It is not surprising to learn that pianist and singer Keith Franklin has hundreds of tunes in his repertoire. After all, he is a veteran of several rock ‘n’ roll bands in his youth and has played in wedding bands for more than a decade. Yet what gives him the most pleasure, and what he is most excited talking about, is jazz and his forthcoming debut album of his jazz originals.
While the always lucrative wedding band work has allowed him to pay the property taxes in Princeton for the last 25 years, Franklin feels he is at his creative best during his first and second sets at the Witherspoon Grill on Tuesday nights. During the second set he is usually joined by another vocalist — often his wife, Laraine Alison.
“Isn’t it funny how it’s almost in opposite proportions,” he says during an interview, “the more creative the music gets, the less you get paid, unless you are very, very lucky.”
Franklin, 62, is an alumnus of Rutgers University’s jazz studies program in New Brunswick. There, he studied with two of the greatest names in contemporary jazz: guitarist Ted Dunbar and pianist Kenny Barron.
Yet his rock ‘n’ roll background helps at weddings. “The brides and grooms sometimes appreciate that I’m a Dead-head,” he says. Another asset is his wife. “Laraine and I have been together for 22 years and married for the last 20,” he says. “She had a great career as a singer in Atlantic City and has toured around the U.S. with show bands.” She also manages the business for Franklin’s wedding bands, website, and jazz gigs.
Aside from the Witherspoon Grill every other Tuesday night, 6:30 to 10 p.m., jazz fans can catch Franklin’s act at the Salt Creek Grille every other month or so, though that venue is suspending music for the summer. Other area venues to catch the Keith Franklin Trio or Quartet perform include Delta’s, a restaurant in New Brunswick; the Vault in Yardley, Pennsylvania; and Hopewell Valley Vineyards.
For the Princeton nights, Franklin typically warms up with music by Bill Evans, paying homage to the late Plainfield-raised pianist and composer, known for his work with Miles Davis as well his ground-breaking original compositions.
“I always start out with some Evans tunes and then move on to other players like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. (Then) we get our heads out of our instruments for our second set when we’re joined by [vocalist] Catrice Joseph, and I do some singing too,” he says.
At Salt Creek Grille, for instance, the crowd asks him to play Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and he happily complies, but that’s not his real cup of tea.
Franklin was born in Newark and raised in Levittown, Pennsylvania, where he began trumpet studies at age five. His father was the high school band director at Bishop Egan, a Catholic high school in Levittown, and his mother was a microbiologist. They split up when he was 16, and he ran away from home and joined a psychedelic rock band at a commune in New Hope.
After receiving a high school diploma through a program offered by a Philadelphia YMCA, he got accepted into Rutgers’ then-fledgling jazz program and studied improvisation with guitarist Dunbar and piano with Barron. He graduated in 1979. “I was always older than the other students by virtue of my time in the psychedelic rock band in New Hope,” he says.
After a promising start balancing jazz and other work, Franklin began to feel the effects of wedding band burnout by the time he was 40. Though he played as many jazz gigs as he could get, he relied on his various wedding bands to pay the bills and raise a family with his first wife.
“I took 10 years off where I played a lot of golf and had pretty much given up in terms of progressing in my jazz career,” he says.
“The jazz spirit and inspiration had left me. From the time I was 40 to when I was about 50, I was just doing weddings and playing golf. I was like a New Jersey version of Kenny G,” he says with a laugh.
Then, he says, something clicked, and the creative compositional juices returned. “You realize the clock is ticking, and if you have something to say, you’d better say it.”
Since getting over his little creative slump, partly brought on by the divorce from his first wife, Franklin is now back to practicing piano at least four hours a day. And he has found new inspiration with Ewing-based classical piano teacher Gabriella Imreh. Franklin credits her with helping him enhance his jazz composition and performance abilities.
“I have no interest in sitting in front of a couple of hundred people and struggling to play Rachmaninoff. You really have to start that and be pretty single minded about it from age four,” he says. But of his on-going piano lessons with Imreh, he says, “I love it. There’s so much incredible [classical] piano music out there.”
Franklin has been working on a recording and expects to have a CD release party at some point this summer or in early fall for his debut. “I have a New Orleans tune on my forthcoming album and some other songs that are tongue-in-cheek, a song for my father, and one for one of my child who has had a lot of psychological struggles. It’s all originals, and I even wrote some lyrics to the old Eddie Harris tune, ‘Cold Duck Time,’” he says.
While “there are always some standards, always some blues, as well as some fancy piano playing” at Witherspoon Grill, he and his wife continue to perform at all types of weddings. Which brings him back to his original point: “The most creative stuff pays the least, the most commercial pays the most, and that’s the way it is. But the people I end up playing with, no matter what they’re playing, they give it their all because you still have to feel lucky to be doing what you love.”
Keith Franklin, Salt Creek Grille, 1 Rockingham Row, Plainsboro. Friday, May 9, 7 to 11 p.m. 609-419-4200.
Witherspoon Grill, 57 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Tuesdays, May 13 and 27, 6:30 to 10 p.m. 609-924-6011.
The Vault, 10 South Main Street, Yardley, Pennsylvania. Thursday, May 15, 7 to 10 p.m. 267-573-4291.
For more information visit www.keithfranklinjazz.com.