.
She met her husband through mutual friends, and their passion for jazz was an immediate bond. For their first date they attended a 1957 performance by the legendary Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. The couple continued to follow the music as the cutting edge moved from the posh venues to dives. Mr. Gallanter fondly recalled gigs where he and the Stones were in audiences so small they didn’t break single digits.
Ms. Stone now plays at many of the venues where she hears her favorite musicians—Cornelia St. Café, Local 269 and her namesake venue. During a June 30th performance at the Stone, she led a trio and sang a program of standards. Her piano style was particularly compelling. She performed several warhorses like “Body and Soul” and “All
The Things You Are.” Rather than use the familiar tunes as a showcase for dazzling virtuosity, Ms. Stone guided the listeners into the nuances of the songs, using her solos to reveal the standard’s pensive sides. But every piece started with a few self-effacing words.
“She acts like she’s not very good,” said Mr. Gallanter, “but she can really play.”
Ms. Stone dismisses the notion that jazz’s peak phase is over. “Oh, there are so many,” she said, slapping her forehead in exasperation when asked to name some of today’s musicians who can stand among the greats. She rattled off Mr. Zorn, saxophonist Tim Berne, violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier before begging off the task for fear of forgetting too many favorites.
Her biggest regret is not being able to get to as many shows as she used to. “You have to keep your ears open,” she said of her quest to hear new innovative sounds. “That’s how you keep your mind open.”
—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.