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Paul Holmes, Duke’s Piano Man

If you’ve ever had brunch at the Washington Duke Inn, you’ve probably heard Paul Holmes playing the piano. He has worked at the Inn for 23 years, providing the music for Saturday and Sunday brunch as well as for Friday night dining. Though the piano serves as a backdrop for the noise of the restaurant, to Holmes music is a lifelong passion.

Holmes knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue music. When he was in the first grade, he attended a performance by the North Carolina Symphony and was instantly mesmerized. He began taking piano lessons at the age of six, entering piano contests in his early teens and ultimately auditioning to attend the Juilliard School. “I was so eager to get to Juilliard,” Holmes laughed, “I finished high school in three years.”

During his time at Juilliard, Holmes practiced piano for a minimum of four hours a day. “If I could, I would do eight,” he said. “And I tried always to play my weekly lessons from memory.” After each of his morning piano lessons, he would go to the library and check out the score for his newest assignment; he would then sit at a table and study the notes: “I would try to memorize the first four measures before I would allow myself to go to lunch.”

Today, Holmes is most interested in jazz and popular music, especially improvisation. This is what you will hear him play at the Washington Duke. Holmes’s music is derived from the Great American Songbook, a vast collection of popular songs from the 1920s through the 1960s that are known for their memorable melodies. The songs often originated in musical theater; Holmes cites Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter as some of his favorite lyricists from that time.

Holmes takes these classic tunes and builds on them, adding new harmonies and polychords, the playing of different chords with the right and left hands. “Each melody has its own contour or personality, and what I do is try to make the harmonic structure supporting the melody more interesting, more complicated, using polychords,” he said. Holmes has even written a book on 20th century harmony called Musicon Symbols, which teaches a shorthand system for learning and writing polychordal structures.

Since his music revolves around improvisation, you will never hear Holmes playing the same song quite the same way. He always uses a familiar melody, but changes it based on the mood of the restaurant. If the diners are more energetic, he changes the harmonies to sound more upbeat; if the mood is subdued, his tunes take on a more reflective tone. He has been improvising like this since he was a child: “When I was growing up, I would always sit down at the piano and play something for guests. I’d always make stuff up.” His incredible improvisational skill has even caught the eye and ear of Murray Perahia, a famous concert pianist, who asked Holmes for harmony advice while having dinner at the Washington Duke. The two have been friends ever since.

Holmes’s piano career was interrupted in 2006 when he fell and injured his right arm. “It was like a piece of lumber,” he recalled, “I couldn’t move it.” Doctors were unsure if he would ever regain full use of his arm, but Holmes was determined, attending physical therapy three times a week. Little by little, he regained feeling in his right hand, and now he is back at the piano as though nothing has happened. Last year, he released his first album since the injury, Timeless. “The amazing thing,” he added, “is that I can still play the piano. I even made this new recording.”

But to Holmes, his injury doesn’t define him; it’s the music that matters. He plays pieces from an age of great American lyricism, songs that people can remember from an age gone by. Even if you don’t recognize the tunes, the piano gives the Washington Duke an atmosphere of nostalgia and relaxation, providing a soundtrack to peaceful weekend afternoons. Holmes’s music is not for show; he does this because it is what he loves. “I’m not trying to show off, or I would never have lasted at the Inn all these years,” he said.