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When thirteen-year-old Ross Avant first heard Sir Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting) he was inspired to teach himself piano. On Friday, he debuts at Carnegie Hall. Here’s Ross’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
My mother was born in Jersey so I’ve been coming to the city all my life. But I first officially moved here from Texas around twelve years ago.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
It was a stroke of luck. A realtor showed me a building in the neighborhood and I’m still here.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The affability and generosity of the people. My neighbors are always so helpful and kind.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Pre-pandemic, the audible disruptions of weekend frivolity could be slightly vexing whilst trying to sleep. However, I actually miss such merrymaking now — and it has thankfully started to return.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time? When the lockdown occurred I was already out of town visiting an ailing relative. After I returned I was shocked by the silence. It’s great to finally see people again.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
I still write music and play the piano six days a week; I take one day off for appointments and various errands. I occasionally act, too.
I shall be touring next summer in the United States, including playing at various festivals, and touring Europe in the fall. I was already supposed to be on a world tour, but COVID-19 unfortunately derailed those plans. So, we’re doing a staggered version that will take three years or so. I also have a lot of recording to do in the spring of 2022, with multiple albums of piano music, an album of cello suites, a new pop album and hopefully even a jazz album. I’m also collaborating with Van Dyke Parks on some songs, so that’s been going to be quite an enjoyable process.
I’ve become more interested in creating experimental and avant-garde music. I’ve written so many pop songs, and while I love writing songs and will always write them, I just like to work on new things. I’m also currently writing an opera, which will hopefully have its premiere in a few years. I resisted writing a symphony for a long time, but I finally had an idea for one and that will also hopefully be heard in a few more years as well. Also, I’m working on a piano concerto for the late poet, W. S. Merwin that I want to premiere at the Merwin Conservancy in Maui. I’m also becoming more inclined to write music for other people and to do more collaborations. It would be enjoyable to write more music for theatre and perhaps the right film project.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I hope we all learned that we are much stronger than we think; mind over matter. I know that certainly applies to me.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
This city’s resilience and fortitude is truly humbling. I am proud to call this place, and this neighborhood, my home.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
My neighbor’s brother has been friends with my mother for over twenty years. Neither my mother nor I had ever met my neighbor, or even had known of her existence, until we met her when I moved into my current place. When my mother introduced herself as her brother’s longtime friend she was astounded. We simply couldn’t believe that out of all the floors in my building, let alone all of the apartments in the city, we should have made such a connection. We all call it fate and now are all close friends.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
I have been lucky enough to work on some fantastic projects like The Irishman (dir. Martin Scorsese/Netflix), Succession (HBO), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin/Netflix), and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon). The first time I saw myself on the silver screen in a cinema, at the recently closed Landmark on W57th, that was quite surreal. And when I first performed at The Bitter End, I played on the same piano that one of my heroes, Randy Newman, played on his 1971 album Randy Newman Live. That was also surreal.
What’s your superpower?
I always remember hearing music in my head; original, new music that I had never heard elsewhere. It was sometimes loud, cacophonous orchestral music that would have made even Charles Ives blush. It did occur to me to try and write it down, but even at such a young age I knew that I lacked the technical skills necessary to do so. Moreover, I never knew that this was a unique ability until I read about “musical imagination” in Oliver Sack’s wonderful book Musicophilia.
Whilst I started playing the cornet and trumpet at an early age in grammar school, my life in music really began when I was around thirteen. I was watching VH1 and I saw Sir Elton John and his band perform a song he wrote with his writing partner, Bernie Taupin, called Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting). I had naturally heard rock and roll before, but I was utterly captivated by Sir Elton. I had simply never heard music that sounded like that; there was so much energy and it was so exhilarating that I immediately wanted to learn how to do that. The next day I was teaching myself how to play the piano; so, I’ve been playing nearly all of my life. Music has been my solace and it’s saved my life so many times, I have absolutely no idea where I would be had I not heard Sir Elton in my living room as a teenager. I own him everything, basically.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
My repertoire mainly consists of 1970s pop/rock tunes.
Which people inspire you the most?
Jim Cullum, Ray Charles, Philip Glass, Aretha Franklin, Sir Elton John, my parents; I have many people who inspire me.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“In the end we are where we came from.” ~ Peter J. Gomes
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
The phrase “center of the universe” comes to mind. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but people from all over the world come to visit Times Square and when it was packed with people, the energy was electric. It was always thrilling to walk through the crowds and hear dozens of languages and see people’s happy faces gazing up at the buildings.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
Friends have visited it and have told me that they enjoyed themselves.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
St. Luke’s Theatre. I attended my first audition there. It was a haven for fresh talent and exciting, new productions. Although it had a successful fifteen-year run, it’s such a shame it’s gone.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
I started writing the pieces that will appear on my forthcoming Pieces for Solo Piano album and that I shall be performing at Carnegie Hall around three years ago. They run the gamut from nocturnes and études, to impromptus and more experimental pieces. It’s new, exciting music that I really enjoy writing and playing, an admixture of improvisation, minimalism, jazz, serialism and various pop techniques. I’m also going to be premiering my Piano Sonata No. 1 at my Carnegie Hall performance as well. It’s roughly half an hour long and even though it is rather difficult piece, I especially love to play it. It has four movements and it took around six months to write. Incidentally, my album Pieces for Solo Piano will come out in late summer or early fall.
For musicians, performing at Carnegie Hall is very special. It’s an honor and I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be given such an extraordinary opportunity. Jim Cullum, my mentor, also performed at Carnegie Hall at a tribute concert to the late American jazz trombonist, Turk Murphy. If he was here I have absolutely no doubt that he would be in the front row supporting me. I will always be grateful to Jim and I’m dedicating my performance at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall to him.
I am imminently grateful to be making my Carnegie Hall debut on Friday, December 10, 2021 at 8pm in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. I’d be happy if you would come!
Anything we missed?
I am sincerely flattered when people tell me that they like my music. It’s heartwarming to know that pieces I sometimes spent years writing are enjoyed across the world. I hope for many more years of composing!
Ross’s Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Chez Napoleon: Started in 1960 and now run by Elyane and her son William, Chez Napoleon is a Hell’s Kitchen institution. Intimate, and beautifully bedecked, it instantly transports to you Paris. And the food is absolutely sumptuous.
Theatre Row: I’ve seen so many talented artists and great productions here. I especially remember Tennessee William’s Small Craft Warnings, directed by and starring my former HB Studio teacher, Austin Pendleton.
Pier 84 – Hudson River Park: This stretch of the Hudson River Park is so peaceful. I love to walk to the end of the pier and watch the waves.
Joe Allen Restaurant: Unfortunately, Joe tragically passed away earlier this year, but for showfolks like me this is a pilgrimage site. I love perusing the posters on the wall from various shows, whilst being steeped in so much Broadway history. I usually see a familiar face or two, and the menu never disappoints. Joe, however, will always be missed.
9th Avenue: I like strolling up and down 9th Avenue, admiring the storefronts and there is ample people watching if I’m dining al fresco.
Columbus Library- NYPL: I’m a bibliophile and I’ve always enjoyed visiting this cozy NYPL branch, which is now fully reopened!
Le Rivage: Le Rivage is a third-generation run French restaurant in the neighborhood on Restaurant Row. Sunday brunches here are always memorable in the cozy dining room. My favorite is their delicious ratatouille.
Hell’s Kitchen Park: A nice place to sit comfortably and read. One can even take in a handball match in the park’s adjacent handball court.
Desi Deli Indian Kitchen: We have many great Indian restaurants in the neighborhood so it’s unfair to pick just one (notable mentions: Bombay Grill House and Badshah), but Desi Deli is significant because it’s one of the last twenty-four-hour places left in the city. It’s a favorite amongst cab drivers (incidentally, I first learned about it from a cab driver) where they can grab a quick meal; some even use it as a pickup place to swap cars if they share the same cab. Sometimes, if I’m peckish after a concert, the perfect late-night snack is a mango lassi and a heap of fresh, hot samosas from Desi Deli.
My Apartment: Watching a gorgeous Westside sunset after a busy day is a reward that I will never take for granted.