The jazz pianist and the pinup girl

Published 8:14 pm Tuesday, February 3, 2015

By Frank Roberts

On his CD “June 1st — A Date to Remember,” pianist Hal Schaefer, a childhood chum, plays “Blues For Marilyn” in honor of Miss Monroe, his lady love, and a song called “Blues For Brenda,” in honor of wife number two, also his lady love.

The women shared the same birthdate, thus the album’s title. One of the standards in the release, “All the Things You Are,” was cut for Brenda, who was fighting cancer at the time.

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Hal, a quiet, mild-mannered gentleman, was one of the most highly acclaimed jazz pianists; he was music director for Keefe Braselle, star of “The Eddie Cantor Story.” He taught Monroe, Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Jane Russell, Betty Grable and others how to sing for the movies. Major advice: Listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald.

Good stuff. But on the negative side, he was the object of an attempted beating by Joe DiMaggio and Sinatra. More on that later.

The kids in our neighborhood were a close-knit group, except for Hal, who preferred to stay glued to his piano bench, rather than coming out for stickball. He had been playing piano since he was 4 and was recognized as a child prodigy.

For more than 70 years, he performed and recorded as a soloist and leader of small jazz ensembles. And he played with the giants — Benny Goodman, Harry James, Boyd Raeburn, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He was accompanist for Peggy Lee, Billy Eckstine, Vic Damone and others.

His group performed with Duke Ellington, who said, “Now, you’re going to hear a real piano player.”

Biographer Sandy Durell described Hal as “an extraordinary pianist with a distinctive musical approach combining lush romanticism with a strong sense of swing.”

On the side, he gave music lessons. One of his pupils was Brenda Goodman, who became his wife of many years. She died in 2000, he in 2012. Earlier, I got a letter from him declaring his deep love for the San Francisco singer.

He recorded 18 albums, wrote many songs, was a noted arranger and, of course was a vocal coach for the lovely musical stars, teaching them how to sing for the movies.

Miss Monroe was Mrs. DiMaggio when Hal worked with her and, at the time, a divorce was in the works. Occasionally, Hal appeared on screen, most notably in “River Of No Return.” He said, “Marilyn insisted I play for her to give her confidence.”

It was no secret that the two became an item. One reason was that the ballplayer batted her around. His abuse of the star was no secret, revealed first in the magazine, “Confidential.”

The tabloid scandal also involved the ballplayer’s buddy, ‘Ol Blue Eyes who, according to biographer, Ben Cramer, hired a few mugs to break the door to an apartment to catch Monroe and Shaefer in the act.

The thug stuff was a comedy of errors. The toughies picked the wrong apartment and scared the be-dad out of Florence Ross, a 39-year-old secretary who was in bed alone.

J. Randy Taraborelli, another biographer, noted that Miss M. had said, “We gotta get out of here. He finds us both, he’ll kill us both.”

In ’55, Hal tried suicide but, fortunately, was found by friends and rushed to a hospital.

While he was there, Monroe was a frequent visitor. He suffered liver and kidney damage. When he was released, he hired two male nurses, the movie star often visiting.

In ’73, Brenda entered his life, and Hal became a happy, devoted man. Author Michelle Morgan wrote, “I could tell immediately why Marilyn was so fond of him. He was soft-spoken, intelligent, calm a beautiful soul.”

Later, he became a record company executive and wrote and arranged songs for Broadway shows.

Small world memory: In the early ’60s I was a morning deejay on WBOF in Virginia Beach and had set up an interview with Braselle. Surprise: There was Hal. It was a great reunion, our first get-together since our childhood days.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at