Margaret Hair: Music by Potyen's rules

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Margaret Hair

Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com.

— "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."

That is how Hunter S. Thompson described the music industry, and that is how local jazz pianist Paul Potyen felt about the business when he left it in 1987.

After spending the 1980s with Bay Area progressive Latin jazz sextet Cañoneo, Potyen had had enough. He admits to being a bit of a hothead trying to lead the band, and to being incapable of forging a commitment among its members. The group had trouble with record deals and ended up losing more often than it won. By the time Cañoneo split, Potyen was ready to get out of the live music racket forever.

"It also just completely turned me off of the record business. That's why I mention that Hunter Thompson quote - it's kind of funny, but it's also kind of true. You can get eaten alive," Potyen said, sitting in his Steamboat Springs piano studio at the back of First String Music store. These days, he spends three afternoons a week teaching and four or five nights playing around town.

"It works out a lot better. It makes me sleep better at night," he said of the change of pace since moving to Steamboat in 2001.

Before he became disillusioned enough to leave, Potyen already had spent two decades in the music business, playing and working as an industry everyman in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started playing piano at 8 years old but didn't think about music as a career until he was 18.

"I didn't really get the fire lit under me until I was a senior in high school, and I was dating this girl whose older brother had this massive collection of jazz records. I had never heard this music before, and it completely broadsided me," Potyen said. From there, he did a lot of listening and taught himself jazz piano, putting himself through college and graduate school by playing in bands.

Potyen still remembers what record made him think, for the first time, that becoming a professional musician was a possibility: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, playing "Blue Moon."

"I knew the song 'Blue Moon,' but I had never heard it played like that. It just blew my mind. There was just this energy and feeling to it. It's a corny old tune, but when they played it, it just knocked me out," he said.

For the next 20 years, Potyen played alongside just about everyone he could find in the Bay Area, including Chet Baker, the Headhunters, the San Francisco Symphony, the (San Francisco) Forty Niners Jazz Band, Mel Torme, Bobby McFerrin and Henry Mancini. It was a ride, but after years vacationing in Steamboat Springs, Potyen was ready to move.

"Things are different here, and I do miss that kind of diversity of musical experience. But I don't miss anything else about the Bay Area," he said, adding that the musical climate in Steamboat has worked for him.

"And it seems like the community is becoming more and more diverse, and I expect the opportunities for live music are going to be increasing in the near future. It's really a gut feeling," he said. It's the same kind of gut feeling that brought Potyen back to playing in 1993 after six years of music writing, recording and editing.

"It was a time of soul searching and sort of figuring out what really would be satisfying for me. And I came to the conclusion that I really do love music," he said.

"I don't love the music business, but I love music, and if I can keep that in mind and can be happy with the idea of playing music, that's all I need."

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