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Byron Janis, City Native, Piano Virtuoso, Dies at 95

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
March 18, 2024
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Maria Cooper Janis and Byron Janis. (Photo courtesy the Janis family, via Facebook)

Byron Janis, a child prodigy from McKeesport who rose from poverty to become one of the most celebrated concert pianists of his generation, died Thursday in New York City. He was 95.

His death was announced over the weekend by his wife of 58 years, Maria, who called it “a loss to me and the world.”

“Byron understood that music has many powers, including that of bridging barriers that seem insurmountable, and in today’s fractured world, let us remember and practice this to honor his legacy,” she wrote.

Born March 28, 1928, in McKeesport, Janis was the son of Russian immigrant Hattie Horelick and Polish immigrant Samuel Yankilevitch, who owned a chain of Army and Navy surplus stores.

“Then the Depression came, and he lost every store, except one in Pittsburgh — that was the only thing we had left — so we were forced to leave McKeesport,” Janis told Tube City Almanac in a 2016 interview. The family moved to Tilbury Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section.

Janis' musical talent was discovered in kindergarten, when a teacher was playing the piano and Janis began following along, perfectly, on a toy xylophone.

“She pulled me up in her seat and said, ‘Do you think you could do that on the piano?’” Janis remembered in 2016. “I said, I don’t know. But then I did it.”

Janis said the teacher pinned a note to his shirt to show to his parents. “I was pretty frightened,” he said. “I didn’t know what I had done wrong. Anyway, it was cleared up when they came to my house.”

Teachers told Janis’ parents that their 5-year-old son had “perfect pitch” and that he should study piano.

Janis began lessons in Pittsburgh; then, at age 8, Janis, his mother, Hattie, and a sister moved to New York so that he could further his education. By age 9, when reporters noted that his feet barely reached the pedals on the piano, Janis was studying with Ukraine-born virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz.

In 1948, Janis was already an accomplished performer, having been heard on national radio broadcasts with the NBC Orchestra. That year, he returned home to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in what the Pittsburgh Press described as an “artistic triumph” that “won ovations.”

In 1960, at the height of diplomatic tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, the Eisenhower Administration asked Janis to undertake a concert tour behind the Iron Curtain, representing America.

Janis’ first performance, he recalled to the Almanac, was only five months after an American U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. When he walked on stage, he said, the audience was silent at first, until some people began shouting, “U-2! U-2!”

“It was nerve-wracking ... very antagonistic,” Janis remembered, but he decided to go ahead with the concert and see if he could win them over with music.

“By the intermission, I felt the music was doing what music is supposed to do, which was move the public,” Janis said. “Some of them came to the edge of the stage and were weeping. And I thought, ‘I know why they’re weeping. Because truly, I was the enemy. I was an American enemy. And they found out that I was a human being through my music.”

Janis’ performing career slowed in the early 1970s when he developed severe psoriatic arthritis in both of his hands and wrists.

In 1985, Janis went public with his arthritis and was named a National Ambassador to the Arts for the Arthritis Foundation, and in 1996, he resumed recording classical music for record labels that included RCA, Mercury and EMI. He also continued teaching piano.

In 1999, Janis, who performed in Cuba before the Communist revolution, was invited to return to the country to play two concerts and teach several students. He had last played in the country on the day before Fidel Castro came to power.

According to news accounts at the time, Janis was believed to be the first American musician who had been invited to return to Cuba and perform in public since the revolution.

He told Tube City Almanac that both conventional Western medicine as well as acupuncture had helped him tremendously.

“I don’t play concerts any more, because the arthritis has gotten worse, and my hands have lost some of their extension,” Janis said in 2016.

A lifelong baseball fan, Janis was invited to throw out the first pitch at a May 2016 Pirates game. (Screenshot courtesy Pittsburgh Pirates/MLB.com)

Despite moving away from the area, Janis remained a devoted fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 2016 was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Pirates’ game at PNC Park.

“That was a big thrill for me, and I didn’t realize actually how much it meant to do that,” Janis told the Almanac. “It was a much bigger reaction than at a concert, even.”

He performed at the White House six times, for four presidents. Along with his wife, a painter who was the daughter of actor Gary Cooper, Janis also developed an interest in the paranormal. In 2010, they released a book about their lives together, “Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal,” which was reportedly optioned for a movie by Martin Scorsese.

Janis is survived by his wife, Maria Cooper Janis. A son, Stefan Janis, from his first marriage, predeceased him in 2017.

Funeral arrangements were not public.

Originally published March 18, 2024.

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