“I bill myself as a consulting musician and these are my office hours on Sunday, and the people who come and join me are my clients, who consult at the public’s expense,” says pianist Brad Kay of the weekly gig at UnUrban Coffeehouse that he has maintained for eight years. “It’s different every week. I never know who is going to come in, if anybody.”
For Kay, Sunday afternoons at UnUrban aren’t so much about performing to an audience as they are about practice and collaboration. “I’m content to just go up onstage and play the piano all by myself,” he says. “I don’t even care if there is another soul in the place because I like to practice.” Of course, having a few people in the audience is always a bonus. “It’s grist for the mill,” he concedes.
Having gravitated towards the piano at the age of nine, Kay bypassed the standard rock ‘n’ roll dreams and instead immersed himself in the sounds of ragtime, pre-World War II jazz, and Dixieland jazz.
“I do love the 20s and 30s because it was such a fertile period and there was such an outburst of creativity,” he explains. “It’s the originality of it that I love. It isn’t a nostalgia thing at all.”
He began venturing to Shakey’s Pizza establishments, not for the pizza, he says, but because throughout the 60s and 70s and into the early 80s, the chain restaurant featured ragtime-styled pianists. Eventually, Kay began playing in LA-area pizza parlors.
“It was a great way to have your ego completely crushed, if you had one as a performer, because you were always playing against people munching pizza, drinking beer, PA announcements, and a general carnival atmosphere,” he recalls. But, the experience did lead to a few great musical memories, mostly involving pianist gatherings at a Burbank outpost where silent films mixed with the tunes.
“A bunch of us would meet there on weekends and would have good old-fashioned cutting contests,” he says. “We would try to outplay each other. It was really the closest I have come to that old time Harlem piano scene, the piano contests. This went on for three or four years in the late 70s and early 80s.”
In the 70s, Kay was playing concerts with his own, short-lived group the Majestic Dance Orchestra, a 10-piece orchestra that recreated jazz of the 20s and 30s, and performing with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the precursor to 80s alternative rock band Oingo Boingo.
“It was more of a wacky theatrical troupe that used old jazz a lot, and I played piano with them and sometimes appeared in costume,” says Kay. His stint with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo led to a role in the cult classic film, Forbidden Zone, where Kay played a demon. His piano work can also be heard on “Yiddishe Charleston” in the film.
Over the years, Kay has worked tirelessly, with a string of film and television contributions and sideman gigs to his name. He also formed his own record label, where he reissues jazz recordings previously heard on 78 rpm vinyl and some of his own material. Currently, Kay is finishing a CD release for UnUrban Trio, which also features Mark Fletcher on guitar and Dick Miller on coronet. Fletcher and Miller had often performed with Kay at UnUrban, and the CD was recorded shortly before Miller moved out of state. In the meantime, you can catch Kay with a host of other characters every Sunday at 2 p.m. at UnUrban Coffeehouse.