Mt. Airy pianist, 'Artist of Month' and year-round bridge-builder

by Alma Cook
Posted 7/30/21

Lou Walinsky is 88 keys of pure American joy. A pianist, arranger and improviser, Lou has spent the last 40 years building his repertoire into a musical melting pot.

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Mt. Airy pianist, 'Artist of Month' and year-round bridge-builder

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Lou Walinsky is 88 keys of pure American joy. A pianist, arranger and improviser, Lou has spent the last 40 years building his repertoire into a musical melting pot: he’s got Gershwin, Billy Joel and Pharrell Williams; he’s got sea chanteys, spirituals and Broadway tunes; he’s got old classics and new classics, a little something for everyone.

Walinsky, 75, has been a Mt. Airy resident for 25 years, and in Germantown for 17 years before that. He was just named Artist of the Month by Braver Angels, a national organization whose goal is to help de-polarize the deep divisions in the U.S. and bring about greater civility among us all.

Throughout his career, he’s witnessed first-hand the power of music to unite every age, gender, race, nationality and political party on the dance floor. It’s hard to bicker with your neighbor, after all, when you’re both tapping your toes in time.

Lou and I chatted about how he came to the keyboard (unintentionally!) through songwriting first. He told me about his stunningly diverse live program, “Piano Works: Solo Piano Interpretations of The Great American Songbook and Beyond,” and what he believes makes a song distinctly American. And we talked about bridge-building, something that continues to be an important motivator in Lou’s musical work and daily life.

It’s an honor to speak with you, Lou! What’s your musical origin story?

I started off studying classical piano at age 9, and I continued with several different teachers through the end of college. By that point, I had also picked up a guitar and a banjo, and – like many of my generation at that time – was playing folk music and writing my own songs as well. When I would perform those songs in clubs, accompanying myself on piano, people were commenting on my piano playing!

My goal had been to use my quite ordinary voice in a way that worked, like what Bob Dylan was able to do. But it was clearly my piano playing that stood out! That was a factor that brought me back to focusing on piano. I studied classical music improvisation at the Dalcroze School of Music in New York City, later studying jazz piano with some great jazz artists in New York. I then started my playing career by working with local bands.

You perform a program called “Piano Works: Solo Piano Interpretations of The Great American Songbook and Beyond.” The repertoire is incredibly diverse— everything from the classic folk song “Shenandoah” to Pharrell’s “Happy.” Tell me how this program came about.

It’s a mix of all the music I have played and all of my life experiences. Music has always spoken to me poignantly and emotionally from all different genres and styles. In addition to being a serious classical musician, I spent years playing “club dates,” which requires knowing a huge number of pop and swing tunes. In addition, I’ve played in jazz and klezmer bands. I love Irish music, reggae, country, Jewish and Latin music, any music that feels soulful to me.

I've been in awe of great solo jazz pianists like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Dick Hyman, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Also classical composers who wrote extraordinary pieces for solo piano, including Chopin, Schumann, Beethoven and Gershwin.

The tunes you play feel so distinctly American (“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Danny Boy,” “Isn’t She Lovely”). What makes a song “American” to you?

My concert program is largely based on The Great American Songbook. While we’ve grown up with the older tunes, the more contemporary standards quickly become part of us as well. The tunes come from the worlds of jazz, swing, pop, folk, country, blues and other genres, and all are much associated with America.

My arrangements include the sea chantey “Shenandoah,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” There’s Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.”

Do you have any favorite political anthems from America’s history? Are you drawn primarily to the message or to the music itself?

I was active in the civil rights movement in high school and college, and I have been influenced by many of the songs from that movement, both the music and the message. Songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Oh Freedom” and “Get On Board That Freedom Train” all resonated with me. I am very inspired by the song known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I was teaching music in the Philly schools in the '90s, and the kids sang that song every day in the morning assembly.

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