David Crohan’s piano magic, yesterday and today

David Crohan — Ralph Stewart

David Crohan is an Island legend. The widely-known piano man has brought his music to the Island since the early ’60s, and has never stopped inspiring and entertaining audiences. His first days were spent playing at George Monroe’s iconic restaurant on Circuit Avenue. He continued performing throughout his time as proprietor of the Island House, and maintains a presence today, performing as recently as Monday at the Tabernacle to a rapt audience. He has contributed to Camp Jabberwocky for decades, and plays music for the Long Hill Assisted Living Home in Edgartown. His contribution to Martha’s Vineyard through his music is remarkable.

I sat down to talk with Mr. Crohan for a musician-to-musician conversation at his home in Edgartown.

How did you first get started playing piano?

I suppose in today’s world, I would have been classified as autistic. But when I was 2, my mother said I could sing 100 songs recognizably. Then, when I was 3, I figured out how to match what I could sing at the keyboard, so I could play at the keyboard the melody of any song I could sing. I also had an aunt who played very well, and she taught me a lot about chords and playing and what she called “swinging the bass,” what we know as “stride piano.” At 5, I went to the Perkins School for the Blind. They wanted me to learn Braille notation. I fought that tooth and nail. I wanted to learn by ear. This went on until I was probably 10. I began to like classical music around that age, then I wanted know it well, and I started to learn Braille notation and learn the music. And so I steeped myself all through high school in learning technique and how to play these pieces. When I graduated from Perkins, I went to the New England Conservatory and got three degrees in music: a bachelor’s, a master’s, and an artist diploma. In 1964 I started playing on the Vineyard every summer, and never stopped.

So you continued coming to the Vineyard and playing at Monroe’s in the ’60s?

Oh, I never stopped. I spent summers when I started in ’64, and I played at Monroe’s for years. A group had opened up a bar where the Lampost is, at the time it was called the Rare Duck, it was beautifully decorated at the time. I had one of my pianos around the piano bar, and I was there for seven years, I think. Then, Oak Bluffs made a bylaw saying all the bars had to close at midnight, so that put the kibosh on my job. But I ended up going to the Colonial Inn, where Chesca’s is [in Edgartown], and I played there one summer. I was in my early 30s. I also played in fine hotels in Boston in the winters. In Boston, in 1975, one night George Monroe’s son came in and suggested we put together a group to buy the Boston House. But what happened was I went to look at the Boston House, it needed too much work. But I had gotten to know the Island House people. And the people there were kind enough to lease it to me for a couple of years, and I later bought it. I fixed it over. It turned into a very beautiful restaurant. I had the time of my life with it, and I had it for 20 years.

What was your musical life like on the Island after the Island House? That was known throughout the Island as a remarkable spot for two decades.

Well, I just came here for summers after that, but I missed a number of them. Then, in 2007, the Boathouse Club in Edgartown opened, and in 2009 they asked me to play in the summers, so that’s what I’ve been doing. We live in Florida now, and I play at a wonderful restaurant in Palm Beach named Cafe L’Europe. I’ve got that for 10 months a year, and here for two months, so it’s about as good as it gets.

What are your experiences playing at Long Hill, the assisted living home?

I know the owner of Long Hill, and we’ve set it up so I go there every Sunday afternoon and play for several hours. The residents come, and they fill up the room. The people who are there are very advanced in their journey through old age. But they all, to one extent or another, seem to perk up and enjoy what I do there.

Let’s talk about some of your collaborators.

I play at the Boathouse Club, and it’s a private club so many of my “audience family” can’t get in there, so I try to do at least two or three concerts on the Island so people can come, like the Tabernacle concert [this past Monday]. I also play at the P.A. Club this year. Merrily Fenner has her group, and we’re all together, and they give me the last few hours. It’s really a lot of fun. Hugh Taylor [brother of James Taylor and owner of the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah] has played with me a lot. One other thing I’m doing this summer on August 2 at the Whaling Church in Edgartown will be with Jemima James. Yet another performance coming up, which is perhaps the most exciting concert I will have done, is a chamber concert with Joel Krosnick of the Juilliard String Quartet. I met him two years ago at the Outermost Inn. We’re playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Fauré. I’ll also play solo classical music as well. I’m truly, truly excited about it. It’s at the Chilmark Community Center on August 21.