By Geoff Gehman ’80
Ballads and boogies are played with an elegant fire, an easy zest. This pianist sounds so comfortable, so deep in the pocket; he could be meditating.
Flanked by a bassist and a drummer, Dave Roper ’60 has turned the Hotel Bethlehem’s Tap Room into a jazz nest on first Thursdays and first Sundays for the past nine years.
It’s the latest long run as the area’s most familiar, favorite jazz pianist. He loves spinning “Georgia on My Mind,” “Satin Doll,” and other standards in clubs and inns. His fans love his sparkling touch, his wry wit, his reliability.
Roper grew up in Bethlehem with a single mother, a Bethlehem Steel secretary. She stirred his passion for jazz piano with Erroll Garner’s live album Concert by the Sea, which she bought after a Garner show. Roper heard the suave, sweet versions of “April in Paris” and “Autumn Leaves” and decided that’s what he wanted to do.
At Lafayette Roper decided to double as an English teacher and a public pianist. He settled on the first career during a Great Victorians class with William Watt, the legendary English professor and humorist (“Your argument holds enough water to be all wet”). He settled on the other career while playing satirical ditties in Watt’s faculty shows, Dixieland tunes at frat parties, and stardust numbers at the Pennsylvania, a popular restaurant in Allentown. He also moonlighted as a trombonist in the ROTC marching band to skip mandatory marching drills.
Roper moonlighted for the next five decades. He performed three nights a week at the Cellar Door in Allentown while earning a master’s degree in English at Lehigh University. He performed a few nights a week at the King George Inn in Allentown while teaching English at Emmaus High School, where he coached Scholastic Scrimmage teams to seven state championships.
The King George was Roper’s roost for 15 years. He played smoothly mixed showstoppers (“Mack the Knife”) with romances (“Misty”) and snazzy hybrids (“I’ll Be Seeing You” linked to tunes by Ravel and Chopin). He ended sets with “biggies”: a West Side Story medley, the pop aria “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
He retired from teaching in 2002, and began regular shows at the Hotel Bethlehem in 2004.
During a recent Thursday night show, he transformed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” into a big-band barnburner, as quick as a jackrabbit. In his hands “Sweet Georgia Brown” swung like a silent-film chase played by Fats Waller. No matter how fast the pace, he never seemed to hurry; the melody stayed creased no matter how wrinkled the rhythm. It’s his way, he explained between sets, of keeping listeners listening, no matter how noisy the bar.
At the nearest table was his wife, Barbara, a retired nurse and college nursing director. Nearby were members of his church, where two weeks later he performed a solo concert of Gershwin and Chopin. Also on hand was Ray Walters, a fan for half a century.
Roper wants to perform six more years at the Hotel B, to match his stint at the King George. He plans to keep channeling the intimate, expansive styles of Garner and Oscar Peterson, his other jazz-piano hero. He hopes to keep his trio stable; since 1959 he has played with only three drummers and four bassists.
“You get a gig with me,” he says with a sly smile, “it’s pretty long term.”