Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Piano Man

Singing and smiling at the piano, Matthew sparkles at Jay’s
By Steve Charing

‘Twas the Saturday before Christmas,
When we showed up at Jay’s;
The crowd was so merry,
While the piano men played.

The pub was aglow,
With its holly and lights;
The music resounding,
All through the night.

First Bill played the tunes,
With precision and style;
Then Matthew sat down,
And we all sang and smiled.

Amidst the cozy, holiday atmosphere at Jay’s on Read—the posh Mt. Vernon piano bar that opened this past summer—the regular crowd shuffles in and takes in the fabulous décor of holly and lights and frosty window decorations that had been created by Wayne from the Drinkery. The festive patrons listened and sang to the spirited music performed by Jay’s superb piano players. Oh, and let’s not forget the cheerful staff who makes everyone feel welcome.

It’s a great combination. "Thank God they opened this bar," said Ed, a veteran of the Mt. Vernon scene.

On the Saturday of the Christmas weekend, Bill Forrest entertained during the cocktail hours preceding the 8:30 change of shift, mixing Christmas tunes with other popular favorites. An accomplished pianist with a long pedigree of performing from the West Coast to Holland America Cruise Lines, the Texan has been a pleasant addition to Jay’s. "Bill is a great pianist," said Jay Lamont, the owner of the pub, which to many possesses a "New York" ambiance.

But on this night, according to the rotating schedule, the next pianist, Matthew Kenworthy, took the small stage at 8:30—a railed-in platform that is dominated by the recently tuned piano and a handy music library. He immediately led off his set with a rousing rendition of "Carols of the Bells," which elicited a loud ovation. After a brief, pleasant greeting, Matthew broke into Cole Porter’s "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" followed immediately by Elton John’s "Your Song," and the growing crowd was captivated.

Jay is enthusiastic about his two popular pianists. "They have similar qualities who are unlike each other. That’s the magic," he explains.

Matthew Kenworthy, 30, also has a solid background in piano bar experience. He has played in a variety of venues in the mid-Atlantic area before coming to Baltimore to work at Jay’s just a few short weeks ago. Since then, he, along with Bill Forrest, is amassing a strong fan base, which is increasing steadily.

And it’s not only gay customers who appreciate Matthew’s performances. "Matty is very talented, very entertaining, and is a sweet guy," said Cindi, who with her husband, enjoyed their night at Jay’s. She has seen him perform in Philadelphia and at Partners in Rehoboth.

The patrons love his easy smile and his uncanny ability to connect with the audience. Jonathan, one of the younger customers that night, also saw Matthew play at Partners. "He accommodates the audience really well," he said. "He tailors his varying musical selections according to the age group in the audience on a given night."

Owner Jay Lamont counts himself as a fan, too. "Matthew’s like a firebug—he glows. He loves playing the piano and the set-up of the room," Jay said. "He has the ability to draw you in and make you laugh." Jay is referring to Matthew’s mischievous injection of comical lyrics in a song when no one is expecting it.

Matthew Kenworthy, born and raised in Southern New Jersey, always tinkered on the piano, but didn’t get his first one in the house until he was 15. He is a self-taught pianist with only 10 lessons. During his spare time at high school and college, he enjoyed playing the instrument he loves, although he was also involved with the clarinet and keyboard percussion instruments like the xylophone.

He went on to college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he was a Design and Fine Arts major. There he learned about musical theater from working with musical theater majors, helping with accompaniment and just having fun in his spare time. Matthew took a small job after college playing piano at a small restaurant and moved on to play at the Raven in New Hope for a year before playing at a variety of venues in Philadelphia for six years.

It was there where Matthew really got it going at piano bar entertainment. "I credit my dear friend John Flynn for showing me how to entertain and have fun with people," he said. John still plays in Philadelphia and Rehoboth Beach.

Matthew spent the next two years at Partners in Rehoboth. He heard about Jay’s when he arrived in Baltimore less than two months ago and was thrilled. "I love the people in Baltimore and the warmth of the atmosphere at work," he beams. "I walked in and felt like the place was really built for me. Everything was just perfect."

He noted that the Baltimore crowd enjoys the old classics. "Gay men are more demanding, er, specific (smiles) in their requests and have a special attachment to Broadway show tunes," Matthew said sipping a cup of coffee prior to his shift. "As they drink more, they tend to sing along." Asked what the most popular requests have been, without hesitation he rattled off, "Cabaret," "Piano Man," and "All That Jazz."

Matthew’s versatility—both in his piano playing and his singing—has been a big plus. "I have learned much about music through actually working it," he says. "Most everything I know has been as a result of learning music from my job—listening to recordings, learning stories and backgrounds about famous musicians and composers." He does not have a great deal of classical training, but he loves listening to classical piano and orchestras.

He is devoted to faith and family. Matthew has a twin brother who is also gay and a musician. He also has a younger married brother. His parents live in Cleveland where he traveled following his stint at Jay’s that Saturday.

"I strongly believe in God, and that each day there are angels present in life which have guided me in a whirlwind of directions so that the excitement and happiness have been and will always be a part of my life."

Matthew feels that doing what he is doing for a living is a truly God-given blessing. "Fame never interested me," he says. "In fact, I never thought ten years ago that this would be my career."

For his growing number of fans it has been fortunate that Matthew is on this path. "I wish to continue to make people smile. I hope people are having fun around me."

That they are.

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