It’s after midnight at the Palmhof in Cincinnati and the staff is trying to close. The lights dim while the last martini glasses and beer bottles are scooped up. But Beau Brant is still at the piano, playing for stragglers.
Finally, a waitress hands him the “wrap-it-up” sign. Probably a good idea since he has a flight the next day and he can’t be late.
He’s the captain.
There may be other airline pilots playing piano, but how many have made seven albums, performed for a US president, and had an original song used by Oprah Winfrey?
Mr Brant, 41, has been playing – and flying – for most of his life. He started on the piano at the age of 3 and flew at the age of 12. mr. Brant, a United Airlines pilot for 17 years, considers flight path number one. But at every layover, he looks for a place to play, just for fun.
He now performs regularly at many of his stopovers and flies domestic routes from his home base in Denver to Madison, Wisconsin; Raleigh-Durham, NC; and Jackson Hole, Wyo.
He still has the occasional gig at home — his house piano is a Yamaha Grand — but gets most excited to play for his crew and strangers on the go. And he’s fallen in love with the bar at Palm Court, a towering Art Deco venue in the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza: “The piano room reminds me of the ‘great staircase’ of the Titanic. ”
His sets are a heady mix of jazz, blues, classical and show tunes. His style is characterized by a flashy right hand and a lot of bounce, but no sheet music. And he likes to talk about his two passions.
Below are excerpts from conversations with Mr Brant, edited for clarity.
How did this fly-and-play routine come about?
It started on a long haul in 2005, from New York to Frankfurt. We arrived at the hotel early, the rooms were not ready and there was a beautiful piano in the lobby. I started playing for the crew and ended up playing happy hour.
Have you ever played professionally?
I grew up in Evergreen, just outside of Denver, playing restaurants there when I was 12. Then hotels, weddings, birthdays – sometimes four or five nights a week. Without music I would not be where I am today: flight training is expensive.
What are some of the most exotic places you’ve played?
Paris, Zurich, Lisbon, Sydney, Shanghai. I have flown internationally for much of my career. In 2019 I upgraded to captain on the Airbus 320 and now fly on North American routes. But in the US, many hotels have retired their pianos, and they’re getting harder and harder to find.
Your layover sets can last for hours – no cost?
Sometimes I get food and drink, but that’s already covered by the airline. The tip jar can go anywhere from $20 to $200, but I use that to treat the crew to something. It’s definitely not about the money.
What is your favorite drink while playing?
I enjoy a nice red wine, but there is the 12 hour rule [the F.A.A. prohibits pilots from consuming alcohol 12 hours before work]and I have a lot of respect for that. At the Plaza it was soda water with lime.
United know about your double life, right?
They used me in a social media advertising playing our theme song, “Rhapsody in Blue.” I play that at almost every gig.
Are there any similarities between flying and playing?
There is an art for music and an art for flying. Pilots have to operate under very strict procedures, but we can put our own spin on it: “finish” the aircraft. With music you can play a composition exactly as it is written, but I like to take my spin on it. I encourage my first officers to fly by hand – turn off all automation. Flying by hand can be much smoother – small, soft movements, such as with music pieces.
So the president and Oprah Winfrey – how did that happen?
I performed for President Ford in 1992 in Vail, Colorado. In 1999, one of my songs was in a video presentation for a fundraiser sponsored by Oprah, in Chicago, for her “Angel Network.”
How has flying been since the pandemic?
There are still the masks, but we’re finally going to get back to normal, bring back food and drinks. I remember a flight last year when we had five crew and nine passengers.
What would your dream performance be?
I’d like to go back in time to those Pan Am 747s with a lounge with a piano. On the long-haul flights, pilots are given a break. I would have loved to play in one of those lounges.
Beau Brant’s music can be found at beaubrant.com.
Follow New York Times Travel On Instagram, Twitter and facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on smarter travel and inspiration for your next vacation. Are you dreaming of a future getaway or just traveling in an armchair? View our 52 Seating list for 2021.