Exploring Alabama: Hy Bromberg

Hy Bromberg at the piano
Hy Bromberg at the piano

In this installment of "Exploring Alabama", meet a wonderful musician, who's an inspiration to anyone who's ever tried to play the piano. He's Hy Bromberg of Montgomery.

Hy has lived a year for each of the 88 keys on the piano. Born in New Jersey in 1916, Hy sat down at the keyboard and picked out his first song at age four. He took his first lesson when he was 9. Shortly after he turned 14, his father died and Hy had to quit school to start working to support his family.

One of his in-laws, who was forming a band and needed a piano player, asked Hy if he wanted to be in the group. He was thrilled. But there was only one problem. "I was one of these guys that never had anything to do with jazz," said Hy. "My sisters would play it and I would run out of the house. I was strictly classical."

It didn't take him long to get in the swing of jazz. By age 17 he was a dues-paying member of the musician's union…a professional musician - a far cry from a kid playing a recital in a high school auditorium.

"Once you get paid for playing a job, then you are called a professional. That's the difference," he said. "A professional has a lot of experience. And boy! I had to learn quickly. I didn't know what it was about. I was the youngest one in the union!"

One of the high spots in Hy's career involved one of America's best-known jazz singers – Billie Holiday. Hy was hired as Holiday's piano player for a short time. A first night case of "the jitters" got him off to a rocky start with the other members of Holiday's band. He says they basically ignored him.

Holiday noticed the problem and called a rare morning rehearsal for the next day to straighten things out. "She said, 'Hy, play Lover Come Back To Me,'" Hy remembers. "I started playing a few bars and she stopped me and she looked at the band and she said, 'This man can play for me anywhere, any time, any place. Now, let's go!'"

Hy's career carried him from coast to coast playing in small clubs, hotels, and lounges in cities big and small. His favorites were the jobs along the Florida and California coasts. After making countless friends in cities around the country, he finally settled in Montgomery in the early 60's.

Today, 71 years after turning pro, he has a permanent "gig" playing at the Capital City Club. He's a crowd pleaser, according to the Club's manager.

"It's amazing the number of people who come and ask about him when he's not here," said Homer Horton. "So that just tells you how important he is to us and our members."

And, after 84 years at the keyboard, Hy says he's playing better now than ever. "It's scary how good I'm playing," he said.

But how much longer does he want to make the daily trip to play for the lunch crowd at the Capital City Club? He told me he's thought about keeping it up for another two years – until he's 90. But then he says it may not be up to him. "When the Lord says 'that's it…that's it.'"

We can only hope the Lord is in no hurry – so we can continue to enjoy Hy's beautiful music.

Reporter: Bob Howell