For more than a decade, Mike Greensill has been a staple performer in the Napa Valley music scene. His musical career before his arrival in wine country, however, would leave many in awe.
Greensill was brought up in a musical home, raised in a small English village in Gloucestershire named Dursley. His mother was a piano player and his father was a church organist, though Mike claims to have inherited his musical talent from his grandfather, who “was one of those guys who could go to a show, come back home and be able to play all the tunes.”
When Mike was 9 years old, he joined the church choir where he learned to sing and sight-read music. His love for jazz began shortly thereafter as a teenager, when one of his peers at school showed him a Louis Armstrong record. “I was hooked,” Greensill said.
Mikel was inspired to take up the clarinet, which he played in several local jazz bands as a young adult. “I was a bum for a while doing all sorts of things, having a wonderful time, but I was definitely a bum,” he said, chuckling. “Then finally at about age 23 I decided if I was going to do (music) I would have to learn how to do it properly.”
Greensill studied music at University of Leeds in Northern England, graduating in 1972. “It was there that the piano started to take over,” he said. Despite his love for the clarinet, Mike switched his major instrument when he realized he was being offered more work as a piano player. “It was a purely practical thing.
“At the end of college, just before I took the final exams, someone called up and said ‘Would you like to go to Hong Kong for six weeks?’ That seemed much more attractive than taking final exams,” he said with a hearty laugh. “So off I went, and that ended up being four years rather than six weeks.”
Hong Kong is where Greensill claims to have really learned how to play piano, while working as a string orchestral arranger for EMI records. “At one point I decided to be just a piano player, so I rented a little cottage up in the new territories of Hong Kong along with a grand piano and stayed out there for two or three months and just practiced.”
After emerging from his brief hiatus, Greensill got a job playing piano in the Peninsula Hotel bar in Hong Kong. “It’s a very posh place, and it was a great gig.”
Greensill came to the United States in 1977. He settled in San Francisco, where he met his third wife, renowned jazz vocalist Wesla Whitfield. “She came from the classical end of things and I came from the jazz end of things,” Greensill said regarding their partnership. “I think we made a greater whole with all those influences.”
Greensill and Whitfield worked together frequently during the 1980s through the 2000s, producing 22 albums and traveling extensively both nationally and internationally.
“She was my life companion, and obviously that can be difficult because we both worked and lived together… I think that basically worked because we’re both basically loners,” Greensill said. “We were happy to go off in a corner and not see each other. We were both sympatico in music and in life. You know you’ve finally gotten it right when you both laugh at and are annoyed by the same thing.”
While living in San Francisco, he and Whitfield considered their main gig to be at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. “At one point we were playing there six nights a week for three months straight,” Greensill said. They also had their own musical home in San Francisco, a York hotel in the Polk Gulch district called The Plush Room. “We played there five or six nights a week for about 20 years.”
In addition to performance residencies in lavish hotels across the United States, Greensill and Whitfield played in numerous jazz festivals around the world as well as four performances at Carnegie Hall. “I loved it there,” he said. “There are so many friendly ghosts pushing you on.”
Greensill recalled one of his favorite career memories as being when he and Whitfield met record producer Orrin Keepnews. Keepnews was known for his work on Riverside Records and other jazz labels. “Lucky enough he loved the American Songbook and fell in love with Wesla,” Greensill said. “He was an enormous help and influence in Wesla’s life. We felt unbelievably lucky to work with him.”
Keepnews would produce over 80 percent of Greensill’s and Whitfield’s recordings.
After living and working out of San Francisco for two decades, the couple moved to St. Helena in 2006. “It took a lot of nerve to leave San Francisco because that was our home,” Greensill said. “We couldn’t afford to live in St. Helena under normal circumstances, so we lived in the world’s poshest trailer park.”
In 2007, Greensill helped Harry Price, owner of Silo’s and Napa River Inn, open Silo’s Jazz Club in downtown Napa. Greensill performs at Silo’s regularly to this day.
“The thing about Silo’s is it’s a listening room, not a bar that happens to have music,” he said. “It’s a place where people go to see live music, and that’s a thing that we somehow need to keep going.”
On Feb. 9, 2018, Wesla Whitfield passed away in her St. Helena home at age 70. “She was the love of my life,” Greensill said. “I feel very lucky to have had her for 31 years. It was all quite wonderful.”
Greensill’s resolve to continue performing has stayed strong. He went on to play a show at the Blue Note less than a week later on Valentine’s Day. “The show must go on,” he said with determination. “There’s no point in sitting around moping.”
He plans on honoring her memory with a concert within the next year in San Francisco featuring singers who were fans of Whitfield’s as well as Greensill’s trio. The concert will be hosted by the Napa Valley Jazz Society to launch a vocal scholarship in Whitfield’s honor.
Greensill can be found performing locally at Silo’s located at 530 Main St. in downtown Napa every Thursday from 5 until 6:30 p.m. His music, upcoming shows, and more can be found at www.mikegreensill.com.