There was only one thing missing from the rousing, goosebump-and-tears-inducing performance by 11 talented musicians at the Performing Arts Center at Middle Township High School on Sunday… and that was the man they were honoring. As this All-Star collection of musicians performed “When the Saints Go Marching In”, the smiling image of George Mesterhazy overlooked them, in a framed photograph placed on an easel, above a beautiful bouquet of flowers. It was a remarkable tribute to a remarkable man — George died in his sleep at the Merion Inn in Cape May last Thursday, four days after his 59th birthday.
It was at the Merion where George, a virtuoso pianist, was most often heard in Cape May. The beloved institution was also his home, one he shared with his partner, Vicky Watson, the Merion owner. But George traveled the world making music. Over the course of his 30-year career, he delighted audiences at Carnegie Hall and accompanied the likes of Paula West and Shirley Horn. For his work on the latter’s album, he was nominated for a Grammy. Friends Ed Drozda, JM Kearns, Roy Baker, Terry Dougherty, Parker Smith, Debra Donahue, Rose Kelly, Dottie Knapp, and Andy Vernon feel privileged to have heard him play.
Parker Smith: He could play Beethoven or whatever complicated piece… and at the same time, he could have his laptop open and be watching a sitcom. That’s how good he was.
JM Kearns: When he played, George had that pure impish look on his face, inciting you, daring you, poking you, amazing you with his riffs, and you would feel free, like an old song was full of possibilities you’d never glimpsed before.
Roy Baker: You never knew what he was going to show up with — keyboard, mellodia, recorder. One night, he walked in with an iPad. He was a virtuoso even on an iPad!
Terry Dougherty: The last two Septembers, I did a gig for the Art League at the gazebo in Rotary Park with Herb Moore and George, who played an iPad. People were fascinated with the amazing musician making amazing music with this piece of technology, but that’s the thing — George was music. Music poured from him wherever and whatever he was doing.
Parker Smith: You never saw George in a bad mood. He was all cheer and full of life, and that’s the way he played piano.
Debra Donahue: He’s like the godfather of music in Cape May, like the bard of Decatur.
Rose Kelly: For the price of a couple of drinks, you’d be listening to music where, anywhere else, you’d be paying $100 for a seat.
Dottie Knapp: Now is a great time to be in Heaven. The music must be fabulous.
Despite his accomplishments, George remained humble.
Ed Drozda: George was no stranger to the big world, but he was such a down-home person, which made him all the more loveable. He was a world-famous artist — people have reached out from Italy, Switzerland, and Africa to express their grief. But you wouldn’t know it. George was your bud.
Parker Smith: He would take his tips to pay other musicians to join him. His own hard-earned money. Who would do that? For no other reason than he wanted to fill the room with music.
Andy Vernon: He played in London, San Franciso, New York… in real jazz rooms. He was a thoroughbred jazz player, yet he’d come to the Pilot House and just love being with us schlubs.
Debra Donahue: In 2005, Vicky Watson, Barry Tischler and Glenn McBrearty started this hootenanny group. We would get together every week and play music we wanted to play, anything you could do harmony with, for no one’s consumption but our own. Sometimes, George would sit in. Here was this world-class musician, so generous, playing along with us. He would glow. He would enjoy whatever we were doing. And we were honored to have him there, but honestly… I think he had more fun that we did.
Roy Baker: Some people play music for the fame or for the money. George played for the sheer love of music. He was the kind of guy you’d expect to be in a mansion someplace, having nothing to do with the rest of the world, but that wasn’t him. And he was a man who, if he had the biggest ego in the world, no one could have blamed him.
Even more than his musical ability, George will be remembered most for his ability to make those around him — including friends like Darla Logue, Shelly Van Dyke, Dennis Zaitsev, Jane Valdes-Dapena, Shirley Stiles, Charlie Logeman and fellow musicians Mike Murphy, Barry Tischler, and Bernadette Matthews — feel special.
Andy Vernon: In your musical life, there are people you connect with and, no matter how much time passes, you’re right in sync. George was like that for me. If we spent a total of 10 hours together off the stage, I’d be surprised, but he made me feel special. Then today, I had this realization. That wonderful son-of-a-bitch had that relationship with everyone. I wasn’t special; it wasn’t me. It was George. He touched everyone that deeply.
Darla Logue: I met George in the summer of 1999, while spending my first summer in Cape May. I wandered into the Merion Inn one night. I was about to leave when a man started to play an old upright piano. I loved it. That weekend, I brought my husband, Jim. He looked at me and said, “Darla, this is jazz; it is what I’ve been wanting you to listen to for years.” In future years, Jim went to the Merion nightly; he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but he loved jazz. He would talk to George about all sorts of musicians and things I’d never heard of, but this was okay, because the two of them were having such a good time. The next-to-last day of his life, Jim spent a wonderful evening at the Merion. George greeted him like the old friend he had become, telling him this was his night; he would play whatever Jim wanted. He gave a wonderful concert, making Jim’s last day on earth memorable and bearable. If there is an afterlife, I imagine Jim sitting just inside those pearly gates, impatiently tapping his toe. As George enters, Jim says, “What took you so long? The music scene here really needs you.”
Shelly Van Dyke: The first time I met George, in the summer of 2002, we sat in the center of the Merion Inn dining room. Everyone had gone home, everything was locked up, and we were the only two left. We sat at a table until the wee hours of the morning, discussing our dreams and sharing our thoughts. He made everyone feel like a best friend.
Dottie Knapp: One night, George asked my husband Mal and I what our song was. Unfortunately, our song wasn’t one out of the Great American Song Book; it was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Number Two. Don’t you know that George performed it for us as though he were at Carnegie Hall? All three movements. Okay, so maybe there was a bit of jazz thrown in, but we were blown away. George made moments like this all the time for people, reminding us why we love Cape May.
Parker Smith: My wife and I met 25 years ago performing in A Chorus Line in Atlantic City. George knew that, and every time we’d go to the Merion Inn, he’d break into “One Singular Sensation.” He knew how special that song was to us, so it was special to him.
Barry Tischler: George played at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, and we went to hear him. That’s the big time, but he treated us like gold, even there. That’s how he treated everyone.
Jane Valdes-Dapena: George knew my mother. Before she died in 2008, my father was concerned whether she would act appropriately at the Merion Inn because she was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. But George would try to reassure him. He would tell him it was fine, that he wanted us there regardless. He was more than a musical genius; he had a sense of compassion.
Shirley Stiles: “You Made Me Love You” is my favorite song, and George played it for me all the time, simply because he knew how much I loved it. He’d want me to sing with him.
Mike Murphy: I consider myself an amateur musician. When George would show up at the Pilot House for open mic nights, it was like, “Oh my God, George.” But then, he would ask to play a few songs with me. How special that would make me feel.
Rose Kelly: Here we’d be, beating on our guitars or this or that, but George would make us feel as though what we were doing was so important. He’d ask to play a song with someone, and it would make that person feel like a million bucks.
Bernadette Matthews: I had just moved to Cape May from Pennsylvania, dismantling my whole life for what I thought was a career here, but I was let go. I didn’t even know George at the time, but he walked up to me and asked how I was doing. He told me that life would go on, that I was a great person and a great professional, and he continued to encourage me from that night on. He had a gift for making people feel their best.
Dennis Zaitsev: When George found out I was Russian, he wanted to make me feel like I was home. He would play a Latvian song for me when I’d get to the Merion Inn to welcome me and make me feel comfortable, without even saying a word. I felt connected because of George.
Charles Logeman: In 2001, the Somers Point Jazz Society put together a benefit for the folks who were injured in the World Trace Center attack. Not only did George play for the hour we asked him to play, he stayed and did an entire second show, out of the goodness of his heart. He loved people. He would walk into a room and hug 20, 30 different people. It was his way of showing the love.
But George wasn’t merely a kind man; he was a very funny guy who loved to have a good time, according to Phil Pizzi.
Phil Pizzi: George used to joke that he liked the idea of his music being foreplay for couples, that he hoped it got them in the mood. Some of the hilarious things that came out of his mouth… I can’t repeat them here.
JM Kearns: George was inspiring and fearless, and just a smart cat, but most of all, he WAS the party.
Jane Valdes-Dapena: Someone who spoke at George’s service said it well: “George may not have been a saint, but we can be sure the saints are hanging with him now.”
Ed Drozda: He was an absolute hoot as a friend. He was silly and crazy and so much fun to be with. Behind where he sat at the Merion Inn there was a window. I’d reach through it and ruffle his hair, and he’d announce me as his “brother from another mother.”
Debra Donahue: George was always ready for a laugh and irreverent conversation. Oh my God, he lived in color. I’ll never forget when George and Vicky came to visit me and Michael in Nashville when we lived there. They came with a case of wine, I made a big Indian feast, and we spent the next three days plowing through the wine and eating. He loved to have fun, and he contributed so much to the tapestry that is Cape May.
Rose Kelly: He was naughty, mischievous. You knew when he got that look on his face and that little smirk of his, that there was something going on in his brain… either a musical masterpiece, or something just a little bit naughty.
Roy Baker: Did George have other hobbies? You mean besides making people laugh? What a lovable, semi-nutcase he was. He had a way of saying things spontaneously and out of left field that would have you on the floor laughing. He had that presence.
Bernadette Matthews: George was a jester. Last week, I went to the Sandi Pointe restaurant [in Somers Point]. I heard this piano and I thought, that’s George. I went inside and George announced, “Hey, there’s my homegirl, Bernadette.” Then he smelled me — smelled me — how silly. He said, “What’s that scent you’re wearing? I’m going to figure it out, you know. I have a talent for that kind of thing.” He was just silly and fun and always, always loving people.
Jane Valdes-Dapena: Two years ago, my father turned 85, and George played the most rousing version of “Happy Birthday.” It had a conclusion that went on for five minutes, with embellishment after embellishment and in every musical style. By the end, the whole place was cheering and clapping. George got up, looked right at my father and said, “Too much?”
Dennis Zaitsev: People will remember George as a very funny person. He loved to joke. He would get my goat by telling me that if he were a little bit younger, he would date my sister. He just loved to have fun.
But more than having a good time, or even playing music, George loved his family — his beautiful partner Vicky Watson — who owns the Merion Inn — and their animals. As a way to honor George, Vicky and friends would like you to consider making a donation to Animal Outreach of Cape May, which is raising funds for a new shelter. Visit www.aocmc.org.
Ed Drozda: Vicky’s a beautiful woman, and George adored her. And their animals. They had two little puppies and several cats who all survived the Merion Inn fire a year ago. They could often be found walking around town with the dogs, even though you could tell George probably had about three hours of sleep the night before — he was a late-night guy — but he loved them so much. For such a passionate person, he was a quiet, gentle man who loved his animals.
Bernadette Matthews: George was extrememly devoted to Vicky, and to his animals. He used to say, “If you don’t like animals… just defriend me.”
Debbie Drozda: George and Vicky were so well-suited, because they were so opposite. He was the showman, she was the stable force. And they loved their animals. George used to talk about them like a beaming father.
Rose Kelly: George was a ladies man on the outside — I don’t think he could help but kiss you if you walked by — but it was all show. He had a very special lady to whom he was just so devoted.
George was equally devoted to his students, according to former colleague Sharla Feldscher. He worked as an adjunct professor at Rowan University, where he helped many students discover their own passion for music. The George Mesterhazy Foundation will continue fostering music education, performance, and preservation. If you’d like to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org with CM Foundation in the subject line.
Sharla Feldscher: George took [child prodigy] Rocco Fiorentino under his wings as a protégé. Even at the age of 12, Rocco knew George was a gift, and he loved his special jazz piano lessons with him. I’ll always be thankful to George for giving so much time to Rocco and for joining us on the Today Show as Rocco’s accompanist.
Debbie Drozda: I spoke with George after one of his shows during the jazz festival quite a few years back. I remember how passionate he was speaking about the students he mentored.
JM Kearns: George was always so excited about other people’s talent, no matter what musical level they were at. He was a one-man, devilish conspiracy to make other people better.
Roy Baker: It was a joy to see George encourage other musicians, especially the young kids who would come to open mic night. Here’s a guy who’s toured the world and played with the finest musicians, and he gravitated toward those who were learning.
Bernadette Matthews: George had just promised to give me piano lessons. He said, “It won’t take long for you to pick it up, because you’re prettier than I am.”
As the Cape May community mourns the loss of a local legend, a man who single-handedly made Cape May a better place, we take comfort in the lessons we’ve learned from George — about quiet passion and the power of a kind word — and in the music we were lucky enough to hear.
Ed Drozda: I imagine George would be pretty upset if the music stopped now.