Sunday, September 1, 2013

"Play Me, I'm Yours" Comes to Iowa, Too

While "Play Me, I'm Yours" turned Omaha and Bellevue into the second and third Nebraska cities to ever host at least one street piano (Kearney took the lead in 2010 when the owners of the city's Tru Cafe and Evo Salon stuck an old upright in front of their restaurant and invited passersby to play), something else happened.

When a 1900-1905 Epworth Upright Concert Grand (built by the Chicago piano maker Williams & Sons) got placed in Bayliss Park at the same time as Bellevue's and Omaha's "Play Me" pianos, Council Bluffs became just the second Iowa municipality to ever set a street piano in a public place.

Sorry...but the first one wasn't Des Moines.

Well, Council Bluffs (the city that gave us jazz greats Art and Addison Farmer) became the third stop on my own "Play Me" tour, and I got to Bayliss Park around 9:35 AM yesterday.

And at that time, a man named Victor was playing that Epworth upright.

Victor's own brand of jazz piano captivated the people who were passing through Bayliss well as those who came to sit a spell to listen.

I found out that Victor's a New Jerseyite-turned-Iowan, and he's been playing professionally since 1961 (the year he turned 18). Back in the Garden State, he'd spent 25 years playing in bands that mainly performed in New York City's Jersey suburbs...such as Bayonne.  

He moved to the Hawkeye State in 2003 and now plays for his church. 

I don't know what time Victor arrived in the park (didn't ask him), but I do know this: He was still going strong by 11:45 AM. 

Some of his tunes included "The Man I Love," "One-Note Samba," "Tico Tico," and a jazzy version of "Minute Waltz." (That's right, that "Minute Waltz.")

During that first hour at Bayliss, I got in a couple of solo efforts [a 1953 Fats Domino hit called "Goin' to the River" and, before that, a ragtime version of "A Hard Day's Night" (that's right, that "A Hard Day's Night")].

In between the personal solos, I joined in on Victor's version of "Somewhere, My Love."  

I got a schooling.

To be honest, I rushed this version of "A Hard Day's Night," an effort that worked out much better the previous month at the Ragtime to Riches Festival in Omaha. And I tried to anticipate Victor's next moves during fellow movie theme "Somewhere, My Love."

Victor's main message to me, as a result, was: "Jim...slow down!"

I went ahead and reworked "Goin' to the River" to incorporate Victor's advice- once with him still at the park and the other after he left to go home.

Some of the other contestants I've played alongside at Illinois' World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival have said that slowing the music down is a way to learn it more efficiently (and a way to get audiences on your side).

It works.

So, after starting to feel flustered about trying to keep the same pace as a man who's got 52 years of professional playing experience on his side, I started to remember that, for me, every musical experience is a learning one.

And it was a reminder that, in "PMIY," every skill level is welcome when it comes to tackling (or tickling) the ivories. Period.

So...after Victor left, I spent another 90 minutes at Bayliss Park. And I did most of the playing...but definitely NOT all of it.

I wanted to share the seat of one of the most innovative piano reincarnations in "Play Me" history with some other park visitors. 

Marcia Joffe-Bouska partnered up with the Council Bluffs Public Art Commission to pretty up Bayliss Park's piano; the result made the instrument look more like a tree...a tree you can paint on on one side and/or draw on on the other side. And in the middle of the music rack, Marcia and Co. placed a mirror.

With so much going on in the redesign of that Epworth upright, no wonder it's one of the most popular pianos in the Omaha/Council Bluffs/Bellevue leg of the 2013 "Play Me, I'm Yours" tour.

And as morning became afternoon, Jessica and her son Landon stopped by to hear what was being played...and Landon just couldn't wait to get not to the upright's keys, its hammers. (Sometime when Victor was still at the park, I removed the music rack to expose the piano's hammers.)

Harrison brought his daughter Lily to Bayliss Park, and I found out he'd played tuba and trombone (among other instruments) in high school, where he was in the marching band.

Piano was another, I showed Harrison the C-E-F-G trick. (It worked.) 

Jim, his wife Kim, and their sons Garrett (he plays the viola) and Tyler (he doesn't) came by to experience "Play Me." Of the four family members, only Garrett wanted to give the C-E-F-G trick a try.

Garrett's right arm was in a sling (not just any sling- a sling featuring green and gold, the Green Bay Packers' colors), so he ended up doing the demonstration with his left arm. And it worked out, too...even if I found myself fighting to keep from making it the C-D-E-F-G trick.

A man named Kelly's been making the "Play Me" rounds during this two-week period. His biggest goal, besides seeing all ten local pianos, his mountain bike on each piano's keys.


Speaking of local...Cedar Rapids isn't credited with being the first city in America's 29th state to boast a street-piano scene. 

Ended up getting interviewed Jaci Pettie (with her cell phone) and by the Omaha World-Herald's Rick Ruggles (who brought his notepad, which featured notes he'd taken in shorthand).

Both were colorful and fun! I don't know where Jaci's interview will end up, but Rick's interview made the Sunday edition of the Omaha paper. (It's on Page 1 of the Midlands section...and is all about the heat we've been facing around here.)

Speaking of around here...the first city in Iowa to place a street piano in a public spot wasn't Davenport. And it wasn't Sioux City, either.

Well, Rick took several photos of me playing "Hello Ma Baby," the 1899 Ida Emerson-Joe Howard tune that Michigan J. Frog (one of Warner Bros.' secondary cartoon characters) took to in the middle 1950s.

After Rick's interview, a young woman named Jordan (I hope I'm getting her first name right...after all, it could be Jordyn) came over to tickle the Epworth's ivories. And because she came armed with sheet music, that was my signal to wrestle the music rack back onto the piano.  

With her mom turning the pages, Jordan (or Jordyn) played a tune whose name escapes me...but I caught the song on video, and I hope to have that (along with Victor's rendition of "The Man I Love") up on soon.

Then it was Craig Griffis' turn to play the tree...oops, I mean Bayliss piano.

Just as Jaci made it into the Omaha World-Herald article, Craig did, too. He'd been listening all this time to me and Jordan/Jordyn; meanwhile, Craig's own little daughter (why didn't I get her name, too, or that of Jordan's mother?) went swimming and/or playing under the Bayliss Park fountain. 

Craig recognized me from when I was able to go to the National Old-Time Country, Bluegrass, and Folk Music Festival and Contest when it was held in Avoca, IA...its home from 1982 to 2002. (The event now takes place in Le Mars, IA, its home since 2008; before that, Missouri Valley, IA was the festival site.) 

And I recognized what Craig was playing: "Crazy," the Willie Nelson number made famous in 1961 by Patsy Cline. 

Craig told me that he only knows chords...but to me, he had "Crazy" down.

In between a couple of Craig's takes, his daughter came away from the water to sit down at ol' Epworth to noodle around on its keys.

Then, to the tune of one more rendition of "Crazy," I headed off to Omaha.

Man, through all the heat and all the efforts to fight sweat off my brow, I still had a great time in the Bluffs...a wonderful time. 

And I was looking forward to Sunday, when I'd set out to tackle Omaha's downtown "Play Me, I'm Yours" contributions.  

Speaking of contributions...Iowa City introduced street pianos to the Hawkeye State when, in 2010, some business leaders there placed a couple of spinets downtown.

I'm Jim Boston...thanks for reading "Boston's Blog!"

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