Sudden death of beloved Cape May pianist and friend of many leaves regional jazz community — and beyond — shocked and deeply saddened.
George Mesterhazy, one of the finest jazz pianists and arrangers in the Jersey shore area, admired around the world, died on Thursday , April 21, Atlantic City Weekly learned the night of his sudden death.
Mesterhazy, who just turned 59, was about to celebrate the release of his latest recording with world-famous singer Paula West, Live at Jazz Standard, with four shows at the Manhattan jazz club scheduled with West (May 10 to May 13). The music veteran was nominated for a pair of Grammys for his work as a player and arranger with his “favorite singer,” Shirley Horn.
The Cape May resident, who played frequently in the resort town, especially at the Merrion Inn — and played most of the Atlantic City casinos, as well as the long-gone Club Harlem, was found dead in his bed of “natural causes,” according to one source close to Mesterhazy.
Mesterhazy had just played with his renowned trio at Sandi Pointe in Somers Point the night before, Wednesday night, April 11.
“It’s a huge loss,” said Nick Regine, president of the Somers Point Jazz Society, and close friend of Mesterhazy. Regine says he found out around 6pm on Thursday that Mesterhazy had passed, just about 24 hours after seeing him perform at Sandi Pointe.
“I just saw him last night,” said Regine. “I gave him a kiss. Not only from the jazz standpoint is this devastating, but he was just the sweetest individual. I just loved the guy. There is a huge hole.”
Dan Anderson, who owns and operates Sandi Pointe with his wife, is stunned.
“It’s kind of strange for all of us right now, really bizarre,” said Anderson, a few hours after Mesterhazy had died. Anderson recalled Mesterhazy the night before as being his “own self — fun-loving, entertaining, joking with the audience in the dining room, telling stories” and playing his expressive and unique brand of piano per usual.
“I’ve only gotten to know George over the past few years, but he’s become part of the family here,” added Anderson.
“There are a lot of musicians who we get to know through events with the Somers Point Jazz Society, and he got to know everybody here and everybody knew him.
“There are some musicians who people get really, really pumped up [to see perform] and he was certainly one of them.”
Bass player and long-time friend and member of Mesterhazy’s trio, Tim Lekan, as well as drummer Paul Jost, rounded out the piano man’s trio for his final set last Wednesday night.
This writer had the opportunity to get to know Mesterhazy, a self-taught pianist, over the years and spoke with him last at the Jazz at the Point festival, presented by the SPJS, in March.
Mesterhazy, with a newly cropped hair-style, faded blue-jean jacket, spectacles and scarf, was in attendance for the Saturday night and Sunday portions of the jazz festival, hanging out at Sandi Pointe with his fellow artists, friends, colleagues and admirers. He was in good spirits as always, and talking about his busy music schedule and the talented musicians headlining the festival.
The local jazz community, after losing Hassan Abdullah in 2011, Johnny Andrews the year before, and now Mesterhazy, is still in a state of shock.
On Sunday afternoon, April 15, a ceremony honoring Mesterhazy was held at the Middle Township Performing Arts Center in Cape May Courthouse.
About 500 people came out to celebrate the life of the respected musician and gentleman of jazz. Poems were read, stories were told and music was played.
The George Mesterhazy Foundation for Music Education, Performance and Preservation will be established in his name.
Regine says the SPJS will pay tribute to the late great Mesterhazy, a dear friend of the organization and its members, in the near future.
There are currently more than 80 tributes and remembrances of Mesterhazy, who was born in Austria of Hungarian descent and lived in Somers Point, Atlantic City, Los Angeles, and Cape May, on the acweekly.com Web site.
Mesterhazy is survived by his father, Lajos, and four children.
“From a musical standpoint people really admired him, but from a human standpoint people loved him,” said Regine. “It sounds corny, but it’s so true.”
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The Somers Point Jazz Society forges ahead with live music and educational programming through the colder months.
Last Thursday, April 5, Henrietta Shelton and the Chicken Bone Beach Foundation opened their spring jazz series at Top of the Trop in the Tropicana Casino. With a room full of supporters, Mayor Lorenzo Langford was on deck to present Henrietta with a proclamation from the City of Atlantic City for service to the community by way of preserving family values, developing community engagement and promoting an appreciation of America’s classical music — jazz.
In its first three years, the SPJS Benefit and Silent Auction has raised between $4,000 and $5,000 annually based on a $20-per-person donation, and the silent-auction sale of items donated by the community. This year’s donations include several jazz-oriented pieces of artwork.
The truth is, our region has been a live-music mecca since the early 1900s, when cats like Eubie Blake and Eddie Cantor hung out for summers and performed at local clubs. Decades later the Atlantic City jazz scene was as hot as they come, with internationally heralded performers from Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong playing residencies at some of the hottest clubs on the East Coast, namely the venues on Atlantic City’s fabled Kentucky Avenue — all of them are gone now — including the Club Harlem.
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