SENIORS | Almost 100, musician still hitting the high notes

Jerry Samuel has been tickling the ivories practically since people started calling them ivories.

Given that the San Francisco pianist turns 100 on Sept. 12, that adds up to nearly a century of scales, trills and augmented minor chords. And he continues to play today.

To celebrate the big 1-0-0, Samuel will be feted at a Sept. 8 birthday bash at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco.

Brought up in the San Francisco Jewish community and a longtime resident of the Sunset District, Samuel played countless bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings over the decades with the Jerry Samuel Orchestra. Occasionally, as a young man he had to perform under the name Jerry Kent when playing venues that didn’t take too kindly to Jews back in the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” days.

But he also earned kudos from no less than Big Band legend Tommy Dorsey and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Mr. Frank Sinatra.

A graduate of Lowell High School (Class of ’31), Samuel was captain of his school’s tennis team, and went on to earn a tennis scholarship to the University of San Francisco.

Jerry Samuel

But piano playing became his vocation. Samuel and his orchestra were regulars at the Fairmont, Mark Hopkins, Richelieu and Jack Tar hotel lounges. They became the house band at San Mateo’s Peninsula Golf and Country Club, and even performed at the opening of Macy’s Union Square. That was in October 1947.

Samuel had some big-name fans.

He won a songwriting contest that came with a cool first prize: Frank Sinatra gave it a performance, later telling Samuel he was impressed. Sinatra wasn’t the only one. In 1940 Samuel received a letter from Tommy Dorsey praising him for his talents in a different songwriting contest.

“He still plays and writes original music,” notes Samuel’s daughter, Jeri Samuel Paley, “though it takes a little more time than it did years ago.“

Samuel lost his first wife, but has been with wife Gert for 40 years. He has two children, two granddaughters and five great-grandchildren. All will be in attendance on his big day.

Though music keeps him young, age does take its toll. Samuel had to give up driving at age 96, but no one is about to revoke his license for making music.

“Everyone in the family agreed that it was time to put the [car] keys away,” said Paley, “but keep the keyboard playing.”  — dan pine