Thoughts on playing Cole Porter on piano

Have you ever played Cole Porter’s music?

When I started playing professionally, I never really thought about Cole Porter’s music. Oh yes, I played his songs in various situations. I accompanied cabaret singers who sang his songs “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “The Physician.” I played keyboards for the show “Anything Goes.” Once I played the first 16 bars of “Let’s Do It” for 8 hours straight during dance auditions. I made a choral arrangement of “I Love Paris” for the Gregg Smith Singers. And as a jazz pianist, I dutifully learned “I Love You” and “What Is This Thing Called Love” from the Real Book.

But although I had played all these songs, I never really loved Cole Porter’s work as a whole. (Check out the lyrics to “The Physician,” and you’ll get the pun!”)

That all changed when my friend Barry Levitt asked me to serve as music director for the 92nd St Y’s “Lyrics and Lyricists” show that features Cole Porter’s music. Barry was producing the show and knew that my varied musical experiences would serve Cole Porter’s music well.

We had to learn 45 songs in 3 weeks, pick keys for the vocalists, create solos, duets, and group numbers, and write dance arrangements. Once rehearsed, we’d perform 5 shows in 3 days in the 92nd St Y’s beautiful concert hall and then it would all be over. Wow – a very intense process and immensely exciting!

I quickly found out what makes Cole Porter unique as a songwriter.

Even though Porter was a “Tin Pan Alley” composer from what is now known at the Great American Songbook era, his music is more expansive than much of the other music of that time. Yes, he wrote catchy melodies, but they were often melded with passionate lyrics. Yes, he wrote songs with the same 32-bar AABA form as everyone else did, but Porter’s melodic lined arced higher and higher with each repetition, in the same way that classical music does. And when he chooses, he’ll write songs that take much longer to unfold, such as “Begin The Beguine” and “So In Love.’

All these musical elements combine to produce some of the most emotionally-intense and passionate music ever written. Then, with the next song, he’ll write verse after verse after verse after verse of witticisms that will have us giggling with glee.

As pianists, this gives us a lot so use in our interpretations of his music. We can play jazzy. We can play lyrically. We can do deep into our innermost emotions and know that Cole Porter has provided us with a vehicle in which they will be fully expressed.

I sat down at my piano today and explored some of these concepts on his song “So In Love” from the Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate.

It was just Cole Porter, me, and my piano. And now you too.


Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates