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Mike Renzi 1941 – 2021

A pianist with an enviable gift for accompaniment, he supported Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, Lena Horne, and many more during a long and respected career

Mike Renzi
Mike Renzi at Green 42, New York, June 2021 (photo: James Gavin)

“He is truly one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever met, and I can’t tell you how inspiring it is for me to sing with him.” So said Peggy Lee in 1985 of Mike Renzi, her last steady piano player and the gold-standard pop-jazz accompanist of his generation.

Renzi, who died on September 28 at the age of 80, was prized not only by Lee but by Mel Tormé, Lena Horne, Cleo Laine, Maureen McGovern, Jack Jones, Carol Sloane, and Sylvia Syms. He hailed from Federal Hill, a working-class Italian-American section of Providence, Rhode Island, and sounded like a blue-collar Italian when he spoke, but not when he played. He had a billowy, impressionistic touch and conception, with harmonies that owed as much to Ravel and Chopin as they did to his jazz idols, notably George Shearing. In 2010, Stephen Holden of The New York Times noted Renzi’s “extraordinary grace as a pianistic arranger whose accompaniments have a panoramic orchestral sweep.” And they swung.

Sandy Stewart, a celebrated singer of classic pop for over six decades, worked with him on commercial jingles and in nightclubs starting around 1974. “It was perfection,” she says. “He was my cushion. He listened. He knew all the songs, he knew the nuances of the lyrics, and because of that he knew where I was gonna go and he was right there.” The extremely particular pianist/singer Blossom Dearie entrusted the keyboard to him on two albums. When a fledgling Diana Krall heard his 1993 recording of the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields standard “Remind Me” with Lee, she sought him out to coach her in harmony.

Born April 28, 1941, Renzi began studying at age eight with Julius Chaloff, the Boston-based classical pianist whose son, Serge Chaloff, was the first star baritone saxophonist in bop. Renzi immersed himself for years in the Romantic and Impressionist composers, but the local jazz community had other plans for him. At around 20 he joined the band of tenor player Art Pelosi, a fixture in Providence. In 1962, Renzi began leading the house trio at Kings and Queens, the city’s main jazz club. For the next five years he played for the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge. But it was vocalist Carol Sloane, then a recent Columbia Records discovery, who helped him discover his true calling. Renzi told me how in 2010: “She was calling tunes and I thought to myself, I can really do this. This is easy. The keys don’t bother me; I can make instant arrangements. And I knew I could play some jazz.”

Sloane was dazzled by him. “We understood even then that many people would be clamoring for him as an accompanist,” she says. “You could not possibly challenge him, even with rare songs that were out of fashion. One of the wonderful things about Mike and Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan is that, as accompanists, they were there if you needed them but if you didn’t need them, they stayed out of the way.”

Renzi went on to study at Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, while leading the trio at Allary, another Providence club. In 1972 he was hired as musical director for The Sonya Hamlin Show, an afternoon talk show on Boston’s WBZ-TV. One week Hamlin’s cohost was Sylvia Syms, the foghorn-voiced jazz/cabaret singer whose interpretive skills had made her a favorite of Frank Sinatra. The notoriously demanding and often cantankerous Syms was so impressed by Renzi that she commanded him to play for her in a concert at the Town Hall in New York. Broadway composer Cy Coleman came backstage and urged Renzi to move to New York, offering advice and connections. In September 1976, Renzi made the move.

He got a job playing at the Carnegie Tavern, a restaurant and jazz saloon owned by Gil Wiest, whose other creation, Michael’s Pub, was Manhattan’s premier haven of smart pop-jazz. In the years ahead, Renzi, with his trademark black afro, mustache, and beard, was an unmistakable sight at the city’s top jazz clubs and cabarets. He, bassist Jay Leonhart, and drummer Grady Tate became the ultimate prestige trio for vocalists. Jane Scheckter, an early backup singer for Barry Manilow, made two solo albums with Renzi. “No one sounded like Mike,” she says. “Those chords, those voicings.” Pianist Mike Greensill, known for his decades-long partnership with his wife, cabaret singer Wesla Whitfield, was in awe of him. “He gave me some deep advice once,” Greensill recalls. “He said, ‘The secret is not how you press your fingers down; it’s how you lift them up.’”

Once they had found him, most singers never wanted him to leave. He joined Mel Tormé in the late ’70s and continued with him on and off until 1996, when they worked together on a tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald; during the sessions Tormé suffered a stroke and the record went uncompleted. Renzi played in the pit of Lena Horne’s one-woman Broadway show, The Lady and Her Music, from 1981 to 1982; he made six albums with Horne and accompanied her until her last performance in 2000. Actress/singer Dixie Carter, costar of TV’s Designing Women, employed him for six engagements at New York’s Café Carlyle and took him with her to perform at the White House.

Mike Renzi and Lena Horne
Mike Renzi with Lena Horne, circa 1994 (photo courtesy of Mike Renzi)

Along the way, Renzi recorded with a staggering number of other singers, ranging from Ruth Brown and Eartha Kitt to the classical baritone Thomas Hampson. In 1987 came his first of four albums with Maureen McGovern, who up to then was a pop-folk songbird known mainly for her hit recording of “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure. McGovern was seeking a pianist to help her change course, and Tormé told her that Renzi was the best. On spec, the two of them made a duo album of standards. “It was the first time that I felt I was being heard as myself,” she says. The disc, issued on CBS as Another Woman in Love, launched McGovern as one of the country’s most respected singers of classic pop. In 1998 she and Renzi released a sequel, The Pleasure of His Company. It was one of his proudest achievements. “The two of us together were like one person,” McGovern says. “I’ve never known another pianist who so instantly knew where to be and what to do.”

Very occasionally, he played instrumental jazz. In 1987 Renzi released a live quartet album on the Stash label; he accompanied Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton at the Newport Jazz Festival, recorded with Gerry Mulligan, and joined Stéphane Grappelli at Carnegie Hall. But his art, he felt, was in service to singers, and some of them even had to twist his arm to solo. In 1985, when Lee played her first show at the Ballroom in New York, I attended with composer Bart Howard, who credited her with having made his song “Fly Me to the Moon” famous. Lee insisted that Renzi stretch out on it; his rhapsodic, gossamer solo brought Howard to tears.

Few of Renzi’s fans knew of his seven Daytime Emmy Awards, won for his musical direction of All My Children and Sesame Street. He also played on numerous movie soundtracks, including those of Biloxi Blues and Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Broadway Danny Rose. In the latter film he appears as the pianist for an Italian lounge lizard, played by Nick Apollo Forte.

Renzi spent his final decade involved only in the music he loved. He played for Jack Jones, Rebecca Parris, the lyricist and sometime singer Alan Bergman, and Tony Bennett, while continuing his longtime position as arranger for the Palm Beach Pops. Renzi held a strong paternal devotion to his fellow Rhode Island native Nicolas King, the last singer with whom he had a dedicated partnership. King, a former child star on Broadway and TV and a longtime opening act for Liza Minnelli, had met Renzi in 2007 at the age of 17; Renzi lovingly groomed him in the Tormé tradition. They made three albums together.

On September 1, 2021, the pianist played what would be his final show, accompanying King’s grandmother, singer Angela Bacari, at Sardella’s Italian Restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, where Renzi lived. (He also owned a home in Boca Raton, Florida.) That month he contracted a bacterial infection; it precipitated two heart attacks. He died at a hospital in Newport.

King echoed the feelings of almost any vocalist with whom Renzi had worked. To sing with him, King says, “was like jumping off a cliff into a net. I didn’t have to think about it; I knew I would be caught. It was a sense of total trust. He knew exactly where to phrase with me. I feel as if I’ve lost my right hand.”

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.