“A Tribute to John Eaton” by John Kelly

At 85, Piano Man John Eaton Honors Decades of Music

When John Eaton was growing up, his father would come home from work every evening, sit down at the family piano and play the George and Ira Gershwin song, “Oh, Lady Be Good.”

Then Dad would fix himself a martini.

“He taught me a lot of the songs just by playing them,” said Eaton, remembering the music that would come to be called the Great American Songbook, the jazz standards from the first half of the 20th century.

We were in a room at the back of Eaton’s house in American University Park. He punctuated the conversation by tickling his Steinway and producing the melodies of some of America’s greatest composers.

“People ask me, what is it about music?” Eaton said, “What’s most important? It’s emotion. And if it doesn’t have that – it doesn’t have any value. And by emotion, I don’t mean emotion laid on like pizza sauce. You know, it has to come from within the music.”

At 1 p.m. Sunday [November 10, 2019], Eaton will perform at the Barns of Wolf Trap in what’s being billed as a 30th anniversary concert. That’s how long Eaton has been performing at the Wolf Trap, but he’s been making a living with a piano for twice as long.

His first professional gig was in 1958 with Wild Bill Whelan’s band at the Bayou, back when the Georgetown club was a jazz joint.

“The rock revolution was just hovering on the horizon,” Eaton said. “I was rebelling against my Yale background.”

Eaton ended up rebelling in two directions: against his Ivy League background (his father was a journalist; his brother a lawyer) and against the rock revolution that finally came flooding over the horizon.

The jazz scene in Georgetown gave way to the folk scene and then to the rock-and-roll scene. Eaton knew he wanted to devote his life to music that at the time existed in an odd middle state. The songs of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and the like were too old and uncool for the folkies and rockers and not yet old enough to be cool to a new generation.

He remembers thinking: “If you don’t do, it’s always going to torture you in some way.”

For three years Eaton headed the house band at the Blues Alley; backing whatever touring stars needed a jazz trio. He listens now to some of the recordings from those days and marvels at his technical skill – his speed, his stamina, his profusion of notes – but isn’t convinced he was any better.

“One of the rewards of getting older is you suddenly know how to do it,” he said.

Eaton did piano bar work in hotel lounges, too, what he calls ‘saloon playing’; a greenback – stuffed snifter displayed prominently.

Eaton placed his hands on the keys and played a few bars of “Mean to Me”, a song with music into the Embassy Row, and he’d pay me $5 every Ahlert song I played”, he said.

In 1988 Eaton got that most Washington of gigs: playing the White House. The program included Duke Ellington and the Gershwins – and requests, which Eaton always invites, even though he knows it’s a high – wire – act. Nancy Reagan requested Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein: It’s “Don’t ever leave me, is where you belong.”

At age 85, Eaton is still here.

“Doing it keeps you going,” he said, “It’s who you are.”

John Kelly

The Washington Post

November 7, 2019