The Gig's Not Over For Pianist Mike Greensill

David Wiegand, Chronicle Staff Writer Tuesday,
May 4, 2010
Photo: Lacy Atkins / The Chronicle

Mike Greensill hasn't made a whole lot of progress on his long-planned book, "The Art of the Accompanist," but that's probably in part because he's been too busy practicing the art to find the time to write about it.

Actually, Greensill, 63, could just as easily write books about the art of the arranger, the art of the orchestrator and the art of the piano player and sometime guest-host for KALW's long-running radio show "West Coast Live."

Greensill is perhaps most practiced at the art of being the accompanist in life and music for Bay Area singer Wesla Whitfield, widely considered one of the greatest interpreters of the American songbook. The two, who first met in 1980 and have been married for 23 years ("We got married at the Washington Square Bar and Grill - you can have a martini before you get married," he says), will open their annual stay at the Nikko Hotel's Rrazz Room next Tuesday night with a program of movie songs.

British though he is, Greensill is a galoot, a big guy with a hearty laugh, a skirt of unkempt hair around a bald pate, and a white flecked and equally unkempt beard. At the piano, he hunches over the keyboard, almost like a kid playing a toy instrument and clearly having just as much fun.

As a kid, Greensill found an outlet for his own interest in music as a member of the local church choir.

"For a small town, we had a very eccentric choirmaster and organist who was also the local vet," he remembers. After church, the choirmaster used to take some of the kids with him while he made his veterinary rounds.

"I helped saw off the horns of cows," Greensill laughs, "and then he'd take us to the local pub and he'd buy us all shandies - half beer and half lemonade. Of course he'd get arrested for that now."

Found jazz at 12

When he was about 12, Greensill found jazz through a 1928 Louis Armstrong record.

"I was lucky that that was the first jazz I heard," he says. "And what turned me on was that it was almost from the very beginning of jazz, so I aurally made my way through the history.

"I remember maybe five years later someone gave me a Charlie Parker record and it took me a year listening to that to get over what the hell is going on. I was one of those people who believed that no jazz existed after 1938.

" While other kids were listening to the Rolling Stones, Greensill was listening to jazz, and that made his studies at Leeds College in the north of England a bit of a challenge at first. He began as a clarinet major, but the school's one reeds teacher was a classicist who proclaimed the boy's jazzy technique "horrible, horrible." Greensill switched majors to arranging.

He didn't quite graduate, though, because just as he was about to take his final exams, he was offered a gig playing piano in Hong Kong and headed East. Although, at that point, he'd only noodled around on the piano, Greensill says he became a real piano player in Hong Kong.

"It's funny how it all dictates how your life goes because I remember playing this posh hotel, the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, and a lot of the clientele were Jewish people in the rag trade from New York," he recalls. "And they'd say, 'Do you know blah blah, Rodgers and Hart?' And I'd say no I don't, and they'd say, 'Next time I'm in, I'll bring you the sheet music.' And they did! So I ended up learning about the great American songbook playing piano in a bar in Hong Kong."

Finding his true mate

He came to San Francisco in 1977 with his second wife, whom he'd met in Hong Kong (he was briefly married for the first time when he was 23 and still in Britain).

That marriage didn't last, but a one-off gig with a young singer then named Weslia Whitfield (she dropped the "i" in her first name a few years ago) was the start of something that Greensill says today "was meant to be, I think." "When she first hired me to do some arrangements, I went around to her house and she had this beat-up old upright piano but it all felt right. She liked what I suggested. She was a classically trained singer, so I gave her a little hipness and swinging, and she sort of hit me around a few times and made me listen to the lyrics. Suddenly I got it."

In addition to their gigs all over the country, in clubs like the Metropolitan Room in New York, or with larger ensembles, Greensill accompanies other singers, such as Madeline Eastman, and does orchestral arrangements for the Buffalo Philharmonic, among others.

"And I love that because it's the antithesis of performing - you get to sit at home in your jammies and make music without having to perform," he laughs.

Thinking orchestrally

For Greensill, the process of arranging for an orchestra isn't that different from arranging for a jazz combo.

"I like to think orchestrally," he says. "I always say: Horowitz was a pianist, I'm a piano player. But when I'm playing or inventing a melodic line behind Wesla, I'm thinking orchestrally, rather than as a piano player."

A few years ago, Greensill and Whitfield sold their San Francisco home and set up camp in an over-55 development in St. Helena, in part because the number of available venues in the city was declining and in part for financial reasons. Now, they perform once a month at Silo's in downtown Napa.

How do they go about putting a show together?

"We both choose now," he says. "For years, I've been sort of a song sleuth because I used to go around to all the secondhand bookstores looking for music. So I brought a lot of songs to Wesla at first that she hadn't heard of because she was very much out of musical theater."

The new show at the Rrazz will feature music from the '30s to the '60s, but nothing more recent than that.

"I've always been on the unfashionable side of things, but I used to apologize almost about that. But now I think you can seriously spend a lifetime studying just the songs that were written just in 40 years, between 1920 and 1960."

And because that's what Mike Greensill's been doing for most of his lifetime, it's no wonder he hasn't found time to finish that book.