TNJN Spotlight: Jack N’ Diane’s Dueling Piano Bar

When one hears the term “dueling piano bar”, one tends to envision two pianists performing increasingly difficult pieces in an effort to outdo one another on stage. However, this is not exactly accurate. Zack Spakowski, one of the two performers, explained that the term “dueling pianos” is a bit of a misconception.

The cryptic Miles joins Zack (left) and Don (right) for Stevie Wonder's Superstition.

The cryptic Miles joins Zack (left) and Don (right) for Stevie Wonder's Superstition.
The cryptic “Miles” joins Zack (left) and Don (right) for a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”.

Jack N’ Diane’s Dueling Piano Bar recently set up shop here in Knoxville at 1910 Cumberland Avenue.

The bar was decked out in spooky decor on the Saturday after Halloween, with cobwebs hanging from the ceilings and murals of skeletons drowning in colorful music notes on the walls. The atmosphere was friendly and care-free with everyone looking to relax and have a good time including the pianists.

When one hears the term “dueling piano bar”, one tends to envision two pianists performing increasingly difficult pieces in an effort to outdo one another on stage. However, this is not exactly accurate. Zack Spakowski, one of the two performers, explained that the term “dueling pianos” is a bit of a misconception.

“It’s kind of funny, because the word ‘dueling piano’ I don’t know if it’s the most appropriate name for what we do,” said Spakowski. “Most people will ask ‘Well, why aren’t you guys dueling?’ So they think everything on stage is going to be, you know, the two piano guys going head-to-head against each other, but really it’s more like the dueling comes from my side versus your side, girls versus guys, who’s having more fun, who’s partying harder.”

Don Merrick, Zack’s performing partner, elaborates on the term more.

“It’s kind of like collaborative piano,” said Merrick. “Zack and I both are very good at making our partner look good, and that’s the most important thing. That will in turn make you look good, if you can make your partner look good on stage.”

Spakowski added, “You want the whole show to be good. You never want to try to steal the spotlight or something. There are certain songs that I do that I know that other people like Don does better, so even if I know it, I’ll give it to him.”

It was clear that the two pianists were close friends both on and off the stage, despite only meeting last summer at the Jack N’ Diane’s bar in Greenville, SC. As soon as the show started at 9 p.m., their energy was infectious. They took requests from the audience and miraculously, they seemed to know every single song by heart.

They alternated songs, one taking the lead part with the other accompanying and vice-versa. Whoever was singing would replace the original lyrics with witty rhymes and clever jokes without missing a beat.

The performers often dropped out and allowed the audience to belt out the lyrics and they encouraged participation by instructing everyone to yell, make noises and sway back and forth. Occasionally a third musician named Miles would join them on stage, playing a drum set or relieving one of the two pianists for a short break during their marathon performance.

Merrick himself summed up the feeling of performing.

“It’s all about being a good entertainer and connecting with the audience and delivering exactly what they want at any given moment in time.”

Edited by Jessica Carr