At 95, pianist is still playing Las Vegas' tune

Column One

At 95, this pianist is still playing Las Vegas' tune

Joe Vento plays in the lobby of an off-the-Strip hotel in Las Vegas, joined for a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" by Gigi Malandra, 5. At 95, Vento has a long career's worth of Vegas musician stories. (John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times) More photos

The city's restaurants and hotel lobbies are full of solo musicians. But Joe Vento works to captivate his listeners with tales of the city's musical history.

December 31, 2013

The old man crouches over a Steinway in the hotel lobby, a lifetime of musical mementos stacked above the keyboard — photographs, news clippings, old albums and CDs for sale.

Joe Vento is a gray-haired showman, a gregarious self-promoter who's proud of a body of work that spans decades. He smiles widest when he reveals his age — telling audiences he just turned 95.

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Each weekend, he plays in the 1960s-themed lobby of the off-Strip Royal Resort, greeting the harried travelers in a hurry to reach the front desk just beyond. It's a tough gig and he hustles to peddle the nostalgia of his old-school jazz, calling out to newcomers for a request, any request. Vento is rarely stumped.

He sits propped on two pillows, working the room from the piano. When a visitor says he's from Toronto, Vento launches into the Canadian national anthem, singing the lyrics from memory. He spies a French couple he's seen before and rolls into a can-can.

A listener mentions he's just turned 60 and Vento plays a brief "Happy Birthday" before easing into a jazzy rendition of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

All the while, he hails one passerby, then another, his hands racing across the keyboard as he talks. For this piano man, six listeners isn't an embarrassment; it's a packed house.

Dollars fall into his glass jar. On a good evening, he can make $500. But tonight, there's a problem. "I forgot my teeth," he whispers. "You get to be my age, everything hurts."

The aging showman soldiers on, wearing a blue satin shirt and U.S. flag suspenders — a patchwork ensemble topped off by a cap denoting his Vietnam-era Army service as a three-star lieutenant general. And like many old soldiers, he wears white socks.

A woman emerges from the lobby restaurant, the Barrymore. She leans in, her breath boozy, laughing as Vento shares a private joke, his fingers fiddling with the keys. When she asks for a Frank Sinatra tune, he plays "My Way," a song that describes the piano man's philosophy of life.

Then he announces a special guest: a 5-year-old girl who wants to sing "Over the Rainbow." He smiles as Gigi Malandra sits next to him, belting out the tune.

"That was something," he says later. "All the girls want to sing with grandpa."

Singer Nieve Malandra, Gigi's mother, pays Vento regular visits. "He knows so many songs," she says. "He follows the singer like they used to do in the old days."

In the 1940s and '50s, Joe Vento, left, holding an accordion, performed with a group called "The Three Suns." They had a hit with "Twilight Time" in 1944. (Joe Vento collection) More photos

Las Vegas is filled with solo musicians who perform at restaurants and casinos. Many are content to play to half-listening ears. Not Vento. For the last 70 years, the freelance jazz player has worked hard to captivate a crowd with more than his music.

To hear Vento tell it, he's been a witness to this town's musical history, and his stories punctuate his act. He regales listeners with tales of his days as a fixture in the MGM studio band, saying he still collects residual checks for performing on hundreds of TV shows and movies, including such classics as "Breakfast at Tiffany's." But to his chagrin, the studios rarely kept records to credit studio musicians who played on famous songs.

Those years were some of the best in his life. "The Rat Pack never rehearsed," he says after the Royal crowd drifts away. "They just came out and played."

He tells how Dean Martin began a naughty riff off one of his hits: "Everybody's had my body sometime." The audience roared, Vento said. Then Martin looked at a woman in the crowd. "Don't laugh, lady," he quipped. "You could be next."

After his studio heyday, Vento says, he worked on cruise ships and other gigs that took him around the world. For 27 years, he played with the group the Three Suns, performing at most casinos on the Strip.

There have been gaps in his story. The local musician's union asked Vento why records show his age to be in the 80s. Vento admits he knocked a few years off his age in the past so employers wouldn't think he was too old.

Most fans don't care if the stories are true. "Joe has a tremendous memory and he likes to talk about knowing famous people," said businessman Adam Dieter, who catches his act regularly. "Most of them are dead now, so they're not going to deny anything."

Vento says playing music keeps him from dwelling on his diabetes and physical problems from his time in the service. He mentions he takes 77 pills a day to cope with his ailments.

But at the piano, he says, none of it matters.

Sometimes, remnants of Vento's past walk through the door. Rebecca Gutierrez is a former Navy nurse who served in the Vietnam War and remembers the dashing Army officer who told stories of playing with the big names and performed for troops around Asia.

The pair lost touch. Then she heard Vento was playing at the Royal. Right away, it felt like old times. "Joe is always so warm to people he entertains," Gutierrez said. "He's never met a stranger. He asks 'Where are you from? What would you like to hear?' He's always done that."

Tony Bennett, left, is among the hundreds of singers and actors who Joe Vento has accompanied, on a variety of musical instruments, during his decades in show business. (Joe Vento collection) More photos

Wearing a black cap, sweater and suspenders that pull the waist of his pants nearly to his chest, Vento opens the door to his ranch-style house not far from the Stratosphere casino. "Be prepared for a culture shock," he says.

The inside is the cluttered repository of an old performer unable to part with anything: music stands, sound equipment, microphones and violins. "I have 27 accordions," he says.

The Brooklyn native settled in Las Vegas 25 years ago and pledges that this place is his last home before he meets the big band leader in the sky. Classical music plays from a local radio station as closed curtains cast the rooms in daytime darkness. On this morning, he hurriedly packs for a road trip to perform at a restaurant in Northridge.

Vento endures a solitary life. He was married once, only briefly, and women have passed with the impermanence of his gigs. "Some wanted to marry me, but I said I didn't want to leave them a widow," he says. "When asked why, I say 'Because in six months, you'll probably kill me.' That's what women do."

Anyway, he says with a shrug, most wince at his housekeeping and don't stay long.

Wandering the sprawling house, he negotiates angled, well-trodden paths. He points to a teetering pile and asks a visitor to grab a shirt: "Pull it quickly or the whole stack will come down."

He grabs an Army Rangers cap with the lieutenant colonel's bars — insurance against speeding tickets: "When I wear this, police salute me. They say, 'Thank you, General, for protecting our country.'"

Vento peers inside the refrigerator, admitting he's a health fanatic who drinks two gallons of water a day as fluid for the brain. He doesn't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. His greatest fear is Alzheimer's disease. Or the arthritis that could cut his piano playing.

"Hey, look at this," he says, producing a picture of himself with Tony Bennett. One hallway is filled with shots of Vento posing with the talented and famous, as well as signed photos from Dean Martin, Liberace, Janet Leigh. There's another from Jay Leno: "To Joe. The best."

There's also a copy of a 1960s review from a New York tabloid that quotes a "spangled-shirted cowboy type" in the audience talking about Vento's playing: "He didn't sing so well but he sure hollered good."

He tells about playing at the Playboy Mansion and at a South Florida bar when Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio happened to walk in. They stayed for his whole set, he recalls. "You could be here two years and still not cover all of me," Vento says proudly.

As Joe Vento plays requests on a Steinway piano, a tip jar slowly fills with money. (Jay Jones) More photos

Later, Vento is out in a yard littered with cars, including a truck used to haul two baby grands to Las Vegas. The hood of a Mercedes van rests against a tree. He checks his driver's license hanging from a string around his neck and reaches into his pocket for an electric razor. He plans to shave while driving.

"I use every second," he says, "every moment."

Vento discovered the Steinway at the Royal Resort in 2012 when he met the manager at the Barrymore. Chad Jahn wanted a player for the lobby.

"He just kind of adopted that piano," Jahn said.

Vento played more frequently before a freeway accident and eye surgery cut him back to three or four hours on weekends. But some nights he'll play late, like when the cast of the play "Jersey Boys" comes in and wants to hear the old stuff.

He'll be at the lobby piano on New Year's Eve. With decades of jazz standards to explore, he'll go where the night takes him.


FOR THE RECORD:
Joe Vento: An article in the Dec. 31 Section A about Las Vegas piano player Joe Vento gave two ranks for his Army experience. Vento, who entertains fans with his many stories, says he's a retired lieutenant general, not a lieutenant colonel; however, The Times was not able to verify his rank. The article also said he wore a hat with his lieutenant colonel's bars. The rank insignia for a lieutenant colonel is a silver oak leaf; a lieutenant general would have three stars. —

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