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Winnipeg piano icon was a fixture in NYC, too

Poneira played for stars but kept humble, son says

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There will be no more encores for Jose Poneira.

Poneira, a one-time fixture on the city's nightclub scene, died Saturday at the age of 90 after a brief illness.

Poneira fronted trios and quartets for several decades in Winnipeg and in nightclubs across Canada and the United States.

In Winnipeg, his quartet was popular at the now-defunct Rancho Don Carlos.

Poneira was at the piano for Sunday brunch in the Fort Garry Hotel's Palm Room for 20 years, last playing there for his 90th birthday in February.

"He was an excellent pianist and a wonderful human being," bandleader and pianist Ron Paley said. "He was a musical inspiration to me. We'll miss him."

His son, Richard, said his father was a humble man.

"He was an extremely gracious man who was very grateful for everything he got. He never took anything for granted."

Poneira's star shone brightly on stage but he took a circuitous route to get there. Richard Poneira said his father came from an affluent German family. Jose's father was a doctor and his grandfather on his mother's side was Wilhelm von Humboldt, who founded the Humboldt University of Berlin and is credited with establishing the modern western education system.

The family fled their homeland for Spain in 1934 as National Socialism was taking root. The family operated a ranch in Spain but lost everything during the Spanish Civil War and returned to Germany, only to flee again in 1941, this time for Argentina.

Poneira's wife of 58 years, Gladys, said it was in Argentina where Jose developed his love of Latin music, which would become his signature style.

Richard said his father moved to New York City in 1947, where he became a fixture in the nightclub scene, playing at the famed Waldorf Astoria and the popular Harwin Club, where he met Gladys.

"He knew all the stars and celebrities and moved in that circle," Richard said, adding his father once played at a party for actor Robert Mitchum in 1949, and one of Jose's trios provided the music for the engagement party of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Jose and Gladys came to Winnipeg in 1955 and stayed. "We liked it so much, we stayed and eventually became citizens," Gladys said.

Richard said his father solidified his reputation locally during the 1950s and 1960s, playing regularly at Rancho Don Carlos and getting his own national weekly show on CBC television, A Song For You, from 1962 to 1964, which included guitarist Lenny Breau in Poneira's quartet.

Richard said his father took the family to Toronto and Vancouver in the late 1960s and early '70s, but returned to Winnipeg in 1976.

Even though effectively blind and deaf for the last 10 years of his life, Richard said his father continued to entertain.

"He was a very humble man who worked very hard," Richard said. "His family lost everything, but that never fazed him. He appreciated everything anybody ever did for him."

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2013 A10

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