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Piano-Grams Bring St. Louisans Much-Needed Cheer Amid A Dreary Year

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
A family enjoys the musicianship of Alexandra Sinclair along Cherokee Street during a recent Piano-Gram performance.

Last Saturday, along south St. Louis’ lively Cherokee Street, it was almost possible to forget about the coronavirus pandemic for a bit. The sun was shining. The businesses along Antique Row were looking festive. Shop owners carefully handed out cookies to passersby. And right near Whisk bakery sat a white van with a yellow piano inside it, along with a pianist: Alexandra Sinclair.

Sinclair, who works for the local family business Jackson Pianos, was in the middle of a streetside performance that she and her collaborators have termed a Piano-Gram. Together with Gold Standard Musicians, the piano company is putting pianos on wheels, and local musicians to work, as they build awareness and raise funds for the local organization Places for People.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, we aired highlights, and Jackson Pianos’ founder and owner, Joe Jackson, joined host Sarah Fenske to explain more about the effort.

He noted that it’s been far from an easy project for all involved.

“These are real acoustic pianos, so they’re a good 500 pounds, and they have to be tuned and prepped every time,” Jackson explained. “And there’s over 2,000 working parts in a piano and it’s under around 14 tons of pressure. So to get this onto a van and to drive it around and unload it again late at night, it’s a feat.”

But the feat is part of why they do it, Jackson added.

“If it were easy, if we sent out some keyboard, it wouldn’t be so hard and it wouldn’t denote how committed we are to the idea. And so the harder we make it, the better we feel, because every time we have to go through this labor of love and sweat as we dig this piano in and out, it concretes it for us even more what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

And the “why” is what Jackson emphasized the most: raising awareness and funds for Places for People, which is focused on helping people work through mental illness and substance use disorders.

Jackson is passionate about the work of the organization and acknowledged that he’s turned to Places for People himself in the past.

He also referenced the conversation that had been on air just before him — about the mental illness and abuse that death row inmate Lisa Montgomery endured — during his comments.

“I really appreciated the piece you just did before [the Piano-Grams one]. … It’s an example of what mental illness can do to people and the situations that it can create, and when people have strife and things that they deal with,” Jackson said. “And Places for People is the place to go.”

The talk show team also spoke with several other people involved in the Piano-Grams, including Johanna Ballou, founder of Gold Standard Musicians. She’s another of the pianists who has been driving the Jackson Pianos delivery van and its brightly painted piano around the region for the mini concerts.

Ballou recalled a couple of the most memorable Piano-Grams she put on last week.

“We surprised a retired music teacher with a Piano-Gram — her daughter booked her a Piano-Gram for her birthday. So she came out and was very surprised with a piano in her driveway, in a van, and she was actually moved to tears when we played ‘Happy Birthday’ for her. And she just, her whole face lit up, and it was so fun.

“And then we had a performance for a cul-de-sac, so there was one house in the cul-de-sac that booked a Piano-Gram, and they had all their neighbors come out and we all sat in the dead end and they had lawnchairs kind of spread out, and I was able to play a little concert for the neighborhood. And it’s so fun to share something lighthearted. It’s a release from all this stress and anxiety that we’ve all been feeling and it just feels so good.”

To book a Piano-Gram of your own in the St. Louis area, visit stlpianograms.com.

The Piano-Grammers are also planning neighborhood shows on New Year’s Day around the city. And public performances include one at Lafayette Park at 5 p.m. Dec. 18 at the corner of Park and Mississippi and another featuring Ethan Leinwand in Tower Grove Park at 1 p.m. Dec. 27.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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