The Gazette moonlights with the pianists at The Big 4, one of the last old-school hangs in SF.
Story By Paul Wilner
Photo By Derek Yarra
Walking into the Big 4 is a headlong dive into a dream, with pianists providing background music that is tasteful, but never intrusive, to be enjoyed by young lovers, older couples reliving romantic moments and out-of-towners eager for a taste of old San Francisco in an atmosphere that remains relevant.
Sue Crosman, the house pianist on a recent Saturday night, opened the set quietly with “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” the Duke Ellington standard. On a typical night, her repertoire ranges from bossa nova to more contemporary tunes by Carole King and Billy Joel as well as jazzier efforts like Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”
San Francisco is perpetually changing, and San Franciscans are perpetually upset about it. Before the recent tech explosion, there was the LGBT community moving into the Castro, hippies moving into the Haight, Beats pounding (mostly mythical) bongos in North Beach. And—oh yes, let’s not forget the Gold Rush.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Big 4 Restaurant, a neighborhood institution that celebrated its 40-year anniversary last September, combines the best of old and new traditions.
When the Singapore Group bought the original Huntington Hotel (now named the Scarlet Huntington) in 2011 from the Cope family, the outfit considered changes to the Big 4. But cooler heads prevailed.
Longtime customers and new visitors alike come under the gracious guidance of restaurant manager Martin Annush, and longtime employees like senior waiter and in-house historian Ron Henggeler are available to point out historic memorabilia, from the portraits of Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford hanging inside the front door to a copy of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous panorama of San Francisco, shot in 1878, that hangs in the banquet room reserved for special occasions, like birthday parties for Dianne Feinstein.
And at a time when piano bars are becoming a thing of the past, patrons from Joe Montana to Gavin Newsom can mingle with younger residents to enjoy the best of the American Songbook—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and the like—along with more contemporary favorites, from the restaurant’s musical tag team: Crosman, Steve Klawiter and Dick Clark.
The trio of talented pianists put in long hours, from 5 to 11:30, six days of the week, but their commitment pays off in satisfied customers, generous tips and a vibe where music is appreciated, ambient noise is turned down and customers sometimes break into spontaneous applause en masse at the end of a particularly well-turned number.
They comprise decades of professional experience. Klawiter, who is charged with scheduling the team, studied jazz piano in Minneapolis in the ’70s and has performed everywhere from cruise ships to other high-end hotels, including stints as musical director for comics David Brenner and George Gobel. Clark has released several jazz albums, with a jumping style influenced by piano greats Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles. Crosman, who teaches as well as performs, was influenced by the understated lyricism of the late Bill Evans.
But each wears their expertise lightly: It’s the Big 4 way.
“The neat thing about our little boutique hotel is that celebrities can stay here and enjoy a quiet night without worrying about who’s behind every nook and cranny,” Klawiter says. “Cybill Shepherd has been here and Jennifer Aniston was here just recently, and we even had Steven Tyler.”
Did he put in a request?
“No, he probably was showing mercy to a fellow musician,” says Klawiter, with a laugh.
“I often start with ‘Love Is Here to Stay’ and other standards, and then show tunes. Some of the young people who come may only know them from a movie. The other night I was playing ‘That’s All’ [first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1953] when a young couple told me they first heard the tune in The Wedding Singer.”
On a recent Saturday night, Crosman takes a break from graceful renditions of classics like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” to talk about the unique atmosphere at a joint that is classy but never stuffy.
“My repertoire is probably 75 percent jazz standards, but I also play popular music, like Billy Joel or Carole King, and then some musicals,” she explains. “We’re getting a newer, techie crowd, too—it’s nice because they actually like the standards. You want good music to live on!”
Crosman continues, “It’s a tourist spot—the concierges at the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins send people here. They are seeking a piano bar because they say they can’t find any. Four couples were here the other night and someone said, ‘Gosh, we’re so glad you’re here. We’ve been looking for a live piano player.’” That connection is nurtured by Ty Saunders, the veteran bartender, who dispenses soothing conversation and lethal Vesper martinis—originally created by James Bond creator Ian Fleming—with equal grace.
“I’ve been here 24 years this month,” Saunders allows. “It makes me the new kid. There are people who’ve been there 40 years, so they’re bringing me around slowly.”
Willie Brown is a regular who “always kind of holds court,” says Saunders, name-dropping his favorite celebrity sighting there: John F. Kennedy Jr., who came in with wife Carolyn Bessette. He adds, “I remember one time, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher were there at the same time with different parties. They never crossed paths, but I spent the whole evening explaining to everyone under 40 that they were in the greatest Hollywood scandal of all time.”
Dick Clark says fellow musicians drop by when they’re in town, including Peter Mintun, the New York-based pianist who used to play regularly at L’Etoile restaurant when it was located at what is now the Scarlet Huntington. “He and Michael Parsons,” a longtime Big 4 pianist who has retired to Palm Springs, “are good friends.”
The times, and the clientele, are changing, though. “These days,” muses Clark, “they have yoga classes at Grace Cathedral Tuesday nights and come in afterward with mats rolled under their arms.”
For all that, the spirit of the past continues.
Leaving the Big 4 on a warm San Francisco evening, Crosman’s tune lingers: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.” But in her capable hands, it swings, too.
A Typical Set List at The Big 4
The Way You Look Tonight
In My Life (Beatles)
I Could Write A Book
The Look of Love
As Time Goes By
New York State of Mind
The Music of the Night
Love is Here to Stay
What A Wonderful World
Don’t go Changing