For local pianist, jazz is a lifelong passion

Francine Hannay has worked as a musician since she was 13.

By: Matthew Kirdahy
   In the earlier part of Francine Hannay’s musical career, Frank Sinatra shushed his friends at a cocktail lounge so he could hear her sing.
   She has played her piano with musical acts, both popular and unknown, since she was 13.
   Ms. Hannay prides her career in music not just on her talent but on the relationships she forms along the way. She has a connection with the community and with all of those she has worked with over the years and the ties are binding.
   "It’s really an amazing thing, the attachment we all have towards one another because of the music," she said.
   Ms. Hannay, a 44-year Cranbury resident of Pine Hill Drive and New York City native, turned music into a job in her early teen years. When she was 13 she taught her teacher’s students for 25 cents an hour.
   "Twenty-five cents was OK because that was a long time ago and I was a kid," she said. "Six months later I was teaching my own students for a dollar an hour, so that wasn’t too bad."
   The country was in the middle of the Great Depression. Her father worked three jobs. She worked to bring home money for the family. And, she landed her first full-time piano playing gig — an all-boys orchestra — at age 17.
   "The only reason why I got the job was because the boy piano player got sick."
   The members ranged in age from 16 to 18 and together they played for 10 weeks at the Greenwood Inn in Ellensville, N.Y. The experience inspired her for life.
   "I was strictly a classical pianist," Ms. Hannay said. "And as a classical pianist I could read almost anything. We would perform in shows about four times a week at this hotel up in the country. We would rehearse all day and play the shows at night and we would play dance music. And I never thought of this stuff until it was time to play it."
   Just as she had with all of her other musical peers, Ms. Hannay formed a bond with this jazz band.
   "And one night about a week-and-a-half later one of the boys said, ‘Francine let’s jam,’ " Ms. Hannay said. "I said, ‘let’s what?’ He said, ‘haven’t you got a jam book. I said, ‘what’s a jam book?’ I had no idea. And little by little the boy said, ‘OK fold up the music sheet. ‘When I play this, (you) play da, da, da, da, whatever.’ And I had a good ear. I was a kid but I had a good ear."
   The group would improvise and practice late into the night after people cleared out of the bar. "And by the end of the summer I could play pop and jazz without the music in front of me."
   After this experience, Ms. Hannay caught a jazz bug. It was an itch she needed to scratch. So, she asked her mother if she could play in cocktail lounges.
   She said her mother told her that’s not the type of thing a young girl does alone. Instead of playing in cocktail lounges, Ms. Hannay tried jobs as a receptionist, doctor’s aide, a seamstress and in retail clothing sales. None worked out. If Ms. Hannay was to work, it would be in music.
   "Then I said to my mother, I don’t want to do this, I want to make music."
   Her mom allowed the young Ms. Hannay to play cocktail lounges while her mom waited in the dressing rooms. Ms. Hannay was soon old enough to perform without her mother.
   Ms. Hannay’s father also worked late. They would meet at a diner or a restaurant after their jobs to talk life and music. Music was life for her whole family.
   "My father was a fine singer. He was a baritone tenor," she said. "He never had any formal training musically, but he had a natural ability to perform. He could fill a room without using a microphone. My mother played piano and she was a high soprano with perfect pitch. My brother, I swear to you, sang like Bing Crosby."
   Eventually, Ms. Hannay moved with her family from New York to New Jersey. She moved to Cranbury 44 years ago with her husband, Howard Hannay.
   She started a band composed of all men. She was the lead piano and vocals. She called the band Francine and Her Gentlemen Friends.
   "We had a lot of success playing private parties," she said.
   The group still books private parties when Francine finds the time. She usually keeps busy teaching people piano and singing and she volunteers at the local senior centers.
   Ms. Hannay goes to Concordia in Monroe where she started a choral group in the early 1990s known as the Concordia Chorale. The work is all voluntary.
   "Earning is one thing," Ms. Hannay said. "Giving back is something else."
   The Concordia Chorales till exists and has grown considerably over the past 14 years. In the beginning, Ms. Hannay compiled a book of songs for the group to start practicing and performing.
   "We now have a book with over 200 songs in it," she said. "Unfortunately we lose people. But there’s always new people that come. They feel like they go to a party every Monday morning. And I’m telling you they have such a good time."
   The Concordia Chorale sings at hospitals and local nursing homes and even hosts performances for Concordia residents.
   As a soloist, Ms. Hannay also has played piano at the Elms of Cranbury and Applegarth Care Center in Monroe.
   "I play wherever they have a piano," she said.
   Before getting immersed in all of these activities, Ms. Hannay started a new list of clients for teaching piano and singing when she moved to town.
   "After a couple of years, it just kind of happened," she said. "People asked me if I would teach this one and that one."
   Ms. Hannay gives lessons weekday afternoons. Her youngest student is 7 and her oldest student is about 90.
   "I love the children," she said. "And I love the adults too who say to me I always wanted to play the piano, and I never had a piano, or I was one of six kids so my father couldn’t afford it."
   Ms. Hannay says she has stayed with music for so long because of the people, both from the past and the present.
   She said she had a pair of female students whom she taught when they were just 5 and 8 years old.
   "One of them is now the mother of two children and she still keeps in touch with me," Ms. Hannay said. "Music is a very, very important part of children’s lives. I guess if I can help them to find this special thing, they can take it with them their whole life. That’s fantastic. The kids become like grandchildren and or my children.