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The JAZZ PIANIST



Don Bestor Jr.

Don Bestor Jr. is the president of the Fort Pierce Jazz & Blues Society and an accomplished pianist.
FORT PIERCE JAZZ & BLUES SOCIETY PHOTO

BY CHRISTINA TASCON

When Don Bestor Jr. was asked his formal title, he said, “President.”

Of what? “The world,” he jokingly responded.

That is quintessential Bestor. He is a jokester. Others with his resume as an accomplished pianist with a 27-year, high-end career might be more pompous, but he is not at all stuffy. His fun and playfulness probably comes from a lifetime of interacting with audiences on everything from cruise ships to nationwide jazz ensemble performances.

His actual presidential role is with the Fort Pierce Jazz & Blues Society, which he has led for the last six years. It is a perfect fit for the man who began his lifetime love of music as a 5-year-old prodigy under the tutelage of Arden Clar in Greenwich, Conn., where Bestor grew up.

Bestor’s father, Don Sr., was the musical director for the Jack Benny Program, which ran from 1932 to 1949 on NBC Radio. He spent his life directing and writing music for a number of well respected bands including the Benson Orchestra of Chicago.

Don Sr. was the man referred to when Benny would dryly say “Play, Don, play” when he wanted the show to move along. He wrote the commercial jingle J-E-L-L-O and the Carnation Milk song while he was with the program. He also directed his band behind Shirley Temple’s performance of Animal Crackers in My Soup in the film Curly Top.

His mother was Beulah Pinbell, a much younger socialite, she was 18 and Don Sr., 58, at the time of their marriage. She had her own celebrity status as a model, appearing on numerous covers of Redbook and Cosmopolitan magazines. It was Beulah who saved Don Jr.’s hands from a possible baseball career.

“I did not learn of it until 20 years later, but a talent scout was in the stands when I was pitching for my team in high school,” Bestor said. “Just by coincidence he sat next to my mother and began telling her that I had such a strong arm at a young age that he thought I could definitely go straight from high school to a farm team.”

His mother was having none of that and told him so. She wanted her son to go to college and did not think baseball was a worthy career.

By the age of 12, Bestor had a solid reputation as a pianist and started playing at country clubs with his band named The Boys. When he got a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, he and The Boys supported themselves by playing at hotels and lounges. Eventually, he formed a band called Trademarks and traveled across the country playing a variety of music, including pop and jazz.

His journey eventually led him to a long-term gig with Norwegian Cruise Lines where his trio headlined on a ship based out of Miami. Bestor’s reputation for demanding the best performance from his bandmates kept him booked in one of the main rooms, but almost lost him a wife.

When the newest singer his manager sent him was having a problem fitting in with their nightclub-type act, he wanted to replace her. Instead, his manager suggested Bestor teach her.

“Debbie did a lot of Broadway and was sort of guarded,” he said. “She wasn’t really up with the style of our kinds of high-end shows where she had to be more outgoing with the audience. She was a really talented singer, but not a nightclub type. I had to get her to go out to the tables more to flirt with the gentlemen and get the audience involved with the show.”

Bestor may have encouraged her to cozy up to the audiences but when it came to the rest of the band, it was hands off.

“I fell for her the first day I saw her in 1981 and we married in 1986.”

After a while, Debbie got bored when Bestor was working and she was only singing for a few hours. When they did get off the ship for breaks, they stayed at a hotel in Stuart and came to know the area pretty well. Debbie gave him notice it was time to quit because she missed her cat, Tara.

“She loved the cat,” Bestor said with a laugh. “I mean it was a cool cat, but it was a cat.”

To make Debbie happy, they left the cruise ship world and settled in Port St. Lucie working from Miami to the Treasure Coast in country clubs as a duo. When Debbie got a great position with the Radise International (an engineering firm) in West Palm Beach, Bestor opened a studio, recording and reworking tracks of various instruments so when he appeared at smaller venues he sounded much fuller than playing piano solo.

Eight years ago, Bestor and the jazz society joined forces. He was elected president in 2009. Since then the organization has really taken off in the community.

“It was like I was in a training program to do this job all my life,” Bestor said. “I had to have computer skills, had to know people, manage people. I had to know about the musical part of it, too. Many of the high-end musicians gravitate to the more professional and well-known talent and they know I expect excellence on the stage.”

Claudio Berardi, a drummer who works with Bestor in the clubs, is the society’s vice president. He believes Bestor’s high standards has elevated the organization. The group has also made an effort to participate with other nonprofit fundraising projects and to show up where needed because of Bestor’s community-minded leadership.

“Don is a really great piano player,” Berardi said. “At the jazz society, we have a range of performers from about average to really good musicians and he would be at the top end of that spectrum. When he is on stage he is so vivacious and makes it fun to be up there with him. He makes sure everyone gets to play when we do our sit-in sessions no matter the level they perform.”

Berardi said Bestor is there for every musician at every age group giving his time and talent and even helping the less computer-savvy artists with the digital aspects of recording, uploading music and the sharing of musical information.

“He is so generous to everyone and especially to the kids in our musical summer camps and scholarship program, Jazz in the Schools, where we award dollars to students for education,” Berardi said.

Society members attend workshops to educate teachers on the program and how to recommend students for the scholarships. Members also help students learn how to audition, improvise music and communicate the music to the scholarship selection committee.

“Don is so dedicated to the jazz society and it has grown so much because of him,” Berardi said. “We all look to him for direction.”

Bestor credits his mother for his higher aspirations. He said that no matter what path he chose she said he should strive to be the best.

“If I went into the hotel business, she would expect me to be a Conrad Hilton,” Bestor said. “My father said he thought the music business was very hard, so he never encouraged me to get into it. I remember him after having gone to one of my many performances telling me he always knew I would be good. When he was interviewed about attending Jack Benny’s 40th anniversary, he mentioned me by telling them how proud he was of his son who played piano.”

That was a good day for Bestor.

With all his accolades and the glitz of having famous parents, none of it is as important to him as his work with the society.

“I really love what I have been doing with the jazz society and my work with the kids, going into the schools,” he said. “That is really where my heart is and what I love to do. Everything I have done in my life has led to me to this.”



DON H BESTOR JR.

Age: 70
Lives in: Port St Lucie
Occupation: Musician
Family: Wife, Deborah; Son, Trey (Don III); Sister, Robyn Byrne
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in music performance; an Associate of Science degree in hotel/restaurant management
Hobbies: Music, Golf
Who/what inspires me: “Young people, poorly managed music operations/shows, etc…”
Something Most People Don’t Know About Me: “I love animals …always have stray cats, (used to be dogs), I love to cook gourmet type things”

FORT PIERCE JAZZ & BLUES SOCIETY

To contact: call 460.JAZZ (5299) or send an email to info@jazzsociety.org
For more information: www.jazzsociety.org