Robert E. Fields Sr.

The jazz pianist and composer played with celebrities and the BSO and was a fixture at city restaurants and clubs.

October 18, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Robert E. Fields Sr., a noted Baltimore jazz pianist and composer who during his nearly six-decade career played in such venues as the Prime Rib, Belvedere Hotel and the old Chesapeake Restaurant, died Monday of bladder cancer at his Hamilton home. He was 80.

Mr. Fields was born in Baltimore and raised in the Plymouth Road home where he had lived since 1940.

"He was 8 when he started playing the piano," said his wife of 53 years, the former Joan Schumacher. "His father was leery of buying him a piano, so he practiced for a year on a next-door neighbor's piano until [his father] saw that he was serious and bought him one."

Mr. Fields was a 1946 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and a 1952 graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, where he had studied piano and composition.

After graduating from Peabody, according to a biographical sketch that Mr. Fields had written, he went "out on the road with a few semi-name bands where he played piano and wrote arrangements for the groups."

"Bob was a charter member of the Hank Levy Band in the late 1950s and was always a well-respected musician," said Jack Hook, a trombonist and longtime secretary-treasurer of Local 40-543 of the American Federation of Musicians.

"What's more, Bob was a rarity. He was actually able to make a living as a full-time professional musician and teacher," he said.

In the 1960s, Mr. Fields formed his first band and played at the old Playboy Club on Light Street, the Civic Center and at the Painters Mill Music Fair.

He also performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and such celebrities as Sammy Davis Jr., the Doc Severinsen Orchestra, Engelbert Humperdinck, Herb Ellis, Eileen Farrell, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson.

Where Mr. Fields left his indelible musical stamp was in Baltimore hotels such as the Belvedere Hotel's popular 13th Floor lounge, restaurants, concerts, and at private parties and weddings.

Dressed in a crisply pressed tuxedo, Mr. Fields was a fixture at the Prime Rib, where he entertained diners and late-night revelers six nights a week during the 1970s and 1980s.

"It's not like playing on a stage," Mr. Fields told the Sun Magazine in a 1978 interview.

"He prefers to improvise around the basic melody of songs like 'Somewhere' from West Side Story, which on a crowded night add a touch of Fitzgeraldian Jazz Age madness to the restaurant," the magazine observed.

"Sometimes you think no one is listening. Then someone will come up and say they enjoyed your playing," Mr. Fields said in the interview.

"Bob could play anything you asked him to play. He knew all of the songs and especially liked playing jazz," said C. Peter "Buzz" BeLer, co-owner of the Prime Rib.

"He wasn't a character but rather a very professional and nice guy. In other words, he was a gentleman," Mr. BeLer said. "He always showed up on time, didn't bother anybody or get drunk."

About 15 years ago, Mr. Fields established the Bob Fields Jazz Ensemble and performed music from the 1940s to the present, which he interspersed with his own jazz compositions.

The ensemble performed at the City Fair, Artscape, Maryland Seafood Festival and at War Memorial Plaza and Hopkins Plaza open-air concerts.

The group also played at public and private schools as well as colleges.

"Bob had been my student for about three years," said Jack Riley, a pianist who lives in Beachwood, N.J. "He was a very fine jazz pianist with a swing style that was reminiscent of Benny Goodman."

For years, Mr. Fields taught piano at the Peabody and the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus.

Despite his illness, Mr. Fields continued playing with his ensemble and last performed at Germano's Trattoria in Little Italy in September.

"He was still playing his Gershwin, Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra and Rodgers and Hart songs in our cabaret as recently as last month. And even though he was ill, he still gave one heck of a performance. He was always on. He could pull it off," said Julie Wolfe, the High Street restaurant's entertainment booking agent.

Mr. Fields and his ensemble recorded two compact discs of his work, Onward and Tell It Like It Is.

Mr. Fields also composed his own signature theme song.

"It was 'Split,' and he always played it before getting off the stand," Mrs. Fields said.

Mr. Fields was a member of the Musicians Association of Metropolitan Baltimore Local 40-543 and the Baltimore Music Club Inc.

He was a communicant of St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

Also surviving are four sons, Robert E. Fields Jr. of Baltimore, John A. Fields of Annapolis, James Alexander "Alex" Fields of Madonna and Mark E. Fields of Ocean City; a daughter, Julie Anne-Marie Todaro of Cape St. Claire; and nine grandchildren.

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