Street piano: busking in Port Townsend at new level

By Robin Dudley of the Leader
Posted 8/25/15

Busking has reached a new level in Port Townsend with the appearance of an upright piano at the corner of Quincy and Water streets downtown.

Other street corners have hosted string quartets and …

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Street piano: busking in Port Townsend at new level

Posted

Busking has reached a new level in Port Townsend with the appearance of an upright piano at the corner of Quincy and Water streets downtown.

Other street corners have hosted string quartets and solo violinists; musicians playing saxophones, guitars, percussion, a didgeridoo; and a family of local kids plucking banjos and playing bluegrass.

Now, at least for a short time, there's a piano, rescued from the Waste Not Want Not recycle/reuse business and being shepherded by a few people optimistic about seeing it possibly remain a viable public instrument downtown.

"These things make Port Townsend really memorable for people. They say, 'I went to this magical place that was unlike anywhere I've ever been.' It adds a lot of soul to the place," said anami, a woman who operates a traveling fortune-telling cart, busking for business without a musical instrument.

PASSIONATE FOR PIANO

Like a sailor without a boat, like a writer without a pen, is Ethan Walat without a piano. Understanding that need, he envisioned making a piano available to anyone and everyone right out on the street corner – and his wish came true.

"It all started with a tarot reading from anami," said Walat, a Port Townsend resident, on and off, for 15 years. His friend recalled seeing a guy playing a street piano at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

"Make money following your passion," anami said she had told him. Walat is not wealthy, in the conventional sense, but he's usually sporting a big grin. He recently returned from six weeks in India, and said he does landscaping and odd jobs. He decided to take anami's advice and had started looking for a piano to busk with on the street.

He plays covers from a lot of genres, and writes his own music. It's his passion. He doesn't have his own piano, so he has often played at the Boiler Room, the kind of place where anyone, of any age, is welcome to wander in and begin playing an instrument at almost any time.

"I used to play [piano] in the Boiler Room a lot," Walat said. "Anywhere I could find a piano. There aren't a lot of them around, and the ones that are around you're often not allowed to play."

WANT A PIANO?

Friday, Aug. 14 was the first real rain of the summer, an actual downpour, and someone at Waste Not Want Not called the Boiler Room to ask if it wanted to take a piano off the shop’s hands that it didn't have room for indoors. Because the Boiler Room already has one, it didn't want the free upright piano.

Walat organized four or five guys and a truck on Saturday, Aug. 15 to pick the instrument up from the recycle/reuse business and deliver it downtown. The piano was deposited near the bench at the southeast corner of Quincy and Water streets, on the sidewalk next to the Waterman & Katz Building, one door down from the Boiler Room.

At night, a tarp was put over the piano, and a sign that asked people not to take it away, because people love it.

"I'm just really happy that people are enjoying it," Walat said. "I just brought it downtown. I didn't know what was going to happen."

What has happened is predictable: Random people, and some buskers, stop and play the piano. A good player can draw a crowd, and dancers.

Chris Flowers was ecstatic to discover the piano downtown. He had just arrived from Florida to visit his mother, who bought Ichikawa Japanese Cuisine restaurant about two years ago, and who had been hinting to Flowers, after his dad died two months ago, that she'd like a visit from her son.

A professional pianist in Florida, he drove here with his drummer, Aaron Fowler, who has been playing percussion using Waterfront Pizza boxes during impromptu sidewalk jams.

"The first day I'm in town, there's a piano greeting me, and a friendly guy going, 'Go ahead,'" Flowers said. "You can't ask for a better welcoming committee for Port Townsend."

On Thursday afternoon, Aug. 20, young Niko Warren was encouraged to play by his father, Jay Warren (the family was visiting from San Diego), who lifted the stocky tot onto the bench for a short session during a leisurely amble south on Water Street.

"That's really cool," said Niko's mom, Effie, as Jay and Niko dabbled. "That's really fun."

Walat, Flowers and other serious players sometimes remove the piano's wooden cover, exposing its narrow wooden hammers rising and falling, and the manufacturer's name embossed in a bright golden color. Taking the cover off also improves the acoustics – makes it louder.

Walat played some of his own compositions on Friday afternoon, Aug. 21, wearing intricately patterned trousers and a paisley shirt under a tie-dyed hoodie, a plastic pitcher stuffed with tips, receiving a steady stream of dollar bills from appreciative passersby.

NOISE CONCERN

Michael D'Alessandro, executive director of Northwind Arts Center, located on the first floor of the Waterman & Katz Building, said, "Northwind folks have really enjoyed having" the piano there, but residents of the upstairs condominiums do not."

He has been fielding a lot of complaint calls, particularly about hearing the same songs over and over.

Patrick Fudally, Port Townsend Police Department (PTPD) public information officer, said there were "four or five complaints" about the piano over the week or so prior to Aug. 24. "The noise ordinance downtown starts at 1 a.m.," Fudally noted. "There were a few [complaint calls] before 1 [a.m.] and a few after 1 a.m.," and there was also a daytime call, but Fudally wasn't sure if it was a complaint or not.

"At night, it's a block away from condo owners and 50 feet from the [Water Street Hotel]," Fudally said.

The owner of the Water Street Hotel confirmed that noise from the piano has bothered some of her customers. "It was all day, every day," she said.

Susan Durner, an employee at Conservatory Coastal Home, a shop across Quincy Street, does not support the piano staying there. "There's freedom of speech, but a little goes a long way," she said.

Flowers recalled being approached by Port Townsend police while he was playing the piano on Friday, Aug. 21. The officer wasn't in uniform, but he identified himself as being with the PTPD, Flowers said.

The man produced a packet with all the city ordinances, Flowers said. There had to be 5 feet of clearance from the middle of the sidewalk on each side, and the object had to be 20 feet from the bench. Wedged against the trash can, it's in an acceptable place.

"[The officer] said as long as we set up in that spot. it's OK," Flowers said. As an acoustic instrument, it's legal. "He was really nice," Flowers said. "That is not how cops handle things in Florida."

The pianists also were advised that the piano must not be left unattended; someone must always be with it. "It could be considered abandoned property," Fudally told the Leader.

"There's almost always somebody who's playing it," Walat said. "I hope that it will have a good home where it will be played, [where] it will be safe, but people will still play it."

SILENT NIGHT

The police representative also told the buskers that the piano had to be brought indoors at night, Flowers said. Apparently, nearby residents had complained when someone played late at night on Thursday, Aug. 20.

Owners of the Bazaar Girls Yarn Shop, across Quincy Street, temporarily agreed to store the piano overnight, but that arrangement is no longer working out, said Carrie Harpman of Bazaar Girls. "I would like to see the piano stay there, but can't store it." She supports "public space" and has seen "people other than the kids ... really sitting and using that space," she said. "You can definitely put me down as in favor if it."

Across Water Street at Earthenworks Gallery, employee Susan Solley said, "I love it. It's so much fun. ... It makes us a community." She's seen all kinds of people stop to play. "There is a hug, huge amount of talent in this world, and a lot of it you just don't have the opportunity to see. But that piano just brought out the best in everyone."

SEEKING SPONSORSHIP

"The Boiler Room is not taking responsibility for [the piano]," Amy Smith, the nonprofit coffeehouse's executive director, said last week.

Walat is looking for a place to keep the piano indoors at night, to be rolled outside and made available for public playing during the daytime. Walat has found a friend willing to store it in her garage over the winter, but he wants people to be able to walk by and play it – at least for the next month or two – so he is hoping to be sponsored by a business, an individual or an entity to keep the piano sheltered from the elements while still being accessible.

"The first step is to find a home for it at night," Walat said. "We'll move forward from there."

Flowers has taken partial responsibility – a wheel on the instrument was being repaired Aug. 24 – though both he and Walat are put off by the idea of anyone owning the piano. Walat plans to travel to New Orleans this fall, to earn money playing piano.

"Things just have a habit of coming together the way they need to, and I'm going to continue operating under that assumption," he said.

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