In 2012, The New York Times described Tony DeSare as “two parts young Sinatra and one part Billy Joel.” DeSare, jazz singer, pianist and songwriter, can’t bring himself to agree with such a statement, but he’s not trying to fool anyone. Those two figures, luminaries in their own right, have been his north stars since he was a teenager.
“There’s no doubt about it,” DeSare said. “None at all.”
DeSare, a featured soloist in Chautauqua’s 2020 Independence Day Celebration, has performed everywhere from local jazz clubs to Carnegie Hall to headline performances in Las Vegas with Don Rickles. During those teen years, however, he was simply a shy kid who found an outlet in his school’s music program.
DeSare brought Sinatra’s flair with him for his first taste of the spotlight, when he was asked to fill time between performances of his middle and high school orchestras. With nothing more than his own piano accompaniment, he performed “Fly Me to the Moon,” among other Sinatra hits.
“By the time I finished, the entire audience was on their feet, cheering for me,” he said. “I wasn’t used to being the center of attention, so I have never forgotten what that felt like. To this day, I still get that feeling when I perform.”
But, a feeling wasn’t enough. In the fall of 1994, DeSare enrolled in Ithaca College in New York as a pre-law student, setting music aside as a hobby — nothing more.
“My dreams felt too unrealistic back then,” he said.
Soon enough, Billy Joel himself would change DeSare’s mind. From a Cornell concert stage in April 1977, Joel asked a crowd of almost 20,000 people for questions about the industry.
“I remember someone asking, ‘How can you advise all of us to go into the music business when the chances are one in a million?’” DeSare said. “Billy responded ‘You don’t have to be a rockstar. You don’t have to be me. All you have to do is play music and pay your bills.’ It sounds so simple, but it changed my entire life.”
Now that his “pipe dream felt possible,” DeSare took his first job in the rotating bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis hotel at Times Square, playing four hours a night, five nights a week for a year and a half. He moved on to play the title role in a long-running off-Broadway show called Our Sinatra.
The list of subsequent performances and gigs appears to be never-ending. Thanks to his “Quarantine Diaries” series, there is still no pandemic-induced intermission in sight.
“The social media performances started as something I was doing to help myself through the pandemic,” DeSare said. “I didn’t start with the intention of making them every day, but I found it felt like a daily meditation for me, and I didn’t want to stop.”
On March 16, DeSare used his phone to record himself singing “Wrap your Troubles in Dreams,” using a microphone and his basement piano. He never intended for it to become a daily ritual, but he would go on to post every night, with only two exceptions: Blackout Tuesday, an initiative to go silent on social media and stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the release date of another video project.
“I think we all need to stop worrying about how many followers we have and how many people will see what we put out there,” he said. “It’s about putting something into the world that is authentic. It’s about being real with ourselves and each other.”
DeSare said it feels “strange” to put on a show for just a camera. It’s even stranger to finish one without applause. But even with the silence and empty space, DeSare considers his “Quarantine Diaries” some of his most intimate performances to date.
“I try to talk to the camera as if it’s a friend sitting right with me,” he said. “I think it’s really interesting to explore the idea of an intimate cabaret that comes over social media, which is to play like someone is right next me, rather than playing like I am on stage. I am not playing loudly or singing loudly, I am singing as if someone is within two feet of me.”
He posts the videos on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Facebook is where he has seen the most engagement, with each video accumulating anywhere from 2,000 to 12,000 views.
“It makes me feel like in a way, I am needed, even if it’s by a small congregation of people that meet up every day around my piano,” DeSare said. “I feel like if I weren’t able to put one out, they deserve an explanation. There are days I am 20 minutes late to posting one, and I get concerned messages from people.”
A majority of the messages, however, are full of thanks and praise.
On one video, Leigh Cort commented “Tony… thank you. I’m sharing with my friends too so they can realize we are all in this world together.” On another, Donna Kujat wrote “Thank you! All of our concerts have gotten cancelled this month and next….grateful for this serenade.” Dixie Ferguson said “Beautiful voice. I feel like I have known you forever. You are very kind and generous in sharing your amazing talent.”
Even more than he wanted to feel needed by these people, DeSare wanted to “show up,” he said, just as his musical influences did before him.
“One thing I love so much about songs from the 1930s and 1940s is that they were songs written in times of great distress — the Great Depression, World War II,” he said. “That’s when a lot of the happiest, carefree songs were written in all of music history. Think ‘Accentuate the Positive’ and ‘Wrap your Troubles in Dreams.’ Hearing the notes through the lens, decades later in another distressing time, comforts me.”
On April 10, for the 25th episode of the Quarantine Diaries, DeSare sat down in his usual spot, this time to sing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” In the background, propped up on his window sill, was a piece of an honorary street sign that reads “Frank Sinatra Way.”
Within that shot is an image of a life that had come full circle. There was no trace of the Ithaca student who didn’t believe any number of notes strung together would ever amount to a career. Who Billy Joel told him he could be is exactly who he became: a man who makes both music and a living.
A piano man, at that.