David Bicknase has built a 25-year career working as the kind of barroom 'Piano Man' immortalized in the 1970s song by Billy Joel.
Bicknase, 58, has been at it continuously since the early 1980s, when he began performing solo shows to entertain travelers and drinkers at hotel bars. His places of employment have included the Mayflower Lounge, the Ramada Inn, the Holiday Inn and the Crowne Plaza by East Towne Mall.
For the past 11 years, Bicknase has donned a black tuxedo and wide-brimmed hat to play melodies at the Edgewater Hotel's Cove Lounge every Friday and Saturday night. On Sundays, he moves next door to the Admiralty Room, where he passes late morning into mid-afternoon entertaining the brunch crowd.
Then every Monday and Tuesday, Bicknase plays pop-era requests at the Ivory Room, completing his five-day-a-week, full-time schedule.
The lifestyle of this piano man may not be as beer-soaked and broken-hearted as Billy Joel described. But the reflective ambience he adds to the sweeping view of Lake Mendota at the Cove Lounge has surely facilitated more than a few deep thoughts among patrons.
'I don't get rich doing this,' says Bicknase. 'I've been living paycheck to paycheck my whole life, and I still do. But I trade all of that for a smile in my heart.'
Bicknase is used to walking a road less traveled. He was weaned in a Chicago orphanage following his birth in 1948 and adopted shortly before his first birthday.
'My mother noticed that I was always making sounds or drumming on something or just listening to nature and the world,' says Bicknase. 'I just seemed to be drawn like a magnet to anything that vibrated with a tone or frequency that I could hear.'
Bicknase was a student of piano from age 4 until he turned 20. He credits his variety of teachers for the diversity of styles he came to master.
'Some teachers did what I do now ' teach during the week and perform on the weekends,' he says. 'Others came from a classical, jazz, Broadway or popular background. So I learned many different styles of music, which made me very qualified to do the kind of piano performance job I have now.'
Before a recent Friday night show, Bicknase methodically removed a pile of CDs from a briefcase and arranged them atop the grand piano at the Cove Lounge, making them available for sale. He says he's sold more than a thousand CDs in this setting.
Over the years, Bicknase has recorded 22 CDs. Twelve of those recordings are original. His compositional range includes ballads, waltzes, blues and rock, but some of his most widely recognized works are filed under 'New Age' or what Bicknase refers to as 'healing music.'
Having composed more than 100 songs, Bicknase says the act of composition reflects his own effort to 'make some sense of the mystery of life' and 'open the doors and windows of consciousness.'
Bicknase moved to Wisconsin in 1970 and has been a longtime resident of Mazomanie. He first connected with the landscape west of Madison when he was a child. His parents had a cottage on the Wisconsin River.
In the middle 1970s, Bicknase met Alex Jordan, the creator of the House on the Rock in Spring Green. Bicknase began working for Jordan as a piano technician and builder of the extraordinary keyboards that remain on display there in the 'Red Room.'
'One of the last projects was taking nine-foot concert grand pianos and upending them so that the piano sat on a table and was now 12 feet high,' explains Bicknase. 'I would then make a whole new keyboard from scratch and attach it to the keys of the grand piano.'
Bicknase says he made 13 of these unusual instruments.
Preceding his work at the Edgewater, Bicknase spent more than 12 years employed at the Crowne Plaza by East Towne Mall.
'This was the first job where I wore a tuxedo, in that case a white tux,' he says. 'It was the first job where I really began integrating all my musical experiences into an evening of entertainment.'
Bicknase's ability to sustain an entire career as a working piano man is grounded in his mutual comfort with the business and artistic sides of his work.
Looking around to the busy waiters and bartenders inside the Cove Lounge, Bicknase says 'all of us here are in the service business, me included.'
That's no obstacle to his embrace of loftier ideas.
'I am still that musician who knows music is the communication of the universe,' says Bicknase. 'All that is needed is to hear a song that puts a smile in your heart, and you feel wonderful again.'