He's so good at his job, you might forget he's there. Walt Wagner has a knack for blending into the ambiance of Canlis so well that patrons often forget that someone is actually single-handedly creating the soundtrack for their evening, one tickled ivory at a time. "I'm just a guy and I play the piano," Wagner says humbly. But anyone who knows this local piano man knows that "just a guy" would not be able to seamlessly master the tunes of Kanye West and Kings of Leon for the fresh-faced diners while keeping long-time loyal listeners happy with show tunes and crooners. For the past 16 years, Wagner has studied every new pop hit and refined the classics in order to keep the Canlis clientele happy and hungry for more. He's a huge breath in the new life that's been pumped into the stalwart Seattle restaurant that overlooks Lake Union, but never overlooks customer satisfaction -- and that includes great tunes.
Photo by Tracey Salazar
In this week's Grillaxin, I sat down with a very casual Wagner at Third Place Books near his Lake City home, where he happily traded in his sport jacket and tie for a pair of jeans and a comfy (yet respectable) shirt. One of the nicest, most gentlemanly of all gentlemen, Wagner acts like he's in on a secret the rest of us are oblivious to -- like maybe the fact that he can read the mood of a person from a mile away, before they've even sat down and turned on their microphone and sipped their coffee. If this interview was a game of Guess What Song I Want To Hear, my money would be on Wagner walking away with the prize.
And then there are those two songs Wagner never wants to hear ... after the jump!
SW: Did the job at Canlis find you or did you find it?
Wagner: The Canlis job came up just as they were remodeling in 1996. They were ready to do some new things and so was I. Chris and Alice Canlis went to my church. I had just met them. We just got talking one day and I said, "Hey! I notice you've got scaffolding on your building. What are you doing? Something new and different?" They said, "Are you available?" and I said, "Maybe."
Were they in the market for a new piano player?
I don't think they thought they were. I think because I had always been such a moving target, I don't think they thought I'd be interested. My lifestyle is the most important thing to me. I have never been much of an ambitious person about trying to make it all the time, you know? I feel like I've had really good success and I've done what I wanted to do, but I don't want to keep pushing to do more big things.
Has Canlis always had a piano player?
They opened in 1950 and they've always had a live pianist. And they've had some really good ones! That's been kind of their signature. I remember when I was starting out, a piano teacher who I was studying with took me around to the different places including Canlis to show me what I'd be in for if I wanted to get into that business. Up to that point, I had only had my rock band and studied classical music. They took me to Dublin House, the Sorrento Hotel, and some other places and there were all these great piano players and I thought, "I'm never going to be able to do this!" But going around to all of those places really did help. Sometimes when you're new at something it seems impossible, but once you get your head thinking about it, you start to unravel it and you can figure it out. I knew how to play the piano, but I just didn't have a repertoire that really fit the cocktail lounges. It was all classical and rock.
Tell me about this rock background of yours.
I was playing amplified piano, but most of the time it was electric piano and keyboards. I started studying piano when I was six. I took classical lessons for about 18 years and in the meantime, I also had my rock and roll band. We started in junior high. When we started out we were called The Rebels. Later, we changed our name to The Exotics. We were one of about five bands that were really working in the Northwest at the time and we got pretty good and we hooked up with KJR Radio. The main guy there was Pat O'Day who was the Program Director and he liked us. He hired us all the time to play the major dance halls in the Northwest -- Spanish Castle, Lynnwood Roll-A-Way Skate Center, Sheridan Park in Bremerton. We'd go to Chelan and all over Washington state. We were big fish in a small pond.
What year are we talking here?
Do I have to say?
How about a decade?
That was the early 60s. So, we were one of the original Northwest bands.
I wanted it to be, but I worked at Boeing, sold shoes, fry-cooked at the A&W drive-in, was a forklift driver at the shipyard -- all that stuff to support my habit. And I was in-and-out of school, too. I'd go to college for a couple of quarters then go back to work. By then, we were doing tavern gigs and I was starting to realize this wasn't going to be my calling. A friend, a sort of mentor, who was a business agent with the musicians' union introduced me to my first employer that led to a legitimate, steady job. That was a place in Renton called The Townhouse. I played there for a couple of months before the place closed and became a go-go dancer-type place. I went back to see how they were doing and the dancers were dancing on my old piano. The legs had been removed. It was now the stage. But anyway, while I was there, I met a big contact in Seattle -- Clark's restaurants. It was a chain of restaurants called Clark's and they had some really nice restaurants. I ended up working for them my first five years, basically. They taught me how to perform. I worked one year for a place called The Dublin House right down on 4th and Union and a place called Plaza Five for a year-and-a-half, which is now Benihana. That was my second real job. And then the Windjammer on Shilshole which no longer exists. That was the biggest place in town and that's where I got on the map.
That was my last gig before I left town to go on the road. I was hired to play in Sun Valley and I played there all through the 70s, all through the ski seasons. I had a really good run in Sun Valley and from there, I got more contacts and wound up touring a lot with major names, opening shows for a lot of comedians -- Bill Cosby was the one I worked with most. And then George Burns and Bob Hope and all those guys. I worked with Sammy Davis, Jr.. I was on a traveling show with Peggy Fleming, the skater. She had a show called A Concert on Ice which was a very elegant show that had musical acts as well as skating. So, I toured with her for about four years. We went to Germany and all over the United States.
How long were you in Sun Valley?
I still go back occasionally. I was back there last month for a one-night concert. But I was there for about 10 years, maybe. In between Sun Valley stretches, I'd go out on the road. I did that for years, most of my career, and did even some high-end cruise ships. I did that off-and-on for a couple of years. It's like your whole life is on hold when you're out on a cruise ship. It's great when you're single, but I wasn't. I got married right before my last cruise in 1987. In fact, I met my wife on one of the cruises. She and her mother were on vacation.
Were you a patron of Canlis before you started working there?
Yes. Oh, yes. I never even thought of playing there. I just loved being there. It was my favorite restaurant.
When you started 16 years ago, did the Canlis family have a list of songs they wanted you to play?
Never. They were totally hands-off. They trusted that I knew what I was doing and hopefully I did.
It evolved. When I got there and they remodeled, that was a decision point for them to get more contemporary, make the place look a little fresher; to keep the history, but make it more relevant. And they really did a great job of that. And that's a big reason why they wanted me to come in, because I always have played a mix of the modern with the more traditional, but not quite as much as I do now. The longer I was there, and the more they were modernizing the cuisine while still keeping the traditional part of it -- they are really treading a delicate balance with that -- the more I would get requests from the staff to learn Radiohead and Pink Floyd and all of that stuff.
How do you keep the music fresh every night?
You just have to feel the room. The key in that place -- because people are going to spend a lot of money and they want it to be right and I can't just do Radiohead all night -- is that you have to hit them all. At the beginning of the evening everyone's a bit delicate and so I don't do a lot of rhythmic, energetic things. But then a couple of hours later, they're up for anything. It's just amazing. It turns into a cookin' place.
You just can't play without considering who's there. It's different every night and it's different every hour of every night. Friday nights usually will start out very quiet. It's just very subdued. I kind of sneak myself into the scene. People are just ready to relax. They're not pumped up yet into the evening. It's kind of a graceful time. But then Saturday nights, sometimes I arrive and the bar is full already and I can just start playing whatever I want.
Do you like it when people request songs?
Sure! I don't ask for it because I do my best when I can kind of go with the flow, but sometimes the requests are in the flow. So, I totally welcome requests. But I always like the challenge of heading off their requests. If I'm doing a good job, I don't get a lot of requests because I'm hitting their tunes. I like the relational part of playing at Canlis. Sometimes I can't tell if anyone is listening at all. It seems like maybe they're not. But then they leave their table and come by and rattle off every tune I've played over the last hour.
Well, I'm always learning new songs. So I'm looking for a chance to play them. Some of them, like Regina Spektor, I can start right out in the beginning playing those because they're mellow and kind of moody and meditative. They're gentle. If the age group that night was more on the senior side, I'd start out playing some George Gershwin, Our Love is Here to Stay or Someone to Watch Over Me. It just depends on who's there. And then sometimes there's some real edgy people in there and I know I can play Kanye and I can play Radiohead.
Anything you won't play?
No, but I don't like New York, New York. And I don't like My Way. I like Frank Sinatra, but those are such sappy songs. I shouldn't say that because so many people love those songs, but they're not my favorites. The bartender, James MacWilliams, he always looks up at me when I play New York, New York because he knows how I feel about it. I'll play it, but I won't make a production out of it.
Have you ever looked up from your piano and witnesses something that took you aback?
Once in a while there's some serious necking going on. The atmosphere sort of influences how you act. In a place like Canlis, you don't tend to do anything out there. It's a pretty gentile place.
What about the fun stuff. Any proposals you had a front seat for?
Oh, all the time!
Anybody say "no"?
Only once. That was pretty legendary. I wasn't there that night, but apparently the timing wasn't good. She just left mad, left in a huff. Embarrassing. It was a bad night for that guy.
Have you ever done a duet with someone at Canlis?
Once, there was this really precocious little boy who I just let play. I had a gut feeling to just let him play. He was really good. He played this little classical piece and everyone clapped. It was just a sweet thing.
What songs are you working on now?
I just added A Fine Frenzy. One of the servers turned me on to her. She's good. Rhianna's California King Bed. I'm kind of messing around with that.
Did you get a lot of Amy Winehouse requests when she passed away recently?
No! I'm sad about that. I think she was on the verge of trying to clean herself up.
Are you amused when the older crowd doesn't have a clue that you're pulling off a rock or rap song on the piano?
It's a solo piano, so it's not percussion and synths and all this stuff that's on the record. But I try to nail the groove and authentic feel of the songs. I really listen to them before I play them so I can kind of learn the whole gist of them and then I gradually add my own improvisational stuff to it. It's more powerful sometimes than the original would be to those people. But to the people who know those songs, hopefully I'm still true enough to the song that they're liking it.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Canlis?
That they're high on themselves, lofty, arrogant. There could be nothing further from the truth. That family and the whole culture of Canlis is all about hospitality and anyone who goes there knows that. Perhaps people see how expensive it is and maybe that's hard to handle and they adopt a bad attitude about it, I don't know. But it's not even that ridiculously expensive if you stop in the bar and have a drink and listen to some music and have the Canlis prawns or something like that. It' awesome and you don't have to spend a lot of money.
The stuff you play at Canlis, is it the sort of music you listen to normally?
I do! Not 100-percent, but I listen to it on my way to work. That's kind of my time. In the car I listen to it. That's when I keep up with pop music. At home, I listen to a lot of jazz and classical mostly. Except when I'm in my garage and I'm messing around, I have the pop stuff on. Washing my car? Who wants to listen to jazz or classical?
What was the last song that you had stuck in your head?
The latest one is Rolling in the Deep by Adele. That just keeps going through my head. I can not get it out!
You can read more about Wagner in Seattle Weekly's 2008 article, Ebony & Irony at Canlis.