George Mesterhazy, a renowned pianist whose soft, intuitive touch made him a favorite of such jazz vocalists as Shirley Horn and Paula West, died on April 12 of natural causes in his home in Cape May, N.J. It was confirmed by his life partner, Vicki Watson. He was 58.
On Sunday afternoon, April 15, a ceremony honoring Mesterhazy was held at the Middle Township Performing Arts Center in the Cape May Courthouse. About 500 people came out to celebrate the life of this respected musician and gentleman of jazz. Poems were read, stories were told and music was played.
The June 3 Cape May Music Festival concert, originally featuring Cape May’s favorite jazz pianist Mesterhazy, will continue on. “We have decided to go ahead with the concert as a tribute to George,” stated Mary Stewart, MAC chief outreach officer.
West recently released a new album with Mesterhazy, her constant arranger, composer and pianist, “Live at Jazz Standard.” The pair was scheduled to play the jazz club in May. The pianist started working with West in 2006 at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel’s famed Oak Room. The one-nighter turned into a successful hitch that lasted until his untimely death.
When Mesterhazy wasn’t composing songs for West, he was arranging her picks, which included a blend of standards like Rodgers and Hart’s “A Lady Must Love” or pop tunes like “The Beat Goes On.” Together, Mesterhazy and West brought another fresh voice to the Great American Songbook, accompanied by a swinging quartet that included Israeli Barak Mori on bass, Jerome Jennings on drums, Ed Cherry on guitar and Mesterhazy.
The pianist arrived at Cape May’s popular restaurant the Merion Inn 15 years ago, where he originally sat in with a singer. However, his touch was so smooth he was asked to stay on. He once stated his main motivation for staying “was to talk to Vicki,” and they eventually became a couple. It could have been his piano playing, but I’m sure it was his great sense of humor, those crazy stories and that big smile that captured her heart.
On any given evening or afternoon, if Mesterhazy was in town, you could find him at the Merion Inn as the house pianist and manager. He would often play until the wee hours of the morning, often joking with friends, fans and tourists. He was happy to take requests while adding his own improv tunes. The giant martini tip glass adorning the Steinway was full by the end of the night.
When Mesterhazy wasn’t playing with noted singers, he would be leading his own group somewhere in this vast country. He was not only an arranger, composer and pianist, he was an educator who ran the jazz piano program at Rowan University and gave private lessons.
While playing with his mentor Horn, he considered it to be a great honor. He accompanied the singer and pianist up until her death in 2005. He began playing piano for Horn following her foot amputation in 2002 from complications of diabetes. Mesterhazy had to be incredible to play for such a great pianist as Horn. The pair worked on two Grammy-nominated recordings, “Loving You” (Verve, 1997) and “May the Music Never End” (Verve, 2003).
Mesterhazy had a diverse career that took him around the world as an accompanist for a broad spectrum of people, including headliners Jaye P. Morgan, Bernadette Peters, Anthony Newley, Jack Jones, Bobby Rydell, Chita Rivera and comedian Billy Crystal and jazz personalities Gary Burton, Fran Jeffries, Mark Murphy, Clark Terry, Phil Woods, Steve Gilmore, Red Holloway, Bill Berry, Franky Capp, Les Paul and Karrin Allyson.
Jazz singers flocked to Mesterhazy. He recorded “He Loves, She Loves” with Melanie Rice (Orchard Records) and “Everytime We Say Goodbye” with Lisa Lindsley. Rebecca Parris was more than just a singer to Mesterhazy, they were good friends. Aside from great songs, they loved great jokes.
Mesterhazy came to the United States with his family when they fled Hungary following the country’s 1956 revolution. The family originally lived in upstate New York before moving to Somers Point, N.J. He considers himself “a Jersey boy.” He played rock guitar and trumpet until he started playing keyboards and moved on from there.
At age 17, he was already leading the house band in the Strand Hotel in Atlantic City. In high school he had a band called the Penthouse Trio. After that, he played piano at the Apartment Lounge and worked during the day at an auto parts store. He was a self-taught pianist whose main influences were Horn, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson.
The Cape May resident played most of the Atlantic City casinos, as well as the long-gone Club Harlem. He was a regular at the annual Cape May Jazz Festival.
Friends and family are establishing the George Mesterhazy Foundation to foster music education, performance and preservation. To learn more about how to make an artistic or financial contribution, email email@example.com with “GM Foundation” in the subject line.
Mesterhazy was sincere about two things: his music and friends. His giant smile attested to his love for music and humanity. He leaves behind a wealth of music and a lingering friendship for all to remember with joy.
Mesterhazy is survived by Watson; his father, Lajos Mesterhazy; and his four children, Robert and Tanya Mesterhazy and Ben and Dan Thieberger.