BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Walter Duda had wanted to play the piano for years, but he never had access to one until he found out about free practice space at the University of Bridgeport.
Soon he was a familiar face in the music rooms, teaching himself to play by ear.
“I was there so much the guards would say, ‘Hey Walter, just shut the lights out when you leave!’” said the Bridgeport native.
Now 65, Duda has spent a lifetime in music — from playing in rock & roll bands in Detroit to recording with some of the top names in the business to entertaining foodies with his own smooth jazz compositions recently at the Downtown Farmers Market.
“It’s a beautiful instrument,” said Duda, who has another gig in New Haven on Saturday. “They say you’re playing piano. They never say you’re working piano.
“It doesn’t seem like work to me.”
Duda started out sneaking his older brother’s guitar out of his bedroom, learning how to play the chords and melodies that would help him gain several gigs after he graduated from the University of Detroit with a bachelor’s in history and foreign language.
The Fairfield Prep graduate spent a year teaching German at Fairfield Warde High School, but he knew he wanted to concentrate on music. Thankfully, his brother owned a print shop where he could work here and there when he needed a little cash.
It was after he was named a finalist in a Berklee College of Music writing contest that he began to believe in his talents.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can really do this,’” said Duda.
He started at a small recording studio in Norwalk, hiring sidemen to play his work so he could share it with producers. In 1992, he put out his first CD, "Revitalize." Over the years, he has put out three more, landing a few of his original works in the Top 20 of the smooth jazz charts.
Along the way, he has played with some modern jazz standouts, including Will Lee, the bassist from “Late Show With David Letterman,” and Chris Parker, who played drums in the “Saturday Night Live” band for six years.
While he makes his living teaching piano lessons, Duda has played many of New York City’s top night spots, including The Bitter End and Catch a Rising Star.
This Saturday, he’ll perform his songs, as well as some by his favorite artists, from 8 to 11 p.m. at Cave á Vin, 975 State St., New Haven.
A few years ago, Duda said he got a big musical thrill when he was asked to open for one of his early idols, British pianist Brian Auger, at the Fairfield Theatre Company.
“What a pleasure!” Duda said, who treasures all time creating and playing music. “I can’t wait to wake up in the morning, have a cup of tea, and get in a few hours at the piano.”
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