EDITOR'S NOTE: Pilhofer has postponed the shows mentioned in this story because of illness. They are expected to be rescheduled in June or July.
He’s deaf in one ear, blind in one eye and must soak his arthritic hands in wax each morning in order to play the piano. But Herb Pilhofer says he’s feeling good.
At age 88.
This week, the Minnesota music pioneer will perform in public for the first time in 18 years, at Crooners Supper Club in Fridley.
“At this point of my life, I look at playing for me as a way of staying alive,” he said while sitting at the Bösendorfer grand in his Inver Grove Heights home. “I don’t need my picture in Time magazine. Never have. If I can play and somebody likes it, that’s wonderful.”
Pilhofer’s significance may not be Time magazine-worthy, but it warrants a spot in the Minnesota History Center. His stature was cemented long ago, and it really didn’t have to do with him as a classically trained jazz pianist who in 1960 was named “best new piano talent” by Downbeat magazine.
He was the first music director of the Guthrie Theater, composing the fanfare that still beckons theatergoers at every performance. He co-founded Minnesota’s first digital studio, Sound 80, the scene of such landmark recordings as Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Prince’s pivotal demo tape, Lipps Inc.’s smash “Funkytown” and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s first Grammy-winning album.
Pilhofer pioneered all kinds of innovations, including the first digitally recorded album and the first Moog synthesizer and Synclavier in the Twin Cities. And he composed music for countless national TV commercials and movie soundtracks.
The pianist hasn’t performed publicly since 2001, when he released “Full Circle,” an album of original compositions.
“He wasn’t interested in gigging,” said Pilhofer’s son Michael, who will accompany him on drums. “His love is for the music, not for a quote-unquote gig.”
Herb saw his son recently play behind Twin Cities vocal stars Debbie Duncan and Robert Robinson at Crooners’ Dunsmore Jazz Room. He became enamored of the space and the attitude of the club’s owner, who insists that patrons listen.
“I found a room I like,” Pilhofer said of the 90-capacity Dunsmore Room. “There’s not enough places to play where people really listen.”
He wanted to play again with his son, a sometimes drummer who runs a full-time fitness business, as well as esteemed Twin Cities double bassist Gordy Johnson and saxophonist/flutist Dave Karr, a friend since they met as students at the University of Minnesota 70 years ago.
“Dave’s just a creative guy,” Pilhofer said. “In the studio, the dumbest melody, Dave makes it shine. He’s saved my neck so often.
“When I was going through a divorce, I could call Dave at midnight and he’d come over. He’s been a friend in the truest sense.”
Pilhofer has been long retired, traveling with his third wife and some of his six children (two from each marriage) and partaking in his hobby of photography.
Even though he’s composed music in recent years, he’s given up on the idea of recording it or even playing it for others.
“I’ve got stacks of music piled up,” he said. “In the last half year, I got rid of tons of electronics and synthesizers. My only interest is to play the piano. It is good for my body. It’s an organic thing.”
Discovered jazz in Germany
Growing up in Nuremberg, Germany, Pilhofer learned to play on what he called a tafelklavier, sort of a full keyboard atop a table.
In the spring of 1945, after hiding out with his mother, he heard a Jeep of triumphant Allied soldiers drive through town with the radio blasting “Goody Goody,” the first time the 14-year-old classical pianist heard jazz.
In newly liberated Germany, the young pianist eagerly consumed jazz recordings, studying solos by Art Tatum, Lennie Tristano and George Shearing. He formed a band that played for Allied troops, accompanying singers such as Vic Damone.
Offered U.S. sponsorship by a bass-playing Army captain, Pilhofer married an Albert Lea, Minn., woman who was in the Army Special Services, and immediately headed to the States. First, though, came a stop in New York City to hear some jazz before they settled in the Twin Cities in 1954.
Pilhofer gigged regularly at Freddie’s, Herb’s Bar and other Twin Cities jazz joints. In the late 1950s, he was part of an octet that recorded “Jazz From the North Coast” at Kay Bank Studio (now Creation Audio) at 26th St. and Nicollet Av. in south Minneapolis
Pilhofer used his skills to compose music for commercials as well as a piece for the then-Minneapolis Symphony, for which he served as soloist.
Those talents landed him at the Guthrie in 1963.
“That night I wrote the fanfare, I called three trumpet players from the symphony, met them at 8 o’clock in the morning and rehearsed and marched over to the Guthrie,” he recalled.
“I never got a penny for it,” Pilhofer said of the piece, composed before he was on the Guthrie staff. Still, his eight-year tenure as music director was “the only time where I was actually employed with a paycheck.”
On Dylan, Prince, Cat Stevens
In 1969, Pilhofer co-founded Sound 80, where he composed, recorded and experimented, teaming up with 3M on digital recording (for his “Spaces” album) and with Paramount Pictures for eight-channel surround sound.
Despite his penchant for innovative technology, Pilhofer likens himself to a photographer who relishes the darkroom. “It’s not the building or equipment,” he said. It was the attitude of the staff and artists who worked at the studio in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood (now owned by Orfield Laboratories).
After Dylan secretly recorded five songs for “Blood on the Tracks” there in December 1974, his people hired Pilhofer to record instrumental versions of three of them.
“My assignment was to arrange it for a very poppy, middle of the road, vanilla orchestration,” Pilhofer remembered. “I thought it was a bad idea. If you take the lyrics out of Bob Dylan’s music, I don’t think you could be overwhelmed with just the music. I say this respectfully. He’s a poet.”
The project was never released.
Pilhofer recalls an unknown teenager named Prince coming to Sound 80 with his then-manager Owen Husney.
“They came in with a stack of scores,” Pilhofer reminisced. “I was impressed, but I declined” to work with Prince. “I didn’t want to get involved with any speculative things.”
Pilhofer has vivid memories of Cat Stevens recording “Izitso” at Sound 80 in 1977 for A&M Records.
“The whole place was full of incense, bowls of fruit and nuts. He had his massage person with him, and candles lit all over the place.”
Memoir for his family
With an extraordinary life worthy of a biopic, Pilhofer decided to put together a memoir just for his children and grandchildren. For his 80th birthday, he delivered “Das Buch,” a lavishly illustrated, lovingly assembled scrapbook of his life that shows everything from his father (who died before Herb was born) to his photos of trips to Africa.
After turning 88 last month, Pilhofer is coming full circle, returning to his roots as a jazz pianist.
“I’m not trying to prove anything,” he said humbly. “I’m just playing standards. Things that people like. I’m really excited. It’s such a good piano [at the Dunsmore Room]. I don’t want money. If someone listens and someone enjoys it, that’s a gift I accept.”