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Simplifying life and loving it

Piano player knows what tunes to play

Autumn Phillips

A woman walks by — linen pantsuit, broach at her neck, loafers. Paul Potyen looks up for a minute and sees her. He guesses two things: “She has a lot of class, but she doesn’t listen to a lot of music.” He chooses to play a song from “My Fair Lady” on the baby grand piano in the lobby of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel, where he sits five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday.

The woman smiles.

It’s the talent of a man who has played music for his bread since the 1970s. Potyen says he can tell what kind of music someone likes by what they wear and how they carry themselves.

In one evening, his fingers will slip from the dissonant jazz chords of Thelonius Monk to the “Sesame Street” theme song to please a passing child.

He is a man simplifying his life and loving it.

Potyen nods in agreement to the music as he plays. There is no Fake Book or sheet music on the piano, just the music he has saved in his mind over the years.

To the tired skiers who request a George Winston song, it doesn’t matter that the hands at the keys have played with the Headhunters (post-Herbie Hancock) and belong to a man who shared the stage with jazz drummers including Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa’s longtime drummer) and holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. What matters is that his playing mixes nicely with the constant applause in the lobby.

And, at this point in his life, that’s enough for Potyen.

“This is really different from anything I’ve ever done, but it’s nice just to walk into this solo gig and make my money that way,” Potyen said. “Yes, there are more opportunities in the Bay Area (where Potyen used to live), but that’s the price I pay for living here. It’s absolutely worth it.”

Potyen moved to Steamboat Springs more than two years ago, after visiting a friend and falling in love with the area. Since moving, he has begun teaching private students in town and over the Internet. He taught at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp and teaches jazz history at Colorado Mountain College. And he plays in the lobby at the Grand.

“I’m not getting rich, but I decided that I’m not interested in being rich this time around,” Potyen said. “There was a point where I got really disgusted with the nature of the music industry, and it took me six or seven years to work through that. I realized that I love to play the piano. I just want to let the music come through me and play for people who enjoy it.”

Potyen realized at a young age that music was going to be his life, but he didn’t learn about jazz until he was in high school.

“I didn’t discover the passion until I was a senior in high school,” he said. “My girlfriend’s brother was really into jazz. When I heard it, I realized that’s what I wanted to do.”

But his teachers and parents encouraged him instead to be an engineer. He listened to them through undergraduate and graduate studies in mechanical engineering but worked his way through college by playing music.

After one year in the engineering field, he decided to drop it all and try his luck on stage.

“Why not,” he said. “I wasn’t married. I had all my debt paid off. Why not give it a try?”

His first steady job was with the American Conservatory Theatre, playing for “Godspell.” “It allowed me to buy my first house, but after two years I quit,” Potyen said. “I’m not really that kind of musician. The philosophy behind that kind of music is that you have to attain this goal that someone else set. You have to do this perfect thing, playing what you are supposed to play. That’s not where my heart is.

“I love jazz because there is the opportunity to go anyway your mind and body wants to go.”


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