Play Me, I'm Yours

This note comes to you too late to do anything about it, but it may work as a thank-you note or a review.

If you live in New York, you know this, but for the rest of you, I'll tell you that for the past two weeks, a profound musical and social experiment took place in the city. The British artist Luke Jerram acquired 60 donated pianos, and from Monday, June 21, until July 5, 2010, he arranged for them to be placed in public spaces around the five boroughs, to be made available to anyone to play. The project was called "Play Me I'm Yours," and the idea was as beautiful as it was simple.

So for the past two weeks, I, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, have been on an outdoor piano-playing expedition, and I have enjoyed listening as much as I have enjoyed playing.

Some of the best experiences come from watching and listening to people who can hardly play at all. In McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a spinet piano painted yellow, in a sort of taxicab theme, was parked under a streetlamp in the southwest corner of the park. One night last week, an older Polish guy was sitting at the piano, playing two notes with his left hand and doing little chromatic steps in his right hand. He didn't quite know what he was doing, but the sound was sincere and appealing. And he was so into it, he had no idea that anyone was watching him.

After a while, two young guys came along and asked if they could play. One guy sat down and played a Chopin etude, and the older guy was positively transported, humming along and conducting with his hand.

Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good, but the whole event is so democratic that to judge anybody's playing in a negative way would just be mean-spirited. The worst you can say about someone is that they went over their suggested 10-minute time limit.

At City Hall Park, a chubby Asian kid, about 12 or 13 years old, was playing the exercises he had just learned at that week's piano lesson, and he was pretty good. His younger sister, who was about 7, was dancing around and trying to get his attention. She said to me, "That's my brother." I said, "Wow," and I meant it.

What I've learned from watching and listening is that what matters most are rhythm and a singing quality to the melody. All the fancy chords in the world won't help you if your rhythm is off. Some young kids sound better than the adults who know a lot more chords.

Late last Friday night, I was walking through McCarren Park, and no one was near the yellow piano, so I sat down and played some bluesy ragtime stuff, just making it up as I went along. An intense young woman in her early 20s came by, and I asked her if she wanted a turn. She played a few simple chords and sang a dirge-like original tune. She said she was more of a songwriter than a pianist. Then she said, "Play what you were just playing, and I'll sing." So I went back to my rootie-tootie in F major, playing a sort of stride bass, and she extemporized some lyrics about going back to Kentucky, or whatever. It wasn't great art, but it was fun, and it wouldn't have happened if not for "Play Me, I'm Yours."

The next day, Saturday, while on my way to the farmer's market, I walked past that same piano, and in 10 minutes I was playing a four-handed tango-like tune with a guy who was visiting from Argentina. A little while later, a group of four people arrived with a video camera on a tripod, plus a guitar, and they made a little music video around the piano. It was goofy but well-rehearsed.

Last Thursday, on a lunch hour in Lower Manhattan, I went to check out the piano at Battery Park, near Castle Clinton. It was a nice old upright in decent shape and in decent tune. A woman was playing "Let It Be." For some reason, you hear a lot of people play "Let It Be."

When she was done, I sat down and, to stay on the Beatles theme, played "Here, There and Everywhere," then stood up to go back to work. A middle-aged woman came over and pointed to her two friends and said they all enjoyed it. I hadn't noticed that they were there. Is it OK if I say that that made my day?

On Sunday, July 4, the next-to-last day of "Play Me, I'm Yours," Amy L. Anderson and I went on a piano expedition in the East Village.

At the piano at St. Marks-on-the-Bowery, a guy with salt-and-pepper hair sat down to impress the woman he was with. He played some jazzy chords while ogling her. His rhythm was terrible, and he was really banging on those keys. But if a little showboating helped him with his date, more power to him.

I sat down and played "Big Butter and Egg Man" in honor of Louis Armstrong, who would have turned 110 that day. To play piano outdoors while the traffic was whizzing by on Second Avenue was a nice feeling. Hundreds of people walked by as though seeing somebody play piano was the most natural thing in the world. And maybe it is.

At Astor Place, near the subway station, was a spinet piano painted in psychedelic colors. A guy was singing and playing "Let It Be." What is it about "Let It Be" that so many people play it? Maybe because it's in the key of C. Anyway, he was really stretching out "Let It Be" into many, many choruses, and it was clear that this guy was not going to give up his turn for anybody. So I had to ask him if I could play. Part of this social experiment is that sometimes you actually have to deal with other people.

That piano, as I said, was painted psychedelic, and the hippie coffee truck was parked nearby, so I played Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women."

The "Let It Be" guy said, "I feel stoned just listening to you."

You're welcome.

From there, Amy and I walked down Essex Street, where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown. In Seward Park was the best of the outdoor pianos that I had seen. The paint job on it was pretty sloppy, but the piano sounded good and had good tuning and good action, and only a few keys were out of commission. Maybe I was feeling patriotic on July 4, because I ended up doing a medley of "There's No Place Like Home," "Home on the Range," "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America." Some little kids were splashing around in the sprinkler, so I busted into some "Old McDonald." Kids always go for "Old McDonald."

Anyway, those are just a few random experiences, and thousands of other people had thousands of other experiences with the "Play Me, I'm Yours" pianos. Many people were surprised to hear that the pianos were going to be removed. "They should be out here all summer."

So thanks and hats off to Luke Jerram, who had this magnificent idea, and to the many people who drove the trucks and tuned the pianos and dealt with the city officials to make it happen. The experiment was a smashing success, and many of us are hoping he repeats it.


Charlie Hayes July 20, 2010 @08:33 am

Jim, I'm a friend of your dad's from Jersy Shore. Also BC '83, and Rod's & Cones fan. Last time I saw you guys was CBGBs circa 1983. Very cool experiment, and beautifully written by you. BTW, Here There and Everywhere is my favorite Beatles song.

Marty Gallagher July 19, 2010 @09:47 pm

Hello Jim; Sounds great and it sounds like you had a ball, playing the piano all over NYC... what a great idea...Regards from Montvale

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