Friday, August 30, 2013

It's a Much Rougher World without Music

When Liz met me at Omaha's Memorial Park on Saturday evening last week, she marveled at how the people who'd been coming to the park as part of the "Play Me, I'm Yours" street-piano celebration had- up to that point- been respecting the 100-or-so-year-old H.P. Nelson upright at Memorial Park and not subjecting it to vandalism.

I wonder if Liz had a chance to come to Stinson Park at Aksarben Village and had taken a look at its Kranich & Bach "Mirrapiano." 

Well, this past Tuesday, when I got back to Memorial Park that morning, I had the south stairs (site of the H.P. Nelson Upright Concert Grand) to myself and tried out "The Dark End of the Street." (Maybe you heard this 1967 hit for R&B singer James Carr done in the 1991 theatrical movie "The Commitments," about the band of that name.)  

A few songs later, I saw Angie (that's right, the same Angie who, three days earlier, ended up teaching her daughter Lexi how to play "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater" on that same upright piano).

At first, I didn't recognize her...but that changed in a second. It was that, this time, Angie was in her jogging clothes. In fact, Angie told me that she loves to go jogging through Memorial Park, and it's something she does every day. 

Some more songs after that...and I looked back, and found an audience had formed at the top of the steps.

The audience consisted of two students from nearby Brownell-Talbot High School: Mia and her buddy Jessica, both of them doing their homework to the music in the park.

I got up from the piano and walked up the stairs to meet Jessica and Mia; then I found out that both of them had had encounters with the 88s in the past. (Mia had taken lessons...but had forgotten what she'd learned.)

So...I thought of what George told me three days earlier: "Get someone to actually touch a piano key!"  

I invited Mia to actually touch four piano keys- middle C and the E, F, and G next to it.  

Next thing Mia, Jessica, and I knew, Mia recognized that she herself had done the intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In."  

And then Jessica came up to bat...and turned in a bit of an Adele smash, "Someone Like You."

Loved it! (Matter of fact, Jessica's piece will be heading for YouTube. I hope.)

The next person I met up with on that Tuesday, 8-27-2013, was...none other than Jim "The Music Man" Snyder, who's already got some jams on YouTube (including that knockout performance he gave in that very same park five days earlier, during the "PMIY" kickoff).

Man, Jim and I shot the breeze, traded tunes with each other, and in the meantime came two young mothers with two children. (You'll see all five of them together on the same video...soon as I get it up!)

One of the moms has a son named Jeff, who's interested in taking up the ivories...and man, little Jeff just couldn't wait to get his hands on the H.P. Nelson keys.

I needed to get the first names of the remaining members of that foursome listening to Jim Snyder crank up Hank Williams' 1947 winner "Move It on Over." 

Anyway, after I shot footage of Jim S. and of the moms, the little boy, and the little girl in there, the 71-year-old saloon pianist shot footage of me. (I want to turn that into as well.)

By the way...the first thing I did when I got to Memorial Park that day was take the music rack off the old piano. worked for Jo Ann Castle all those years (1959-1969) she did The Lawrence Welk Show!  Worked for Eubie Blake, too. 

I turned in "Chantilly Lace," the signature hit (1958) for J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. And I did it as- you probably guessed it- a rag.  

Jeff's mom and Jim S. had a real good conversation going. (Jeff's mom also plays those keys...and would've sat down to tickle away if she hadn't been pressed for time.) And one of the things the elder Jim said really struck me: "You want to be the performer everybody loves...not the one everybody feels sorry for."

Jim Snyder regarded me as a professional.  

I thought it was the other way around, with him being the pro. The REAL pro. 

Jim was born in Pennsylvania, then he and his parents moved to New Jersey, where Jim's dad worked in a defense plant. 

The dad loved music, too, and played a heck of a piano. He instilled his own love of black dots in little the point where the father, during 1942-43, would hold his infant son by the legs while manipulating those keys.

Not once did he let little Jim fall to the floor.   

Jim grew up to have a son who'd been singing before, dropped out of music, and is now back into it.  

Jim the Music Man also pointed out that music is something you've got in you...period. And it's something we can't really get along without.

Ask Jeff.

By the way, Jeff and Mom took their turn- standing up- on ol' H.P. as Jeff led the way with "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." (YouTube-bound for sure!)

Well, as was the case the previous three times I'd been to Memorial Park (the first three times I'd ever been inside that Omaha landmark in my life), this fourth time truly was a charm. And I'm fired up about heading to Council Bluffs, IA this Saturday to try out the Bayliss Park piano. 

And yes...when I got done, I put the music rack back on the Memorial Park piano.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Well, this morning, as I promised I would, I made it out to Stinson Park at Aksarben Village here in Omaha.

I was fired up, pumped up, ready to play just the second "Play Me, I'm Yours" piano I intended to encounter.

Took a while, but I found Stinson's Kranich & Bach "Mirrapiano," which, according to the latest from, had been redecorated and retuned. 

I arrived at the park at 9:38 AM (Central time).

Tried out the keys to make sure they worked...only to find...only most of the lower-register keys and about one-third of the remaining keys made a sound.

I didn't know Goliath was still very much alive, had moved from Israel to the United States, settled in this country's 43rd largest city (not counting the suburbs...remember?), and had taken up the best-known musical instrument there is.

Well, the Omaha Creative Institute's chief, Susan Thomas, did say that not all ten of the Omaha Metro's "Play Me" pianos were expected to survive the event. 

Still, it would've been nice to do all the things I'd like to do on that K&B "Mirrapiano." One cool thing about Robert Cook's reincarnation of that piano is that, with the chalk provided, you can put your name (if there's room) or your initials on the soundboard.

Well...around 10:08 AM, I arrived at my safety valve: Memorial Park.

Anyway...the Stinson Park experience has led to an important new strategy for me: If I find that any of the next pianos end up like Stinson's did, I'll go back to Memorial Park. And I'll email people to let them know about it.

And another thing about coming to Stinson Park at Aksarben Village: I was able to, for the first time in my life, shoot videos. (I'm lucky they turned out fine, and it won't be long before I get to upload them to YouTube.)

When I come back, I'll let you know what happened when I tried to make the fourth time at Memorial Park a charm, too.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Artist and the Storyteller and the Audience

Right after attending the 5:00 PM Saturday service at the church I belong to (it's got four others on Sunday as well as a Wednesday mid-month service), I went right back to Omaha's Memorial participate in a storytelling session conducted by one of the best storytellers around, none other than Rita Paskowitz. 

In fact, I arrived at the park at 6:30 PM...because I thought it foolish to turn around and go home after church, only to have to come back to the park right afterwards. 

When I got back to Memorial Park, a bunch of teenagers- mostly from area high schools like Creighton Prep, Marian, and Mount Michael- brought the park's south stairs back to life with their presence.

The first teenager to greet me was a girl named Liz...and I was floored that she recognized me and called me by my name. was cool. 

Eventually, Liz wanted to know if I played the piano.

After I told Liz and her friends "Yes," I went right to the park's H.P. Nelson upright and tried to think of something today's high-school-age students might like.

One of these days, I'm going to up and learn some of Rihanna's, Katy Perry's, Bruno Mars', Maroon 5's, Lady Gaga's, and Nicky Minaj's stuff...among that by other acts. (I really do like some of today's hits...especially Bruno's latest one, "Treasure.")

Right now, the most recent cut I can play (and get away with it) is..."Purple Rain."

So I served up that 1984 Prince monster.

Well...they thought it was cool.  

After that, I dipped into my 1950s-1960s-1970s vault and ragged up as many hits from those three decades as I could do in about a half hour. (And during that half hour, Rita made it to Memorial Park...along with "PMIY's" Sally Reay and Natalie Shaw, the development coordinator for the Omaha Creative Institute.)

One thing I'm trying to take from the "Play Me, I'm Yours" experience is: "You've got to know your audience!" That's why I started out with Prince instead of Scott Joplin...almost 24 hours after launching my Sweatshop Gallery session with a blues rather than a rag. (At Sweatshop, I was playing for people who could've been Liz' older siblings.)  

Speaking of Liz...sometime during the half hour, the other students encouraged her to try out the ol' upright. 

Well, she did.

And it was cool.

Then, at 7:05 PM, it was storytelling time...and we got a chance to hear a classical piece by Lori Elliott-Bartle, the very artist who painted the very H.P. Nelson upright she was playing. (I thought Lori did a nice, nice job at the 88s.)

Rita introduced Lori to the audience, and afterwards, Lori talked about just how she came to turning what had been a plain old 1910s upright into a "Garden Party" piano. 

This set the stage for Rita to encourage those of us in the audience to share our experiences with trying to learn to play the piano...or wanting to learn the ivories, but not getting parental (or any other kind of) support...or in the case of one participant, having to choose playing the piano or playing softball as a teenager.

Some of the storytelling session's participants were in elementary school...and Rita encouraged those who wanted to show their piano skills to do just that. 

As a result, we got to hear from youngsters such as Jack,
and Lorenzo. (Lorenzo's tune even made it to

The next portion of the session saw Rita seek our stories about what it's like to come to Memorial Park, the site of an annual Independence Day concert featuring the rock acts the Katy Perrys and Bruno Marses learned their craft from.

Rita's own story came from one of her experiences as a student at the U of Nebraska at Omaha. This was during a 1970s Vietnam War protest at that very park...and it culminated in the only time Rita came face to face with a gun pointed in her direction.

It was a police officer's gun.

And it WASN'T cool.

A cool experience about a park I set foot in for the first time in my life only because of "Play Me" came from the woman on my left, Hannah...who participated in tai chi sessions at Memorial until recently. 

Hannah talked about how tai chi demands so much discipline that you can't even swat at a fly if it comes your way. You've got to keep your eyes on the prize.

In a word: Perseverance.  

Next, Rita asked each of us for a word that describes "Play Me, I'm Yours." (The word "fun" won out.)

The fun multiplied when Rita had those "pianophobic" adults in the crowd come up in hit one note the same time. (A third quintet got to hit two notes the same time.)

Lori went back to the piano to cap off the session by delivering "Maple Leaf Rag."

Thought that was cool. 

Lots more cool stuff took place afterwards, including a succession of pianists trying out ol' H.P. 

One of them was a cyclist who proved that you CAN play "Heart and Soul" by yourself.
Another was a birthday girl, Emily...who one-fingered the intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In." (And that was only because I learned the lesson George taught me that afternoon: "Get someone to actually touch a piano key!")

Lori's hubby John got into the act with a one-handed "Oh Susanna."
A teenage girl knocked out the intro to Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in G Minor," one of the coolest classical pieces ever written. (Well, I like to think so!)

A little girl named Amelia, a grown man named Grady (he and his wife Kathleen brought their German Shepherds with them), and I delivered some ragtime. (But I was the only one of the threesome who didn't tackle "The Entertainer." That's going to be later this fortnight.)

Matter of fact, with his version of "The Entertainer," Grady hit the last note of the night.

I came out of Memorial Park with some great memories, some new buddies (well, I like to think so!), and...I'm fired up and ready to go!

Ready to go to Stinson Park, that is.  

And that's way cool.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"Hey, Memorial Park...I'm BAACK!"

If "Play Me, I'm Yours" hadn't arrived here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area, I'd have never had a real chance to set foot in Memorial Park. 

Thus far, I've had a chance to not only get some playing in, but also to hear so many other people- of one skill level or another- play those keys.

Yesterday morning, I went back to the same site where "PMIY" was locally launched...and I hooked back up with Steven Raphael and J.D. Mossberg.  

The 33-year-old J.D. was already playing when I actually arrived at 9:30 AM (Central time). And at that moment, joggers would periodically run through the park. 

And J.D. and I would start to trade tunes until Steven came back to Memorial Park.     
                                   Steven brought a friend along this time: George, a veteran of Iowa's Old-Time Country, Bluegrass, and Folk Music Festival and Contest (that event's new title). 

George and I had a chance to reminisce about the event that Bob and Sheila Everhart put on at this time every year (matter of fact, this year's version starts tomorrow at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds in Le Mars, IA, the festival's home since 2008)...and about two of its best-known performers.

Pat Boilesen- another Old-Time Country Festival veteran (she's from Albion, NE)- would really love "Play Me, I'm Yours." She and another longtime OTCF performer, Sarah Davison (out of Braddyville, IA; she's now the leader of the country band High Road- and she'd love "PMIY," too), won plenty of ragtime piano contests at Bob's and Sheila's shindig during the 1990s and 2000s.  

Well, George gave me a couple of teachable moments yesterday: First of all, he really enjoyed Pat's version of "Red Wing," and he wanted to know if I could play it.

I tried.

I couldn't.

At least I couldn't do "Red Wing" the way people recognize it.

So he showed me how he heard the Kerry Mills piece...and a light went on in my head.

And I figured: "'Red Wing' starts out in a way like 'American Patrol.' As long as I work off that, I'll be fine."  

I tried it again...and got through "Red Wing" in better shape.

George's other teachable moment came because I missed out on a chance to have Lori (and her husband Tim) actually touch a piano of the very reasons Luke Jerram invented the whole operation.

The BIGGEST reason for "Play Me," of course, is to get people interacting.   

And some really powerful interactions happened during the time George, Steven, and I hung out together at Memorial Park.
Scott, Michelle, and their son Patrick stopped by to check out the roughly 100-year-old H.P. Nelson upright. (The threesome had already been to a few other "Play Me" installations in the Omaha Metro.)

Patrick (above) masterfully played a classical number, and then Michelle (top) did the theme from "Terms of Endearment."   

Lexi wanted to take piano lessons...but her mom, Angie, kept putting the kibosh to that. 

But then, Angie sat down at ol' H.P. (top) to play the one song she knew: "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater." 

Next thing we knew, Angie (above) was teaching Lexi to play the tune. 

And Lexi was nailing it. (In fact, she gave "Peter, Peter" her own kind of beat.)  

Larae (a one-time teacher) got her daughter Shauna (man, I hope I'm spelling these names right!) to duet with her in a bit of improvisation.

Before that, Larae was strictly a solo act...and a darned good one.

Well, that wasn't all...and when I come back, I'll show you what happened that night...when a storyteller came to the park.


During this past Friday's kickoff event for the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area's exhibition of the "Play Me, I'm Yours" painted-piano project, local artist Kim Reid Kuhn approached me about playing the keys during an exhibition she and fellow artist Steven Walsh were going to put on that evening at their place of business, Sweatshop Gallery (2727 N. 62nd St., 68104).

Steven and Kim painted up their own old upright (or maybe it was one donated to them).

One thing's for sure: Sweatshop Gallery wasn't on the list of "Play Me" piano sites.

And that's why Omaha Creative Institute executive director Susan Thomas laughingly labeled it a "rogue" of several on display here in the area while "PMIY" continues (through 9-8-2013). 7:11 PM (Central time), I came out to the gallery (in Omaha's Benson neighborhood) to play...and I found a really cool 1916 Bush & Gerts upright.

And I stayed and played it for two hours...and on top of that, I had just as much fun that night as I had that morning and early afternoon at Memorial Park.

The people who passed by liked the music (well, most of them did)...and I even received some tip money.

Well, anyway, the music ran the gamut from an early rag called "Tickled to Death" to a blues called "That's All Right" to Prince's "Purple Rain."

Kim, Steven, and Co. liked it so much that they invited me to come back and play on 9-6-2013.

So...look out, Bush & Gerts!  

Friday, August 23, 2013

One Down...and Nine to Go

Well, it's here!

In arrived two days ahead of schedule. (If you're a regular of YouTube and you've been following the world's street-piano scene, you've probably seen videos of it already.)

I'm talking about the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area serving as the world's 34th metro area to host that international phenomenon, Luke Jerram's "Play Me, I'm Yours."

Yesterday, the ten street pianos set up for the Omaha Metro were installed in as many public places.

And those passersby watching crews from Omaha's Transfer 88 just as quickly got their fingers on those keys once the pianos were anchored into place.

This morning, the Omaha Creative Institute and the "Play Me, I'm Yours" organization got together to host a community event that served as the official kickoff for the local exhibition of "PMIY." This kickoff event took place at Memorial Park, the landmark on the other side of the main campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of work goes into every "Play Me" project...and OCI executive director Susan Thomas thanked a planeload of people, especially her fellow OCI staff members, the "Play Me" crew (represented by Sally Reay, AKA "Sally Street Piano"), the local government officials who okayed the project, those whose financial contributions helped bring the project to America's 58th-ranked metropolitan area, and the artists who decorated the seven older uprights (including the one pictured; it's right there at Memorial Park), two spinets, and the lone studio piano.

And then...the music began. (Oops...I mean it resumed.)  

The first pianists to get a crack at the park's century-old H.P. Nelson upright- during today's community event, that is- were students and instructors from the Omaha Conservatory of Music. (One memorable duet- by Anne Madison and Yulia Kalishnikova, and I hope I've got their names right- made in onto

Omaha City Councilmember Pete Festersen got into the act; he sat down and played a little bit of that Mannheim Steamroller favorite, "Fresh Aire."

Next, five members of the Omaha-based Ballet Nebraska danced around the old upright while one of the accompanists for the troupe played. (Check that out on, too!)

The good-sized crowd also heard from a local legend, a saloon pianist named Jim Snyder. And his infectious brand of boogie-woogie playing made it onto- you guessed it-

I got a chance to go up following Jim. [ ragtime version of "Do Re Mi" (from "The Sound of Music," not the one from Lee Dorsey) didn't make it to YouTube at this writing. But I still had lots of fun.] 

Basically, after that, Jim, a young pianist named J.D. Mossberg, two teenage girls and their younger brother, and I traded turns at the piano.

Also, I met back up with another local ivory tickler, the California-born Steven Raphael. (I hadn't seen Steven since the early 2000s, about the time he had a show on public-access TV right here in America's 43rd largest city...not counting the suburbs.)

Man, Steven and I had a good, good conversation as we talked about old times and caught up with each other.  

Steven sent me an email last year about pursuing help from the "PMIY" folks rather than setting up a local street-piano exhibition Denver style.

He knew the right route to making Omaha and Bellevue just the second and third sizable Nebraska cities (after Kearney) to put at least one piano out there in a street for passersby to play. 

By the Denver, you can find a dozen spinets and older uprights lining the Mile High City's 16th Street Mall. And they're out there much of the year- a real departure from the way Luke, Sally, and Co. do things.

Still, for us here in Karrin Allyson's and Buddy Miles' birth city, the way Luke, Sally, and Co. do things is better than nothing at all. Way better.

Having a ball during the early going of the Omaha Metro's "Play Me, I'm Yours," and I'm looking forward to coming back to Memorial Park tomorrow morning to not only get some playing in...but also to listen to other pianists of one skill level or another. [And I'll also be back tomorrow night to listen to- and share- stories about each other's musical journeys (and stories about Memorial Park).] 

Here's the rest of my schedule:

8-27-2013: Aksarben Village's Stinson Park, 9:00-11:00 AM
8-31-2013: Bayliss Park, Council Bluffs, IA, 9:00 AM-12:00 Noon
9-1-2013: ConAgra Plaza, 1:00-3:00 PM; Lewis and Clark Landing, 4:00-6:00 PM
9-2-2013: Tree of Life Sculpture, 9:00-11:00 AM; Fontenelle Forest, Bellevue, NE, 1:00-3:00 PM
9-3-2013: Rockbrook Village Shopping Center, 9:00-11:00 AM
9-7-2013: Village Pointe Shopping Center, 1:00-4:00 PM (alternate date: 9-8-2013, 4:00-6:00 PM)
9-8-2013: Florence Park, 1:00-3:00 PM

If you live here in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue area (or are visiting), check out our "Play Me" street pianos. And if you'd like to learn more about Luke Jerram's claim to fame, just visit And if you'd like to see what we're doing in the River City and environs, log on to  

I'm Jim Boston, and thanks for reading this blog!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Extraordinary Talent...and Then Some

I belong to another music-oriented club besides the Great Plains Ragtime Society. In fact, I've been in this additional organization since 1984...the year it celebrated its first birthday.

It's the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society, the River City Theatre Organ Society.

Yesterday afternoon, RCTOS put on the 2013 edition of its annual fundraiser. Every year at this time, the club holds a concert at Omaha's Rose Theater, the one-time movie house (originally called the Paramount Theater; later the Astro) whose official current title is the Rose Blumkin Center for the Performing Arts. 

The place was packed.

And the talent was packed, too!

The theater's got a 3-manual, 21-rank Wurlitzer theater pipe organ that was built in 1927...and, currently, it's the only concert-ready theater organ in the Iowa-Nebraska-South Dakota area. 

Getting back to the talent being packed...this year's featured organist was Walt Strony, the Illinoisan-turned-Californian who was voted ATOS' Organist of the Year not once, but both 1991 and 1993.

Right from the first chords of his opener ("On the Sunny Side of the Street"), he showed the crowd just why. 

And when Walt followed that up with a medley from "My Fair Lady" and then his version of Mario Lanza's 1950 smash, "Be My Love," the Rose audience was in for one heck of a ride. 

Three selections later, Walt cued a silent movie, "Two Tars." (The two tars were none other than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.)

Walt isn't just great. He's G-R-R-R-E-A-T!!

He and his unique style hit the theater-organ circuit in 1974 (at a time when Walt was 18) a time when RCTOS' 2008 featured organist, Donna Parker, was in her teens as well (and playing the organ at Los Angeles Dodgers games).   

After the showing of a movie that still proves to be some kind of funny, it was intermission time.

And after Walt came back out and fired up another number, the Pathfinders (a barbershop chorus group from Fremont, NE) took to the Rose Theater stage.

Last year, when Rob Richards played the Rose Wurlitzer, the Pathfinders turned out the concert with their movin', groovin' brand of a cappella singing...and proved to be so great that RCTOS invited them to come back for 2013.

The Pathfinders opened with a song called "Harmony" to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the International Barbershop Harmony Society...then brought back a tune they did in 2012, the 1967 hit "Lazy Day." ("Lazy Day" was how Spanky and Our Gang followed up their debut hit, "Sunday Will Never Be the Same.")

Fremont's Number One plus factor (well, I like to think so!) does the old, old ones, "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi."

One of the Pathfinders used to run RCTOS. His name is Greg Johnson, and he's no slouch as an organist, either.

Greg's successor as the club's president is no slouch, either. His name is Bob Markworth...who'd just been named ATOS Member of the Year for 2013. (Bob and his wife Joyce own a 1927 Kimball 3-manual, 24-rank theater pipe organ, the instrument locally known as "The Beast in the Basement.")  

Because of Greg, Bob, Joyce, and Jerry Pawlak (he's the club's secretary-treasurer), RCTOS membership grew exponentially throughout this early going of this 21st Century. 

The club now has 162 members. And you can't beat that with a stick!

Well, after the barbershoppers showed how "The Joint Is Jumpin'," Walt came back out to join them.

After Walt got the show (this year's show was titled "Let's Take a Musical Stroll") going, he talked about how some people ask him to play rock songs during his theater-organ concerts. 

Walt's answer is: "Forget it. You need a melody."

Guess what Walt Strony and the Pathfinders teamed up to do?

They  worked out "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

By the Beatles.  

Oh, by the way...the 'Finders (formed in 1972, the year before Donna started playing at Dodger Stadium and two years prior to Walt's first theater-organ concert) recently did their thing at the IBHS competition in Toronto, ON, Canada...and ended up winning tenth place.

That's right: The Pathfinder Chorus is one of the WORLD'S ten best barbershop choruses.

No slouches are they.

Then Walt ran the concert's anchor leg by himself, closing it all out with a patriotic medley that featured the theme song from each of America's five military branches. (He invited veterans to stand up; veterans from four of the nation's five branches did just that...with only the Coast Guard lacking representation at yesterday's show.)

The medley continued with "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and closed out (the concert did, too) with what some people feel should replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as our national anthem: "God Bless America."  

Can't wait 'til next see who's going to make the joint (ahem, the Rose Theater) jump. 

How about you?