Mimis Plessas:
A Man for All Seasons Returns to New York

For love and death, eros and love, gallantry, freedom, faith and ideals, I sang and I screamed. And I lived my life trying not to hurt the silence because I know that inside of her, the world's harmony is nested.
– Plessas’ words of wisdom

By Eleni Daniels

Sometimes you need to look back to move forward. Just ask Mimis Plessas. He is the man for all seasons. The American-educated and prolific multi-award winning Greek composer and pianist continues to build on his illustrious career, and is eager to soon embrace New York and perform for a whole new generation on this side of the Atlantic.

Throughout his illustrious 50-plus year career, Plessas is the thread that has weaved the fabric of Greek song and film, theatre, radio and television in a wide genre of music. Since his first composition in 1952, he has received numerous honorable distinctions and accolades in Greece and worldwide in France, Spain, Belgium, Edinburgh, United States, Japan, Carlovi Vari (Czech Republic), Altomonte, Italy, and more recently in Rotterdam (Netherlands). He has directed renowned orchestras of the world and repeatedly earned Gold and Platinum records. The popular Greek record “O Dromos” (The Road/1969) with music by Plessas, lyrics by Lefteris Papadopoulos and vocals by Poulopoulos, is by far, the best-selling album in Greek music.

Plessas got his start as a pianist in New York in the early 50s. He played along with jazz greats like pianist Art Tatum, the “Divine One” Sarah Vaughn, legendary alto saxaphonist and clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, trombonist and band leader Tommy Dorsey, among others. And some of them influenced his international careeer. They called him “D” – his full name, Demetrios, was a mouthful to pronounce. And since then, “D” has become the Mimis Plessas we know – a legendary name in Europe and beyond with a vast repertoire of music, awards and accolades. When he performed in the U.S., it was for international artists at notable venues like Carnegie Hall and Café de Paris in New York and North Side’s Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago. But this time, it’s different.

“This time it is a great honor to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Queens Theatre and to have the children of our children there to experience the essence of my music,” said Plessas.

Plessas will perform in the company of soulful vocalist Evi Siamanda and leading vibraphonist Christos Rafalides at Queens Theatre in the Park “Plessas in New York” (Sept 26, 27) and at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola “Evi Siamanda Sings Mimis Plessas” for the 5th Annual Women in Jazz Festival (Sept 28).

His love of jazz began as a young teenager, with his first asphalt record of the Benny Goodman Trio with Teddy Wilson on piano. He played it over and over.

“I started discovering the piano when my beloved grandmother died and by then the pianos and the radios were shut for six months for our “penthos” [mourning],” said Plessas. “The divinity of music has her own ways of choosing who would be the best.”

In 1951, as a young pianist studying in the U.S. at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he received the first award in Music. In 1952, he was recognized as the fifth top pianist in the U.S., right above Oscar Peterson’s (Canadian jazz pianist) name.

And while he is a distinguished pianist, Plessas is also a chemist. He was awarded a scholarship to attend Cornell University in New York where he pursued his PhD in chemistry on the protein myelin, believed to be critical in the process of myelination of nerves in the central nervous system whose reduction of which is directly associated with Muscular Distrophy (MS). The results of which, according to Plessas, are applied by scientists around the world. He was mandated to return to Greece, serve in the military and care for his family who was in a “needy position” following the war.

He ruefully reflects how in every stage of his life in Greece, he was hiding two things – being an award-winning pianist and his PhD. “My every step was a fine line between luck and necessity. [In Greece], when we were speaking about the wonders of science and technology, we were not called futurologists but rather, ‘katastrafo-logists’ (doom-makers).”

In his early years in Athens, Plessas was “discovered” by singer Danae where he distinguished himself among peers as the first piano soloist on Greek radio. In 1939, he began hosting a radio show twice a week in Athens called “Trianta Defterolepta” (30 Seconds) with various one-on-one interviews. He recalls how, for many years, this was his only hope.

His extremely popular radio show was soon ordered off-air by the Junta-run Greek government at the time, as a result of Plessas not agreeing to disclose his interview questions in advance.

During the mid 40s, together with his quartet and orchestras, he collaborated with all the popular singers of the time including Maroudas, Moli, Panagopoulos, Zaxa, Makouli, and others. And since the late 50s, his music has been celebrated in all genres of cinema, theatre, operettas, concerto suites, radio and television. He is widely known for the music he scored in the 60s for his 104 Greek movies, interpreted by popular singers like Marinella, Tzeni Vanou, Voskopoulos, and Poulopoulos.

And Plessas’ midas touch has turned the careers of many popular names in Greece including those of Zoe Kourkouki, Nana Mouskouri, Giovanna, Rena Koumioti, Yiannis Voyiatzis, Fotis Dimas, Stratos Dionisiou, and more.

“All the great actors that were already famous were my inspiration. And all the new talents since 1960 were either discovered or brought to fame through our productions. Every one of them shares in my memories, and I owe them a great part of my inspirations.”

His music was original and ahead of its time. He had a keen talent in composing music to best reach each singer’s potential. Plessas soon became a sought-after composer. Since 1959, every director asked the producer to use Plessas for the soundtrack of their film.

“The producers denied knowing my radio career since 1939 believing that I was not a composer. Even so, my first film was “Na Petheros na Malama” starring Dimitri Horn, who insisted that I was the only one who could give a different approach to the scoring of a Greek movie. I will never forget to thank Dimitri Ioannides, Ion Daifas and Marios Nousias who believed in me and helped me in my first attempt.”

And in more recent years, his music has been adapted to contemporary, jazz, and world music rearrangements.

“I tried not to repeat myself. Every score was so different from the other! During my 25-year cinema era, I scored all kinds of Greek film productions. Happily, most of them were ahead of our time. This is the main reason that today my repertoire has received such recognition.”

Plessas’ contributions to the arts and culture transcend generations, geographical borders and musical platforms. He turns 85 in October and with his signature style of maturity and wisdom, he continues to compose, perform and inspire musicians of all ages throughout Europe and now back in New York. “There is no doubt that many Greeks have the talent to produce interesting ways of expressions. To be inspired by our own heritage…. so rich! I don’t know if this will happen in Greece [in the future], where political winds are pushing one way or the other, and usually not the talented and not the chosen.”

He reflects on what has been his greatest achievement.

“Please give me the benefit to believe the things I will do in the near future will be more mature, and that we (I) last long enough to inspire the coming generations.”

And, his ultimate goal? “To leave an unfinished symphony when the time comes? Who knows.”

Plessas is a gift to humanity. His rare energy and zeal is evident in all his artistic work. His soul and enthusiasm is admirable. He is eager to return to New York and perform with Rafalides and Siamanda. Their recent CD recording - “echo: the music of Mimis Plessas” (produced by Rafalides, Emarel Music) features Plessas’ music rearranged by Rafalides in a mosaic of global rhythms with Plessas on piano.

“[Plessas] is always inspiring and soulful. The man is a living legend. Love every single minute of it,” said Rafalides. Experience the essence of their music later this month. For more information, please visit www.queenstheatre.org or, www.jalc.org.

Eleni Daniels is a freelance writer, founder and principal of DanielsMedia, and public radio producer/host based in New York. Her exclusive interview with Mimis Plessas was broadcast on All Things Greek, Hellenic Public Radio (WNYE FM 91.5). You can reach her at danielsmediaco@gmail.com.


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