Joja Wendt was playing in a bar called Sperl in Hamburg. He was 18 years old at that time. The evening was nondescript. There were the usual bar habitués who shuffled in from the port-city evening chill to drink bier with a serving of smokes and live music. Except for a person in the audience that the young Joja swore was Joe Cocker. It was—the legendary mad-dog English rock ’n’ roll singer with sandpaper pipes and soul-rending gravelly baritone himself.
“On his day-off during a tour, Joe Cocker asked the hotel concierge where he could watch live music,” says Joja. The concierge pointed Cocker to a two-block walk to the bar where Wendt was playing his set list of Muddy Waters and boogie-woogie tunes.
After finishing a blues number, Joja went to a corner of the bar and tried to muster enough courage to go up and say hi to Joe. But then Cocker got up and walked toward Wendt. “Young man, I really like your playing,” the singer told the pianist. “My support guy is sick. Do you want to be my opening act (for tomorrow’s gig)?”
Decades later, Joja—during our chat at Antonio’s in PGA Cars for the Steinway & Sons event billed as The Artistry in Modern Precision— recalls the night that changed his life (with not-so-little help from a friend). “Can you believe that? It was my lucky draw.”
Wendt (who, before the Cocker gig, usually gigged to, at most, 50 audience members) performed the following evening to a crowd of thousands. “The people went crazy; they loved it. So, Joe asked me to join the rest of the tour.” The rest, as they say, is history. Or, in Joja Wendt’s case, the rest is Chuck Berry.
Word spread far and wide about this young German pianist who was playing American blues and boogie-woogie tunes with aplomb, swinging with the best in the business. (“Suddenly, I was this hot cat in Hamburg,” says Joja.) And then, the founding father of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry, came a-calling.
“It was an amazing honor (to be his piano player). He was the guy, a legend. He influenced The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. As you know, Chuck Berry never rehearsed. He expected us in his band to know the songs. He tuned his guitar, told us what key to play in, and off we went.” Go, Joja, go. With a reputation as a hard taskmaster, Berry had been known for giving the evil eye to erring sidemen. (Yoko Ono probably got it. Keith Richards never. Also not to Joja.) “Chuck happened to love me. I was young and very excited to play. He even asked me if I wanted to play guitar (laughs).”
But the piano is everything to Joja Wendt. It has taken him around the world.
He went to Amsterdam and New York to study music (his teacher being Harold Danko, who played with Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker, among others). He listened to his heroes play in clubs and jazz bars, and was drawn to the straight-ahead jazz of Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Joja even recorded an album with Les McCann titled Pacifique.
“We went to the studio and recorded what we had in mind. We didn’t prepare anything, would you believe? We just sat down and played, on the spot. It had a certain beauty to it.”
The pieces that Joja Wendt played on the Steinway Spiro during the event are certainly beautiful.
Lucerne managing director Ivan Yao thanked PGA Cars and Audi for the partnership with Steinway. “We appreciate the level of passion and expertise of everyone involved in this venture. We’re very excited to hear our very own Steinway & Sons artist Joja Wendt perform.”
Steinway Gallery Singapore general manager Celine Goh talked about the Steinway Spirio | r B-211, the world’s finest high-resolution player piano. She says the programmed pieces (that can be controlled from an iPad) are indistinguishable from a live performance. The tracks (from the Steinway music library by artists from Beethoven to Billy Joel to Billie Eilish) are captured with such nuance, power, and passion.
To demonstrate, a staff member summoned a long-ago live performance from jazz legend Bill Evans. The piano played automatically. Bill, of course, was notably absent (he died in 1980), but the dripping lyricism, the impressionist-like harmonic approach were all there: like having Mr. Evans in the room with a glass of white wine and a universe quieting down to listen to a man in front of a piano.
How does one follow one of the GOATs of the keys? Celine introduces the next one at-bat: “We are incredibly excited to welcome Steinway Artist Joja Wendt for a special concert this evening in partnership with Audi Philippines. Steinway aims to bring in and introduce select musicians from all over the world to the Philippines. Joja Wendt’s talent simply transcends one’s expectations of a piano performance.”
And Wendt does so wonderfully: playing the strings under the lid of the piano; venturing far beyond the black-and-white keys to the sides of the instrument, tilting his chair acrobatically; approximating the mood of a rainy day in Germany (with the audience participating as “rainmakers”); interpreting Art Tatum, down to the way the old jazzman ordered and consumed his drinks while vamping on the keys. But the banter, the way he interacts with the audience, sets Joja Wendt apart from other pianists.
Word spread far and wide about this young German pianist who was playing American blues and boogie-woogie tunes with aplomb, swinging with the best in the business.
“I would like to play what they say is the fastest tune in classical history—The Flight of the Bumblebee—and mash it up with a cool, Manila hip-hop mood.”
After the set, Wendt reflected upon how essential classical music is to the art of piano playing. “There is no way around it. To deny classical music is stupid. (You will be able to hear) what’s technically possible. Pianists like Chopin, Liszt, Debussy… they played stuff that was in their hands. Every one of them has a masterpiece, conveying the essence of what they were as musicians—Fats Waller had Handful of Keys, Horowitz had the Carmen Variations.”
And what is Joja Wendt’s masterpiece?
“Let me show you,” he answers.
We come back to the black Steinway at the PGA Cars gallery and the pianist sits down and plays a tune called Helix with its interlocking melodic strings inspired by human genetics. How coded messages are embedded in our DNA.
“It’s pretty daring to play,” says Wendt, who is probably the only musician who can make a piece about epigenetics swing. He proceeds to play.
“These two (melodic) strings are separated in space. They are circling around a middle string. And I add one more note. Three elements are circling in a 4/4 bar.” The passages he coaxes out of the piano keys are—and I am relying on my beggarly vocabulary to express its sublimity—both sad and uplifting at the same time.
“It’s like a conversation,” I tell him.
“Yes, it’s exactly that,” concludes Joja Wendt. “A conversation.”
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Steinway & Sons is distributed in the Philippines by Lucerne. Steinway Boutique Manila is on Level 1 of Shangri-La Plaza Mall, East Wing.