Announcing your retirement, even after an illustrious 20-year tenure, usually merits a party with a nice cake. Maybe a gold watch. Unless you’re Walt Wagner retiring from your role as the pianist at Canlis. Then you get your own concert, produced by Chase Jarvis, and recorded by Sub Pop Records to release as a live album.
Oh, and a livestream so all of Seattle can watch.
Live piano music's been a fixture since Seattle’s most storied fine dining restaurant opened its doors in December 1950. Wagner made this fusty totem of old-school dinner houses straight-up hip, playing anything from Metallica to Stevie Wonder to Drake.
Anticipating what unlikely melody Wagner will next produce from his vast repertoire is as much a part of the Canlis dinner experience as the by-memory valet. As is that initial beat when you recognize the first few notes of a song and your brain scrambles to connect Wagner’s piano version with the original. As is realizing that Wagner, even at age 73, has way better taste in music than you do.
His final night is Sunday, October 9. Owners Mark and Brian Canlis are doing away with dinner service, putting Wagner and his Steinway concert grand on display in the center of the dining room, transforming the restaurant into a concert hall. A mention in the Canlis newsletter just about sold out the entire house, but there are a few dozen standing room only tickets still available. There’s no dinner service that night, but the $200 entry (includes gratuity, but not tax) puts you in the company of plentiful passed hors d’oeuvres and open bar. Which, for a night at Canlis, is a pretty good deal, even without the concert that’s happening before your eyes.
About that concert. Another Northwest icon, Sub Pop Records, will record the performance, to release it as an album, working title Walt Wagner Live at Canlis. And Chase Jarvis, our city’s resident visual visionary, is setting up a raft of cameras and producing the event like it’s on live television. Which it almost is: The concert will stream live (and free) at canlis.com/walt.
Wagner first sat at Canlis's piano in 1996, a successful musician and composer tired of being on the road. He knew second-generation owner Chris Canlis from church, and when he saw the restaurant was doing some remodeling, Wagner sent a note, asking whether Chris would be interested in a new direction for the music. As it happens, Canlis was in the midst of significant change, shedding its longtime kimono uniforms, bringing in chef Greg Atkinson, banning smoking (gasp), and overhauling the building. It seemed like a good time to update the piano situation, too.
At first, Wagner stuck to dinner music standards—Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, maybe a Beatles tune here and there. Soon he was experimenting. “I realized I really enjoyed being the soundtrack, influencing the vibe in the room with music,” Wagner remembers.
By the time Mark and Brian took Canlis over from their father in 2003, a staff largely in its 20s was peppering the versatile Wagner with requests. “They would ask, ‘hey can you play this?” remembers Brian Canlis. “Walt would be really into it. It was this whole genre of music that hadn’t been translated onto a grand piano.” After all, dinner music is designed to recede into the background. Unless you’ve got a guy delivering melodies from Prince, Nirvana, Band of Horses, David Bowie, and—if you’re really lucky—a rendition of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise," Wagner's piano rendering them as elegant as their surroundings, as memorable as the food on the plates.
Like a really good DJ, says Mark Canlis,” Wagner reads the room and pushes the energy one way or another with his music. “When he’s too much in the groove and nobody’s leaving—people are waiting for their tables—we’ll tell him to take a break,” says Mark. “And then everyone leaves.”
But now it’s Wagner leaving, to create more original compositions: “I want to put out the albums I keep telling people I’m going to put out.” Until then, though, he’s practicing diligently for his final performance: "Usually when you do an album, you edit from several live performances," he says. "The pressure's on."
There’s something so essentially Canlis about all of it: Making dinner music cool, turning a retirement into an extravaganza with the help of a few other big-name Seattleites, then democratizing the whole thing with technology. The album should be released in early 2017, but the livestream begins October 9 at 7pm at Canlis.com/walt.