Two gifted pianists, a new casino owner and a piano outside Capriccio is music to many people’s ears — including Dennis Gomes and pianists Willie Saunders and Ron Powell.
Willie Saunders was having a bad day. It was earlier this year and he was feeling “down in the dumps,” according to his long-time friend and fellow church member Christian Pascal.
So the Hillside, N.J., resident took a ride down to Atlantic City and walked into Resorts Casino Hotel.
Once Saunders, 53, got inside the opulent casino, he made a bee-line, not to the gaming tables, but to the piano stationed right outside of Capriccio on the property’s “dining level.”
“From what I understand,” says Pascal, “he got on the piano and played for a while and [new Resorts owner] Dennis Gomes heard the music from upstairs and he came down, listened to Will play, talked to him for a while and then took Will out to dinner. [Will] told me that Resorts loved it.”
Then, on a subsequent visit, adds Pascal, “Dennis Gomes put him up for three days and Will ate at the buffet and played the piano and had a great time. But he’s still so modest about his playing. He [truly] has a gift.”
Saunders’ gift — a natural, almost scary talent that comes directly from his soul and out onto the piano keys — caught the attention of Gomes, who while busy doing minor things like taking over the city’s first casino, re-branding it in a Roaring ’20s theme, running it, etc., was blown away when he heard the piano music from his upstairs office one day in early January. On a separate occasion, he heard both Saunders and another frequent pianist in front of Capriccio, Ron Powell, playing.
“I was captivated by their passion and talent,” Gomes tells AC Weekly. “Some people have that it quality that puts them in a special category and Will is definitely one of those people. It is an honor to have him playing in my casino.”
Humble, and extremely modest, Saunders has a fascinating story with regard to his playing. He has several children, grew up in the Newark area and turned his life around about 10 years ago with the help of his church.
Saunders is a non-gambler, doesn’t drink or smoke, and heads a charity organization in the Irvington, N.J., area called Christian Fellowship Council Worldwide. He’s also a devoted family man.
“He’s always there for his family,” says Pascal. “Whatever he’s doing, if his cell phone rings and it’s a family member, he’ll stop and answer the phone.”
So what drew him to Atlantic City? And how did he know that there would be an under-used piano outside Capriccio?
For months, Connecticut resident Ron Powell would come down to Atlantic City for “two or three times a week.” A retired teaching lawyer whose business card reads: “Keyboard Impressionist,” Powell, 64, has been playing piano professionally for decades.
And his playing perfectly suits a casino lounge as his repertoire includes dozens upon dozens of jazz and pop standards, along with some R&B and even rock tunes.
Before Resorts changed ownership last year, Powell says nearly every time he played the piano — taking a break from gambling — in addition to the casino executives, employees, patrons and others who would stop and hear him play, he would always draw security, who, under the “old regime,” would chase him away.
Same goes for Saunders.
“People always come up to me, and I’ve been playing off and on at this piano for several months,” says Powell, “and [they] tell me how I should be getting paid for playing my music here. Even with the old regime, the concierges, the restaurant and casino employees, [and] the executives would all come by and say how good [my music sounded]. Even the maitre-de here at Capriccio loves it when I play here.”
After having tried for months to get proper permission to play at the piano to no avail, Powell persisted. He can now be found at the piano outside Capriccio, along with other musicians such as Saunders, on any given day or night of the week. There is no set schedule with regard to the piano and who plays it at the moment.
Like the violinist, Colin Matthews, who plays in the lobby at Resorts on a regular basis, Powell is hoping to get some work at the casino, playing in a lounge or even in a transformed dining level area that he has his own ideas about.
Powell comes with years of experience with regard to playing for an audience.
“I try to play for the audience,” says Powell. “My sense is that the kind of people who listen to a solo pianist is not the 35-and-under crowd. There’s a 45-and-older crowd who appreciate the concept of a pianist playing dinner cocktail conversation music, and what they want to hear are the tunes. They want to hear songs. ... If you give them a melody, a very simple tune, then they’ll stop by and listen.
“Then you can segue into another melody and, if you want, improvise in between. As long as they can recognize the melody — it’s almost comforting.
“I told this guy from player development [who has since moved on to another casino],” adds Powell. “Dim the lights [here], bring some tables and chairs out here, with candlelight, and give [patrons] a little wine list. And now you’ve got an entire area where people can be reading the menus from all of the restaurants [at Resorts while listening to piano music.] I see people stop and linger outside of the restaurants all the time to get a feel for the ambiance and the menu at Capriccio.
“Even when the gate’s closed and they know it’s not opened, they still come and read the menu.”
Along with studying culinary options for a far-off meal, the Resorts patrons are drawn to Powell’s music. “It soothes them. It’s like comfort food,” he says.
So what does Gomes think about the idea of transforming this area of his casino’s dining level?
“Currently we are evaluating a number of options for the entire property, including the dining level,” says Gomes. “Resorts has a great history and one we are looking forward to exploring and using to recreate the 1920s era with the same style and dynamic energy. The idea of a piano-lounge is one of the many great options the new Resorts has been presented with and we are looking forward to unveiling new amenities.”
Right now Powell and Saunders are encouraged as, within the past month, Gomes told the two pianists who were both at the piano on the same late January evening, that they could play anytime they wanted. The security force at Resorts has been notified as well.
“You guys are welcome to play here any time you want,” Gomes told Powell and Saunders, banging his fist softly on the piano top. “You can come in any time. If anyone gives you any trouble just tell them I told you that you could play here.”
Powell, smiling, shook on it with Gomes. Saunders looked up from the piano, shaking his head in gratitude.
“And I don’t care if you even put a tip jar right here,” Gomes said, as his hands made the shape of a cocktail lounge tip jar in the air over the right side of the piano.
Free entertainment for Gomes. Free entertainment for patrons. And now a paying gig — at least via tips — for the two piano men.
“The music has been a fantastic addition to the energy and ambiance to Resorts,” Gomes says. “We are lucky to have such talented musicians choose to play at the new Resorts and the guests have really come to enjoy the rejuvenated atmosphere that they contribute to with their music.”
As a result of the serendipitous power meeting at the piano that January evening as Gomes was heading into Capriccio for a dinner, Powell has since been placing a tip jar atop the piano.
“I put a glass on the piano,” says Powell. “Dennis [Gomes] was the first to offer a gratuity!”
Powell, whose straight-jazz playing is reminiscent of Ramsey Lewis, Nat King Cole and Dave Brubeck, says over the past few weeks, since Gomes OK’d the tip jar, the tips have been nice. However, as Powell tells AC Weekly, he’s very interested in a regular gig in Atlantic City to support his fixed income, which relies heavily on his limited social-security benefits.
With a repertoire that includes hundreds of songs, from jazz standards such as “Stardust” and “My Favorite Things,” to Beatles tunes and Thelonious Monk compositions, Powell could be a perfect fit for a casino lounge.
But where Powell knows about the history of American music and jazz piano music in particular, Saunders could be considered a savant as he has never studied music, is not familiar with the musicians he sounds like and doesn’t even listen to the types of music he plays — boogie-woogie, blues, jazz, and stride-piano playing included. He’s a natural and in his early 50s could be on the verge of something big.
Saunders had initially come to Resorts with two dollars in his pocket, says Pascal, who believes Saunders chose Resorts to go to out of all the places in Atlantic City because he had once been there before selling “spa products.”
And he remembered that piano, parked outside Capriccio in the wide open space surrounded by several of Resorts’ fine-dining restaurants and around the corner from the Boogie Nights dance club and the Starlight Ballroom.
Saunders, says his current piano teacher, Derek Fairclough, is just beginning to understand how much of a gifted musician and pianist he is. He plays by ear with Art Tatum-quality musicianship pouring out of his very soul.
“I’m his piano teacher right now, but I’m hoping he can teach me at some point,” says Fairclough, a professional classical pianist, veteran rock-band keyboardist and Liverpool native who gives private piano lessons.
Fairclough first met Saunders at a Guitar Center music store in central New Jersey.
“We sort of bumped into each other,” recalls Fairclough, who believes Saunders is “good enough” to play the top jazz clubs in New York, even as he is just now learning how to read music.
“He was interested in what I was playing and he asked to take lessons from me, and I was comfortable with that; I never thought I was ever going to see this guy again.
“Then he sat down and started playing and then I really thought I was never going to see him again! He just blew me away and I was like why does this guy want lessons from me? He should be teaching me. I thought, this guy must be toying with me. I couldn’t believe how he played, you know?
“What’s most impressive about it is, he’s never had any lessons and he’s never listened to any jazz — this comes from his soul.”
Fairclough soon noticed a few things about Saunders.
“Just over the couple [lessons] that we’ve had so far, I’ve come to realize that he’s the kind of person who puts everybody before himself and who leaves little time for himself. A very generous person and a very good-natured person.”
Fairclough has been teaching Saunders to read music for a few weeks now, but feels that Saunders’ talents are beyond teachable.
He’s already got it.
“He wants to learn Mozart and Beethoven and is very eager to learn, and he’s doing OK,” says Fairclough, “but I told him, ‘Willie, you need to play in front of people. You can’t stifle this talent anymore. You can’t just sit in the house and play, you’ve got to get out in front of an audience.’ He does play at his church, but I think his best shot in the long run would be to have a bass player and a drummer with him, because his jazz playing is so authentic. And not being a jazz pianist myself, but from what I’ve listened to — Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner and those sort of [legendary pianists] — I wouldn’t know the difference. I mean Willie is just as good as any jazz pianist.”
Not only does Fairclough think Saunders can hang with the best of them on the keys, he’s also amazed at Saunders’ natural ability to play by ear and, without even noticing, his inclination to pick up the key and chords and melody of the 1920s -era music being piped in at Resorts.
“You may see some lounge pianists or those sort of pianists who play one set of stuff with the right hand and some other things with their left hand.
“Willie has a split brain. He’s playing as if he has a brain for his right hand and a brain for the left hand; they are totally separate. And that’s nearly impossible to learn, even for a classical pianist. But what Willie does is like he’s ambidextrous. It’s like he has two instruments. I could never do what Willie does, and I’ve been playing for 50 years.
“It’s almost like he doesn’t know how talented he is. When he plays, like I said, the music is coming from his soul. And listening to him is like looking through a kaleidoscope. You see a beautiful pattern, and then you turn the wheel, and once it’s gone it’s gone. You can never get it back or hear that beautiful music again. Once Willie’s played it, it’s gone. I’ve tried to convince him that we need to record it. It’s almost like he’s channeling some sort of spirit when he’s playing the piano.”
Now that Saunders has wowed Gomes, Fairclough says Saunders feels as if he needs to learn how to read music in order to become a more well-rounded musician.
“But personally I don’t think that it’s even a requirement for him at this stage,” says Fairclough. “I would like to see him playing at clubs in New York at least; that’s where he belongs. With a trio or something like that. I’m truly convinced that if we give him some structure he could be a really big name. Like I said, both of his hands are coming from soul. He’s not thinking in chords, he’s just playing from his soul and that’s a gift.”
On a bitter cold February afternoon, Saunders and Powell are perched along side one another at the piano bench, playing together and having a ball. The tip jar isn’t out, a crowd has gathered to hear the music, and all the two men want to do is play music.
“This guy has talent that you won’t believe,” says one Resorts guest. And they could be talking about either one of the pianists.
“I’m here a couple times a week,” says Powell. “Usually for a couple hours between 4-9pm.”
Saunders doesn’t say when he’ll be back, but he has been coming down a few times a month to play. After playing the piano together for a while with Powell, Saunders is on his way upstairs to stop in and say hello to Gomes before he heads back up to Hillside.
He’ll probably thank Gomes again for the opportunity just to play the piano.
“I don’t have a piano,” he says. “So I come here to practice.”
But, as Fairclough notes, Saunders doesn’t need to practice; he needs to be heard.
It could be the perfect opportunity for Resorts to capitalize on the two pianists’ tremendous talents — especially in connection with the casino’s evolving Roaring ‘20s theme re-brand.
For now, each member of the potential lounge act tag-team of Powell and Saunders is grateful to have the opportunity to play for tips.
Who knows what’s ahead for the two pianists. Perhaps they’ll become a new sensation at the retro-themed Resorts. With Powell’s experience, extensive repertoire and elegant, romantic style; and Saunders’ raging talent, good-nature and extraordinary gift, the two pianists — the new piano men at Resorts — could make for an intriguing lounge act in Atlantic City one day.
Possibly at Resorts.
“I always keep an open mind,” says Gomes, “and with their talent, the future could hold many opportunities for all of us invested in seeing the new Resorts thrive.”
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