George Mesterhazy, 58, of Cape May, a Hungarian-born, Grammy-nominated jazz musician, died at home in his sleep early Thursday of what longtime life partner Vicki Watson called natural causes.
Mesterhazy's selfless attitude when playing and composing music made him the perfect fit for renowned jazz singers for decades. He translated this musical quality into everyday life, leaving a legacy of generosity on and off the bandstand.
"He is, by far, the most inspirational piano player I've ever worked with," said cabaret and jazz singer Paula Johns, with whom Mesterhazy worked for more than 20 years. "He could hear me breathe and knew where to take the song."
After his family fled Europe because of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Mesterhazy moved to Hudson, N.Y., and attended high school, Watson said. Mesterhazy met Watson about 15 years ago, when her Cape May hotel, the Merion Inn, brought him as a pianist to accompany a singer.
His musical career took him across the world and on tour with celebrities such as Broadway singer Bernadette Peters, guitarist Les Paul, and in recent years, jazz singer Paula West. She described playing with Mesterhazy as "the best thing that ever happened to me musically."
"I'm going to miss hearing him create," said West, who plans to release an album on which Mesterhazy played.
In what Watson called "one of the great honors of his life," Mesterhazy accompanied his longtime mentor, jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn, up until her death in 2005. The pair worked on two Grammy-nominated recordings, "Loving You" and "May the Music Never End."
Mesterhazy was not only a musician, but a teacher. He headed the jazz piano program at Rowan University, gave private lessons, and played with friends.
"George was a very expressive person," said New Jersey musician Matt Hayden, one of Mesterhazy's favorite students. "He was very good at painting a picture with his sound."
Al Rinaldi, CEO of Jacob's Music in Philadelphia, played MIDI accordion with Mesterhazy on many occasions, including at a recent company Christmas party. Afterward, Rinaldi said, Mesterhazy called him three for straight days to talk about how wonderful he thought they sounded.
"George woke up my musical soul," Rinaldi said. "He didn't play notes collectively, he played them individually. If he played five notes at a time, it was like five different voices singing."
Rinaldi is a 13-time cancer survivor, and he attributes his success in fighting the disease to Mesterhazy. "I wanted to stay alive to make more music with George," he said.
Mesterhazy is survived by his father, Lajos; and four children, two by his friend Lisa Thieberger.
A ceremony honoring him begins at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Middle Township Performing Arts Center in Cape May Courthouse. The George Mesterhazy Foundation for Music Education, Performance and Preservation is will be established in his name, and donations can be made to the Animal Outreach of Cape May County.