Play it again

Wally Jones enhances the atmosphere at Roxy’s

Wally Jones is the piano man at Roxy’s.

Wally Jones is the piano man at Roxy’s.

Photo by David Robert

Wally Jones plays 4:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays at Roxy’s in the Eldorado Hotel-Casino.

A casino is a study in atmosphere. Some casinos, like Las Vegas’ Sunset Station, simulate the atmosphere of lying outside on a cool autumn evening. Others simulate the atmosphere of having multiple epileptic seizures. If you don’t know where you are, the theory goes, you won’t know where your money went. Or something like that.

So when I see Wally Jones playing at Roxy’s in the Eldorado, the first thing I wonder is whether he’s there to provide the music or the atmosphere. Roxy’s is a club that tries to capture the flavor of a 1930s jazz lounge. So you’ve got your waitresses in shimmering eveningwear. You’ve got your bohemian posters written in French. And, of course, you have to have your piano player.

I take a seat, order a gin martini, and listen. Jones is playing and singing a song I don’t recognize that has the flavor of a lounge standard. His piano work is intricate, filled with frills and runs and ornamentation of all kinds. It’s a pretty impressive performance.

The music stops. I begin to put my hands together in applause—and abruptly stifle the first clap, as I realize I’d be the only person doing it. A wave of cognitive dissonance rushes over me. This violates the first cardinal rule of music: When music stops, you clap. Is Jones’ job really so atmospheric that no one even pays attention?

But then things pick up. A woman requests the song “Jean” (which, I learn later, is from a 1969 movie soundtrack). Jones protests that he hasn’t done the song in 20 years, but plays it anyway, from memory—and to my ears, at least, doesn’t miss a note. And this time, some people clap.

Jones continues to take requests throughout the evening, sometimes right in the middle of the bridge of a song. He doesn’t turn down a single one. I ask him later just how extensive his repertoire really is.

“I can probably play a couple thousand songs—can sing a couple hundred,” Jones says. Sometimes he needs to be given lyrics before he can fill a request, but he rarely needs music.

I ask about his most unusual requests. He considers it for a moment, and recalls that about every six months, a man comes into Roxy’s and requests the “Smokey the Bear” song. And, yes, he plays it.

It’s fun to hear how Jones chooses to interpret his requests. His set includes lounge standards like “Fever” and “Luck Be a Lady,” but he also plays numbers like “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” somehow morphing them into lounge style.

Twenty minutes into his set, Jones is joined by lounge singer Darcy Gibson, and the mood in the room completely changes. Jones’ piano style becomes more animated and complex. He and Gibson play off each other, exchanging jokes and musical direction that I can’t quite make out. And when the music stops, everyone applauds. Order returns to my universe.

“I like working with another singer better than myself, because I’m a better pianist than a singer,” Jones explains.

I’d go one step further and say that Jones is even a better singer when he’s working with a partner. A few songs into their set, Jones and Gibson sing a duet, and they sound fantastic together. By now, everyone is listening—and we’ve suddenly been transported from a bar to a concert.

So, whether you come for the music or the atmosphere, Wally Jones definitely makes having a martini or two at Roxy’s a wonderful experience. And unlike some casinos’ ideas of atmosphere, I promise Jones won’t send you into an epileptic seizure.