You know you’ve been bumping around town a while if you caught Walt Wagner at the Beef ‘N Bird or saw his debut with the Spokane Symphony.
In the early ‘70s, the Puget Sound piano player hit the local scene like a tornado and his standing-room-only club shows became legend.
Wagner’s jazzy stylings were rooted in classical tradition and ornamented with pop flavorings - a bigger-than-life rendition of “MacArthur Park” became his signature tune.
Along with comic Pete Barbutti, Wagner was one of the few artists who could always sell out a Spokane room.
In truth, Wagner was all over the West then, with important long-term engagements in Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. In Sun Valley he became such a star a lounge was named for him, and his first LP was titled “Walt Wagner in Sun Valley.”
Over the years, he has shared the stage with a host of major stars, including Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, Bob Hope, George Burns, Lily Tomlin, Roberta Flack, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bob Newhart.
And though the large-scale stardom many predicted for him has proven elusive, a Walt Wagner show is still an event.
Saturday, when Wagner appears with the Spokane Symphony as a guest in the SuperPops Series, you can bet a fair number of the old Beef ‘N Bird crowd will be on hand to greet him, just as they were when he first fronted the symphony in ‘72.
“There has been a fortunate rapport between us,” Wagner once said of his relationship with Spokane audiences.
Like some other Northwest kids who grew up in the ‘60s, Wagner played in a rock ‘n’ roll band until he went to college and discovered jazz.
Oscar Peterson was his first hero, then the great Art Tatum. But he found his true forebears in Andre Previn and Peter Nero - pianists who merged classical training with jazz improvisation and pop sensibilities.
Wagner was blessed with a classical background and a wide-ranging ear. In his first appearance with the Spokane Symphony in 1972, he dazzled the crowd with a performance that included Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” and selections from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as well as a show-stopping “MacArthur Park” that earned him three curtain calls.
These days, Wagner’s sound has broadened even further to incorporates elements of Fats Waller and Chick Corea, and he has found the magic in the great American stage composers - George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin - whose music he now performs alongside his own.
Saturday, Wagner will be accompanied by another Spokane favorite, Clipper Anderson, on bass. Michael Buono will play drums. They will be joined on some selections by the orchestra.
The symphony, under the baton of Stefan Kozinski, will open the show with a jazzy set that includes a Kozinski original, “Back Hand Blues.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Spokane Symphony pops with Walt Wagner Location and time: Opera House, 8 p.m., Saturday Tickets: $25, $21, $16 and $12
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