FELIKS BANEL

Nordstrom in-store piano players depart with no public goodbye

Dec 9, 2020, 9:40 AM | Updated: 9:40 am
Joel Baker on duty behind the keys at the Southcenter Nordstrom, circa 1990. (Courtesy Joel Baker) Joel Baker, circa 1992, tickling the ivories at the Southcenter Nordstrom during a visit by his childhood friend Troy. (Courtesy Joel Baker) Joel Baker and a Nordstrom customer circa 1994; the man and his wife had asked Baker to play Irving Berlin's "Always" for them, which Baker continued to play for the man's widow after the man passed away. (Courtesy Joel Baker)

They were a fixture at many Nordstrom stores from the 1980s until well into the 21st century, and they were especially appreciated during the holidays. But, it turns out that sometime in last year or so, the only remaining Nordstrom piano player hit the last notes on a classic tune – probably from the American song book – and then closed the lid on the old Steinway and walked off into history as those final notes faded away.

Nordstrom wouldn’t answer KIRO Radio’s questions about the decision to end the in-store performances, so it’s unclear if the move has anything to do with the pandemic and the chilling effect that lockdowns and social distancing have had on all brick-and-mortar retailers. Conversations with store employees point to the pre-pandemic retirement of Joe Rojo, the longtime downtown Nordstrom pianist described above, which they say took place about a year ago. Rojo, who was the only remaining Nordstrom pianist when he retired, was not replaced, and could not be reached for comment.

One of Rojo’s former colleagues is pianist Joel Baker. Baker is in his early 50s and grew up on the Eastside, but now lives in Palm Springs where he works a professional musician. He was a Nordstrom pianist at the Southcenter Nordstrom from 1988 to 2003, and played at the Alderwood store for a few years as well.

Baker has a lot of memories and stories from his time at the keys, and he clearly relished being on the bench for the homegrown retailer. He says working as the Nordstrom pianist was a great job while he was putting himself through music school at the University of Washington, and it also led to many additional gigs playing private events.

“I think it kind of gave them a sense of pride, hopefully, to be able to say ‘Hey, I’m having a Nordstrom pianist play for my wedding,'” Baker said by phone from Palm Springs.

When he learned earlier this year that his friend Joe Rojo’s job had been eliminated from the downtown flagship store, Baker says he wasn’t surprised.

“They were always trying to find ways to make the store relevant and contemporary and go with the times, and they wanted the music to reflect that,” Baker said. “I think after a while, they just felt it wasn’t practical to try to do that anymore. So they just switched over to recorded music.”

Cutting back on the number of Nordstrom piano players appears to date as far back as the early 2000s. An article in the Seattle Times from 2007 said that about half of the chain’s 101 stores still had a piano player at that time, while a few years earlier, the number had been closer to three-quarters of the stores that offered the musical amenity to customers.

It seems there was almost always pressure on the piano program to modernize or change, even from early on in Baker’s tenure. The notion of “keeping the store relevant and contemporary” was on his mind back in the 1990s when Baker tread the dangerous path of expanding his playlist for patrons at the Southcenter Nordstrom.

“I went to the Kennelly Keys music store in the mall to buy a whole bunch of current sheet music at that time,” Baker said. “And I’ll never forget the cashier at Kennelly Keys looking at me and saying, ‘You’re going to play “Hit Me Baby One More Time” in Nordstrom?’”

Did a Britney Spears tune make the Nordy cut?

Absolutely, says Joel Baker.

“It actually [lent] itself pretty well to the piano,” Baker said, chuckling.

While it might seem like something from a much earlier time, Baker says Nordstrom only started hiring piano players in 1985 for the recently remodeled and expanded Bellevue Square store.

“I think they had two pianists on the staff,” Baker said. “And one of them was Joe Rojo, who was also the last surviving pianist.”

A live keyboard player in a department store lent the store a certain upscale quality or classiness, and Baker says this premise goes way back into Seattle history to Rhodes Department Store at Second and Union downtown – though he acknowledges Rhodes was likely inspired by the legendary Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia.

When Rhodes opened in Seattle in December 1927, the new store featured a pipe organ in the store’s auditorium. The pipe organ was used to entertain shoppers, and was also featured on KFOA, the radio station at Rhodes that operated in the 1920s and 1930s. Rhodes’ downtown location closed in 1968, but its pipe organ survived a bit longer after it was moved and played, for a few years anyway, at the old Seattle Center Arena.

Baker says that along with the classy tunes – Britney Spears notwithstanding – Nordstrom carried on with one more retro aspect of those earlier live in-store performers by enforcing a strict dress code.

So, just how many tuxedos did Baker wear out in that decade and a half tickling the Nordstrom ivories?

“Oh gosh, more than anyone you know, I’m sure. Several. I don’t know, at least a dozen,” Baker said. “And then finally, in 1998 I think it was, they did away with the tuxedos and allowed us to just come dressed like all the other employees in a suit and tie.”

Tuxedo or suit, Baker says the holiday season at Nordstrom was a special time – at least for the pianists.

“The holidays were just a lot of fun because it was so festive, and the store was nicely decorated, and it was such a classy atmosphere to play in,” Baker said. “It was just so much fun to watch everybody as they were shopping.”

“All the other employees were stressed out with the customer overload,” Baker added. “But it was a lot of fun for me.”

A lot of that fun came – at first – from playing an assortment of holiday and non-holiday songs, until store management changed the rules a bit.

“At first, they allowed us to play just whatever we wanted to and mix some holiday songs in,” Baker said. “But then, they decided to have us play all holiday music. So we would have to repeat songs several times in one shift, and I think it kind of drove the employees batty after a while.”

The solution to the “battiness?” Variety, of course — mixing things up a bit, musically speaking.

“Sometimes, we would try to come up with creative arrangements for the Christmas songs,” Baker said, which meant some new interpretations of the classics that didn’t necessarily become crowd-pleasers.

“One time, one of the employees came up to me and he said, ‘I’m sorry, but “Silent Night” does not work as a polka,’” Baker said.

Sure enough, Baker demonstrated his “Silent Night Polka” on a small digital keyboard he keeps in his home – but it actually does kind of work.

Other songs stand out to Baker for the way they helped cement real personal connections with Nordstrom customers. One older couple in particular came to mind for Baker, nearly 30 years after he first met them at the Southcenter store.

“They asked me to play their favorite song, which was ‘Always’ by Irving Berlin,” Baker said. “And so every time they would come in, I would play it for them.”

Then, the gentleman passed away. One day, his widow returned, alone, to Baker’s piano at the Southcenter Nordstrom.

“I wondered if I should play [‘Always’] or not because I didn’t want to make her sad, but she came over and asked for it,” Baker said. “I played it, and kept playing it for her when I would see her after that.”

“Hopefully, the music made some kind of a difference in people’s lives in some small way like that,” Baker said. “I think it did, and I think people associated the piano with Nordstrom, and it was just something special that made Nordstrom different from other stores.”

In some ways, the retro quality of having a live pianist in a department store is not unlike the old Frederick & Nelson department store doormen who once operated in the building that became the Nordstrom Seattle flagship store – opening doors for customers, helping to arrange for transportation, and generally just being helpful.

Like Joel Baker – and his fellow Nordstrom pianists Joe Rojo and the late Juan Perez of the Tacoma store –  the doormen didn’t add to the store’s bottom-line, but they certainly helped create an atmosphere and a vibe that made shopping in person a little – or, sometimes, a lot – more special.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Nordstrom in-store piano players depart with no public goodbye