jelly-front-door
The bar is named after Jelly Roll Morton, the legendary jazz pianist.

It's Friday night at the BoardWalk Villas at Walt Disney World. More than 200 people from all over the U.S. and abroad have begun filing into Jellyrolls, the resort’s wildly popular piano bar located just off the hotel lobby.

On stage, two baby grands are positioned back-to-back beneath the spotlight. At each side of the stage, there's a bar where guests get their drinks before grabbing a seat at one of the many wooden tables scattered about.

Before long, it's standing room only. When 8 o'clock hits, two men stroll casually onto the stage, taking their seats at the pianos. In an instant, someone from the crowd shouts a request, whether it be an old standard like, "Sweet Caroline," a rock anthem, like "Living on a Prayer," or the latest Top 40 hit.

Soon, their fingers touch the keys, music fills the room, and another evening of dueling piano fun begins.

It’s Not a Competition... Anymore

"The word 'dueling' is a bit of a misnomer," says Michael Williams, a skilled and versatile piano-player who has owned and operated Jellyrolls (named after the famous jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton) for more than 12 years. "The musicians on stage are actually working together. One drives the song by pounding out the main rhythm, while the other adds in the smaller identifying details like the sounds of a tambourine or an imitation of a guitar riff that bring it to life. What makes it fun is that they only have their pianos to work with so there's lots of improvising."

The concept of dueling pianos has been around since the late 1800's. But back then, it involved two ragtime piano players squaring off and trying to outdo each other in front of a roaring crowd. The modern-day version, which morphed into something far more collaborative, took shape in the 1980's and has been steadily increasing in popularity ever since.



jelly-audience
The crowd at Jellyrolls makes music too, by singing along.

"The reason audiences love it," explains Williams, "is because they're a part of the show, too. Whatever they want to hear, we find a way to play it, and that's what makes each performance special."

But with nightly shows from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., and people requesting so many different songs from so many artists, how do they pull it off? First, two pairs of players alternate every hour in order to keep the show rolling along. Plus, just off stage in the greenroom, they access Spotify to quickly listen and learn a song by ear if it's one they don't know but the crowd has been requesting.

Scotty Kilwein attended his first evening of dueling pianos in his hometown of Pittsburgh when he turned 21. That night, Kilwein says, he knew it was the job for him. Not long after, he made his way to Orlando, auditioned for Jellyrolls, and has been playing there ever since.

Kilwein’s favorite part of the job? "Making sure everyone in that room is having a good time," he says. "We throw lots of comedy into the routine, getting people to come up on stage and sing along and goof around. Plus, it’s fun to get the crowd laughing whenever someone mangles a request. I can't tell you how many times someone has asked us to play, 'Hold Me Closer, I'm Tired Of Dancing' by Billy Joel when what they mean is 'Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dancer' by Elton John."

National Appeal

The fun of a dueling piano performance is not just limited to Disney. In fact, shows can be found in cities all over the country — but you don’t always have to go to a nightclub to see them.

In Chicago, there's Felix and Fingers, a dueling piano company that brings the show to any location within eight hours of the city. Piano-playing pals, Mike Potts (Fingers) and Dave Radford (Felix) started the company a decade ago with the goal of creating positive, lasting memories for private events. Whether it's a wedding, a corporate party, family reunion or some other significant occasion, Felix and Fingers offer a unique evening of entertainment.




"People can rent a DJ or a band, and they might sound good, but the experience is not going to be much different than watching TV," says Potts. "Our shows, however, are fully improvised and get the audience involved. And let me tell you, when it's a person's wedding or some other major occasion, the pressure is on, so we go out of our way to make it magical."



ff-performance-350
This team from Felix and Fingers do more than pound the keys... they bust the occasional dance move too.

That means working with the people behind the event to understand the desired mood for the evening, whether it’s something more elegant or high energy or a mix of both. The pair often play background music during cocktail hour, make announcements or introductions as needed, then kick into high-gear and create a party atmosphere when the crowd is ready to let loose.

With nearly 400 performances a year, they’ve bumped up to a staff of six rotating players and often use keyboards as opposed to old-school pianos. It stands to reason that, on occasion, Felix and Fingers gets an outlandish request, too.

“A nudist colony once requested our services,” says Potts, “who accepted the invitation while managing to keep his clothes on during the event. Let’s just say the evening was as memorable for the audience as it was for me!”