Virtuosity Flows From Street to Piano Mark Birnbaumm

If you have spent time on the East Side of Manhattan around the United

Nations, there is a good chance you have seen a man walking around looking a bit like Elton John circa 1977.

This would probably be Mark Birnbaum on his daily constitutional. Mr. Birnbaum walks Second Avenue flamboyantly dressed in platform boots, hand-painted blazers and all sorts of feathered boas, with cigar clenched in mouth and ornamental cane in hand.

“The street is my inspiration, and if you want to remain immersed in New York you have to walk its streets,” said Mr. Birnbaum, who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Manhattan since 1977. “I’m a New York street guy, and Manhattan has the best energy in the world.”

Mr. Birnbaum, 58, who teaches piano out of his studio apartment on the 20th floor of his building on East 48th Street, calls his long daily walks integral to his playing, teaching and composing, a tie to “New York’s street vibe.”

“I dress like this every day of the year, whether I’m staying inside, teaching or not,” he said of his outfit, which includes a top hat, sparkles on his face and colorful strands in his hair.

Mr. Birnbaum said he realized the musical importance of the daily walk after meeting the immortal ivory tickler Vladimir Horowitz, who told him, “Make sure you walk 40 blocks a day, because if you don’t walk, your fingers don’t run.”

Mr. Horowitz was living on Madison Avenue at the time, and Mr. Birnbaum said he walked in that area about 50 times over the next year until he finally saw the maestro and strolled with him.

Mr. Birnbaum also ran into Richard M. Nixon at a grocery on East 65th Street early one morning in 1980. The former president, Mr. Birnbaum said, “was squeezing grapefruits and explaining the virtues of pink versus white grapefruits as if he were conducting foreign policy.”

Mr. Birnbaum specializes in teaching jazz piano, especially ragtime and stride, “with some Bach and punk rock and free jazz thrown in,” he says. In his listing on Craigslist — “A Piano Lesson is a Magical Mystery Tour” — he claims to have “invented a geometric, yet flexible way of teaching blues, jazz, ragtime and classical piano.”

“Jazz is Zen. Blues is the basis of Jazz. Bach is King,” the listing instructs. Many of Mr. Birnbaum’s students are United Nations employees.

On a recent weekday, Mike Heller Chu, 35, who works in the United Nations’ Department of Peacekeeping Operations, showed up impeccably dressed in suit and tie for his weekly lesson. Mr. Birnbaum was decked out in sunglasses, glitter boots with eight-inch heels, necklaces and pendants dangling over his bare chest, long feathers waving above his head.

Mr. Heller Chu sat at the piano, which had a pile of empty cigar boxes accumulated atop. He began improvising a jazzy, vampy solo, as Mr. Birnbaum paced nearby, his cane in one hand, an unlighted cigar in the other.

Mr. Birnbaum exulted with a yell during well-played passages, and urged his student at other times to “Throw in that Gershwin-y thing,” or add a Coltrane lick, or pound out a James Brownian rhythm.

Growing up in East Flatbush near Ebbets Field, Mr. Birnbaum imitated the recordings and piano rolls of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson. He graduated from Brooklyn College and received a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University.

He has made nine records, although none are exactly big sellers. His life used to be full of high-paying gigs, and he was the pianist and a regular guest on “The Joe Franklin Show.” These days, he relies on teaching for a living.

Among his many compositions is a rag called “Eubie on Second Avenue,” in honor of Eubie Blake, and of walking on the avenue.

“When I walk, I get maybe 100 people who say hello to me every day,” he said. “You have to be an improviser to live in New York, because anything can happen. Walking itself is an improvisation, in New York.”


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