For Maui pianist, 13th nomination results in first Grammy Award win
In New York on the morning of the 60th Grammy Awards, Maui Meadows pianist Peter Kater woke up at 7:30 a.m. and stayed in bed until 1 p.m.
“I was so nervous,” said Kater, who had been nominated 12 times before and hadn’t won. “For about 10 minutes, I was considering not even going.”
Hours later, Kater was sitting in the Theater at Madison Square Garden with his 13-year-old son when he was announced as the winner of the Best New Age Album category — the first-ever Grammy for the longtime musician.
“It was crazy. It was awesome,” said Kater, whose main thought was getting onto the stage without tripping. “The other people in the category were really good this year. I felt like I had a chance, but I wasn’t certain.”
The German-born pianist and composer, who moved to Maui 11 years ago, has produced more than 70 records throughout his career. He’s performed in Carnegie Hall and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, written music for 11 Broadway plays and more than 100 television and film productions. But his Grammy-winning album, “Dancing on Water,” was inspired by the quieter, more intimate pieces he’s played for friends and family in his Maui Meadows home.
“What I’ve realized in recent years is that I really love playing for small, intimate groups of people,” Kater said. “At these smaller home concerts, people started lying under my piano because they thought it was cool.
“Playing for people lying under my piano was really interesting. I started doing it for individuals, one at a time, and improvising just for them. Just getting a sense of who they are, talking to them first and improvising for 15 to 20 minutes.”
Kater would give each person an MP3 recording of the music after each session. “Dancing on Water” became a collection of his 12 favorite “under the piano” pieces.
“It’s solo piano, and it’s very, very simple, but it’s very, very pure and very intimate,” Kater said.
When Kater was 6 years old, his mother asked if he wanted to play a musical instrument. Kater said no. His mother pressed. If he could play an instrument, what would it be?
“I decided I wanted to play a wind instrument,” Kater said. “She was like, ‘No, you’re playing the piano.’ That was it. If I didn’t practice, I didn’t get dinner.”
Kater didn’t really like playing until he became a teenager “and learned how to play the songs that I liked,” as well as how to improvise. At 17, he started writing his own music, and a year later, he packed up his music books and left his home in New Jersey to hitchhike across the United States. He slept in parks and beaches and played piano for tips at restaurants and lounges. In 1983, Kater released his first album of solo piano compositions.
Kater’s mother never lived to see the fruits of her son’s labor; she died when Kater was 18. But Kater said he thinks she’d “be very proud” to see her son fulfill her own dream of playing piano. Kater’s mother was born in Germany in 1938. Her parents had been born to unwed teenage mothers who’d gotten pregnant from musicians — one the principal violinist in the Nuremberg Orchestra and another a wandering French minstrel. The shame of being born out of wedlock led her parents to view musicians as irresponsible troublemakers.
“It was like an emotional wound that was really deep,” Kater said. “When my mother wanted to play the piano, she might as well have said she wanted to be a prostitute or a drug addict.”
Her parents forbade her from playing the piano or spending time with musicians. So when Kater was born and the family moved to New Jersey, his mother insisted that he get the chance she’d been denied.
As he got better and wrote his own music, she said, “I didn’t mean for you to take it seriously as a profession. I just wanted you to play at parties,” Kater recalled.
The pianist ended up on Maui after a difficult job working on a film score. Kater, his son and his then-wife took a two-week vacation to Kauai. They enjoyed it so much that they stayed another two weeks.
“The next thing we knew we were there two months,” Kater said.
The family decided not to return to California and ended up settling on Maui, the first Hawaiian island Kater had visited in 1980.
Now it’s home, the place where Kater performs for friends, records his albums and paddleboards offshore to listen to humpback whale songs in the winter.
Incidentally, Kater’s next performance is at the Pacific Whale Foundation’s masquerade gala at the King Kamehameha Golf Club on Feb. 17. He plans to release another album at the end of March titled “She,” which he describes as “an homage to the feminine” in light of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. Kater is also in the middle of writing music for a film about Hawaii island’s national parks.
“I don’t tour as much as I used to,” he said. “I prefer to stay at home recording. I don’t like to leave Maui more than I have to.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.