Late summer, 2012, my wife and I went to Sag Harbor, where we rarely go, with a couple with whom we never spent time, to the American Hotel, where we had never been. As we walked up the stairs to the American Hotel, one of the couple nudged me and said, “that’s Billy Joel.” I walked over to him, apologized for intruding, told him I was the new chair of the Department of Music and thanked him for the Baldwin grand piano he gave the department back in 1993. “Hmm,” he said, “I keep hearing good things about the Music Department at Stony Brook. I might have another piano for you.” He gave me the name of a contact in his office. When I got back to campus, I called Katie Stockhammer, who assists with fund raising for the arts, and joked with her about how easy it is to get donations. “You just shake somebody’s hand, say hello, and they offer you a piano,” I said to her. Ten months and a lot of legwork on Katie’s part later, we had a piano delivered. But not just any piano. It was a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, valued at $250,000. It’s a piano with nine extra keys extending the bass, and it’s so big that it just cleared the Recital Hall’s doors by about an inch and a half on each side.
We are grateful to Billy Joel for his great generosity to the department, which includes in addition to the pianos two significant monetary contributions as well. We are also proud to be associated with an artist of such stature in the world of popular music, especially since the Department of Music at Stony Brook was among the first to recognize the importance of popular music and to include its study in our curriculum, primarily through the work of Peter Winkler. Peter has long been an admirer of Billy Joel’s music, and was the ideal person to write on behalf of an Honorary Doctorate for the artist. In 2013, Peter represented the department in his nomination letter, which read, in part:
“The Department of Music wishes to nominate the singer, songwriter, and pianist Billy Joel for an honorary degree. A native of long Island, he is one of the most successful recording artists in the history of American music, and a songwriter of great talent and originality.
“Billy Joel’s stature in the world of popular music is partly measured by his record of 33 Top 40 hits and sales of over 150 million records worldwide. [In 2013], he was one of the honorees at the Kennedy Center, and has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1992), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1999), and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (2006).
“But what matters about Billy Joel is not so much his fame as his artistry. Trained as a classical pianist, Billy Joel brings to his songwriting a degree of craftsmanship rarely encountered in recent popular music. The elegance and subtlety with which he integrates music and lyrics recalls the work of earlier masters such as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, or Irving Berlin. In recent years, Joel has turned to writing concert music for the piano, exhibiting an understanding of the style that is rare among popular musicians.”
Billy Joel received the honorary degree of Doctor of Music at the hands of President Samuel Stanley at Stony Brook’s 55th commencement ceremony, in the Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. At the ceremony, President Stanley said of Mr. Joel, “Your commitment to your home state is reflected in your countless contributions to New York City and Long Island, including a very generous gift to Stony Brook University of one of your pianos following the loss of ours in a flood—making you truly our Piano Man.”