Pianist Henry Kearse has a simple mission – and an easy way to measure if he is succeeding at it.
I wish to make everyone happier, if I can, with something I can play. If I come up with a song out of the blue that means nothing to anyone, then I’ll play it once and then I’ll go on to another song. I want audience satisfaction. That’s proven by the tip cup, silly as it sounds – if the tips are good, you’ve been a success, if they’re not there – well go home and study some more.
He might owe that attitude in part to the first musician he remembers hearing: “Mr. Piano” Roger Williams.
My mother was the influence – she had a Magnavox Victrola, brand new in stereo - when I was a young boy. She used to play Roger Williams on it every morning. When I woke up, I woke up to Roger Williams. He played just about every song there was. In the old format. From 1900 to 1940, 1950. With the occasional new song, but mostly in that old format. So all the songs were absorbed by me, without any effort. Then when I wanted to play one on the piano, I just remembered how it goes, I would just play the melody, and play it with chords that I improvised myself, and it’s worked out pretty well for me.
Kearse has become a bit of a piano character himself; he’s also known as “Honky Tonk Henry” and he can often be seen late at night at The Little Theatre Café, playing the piano for tips after the band of the evening has wrapped up their set.
He took to music at a very young age, but not to reading music, which he likens to learning to type.
At the age of 6 – my mother decided that I was going to become a pianist. And, I studied for 6 years, under a lady by the name of Cecelia Pohler, private instructor – I learned how to read music, I learned how to play music. And at the age of 12, my mother came into the living room and said, “You don’t like what you’re doing, do you?"
She said, "it’s good news: your music teacher said you’ve had all your theory, so you can go off on your own now. No more lessons." And that was my heyday; since then, I’ve been practicing.
He kept playing through the years, even when he went to Korea in the Army, then worked as a radio DJ for a spell in California and ran a TV repair shop for 20 years on South Clinton in Rochester.
Then 15 years ago, he started playing around Rochester, starting with a gig at Bullwinkle's on Lake Avenue, encouraged by the club's accordion-playing owner, Betty Meyer.
If you see him out, perhaps late night at The Little Theatre cafe or another place with a welcoming piano, go ahead and make a request. He likes Scott Joplin, honky tonk music from the 1920s and 30s, and anything with a good melody. Though you probably won't hear much jazz on his playlist.
I don’t condone or play jazz. I think the only jazz worth it was Dixieland jazz – now that has spirit to it. The regular jazz is all “down” to me – and I don’t like to be down with music. Except, I would have to say – Gap and Chuck Mangione. Chuck with his song – he had one big hit, it was very good – and it didn’t sound like jazz – it sounded like, melody!
Listen to more musical stories and memories in the recording our interview below. Here's one last bit of philosophy from "Honky Tonk" Henry.
Music has control of the world...Music will never really be denied – there will always be somebody picking up a twig or something and twinking it and producing a sound which can be accompanied by the voice, and there will be music all the time. And music always tells the truth – it doesn’t tell lies. Consequently If I want the news, I’ll listen to the music…and then listen to the news.