Juan Perez, who played the piano for decades at the Tacoma Mall Nordstrom before taking his tunes to other local venues, died Monday afternoon at his home in University Place.
The Piano Man was 68. Perez succumbed from synovial sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer.
“His battle was a roller coaster,” daughter Christine McKanna said Tuesday. “He was given just a couple of weeks to live in January.”
But soon, McKanna said, her father improved to the point where he could return to playing the piano at El Gaucho Tacoma and the Space Needle in Seattle.
He played piano at Nordstrom for 27 years before being laid off in 2013 when the store decided to take a more modern approach and play recorded music.
On his last Sunday in the store, Perez played “Piano Man” and “How Great Thou Art.”
Perez worried that he’d never play the piano professionally again, but that was a short-lived concern.
Within weeks, he was hired to perform at El Gaucho steakhouse (his dream), the Space Needle, the Tacoma Yacht Club, Tacoma Golf & Country Club, Bellevue Square, the Bellevue Hyatt Regency, the Old Cannery in Sumner and the Weatherly Inn and Narrows Glen retirement homes in Tacoma.
He continued playing even after his second bout with cancer.
“Playing the piano is like therapy to me,” Perez told The News Tribune in 2015. “I forget that I am sick. When I play, I give my heart to the music. I offer it to God. Before I play, I practice for one hour at home. I ask the Lord what songs to play. I feel I’m trying to give a little hope if people are having a bad time. I think that is my duty, to entertain people.”
A nine-hour open heart surgery in 2015 kept him from the piano for eight days, the longest he’d ever been away from music. Perez played “Unforgettable” as soon as he was well enough.
Most pianists read music from sheets during their performances, but Perez played from memory. He said he learned more than 700 songs by ear.
People were drawn to Perez for his music, his warm smile, his kindness and strength. They often approached him to talk about the time he smiled at them over the Baldwin baby grand when they were young, or how they used to bring their elderly mother to listen to him play.
“I’m just happy to be an inspiration,” he told The News Tribune in 2014. “Even though I’m not the best piano player.”
Perez began playing piano at age 7 in Manila, but he hated practicing so he took up the marimba as well.
He played at military bases, won a national TV talent competition at age 11 and was entertaining soldiers aboard a C-130 in Vietnam when he was 19. Then a manager at a Guam Hilton convinced him to perform at the hotel. Perez insisted he wasn’t a pianist, but he practiced for the audition eight hours a day for two weeks and blew them away.
Perez and his family immigrated to the United States from Guam and settled in Seattle in 1985. They soon moved to Tacoma, and Perez auditioned with Nordstrom in January 1986. He wore a regular shirt and was intimidated by the four women also auditioning because they were so elegantly dressed.
By the time he returned home, Nordstrom had already called and offered him the job.
Erik Nordstrom, one of the store’s co-presidents, once called Perez “a fixture and a legend.”
Joe Vego, general manager at El Gaucho, referred to him as an “inspiring guy” who was “great at picking music that people can connect with. He always finds a way to convey that emotion.”
McKanna believes her father’s last public performance was July 22 at the Space Needle.
“It was so important for him to share his music,” McKanna said. By then the cancer had taken its toll.
“A few days before he died he called all his kids and said he wanted to see them,” McKanna said. “We dropped all our jobs and spent the day gathered around his bed, laughing and enjoying.”
She said her father didn’t suffer. “He went peacefully,” she said.
After his death Monday, one of Perez’s sons played guitar while his family gathered around.
“We sang all his favorite Beatles songs, and his favorite church songs,” McKanna said. “It was a great way to release emotions in a way I think he would have appreciated.”
Perez is survived by his wife, Susan, 10 children and 12 grandchildren.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653