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A Kansas City couple restores old pianos and hosts a happy hour concert to show them off

Julie Denesha
In his workshop beneath the showroom at Upcycle Piano Craft, piano technician Stephen Wilson gently taps a chisel into the space between the keybed and the bottom of a Baldwin grand piano.

Upcycle Piano Craft is the place where old pianos go for a musical makeover. Each month the shop hosts a happy hour to celebrate the instrument and the musicians who bring it to life.

Charles Williams and his jazz trio are running a soundcheck at Upcycle Piano Craft in Midtown. It’s the first Tuesday of the month and Williams is here to kick off the shop’s happy hour concert series.

Pianos in the showroom have been pushed back to make room for the musicians. Several customers have taken seats on piano benches and a few regulars are gathering.

“Well, Charles brings me here,” Arnie Pollman says. “This wonderful venue brings me here. I believe this is the fourth performance I’ve come to and they have been absolutely marvelous. The energy of the crowd is great. The music is wonderful. That’s why I’m here and I love jazz. Jazz forever, yeah.”

For piano technician Stephen Wilson, it’s a chance to relax and listen to the instrument he has worked on all month.

“I work for happy hour every day so it just makes sense to have happy hour here,” Wilson says with a laugh. “People love pianos and it’s a fun hang.”

Charles Williams and his jazz trio kick off Upcycle Piano Craft’s happy hour concert series.

Anne Trinkl owns the shop. She and Wilson met years ago listening to music at a jazz bar. They’ve been together ever since.

“We love it,” Trinkl says. “It’s like having a big party at your house every month and it’s our favorite thing in the world.”

Beneath the showroom, the workshop is filled with pianos. It's where Wilson spends most of his days restoring old pianos, tuning them and getting them ready to make music again.

Wilson is disassembling a grand piano to install a player piano system. As he taps on the instrument, the strings reverberate in protest. The stubborn keybed is giving him some trouble but Wilson takes this as a good sign.

Julie Denesha
Tightly-wrapped for travel, Wilson and college student Andy Wilson remove a grand piano from a Brookside home. The owner hired Wilson to install a player piano system.

“When you can’t take a piano apart, it’s because it was assembled very well.”

All pianos start in the workshop when they arrive. Each instrument is taken apart, cleaned and repaired.

“An old piano is not necessarily a good piano,” Wilson says. “It's like the workings of a clock and if we were to compare a piano to a clock, old pianos don't keep time well.”

But Wilson says he isn’t impressed with many new pianos.

Julie Denesha
Charles Williams chats with the audience between songs. It’s the first Tuesday of the month and Williams is at Upcycle to kick off the shop’s happy hour concert series.

“Most pianos made today are not nearly as good as pianos made 50 years ago,” Wilson explains. “Just like furniture that you would buy at IKEA, it's super duper heavy because it's synthetic manmade wood. Heavy and dense wood does not project sound as well as real wood, real boards and older trees with tight, close straight grain.”

Taking things apart and putting them back together comes easily to Wilson. Before turning his hand to pianos full time, Wilson spent decades working on Cessna airplanes.

“I probably have the mind of an engineer more than the mind of a musician,” Wilson says. “I can play the piano and I can play a few songs well. I don't consider myself to be a musician, but I do consider myself to be knowledgeable and capable of making and building things, understanding machines inside and out.”

Wilson says the key to creating great music begins with a finely-tuned instrument.

Julie Denesha
Williams and his jazz trio perform to the happy hour crowd at Upcycle Piano Craft.

“Everybody knows a piano needs to be in tune, but few people understand that relationship between the key movement and the hammer movement that makes it possible for you to speak with expression,” Wilson explains. “So you're not thinking about the instrument, but when you are performing music, it just comes from your soul to the air.”

Upstairs in the showroom, Charles Williams is getting ready to play his second set. Over the years, Williams has performed around the world. Here at home, he plays with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. Late last year Williams was named the city’s favorite jazz pianist at the the JAM Musician Awards, presented by the KC Jazz Ambassadors.

“It’s like piano heaven,” Williams says. “I feel very, very blessed to be a part of this. You know, it's kind of like, just do what I do, you know? And just the whole idea of just playing from your heart. And that's all that really matters to me.”

The Peter Schlamb Trio will headline the piano shop’s next happy hour March 1 at Upcycle Piano Craft, located at 3945 Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri.

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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