The Peter Duchin Story

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As pianist and bandleader Peter Duchin reflects on his 50-plus years in the music industry, it may feel that he has a slight predilection for the past. “It’s totally different now,” he tells me. But he is still making his guests happy, and in turn, finding new ways to enjoy himself. “The thing that is exciting today is the kind of music we play—when we get into a groove—and watching everybody dance.”

This fall, Duchin will be honored by the organization Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District. There will be a party at the Union Club. A couple of guys from the band will play. Maybe Duchin will even take to the ivories to play a few of his favorites.

Contrary to popular belief, not all of the songs Duchin Entertainment perform are old jazz standards. He wants to make that clear. “We play the American Songbook and what I call the New American Songbook.” Today, Duchin, 78, plays upwards of 40 events around the world each year. It’s exacting work. He has to get the band in shape, increase its song vocabulary. “But we have a really good time,” he enthuses. “Believe me, it’s much more fun being in back of the piano than being out there in the audience.”

When Duchin became popular, in the early ’60s, he was perhaps best known as the bandleader who played nightly at the St. Regis Maisonette.

“I took that job because I had to make some money,” he says when reminded of this. “It was a real learning experience.” To prepare for the role of bandleader, Duchin took a rather oblique approach. He enrolled in an acting class. “I was nervous and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he concedes. “So I thought I could create the character of bandleader, which I did. I ended up having a wonderful time playing the music I love—mainly jazz and popular songs.” Within a few years, he would go on to perform at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. Then came the celebrity weddings, destination events, gigs at the White House.

It is incredible to think how far the Duchin name has traveled through time and history. When his father, Eddy Duchin, moved to New York from Boston, in the 1930s, he was leading his own orchestra within a couple of years. Times were good. But tragedy soon followed. Peter’s mother, Marjorie Oelrichs, passed away just days after his birth. Eddy, devastated, fled. He joined the army, booked more gigs far away from New York. Peter was sent to live with two of his father’s friends. “I had kind of an artificial family, as you can see, growing up,” he tells me. “I didn’t have a mother. I had a kind of a surrogate mother in Marie Harriman. I had a father who was away in the war. He came back and then died in 1951. I only had a couple of years with him.”

In Duchin’s autobiography, Ghost of a Chance, which he wrote for his kids—“so they would know how I felt and what the true stories were about my beginnings”—he discusses his life and career at length. “It’s odd how one’s memory plays when thinking about one’s background and the things that happened in childhood.” He says, with reason, that the experience of writing his memoirs was cathartic. “There were things that I didn’t feel in the past that I now wonder why I didn’t feel them.”

Ghost of a Chance opens with a scene at the St. Regis Maisonette in the 1960s. He talks briefly about his first big gig: the celebrity crowd, his pre-show interviews, and, most interestingly, the tune the band opened with. It is called “Make Someone Happy,” a song of measured humility, love, and simplicity:

Make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

Make just one heart, the heart you to sing to.

Later, I ask him why he chose to open with that song. He explains that he knew its writers very well. He also happens to especially like it. There is not much I know about American standards, but I hope to know a little bit more about songs of beauty and honesty, and about why this one has played over and over in my head since our first conversation.

Make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

And you will be happy too.

With the song and his life in mind, I ask Duchin, who is now married to Virginia Coleman, what marriage has taught him.

“To think about someone else other than one’s self,” he answers after a moment of consideration. “That’s a maturation from my first marriage. I am close friends with my first wife. But when we married, I don’t think I ever had that feeling. I was more focused on myself, on my own career, on learning. If you had asked me that question then, I don’t think I ever would have said the thing I’ve learned is that giving pleasure to another person can give oneself great pleasure.”