Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The (continued) Life of a Piano in NYC

A few years ago we acquired an old upright piano given to us for free by a neighbor in our building here in NYC. It was called "The Opera Piano" and while there was not much information to be found on-line I do know that it was built by a company called Peek and Sons in this very neighborhood. It had to have been eighty to a hundred years old. It was missing a wheel and one of the other three was frozen and didn't move. It took every ounce of strength for my neighbor and I to drag it out of his apartment and down the carpeted hallway three feet at a time, then a stop for five minutes just to get our breath. But we were determined. He wanted it out of his apartment. And my fatherly instincts were in high gear as my son needed a piano for his studies, having been making due with a Casio keyboard up to that point. We managed to get it in, my son was thrilled to play it and we were thrilled to have a real piece of New York history in our living room even if it did look as if it had seen (many) better days. It was taller than any upright made today, being what is sometimes referred to as an "upright grand". Given that the strings were longer it had a fuller, more robust tone. The keys were kind of rugged and uneven, each one with it's own individual feel and response. Not a desirable trait. Sometimes it would buzz during the humid weather due to a large crack in the soundboard. On really bad days an ordinary C major triad sounded like it was being filtered through Jimi Hendrix's fuzz box. But thankfully that would only last a day or two then settle back in. It held it's tuning and served us more than admirably for some years. There's nothing like having a piano in the home.

At such time as my son's skills grew and my own needs for the piano increased (as a teaching tool in my improvisation lessons) we faced the need for a new piano. It took us some time to save up and locate a suitable instrument but as luck would have it we found one in a shop just a couple blocks away. We were still attached to our old piano but there was no way to keep two instruments. I wanted to give the old one to someone else in our building just as we had received it. I put up a notice and got some responses. But I was kind of surprised that not everyone finds the same fascination with items of such distinguished and storied character. One family turned it down because it wasn't shiny. No problem though, another fellow decided to take it and I even offered to help him get it up to his apartment. Yea, we could have used a dolly. But again, I was in that kind of tunnel-visioned determination mode. Common sense doesn't always play a large part in these equations. It took us about forty five minutes to get it down my hallway, on the elevator and down his hallway. Only to find that it wouldn't fit in the door. Faced with defeat we dragged it back to the freight elevator. All in all it took one hour of grunting, cursing and sweating not to mention several moments when I thought we'd have to leave it in the hallway and simply give up. I was completely exhausted and almost dizzy from the exertion. I was also very disappointed but there was no way to get it back in my apartment having nearly killed myself in the process thus far. So we left it to the building maintenance team, hoping that perhaps the Salvation Army would take it. I had to go out of town over the weekend and would not be able to make any more headway in finding someone else who might be interested. Overall I was afraid that it might get left on the street to be taken to the dump. And that would be just too sad. And yet upon my return there it was sitting on tenth avenue among various pieces of discarded furniture, mattresses and television sets. I went out and took a couple of pictures as a way of saying goodbye, feeling like I had failed the instrument. After all these many years, and it was to end in such ignominious fashion.

But even in these last moments, late in the evening, the piano still exerted it's charms. Every few minutes people would stop and look at it. As I stood there watching, a gentleman played a few chords of a Christmas carol. I snapped his photo. It was like a people magnet, creating it's own street scene, ten-thirty at night. Every so often a van would stop and someone would get out, peruse the discarded items, take some things and drive off. I'm guessing there's a network of folks who cruise the streets at night for just these kinds of items. I was hopeful one of them might take the piano. A few considered it then realized the difficulties and moved on. People continued to come and go but after most of the stuff had been picked through the piano was left there, sad and forlorn. I figured that was it. I went back inside and occasionally glanced out the window. Soon I noticed two woman had stopped and taken up conversation by the instrument. I just figured they stopped to chat but about a half hour later they were joined by a man and all three were trying mightily to get the piano up on a pair of dollies. Knowing the difficulty of moving this beast I was amazed and yet concerned. But they managed to get it up and rolling down tenth avenue towards forty second street within just a couple of minutes. I had to know where it was going. I couldn't resist going back outside all the while hoping not to see it crashed on the sidewalk. By the time I got out there they were pushing it into another building two blocks away. They must have been just as determined to have it as I had been, maybe even more. I couldn't help but admire them as I imagined a child or younger person being presented with a piano at the holidays. Whatever the outcome, I was feeling redeemed.

The "Opera Piano" was built at a time when there were hundreds of piano manufactures in midtown Manhattan. I couldn't help but think about that history as I watched this hulking centenarian being wheeled precariously through the streets late at night towards yet another home, yet another story. I wonder how many it had already. It was well past the restoration stage and it wasn't going to fetch any money but with some care it should certainly have more years left in it. And now it will. New York City can be an amazing place that way.

Every So Often...

Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and I have been performing in duo for some years now. Our program is completely improvised and I'm continually challenged by the intensity of Sylvie's focus and rewarded by the direction that the music has taken over the years. As a saxophonist, improvising with a pianist can be daunting as perceptions of harmony can sometimes differ or worse yet, lock one into a paradigm not of one's own choosing. That's never been a problem in this project however as Sylvie is able to incorporate harmonic material yet have it function much like the other events in the music, texturally or even episodically. The overall musical development happens spontaneously along structural lines with phrasing taking precedence over thematic development.

In 2008 we recorded "Every So Often" which is available on CD via mail order from my website.

Here's a video taken recently at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam…