George “GT” Koumantaros, a pianist and singer who arrived in Santa Fe almost 35 years ago, died in his home on Feb. 1.
As a musician, he embodied the wild, artistic spirit of late 1970s-1980s Santa Fe. He reached the pinnacle of local renown during that period through a series of seven shows at the St. Francis Auditorium, each one more elaborate than the last.
By the final show, Koumantaros was backed by a full band and a dozen choristers as he performed on a 12-foot Baldwin Grand he affectionately nicknamed Ethel. The stage, covered with large folds of foam sewn together to resemble a giant womb, was drenched in the changing colors of a psychedelic light show.
Koumantaros was born in New York in 1939 to a large Greek family. He was active in the East Coast and Canadian folk and theater scenes before stopping in Santa Fe en route to Los Angeles.
He never left.
According to lifelong friend Marcia Stehr, who booked Koumantaros at the St. Francis Auditorium and many other places throughout the years, “George was the kind of person who could not be bought. He would not sell himself.”
Because of this trait, his professional shows ran the gamut from free performances at Trader Joe’s Flea Market on weekends (loading his piano into the back of Stehr’s 1953 Chevy truck) to more upscale, private parties. Stehr remembers going to Allan Houser’s estate when the sculptor hired Koumantaros to play a party.
The list of regular gigs he held reads like a eulogy of extinct venues: the TAC Club, Grand Central Station, Casablanca, the Captain’s Table.
However, he performed so widely (“If there was a piano in Santa Fe, George would play it,” Stehr reminisces) that his résumé also includes such long-running staples as the Legal Tender and La Casa Sena—where Koumantaros was one of the very first accompanists for their long-running singing waiters tradition.
As the years went by, Koumantaros withdrew increasingly from public performance. In part, he may have been pulling away from the substance-heavy environment prevalent in Santa Fe’s 1980s music scene.
Perhaps related, he became passionate about health and nutrition and shifted gears toward working with USANA Health Services.
Stehr thought it important to note that Koumantaros was “proud to be sober for probably about 30 years and brought many, many young men into the [AA] program.”
Despite retreating from the public eye, Koumantaros never gave up playing and composing. He also continued to influence local music behind the scenes, as a teacher.
I myself ended up meeting Koumantaros through his close student Karrie Hopper, a singer and songwriter whom I sometimes accompany on the drums.
Hopper and Koumantaros became friends about five years ago, and the relationship quickly grew into a musical mentorship. They met frequently to work on songwriting, music theory and performance.
“He was always translating things in terms of songwriting,” Hopper says. “Once I showed up and he said, ‘Karrie, maybe you need to cry,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have time to cry!’ He said, ‘There’s your song.’”
His approach to teaching was often nontraditional: “He had me learning Mozart pieces backwards,” Hopper says. “He told me, ‘Start with the last phrase first, because if you know what’s coming, you’ll have a place to land.’”
Hopper continues, “George was really musically obsessed with this concept of the ‘listening ear’—having an audience and connecting with them,” she recalls. I personally witnessed this the last time I saw Koumantaros, at one of Hopper’s parties.
Though tethered to an oxygen tank and in frail health, the pianist still inevitably gravitated to Hopper’s piano bench. Before long, there was a trio of pretty girls arranged around his bench, singing a three-part harmony along with one of his pieces.
I recently asked Hopper if she knew that particular song. She reminded me of a time we went to Koumantaros’ house and listened to a cassette recording from that last and biggest St. Francis Auditorium concert.
As we were pulling out of the driveway, he ran outside after us, saying there was one more song on the other side of the tape that we would have to listen to next time.
“It was that song; the best one on the tape,” Hopper tells me. She then recalls some poignant lyrics: “May the load be as light as love is the light.”
In his final years, Koumantaros incorporated his own musical advice regarding Mozart. At the end, he was echoing phrases from the beginning, coming full circle.