Potyen, the piano man, follows his dreams
July 11, 2002
Steamboat Springs — Paul Potyen had to make a decision about his music when he graduated from Stanford University with an engineering degree.
It was 1969, and Potyen was a young jazz keyboard player who gigged his way through college to pay his bills. Now college was over, and Potyen was facing the real world.
“I told myself that I don’t want to be a 55-year-old and be a grumpy old man because I didn’t try to pursue my musical side,” Potyen said.
So he dove into the world of music to see if he could make a living. If he ran out of money, Potyen always had a master’s in engineering from Stanford to fall back on.
“I just never ran out of money,” he said.
Now at 58, Potyen is far from grumpy. While living in San Francisco, the piano player touched on nearly every music market to make a living from playing in a popular Afro-Cuban jazz band to conducting the 49ers Band, a 23-piece band that played during San Francisco 49ers football games, for 10 years. Potyen has played in orchestras and in musical theater. He’s recorded music for commercials and written film scores.
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Most recently, the musician made another life decision. After visiting friends in Steamboat Springs for years, Potyen and his wife decided to buy land in the Whitewood subdivision. Last year, they finished building a straw-bale house and moved away from the city by the bay to live outside of Ski Town USA.
Another change for Potyen a subtle one is the loss of his right index and ring fingers from a woodworking accident about a year and a half ago. The fingers are missing above the knuckles, so Potyen designed and made plastic replacements for when he plays.
“It changes my playing, but it’s pretty subtle,” he said. “Musicians that I played with before said they didn’t notice. But some said I play better.”
Potyen spends his time these days gigging a few nights a week around town. He has a regular spot at the Cabin, at the Steamboat Grand, from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. He also is selling a CD of solo jazz piano, called “Mountain Standards Time.” It’s available at Off the Beaten Path and All That Jazz.
“The only thing I miss about (San Francisco) is the diversity of really good musicians to kick me in the butt,” he said.
His former band in San Francisco, Soul Sauce, was progressively exploring Latin music, which is one of the genres jazz is turning to right now. The sale of Soul Sauce’s latest album, which Potyen played on, is doing pretty well.
Potyen’s biggest interest right now is in Latin music, but more specifically, Afro-Cuban music.
“It’s that same feeling I get from listening to later John Coltrane that I get when I play Afro-Cuban music,” he said.
The songs basically stay in one or two chords, allowing a different freedom for improvising, he said.
“It’s music that people can really related to,” Potyen said. “People really like it.”
In Steamboat Springs, it’s not that easy to find people to play that style. However, Potyen recently met a Brazilian drummer he plans to perform with under the name Sambanova. It’s also not that easy for a professional musician to find steady work with decent pay. But that was to be expected, he said.
“Anyone who moves here faces a challenge on how to make money,” Potyen said.
But the slow down in Potyen’s life was planned, in some ways. He recently finished the rough draft of a book he’s always wanted to write, titled “Extreme Listening: The Art of Focused Attention to Music.” Without getting out of San Francisco, where Potyen was very active in the music scene, he found it hard to find time to write.
Potyen’s book invites readers to learn more about the music they listen to so they can appreciate it more.
“I think of music as an ocean of immeasurable depth,” he said. “Most people are just paddling on the surface.”
The book includes exercises to help people identify instruments and key elements of music. There is no music theory involved; it’s just a guide for listeners.
In retrospect, Potyen said he doesn’t have many regrets. However, with hindsight being 20/20, he did say the diversity of his career eventually was something that hurt him.
“The problem with doing that is that the world, or those who are interested in categorizing you, don’t know how to categorize you,” he said. “I loved doing it all, but in some ways, it wasn’t a brilliant move.”
One turn his diverse career led him to was Steamboat Springs, which he said is working out to be a good move.
“I built a house out here and I want to live in it,” he said. “This is just such a warm environment.”