The News Tribune
TACOMA, Wash. (AP) - Adios, Piano Man.
For 27 years, Juan Perez played the baby grand Baldwin on the main floor at the Tacoma Mall Nordstrom store.
He played his last session on Sunday afternoon.
Shoppers paused to listen. Some walked over to offer hugs and handshakes, and a few offered a kiss. They said, "Thanks." Some showed tears.
"That's nice," said a woman passing by, as if the music would last forever.
Several sons and daughters from the Perez family were there. They took photos. Passers-by snapped photos with smartphones.
Not by his own choice, Perez has retired. Where once Nordstrom shoppers in many stores shopped to the music played by a live pianist, today only 30 of the stores nationwide provide such upscale ambiance.
Valerie Radloff, who shared musical duties with Perez for 27 years herself, has taken another post at the store. Perez was unable to find a mutually suitable position.
"It's a store-by-store decision. It's just part of the evolving experience in the stores," Nordstrom spokeswoman Tara Darrow said, when asked why the piano will no longer be played.
"It just depends on what the store wants to do," she said Friday. "I think the store manager, like a lot of store managers, heard from some customers that wanted a different type of experience."
The stores that are removing piano players have said: "We're going to try something new, and mix up the variety, refresh the experience," said Darrow. "We're always looking for new ways to innovate, and that was one way to do it."
Some stores, she said, "are moving to recorded music. It's more modern."
Which is not to say that Juan Perez has gone unappreciated.
"We've loved having him," Darrow said. "We're sad to see him go."
Perez is somewhat sad himself.
A father of 10 who came to America from the Philippines via Guam, Perez remains forever thankful - to Nordstrom and to God - and optimistic.
Perez remembers his audition at Nordstrom, one morning in January 1986.
"There were five of us. Four beautiful young ladies, and me. They were carrying music books."
They were dressed, he said, as if they had shopped at Nordstrom. He was not. They were carrying sheet music. Perez did not, and does not, read notes. He plays by ear.
"I was the first one to play," he said. "I wasn't expecting they would hire me, and I was dressed in a regular shirt. I started playing and playing as the store opened up. I didn't even have an application."
After playing, he drove home.
"My wife said, `They called. They want you to start tomorrow.' I almost cried."
It was as if he had finally arrived.
He began playing at age 7, a child in Manila. He didn't like to practice, and he soon took up the marimba, which he enjoyed.
He played at military bases, and at 11 years old he won the "Your Children on Parade" national TV talent competition.
By 19, he was entertaining U.S. soldiers with the USO, touring Vietnam, traveling in the belly of a C-130. He was shot at in Pleiku and stranded in the air terminal at Da Nang. After Vietnam, he played in Guam, and earned a job playing at the Guam Hilton.
"My wife was working for Bank of America," he recalled. "They were having a Christmas party at the Guam Hilton, and the general manager of the hotel talked to the food and beverage manager, who asked me if I wanted to play piano at the Galleon Grill."
No, Perez said. "I am not a pianist."
The manager persevered, and Perez spent two weeks practicing for an audition, and, after all, he said, "I thought there would be nothing to lose if I tried."
For eight hours a day, every day for two weeks, Perez practiced scales, chords and arpeggios. He found a certain beauty in the music. He found then what sustains him to this day.
"When I listen, I could appreciate every note. It just goes to my mind," he said. "I felt honored to be entertaining. I love to perform - it comes from my heart."
He played piano at the Hilton and organ at the Continental Hotel. He worked at a duty-free shop. He became a businessman. He and his wife became the parents of five children and Perez said a business partner swindled him of most everything he had worked for.
He came alone to the mainland with $300.
"We were thinking of our future. The education would be better here for the children."
He came to Seattle in 1985 and stayed with a cousin in Ballard, sleeping on a sofa, spending his days hungry and cold looking for a job.
He learned that a former employee had emigrated to Tacoma, so he came down for a visit. His family soon joined him, on a Saturday, and on Sunday they visited Holy Rosary Church.
Later, one of the sisters asked him what he did.
"I said I am a musician."
She said that a store called Nordstrom had piano players, and so Juan's wife called Nordstrom. The store was scheduling auditions and could Juan come on Friday morning? He could, and he played "It Had to Be You," "Chariots of Fire," "Evergreen" and some blues and some jazz. By the time he got home, he had the job.
Over his 27 years, at the peak, he played 36 hours a week. On some days he would play a double shift. His children were attending Holy Rosary, and a family of five children grew to a family of 10.
He lists those 10 children by their accomplishments: a project engineer for the state Department of Transportation, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy, a nurse, two teachers, a GIS technician for the City of Seattle, a soon-to-graduate law student, two college students and a junior at Bellarmine Prep.
There are jobs beyond the job at Nordstrom. Perez teaches music one day a week at Holy Rosary. There are occasional gigs at the Tacoma Yacht Club and Tacoma Country and Golf Club. He plays at Bellevue Square and he plays for mass at Western State Hospital. He plays at a Tacoma nursing home, and he is a certified nursing assistant and has worked as a caregiver.
"I just want to be grateful for 27 years at Nordstrom," he said. "To Blake, Peter and Erik Nordstrom. Most of my children have finished college with the help of Nordstrom and God."
He said he will treasure the memories of the people for whom he played.
"One woman came with a little girl. She said, `Do you know I was this age when I first saw you? Now I'm a mother and I've brought my daughter to see you.' "
"People say, I've known you for 20 years. I'm glad you're still here."
TV star Linda Evans once walked up to have a word. "She came to me but I didn't know who she was. When she left the ladies from cosmetics came up to me and asked, `What did Linda Evans tell you?' I asked, `Who is she?' "
While buying shoes, Gov. Booth Gardner heard Perez play. This led to a job performing at the governor's mansion in Olympia.
Perez knows how to control the rhythm of the store.
"Every time I play `New York, New York' it seems people become more active and the store becomes more busy. I play Jerry Lee Lewis' `Great Balls of Fire' and the atmosphere changes. Some people start dancing. Even older people. Just the other day, a woman 90 years old started dancing. We'll have couples dancing. They even start singing. One man starts tap dancing when I play `Satin Doll.' "
People especially like "The Entertainer," "Maple Leaf Rag," "Under the Boardwalk," "Lean on Me," and "Mac the Knife."
"Even young people like them," he said.
But no longer will they hear the music live.
As his family gathered around, as shoppers stood to listen, Perez played Billy Joel's "Piano Man" second to last. It's the one that goes, "Well we're all in the mood for a melody, and you've got us feelin' all right."
Finally, and at the request of his wife, Susan, Perez played "How Great Thou Art."
When he was through, Perez leaned over and kissed the piano. He lowered the lid, turned to the people gathered and said, "Thank you, everybody."
He was told a week ago Friday that his services would no longer be required.
He isn't sure what might come next.
He would love to play at El Gaucho, he said. He enjoys playing at the country club and the yacht club.
"I'll be looking for another job," he said. "I like to play the piano. When you play, people come alive. It's like there's new hope."
Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)