At the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Michael Royal was playing Bill Evans' classic piece "Turn Out the Stars. "I took my drink to a table next to the piano and gave him a nod of approval. Most of the happy hour crowd in the palatial lounge was chatting. I stepped up and requested another Evans tune which Royal played with absolute precision and beauty.
His trip to the Ritz-Carlton gig has been a long one and, as they say in the business, he has paid his dues. Born in Tampa, the 52-year-old Royal was noodling on his grandparent's piano when he was four. In his high school years he was backing a rock band on an electric keyboard.
At the University of Southern Florida, he studied with Jacques Abram and fell in love with the harmonies of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. He has never lost his love for classical music and admits to still having an "urge" to concertize. But it is jazz that has dominated his musical career.
On a trip to Europe, a wealthy and cultured couple "discovered" him and became his mentors. They provided him with a piano and his own apartment in Switzerland, taking him to concerts, operas and cultural events. He recalls their devotion to him with deep and abiding respect. His next stop was in Copenhagen where he played with many American and European.
He studied film scoring with Dick Grove, moved to Los Angeles and wrote a movie score. Finding it difficult to make a living in L.A. he moved to Buffalo, New York where he appeared with Herbie Hancock (who gave him some lessons in Buddhism), Larry Coryell, Mel Lewis, Red Rodney and others. He founded the Western New York Jazz Society and produced jazz concerts featuring Maynard Ferguson, Phil Sims and the Buffalo Brass and Bobby Militello and RPM.
Royal still regards the production and promotion of jazz as a high priority. "This is a beautiful musical tradition that was handed to us," he says. "Most of those who created it are gone -- we have to educate an new generation," To this end, he lectures and teaches piano and theory instruction. Regarding his own tastes, he feels that most of "avant-garde" jazz was a necessary but failed experimental stage. He also thinks that older people who like only traditional jazz should stretch out a bit more.
He returned to Sarasota in 1989, playing in small clubs and restaurants in town. As one reviewer wrote, "He plays everything from Mozart to Monk." As for Thelonious Monk, Royal calls him his "high priest," and includes Monk tunes as regulars in his repertory and on his recordings. He has also composed his own tunes that tend to reflect the fluent and fluid chords and voicings of Bill Evans and Erroll Garner.
His CDs are Royal Blue (1992), Live! At The Gorilla Theater (2001) and Smokin'! At King Corona (2001). These are recorded with a trio that is also reminiscent of Bill Evans' trios. He has recorded one solo CD, Live at Ms. Maryjo's.
Royal is a very reflective person. After lunch, we sat in a park in Sarasota and discussed everything from left and right brain theory to how commercial culture has impacted on American society. When I said that I hoped this article would result in more recognition of his talents, he was modest, lighting a cigarette and hesitating for a minute. "That would be nice."
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