Jazz aficionados across Long Island knew pianist Frank O'Brien, including another local piano man, Billy Joel, who occasionally dropped in at Grasso's in Cold Spring Harbor to hear O'Brien play.
During one of those visits, O'Brien asked the star if he would like to hear O'Brien play songs from the Joel repertoire. The Grammy winner told him, "No, just play whatever suits you." And O'Brien certainly did from the time he was 4 until a short time before his death Sunday at his home in Bethpage. O'Brien, who was 78, died of cardiac arrest, according to his youngest sister, Maureen O'Brien, who lived with him.
In a career that spanned nearly six decades, O'Brien shared the stage with music legends including Count Basie, performed at parties hosted by actors Zero Mostel and Helen Hayes, and even shared a bowl of matzo ball soup with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie when O'Brien played at the Hickory House in New York City.
Not bad for someone who learned to play by ear as a toddler in the Bronx. After he started tinkering on a small piano in his family's house, his parents decided he should have music lessons, his sister said. "The teacher told my parents, 'Don’t waste your money. He has talent but he hears me play it, he’s not reading [the music],' " she said. Under the tutelage of another teacher, Gabby Budd, O'Brien developed as a musician and eventually taught himself to read music.
After his family moved to Hollis, O'Brien attended Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, where he and three classmates formed a quartet. Their first gig was at The Kenmore Hotel in the Catskills in the summer of 1959.
"We accompanied professional acts and they would come in with sheet music. Frank really didn’t do too well with that," said his friend Vinnie Ciaravolo, who was the bass player. Instead, O'Brien would come up with a new arrangement that was just "magnificent," Ciaravolo said.
O'Brien's ear for music was one of his greatest assets along with his "encyclopedic knowledge" of the American Songbook, Ciaravolo said, "So many tunes are now ingrained in my mind from Frank’s fingers," Ciaravolo said. "He was the great interpreter. I used to point to one of his fingers and say this should be the upper woodwind section, the next finger should be the violin and viola. If we could attribute sounds to various fingers, I’m telling you, we’re talking about a symphony orchestra."
O'Brien's piano stylings proved popular at numerous Manhattan night spots, including The Four Seasons, the Playboy Club and Jilly's, a popular hangout for Frank Sinatra. On Long Island, he entertained at Gurney Inn in Montauk, The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook and one of his favorite spots, Sonny's Place in Seaford, where he performed on a baby grand.
After suffering a stroke in 2017, O'Brien didn't play as often, though he still had some of his old magic. "Frank still knew how to do certain flourishes on the piano, but he did lose that total command," Ciaravolo said.
When he wasn't at the piano, O'Brien was an avid reader who enjoyed poetry, Shakespeare and biographies. "Frank was a student until the day he died," Ciaravolo said.
Funeral services for O'Brien were held Thursday and he was buried at Pinelawn Memorial Park. In addition to Maureen, he is survived by two other sisters, Elaine Lehe of Centereach and Barbara O'Brien Ahlers of Old Bethpage.