He almost always has a cigarette in his mouth, if not that, a sucking candy, and he walks around the room blowing smoke or making tongue-clucking sounds and listening, always listening, because that is what a good teacher does. Listens. Now and then, he’ll interrupt with a correction, or write something down, maybe show you how to play it. He makes it seem simple, and when you get frustrated, he’ll blow a cloud of smoke, grin and say, “Relax. It takes two or three weeks to become a jazz musician.”
Matt Michaels is a piano teacher, the best I’ve ever met, and I’ve met quite a few. He has a gray beard and glasses and he’s lived here all of his 61 years and he plays in clubs and oversees classes in everything from combos to orchestras as director of Jazz Studies at Wayne State. But in the hours before and after, he does what he does best, he teaches, one on one, in his small, cramped office or a piano room of a suburban high school.
Weekdays. Saturday afternoons. Students coming in late, students going out. It is not glamorous.
It is not, say, Barbra Streisand.
But once it was. The prodigy in Detroit
Back when Streisand was a young, unknown nightclub singer, she came to Detroit to play the Caucus Club. Michaels was the house pianist.
He was a pro, so he didn’t appreciate when the 18-year-old Streisand showed up late for gigs. The club owner kept booking her, however, and part of Michaels’ job was to work with her. He didn’t get paid for this. He did it anyhow. Week after week, month after month, giving her a repertoire, teaching her to sing in time. He got her work doing commercials. He wrote arrangements for songs. One of these, she took to New York and used on “The Tonight Show,” one of her early breaks.
Although Michaels wasn’t fond of Streisand’s aggressive manner — when someone offered to buy her a drink, she’d say, “No, but you can buy me a meal”
— he recognized her talent, and knew he was helping to develop something special. Maybe, in his heart, he felt when the world embraced her, he’d be embraced, too.
Instead, after nine months, Streisand left Detroit for Broadway, took all of Michaels’ arrangements, music charts, imparted knowledge.
And never spoke to him again.
The years passed. Streisand became the biggest female star in the business. Michaels stayed in Detroit, played the London Chop House, the now-defunct Playboy Club. He worked with artists like Peggy Lee and Joe Williams, but they always left and he always stayed, playing, teaching. He came to Wayne State in 1979. Thousands of musicians have now been influenced by his guidance. Piano players swear by him. Maybe he could have been famous in his own right; instead, his passion comes in finding scholarship money for students.
And up to last week, if you asked him about Streisand, how she never even thanked him, he’d shrug and say, “That’s the way she is.” Backstage with Barbra
Streisand’s current tour is the rage of the music business, with sellouts from London to LA. When Detroit was announced as a stop, I asked Michaels if he planned to see his ex-singer. He said no.
But last week, some guys in Streisand’s orchestra dropped by Arriva restaurant in Warren, where Michaels works on Wednesday nights, and they said he should come. And the next day, Streisand’s personal assistant called, and said Barbra would have invited him earlier, but he was “so hard to find.”
Michaels laughs. “I’m in the phone book.”
Tickets were left for Michaels and his wife of 35 years, Kaye. They got dressed up, and they went. Streisand announced Matt during the concert, and when the show ended, he and Kaye were taken backstage to see the star.
“She hugged me,” Michaels says. “She said it was good to see me, and that she still uses some of my arrangements.
“We only talked for a few minutes. I wanted to talk more, but people kept interrupting, you know, introducing themselves.”
Michaels, never much for that, quickly said good night and left. There is
no jealousy, he says. “I couldn’t deal with that kind of life. All I ever wanted was to make a living, play good music, pass on a few things . . .”
Streisand’s concert features state-of-the-art production, film clips, Donna Karan dresses, a light show, $20 programs, tickets up to $1,000. It will gross millions of dollars, spawn an album, TV specials, you name it.
Yet as she left the Palace in her limousine Thursday night, and Matt Michaels went back to his cramped classroom, cigarettes and sucking candies, it is a toss-up as to who has done more for the honorable future of music.
Actually, it’s no contest.