Here at the Miami Arts Review we’ve grown very fond of the Betsy Hotel for its dedication to injecting arts and culture into public space. As Art Basel returned to the city for its 2015 winter run, South Beach’s dining and entertainment scene featured a plethora of venues to enjoy live music, but few are so committed to ensuring the quality of the Betsy Hotel’s (Mostly) Jazz live music series. Twice weekly, and more frequently during Art Basel, hotel guests, diners at BLT Steak, and the savvy music aficionado are privy to an array of world-class musicians presenting in the lobby’s performance space.
A favorite of the Betsy’s is Miami jazz veteran, pianist Mike Gerber. Ensconced in Miami’s jazz scene since he moved here for education in 1969, Gerber has performed with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Michael Brecker, and Jaco Pastorius. Despite being born blind and partially deaf, Gerber seems to be one of those humans made for his instrument. His formative years training as a classical pianist required him to learn to play by ear, resulting in a remarkable ear for detail and nuance. He describes how his teachers coached him through new works by helping him gauge distances for jumps, or recording pieces one voice part at a time so he could hear the intricacies of each line. He can discuss interpretations of Chopin by both Cortot and Rubinstein off cuff, and points out subtle shapes even the most seasoned listener may not hear.
He also refutes the assertion that jazz musicians should adhere strictly to their genre. As the Betsy isn’t his classic trope of a “jazz room,” he enjoys having a broader audience to introduce to his love of music, and commits to it. Happy to play favorites across all genres, he proudly describes his selections as ranging from the Beatles to Justin Bieber. When he takes to the piano he opens with a relaxed cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” to settle into the room. The popular repertoire is easy-going but still reflects flourishes of his jazz personality, and even in the dinner rush, he commands the attention of diners and guests excited to share in his talents.
His wife, who lovingly describes him as a “walking jukebox” for his immense knowledge of repertoire and ability to play anything he hears, requests he perform a classical tune. He instantaneously breaks into Chopin. At the grand finale of the taxing piece, bombastic but not forced, the room breaks into applause, pausing in appreciation for what they’re experiencing. Several guests gather close, sinking into corners around him to immerse in the strains of his instrument. A wild boogie-woogie rendition of Flight of the Bumblebee turns heads; those at the bar twist and contort in their stools to be able to watch his hands cruise the keys as they tap their feet along. It is apparent many listeners aren’t just waiting for dinner or staying in the hotel, but flock to the space to enjoy its ambience and be blessed with this kind of musical experience.
Friday evening, guests are serenaded by Austrian jazz powerhouse Markus Gottschlich, artistic director of the Miami Beach Jazz Festival. While the Friday night dinner crowd bustles around his piano, he keeps closer to the standard jazz repertoire than Gerber (a former teacher of Gottschlich’s) before him. His choices alternate adeptly between the most tender of love songs and more robust contrasts, but he also offsets the modern with an occasional classical work; a particularly wistful rendition of the standard Body and Soul is followed shortly thereafter by Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, lovingly crafted.
While Gottschlich, a Steinway Artist, has performed the world over, he has also made a dent as a contributor to Miami’s jazz community. When asked about his favorite venues in which to perform, Gottschlich is quick to highlight the Betsy among them. “I support the supporters,” he concludes. “Any place that has the endurance to maintain a quality live music program against the currents of the time.” He describes the Betsy’s commitment to the arts as unique in South Beach, and he makes a good point: in the community’s ever shifting music scene, the establishment arguably stands as a last bastion. The hotel, too, is outspoken about its pride in performing such a role. VP for Marketing and Philanthropy Deborah Briggs describes it as “joyous to be in the presence of talent like that. Guys like Mike and Markus who are the best of the best – we want to honor them, and we make it our mission to feature them in an elegant environment where they can shine.” Indeed, if you’re looking for a discriminating music program that savors talent and exposing the joy of art in the public sphere, the Betsy’s (Mostly) Jazz music series is not to be missed.
Interested readers and jazz-lovers can enjoy performances every Wednesday and Thursday from 8-11 pm, but will also find a comprehensive list of upcoming performances at www.thebetsyhotel.com/event-calendar.