[JPL] Piano Tuner Marks 25th Year at Newport Jazz Fest

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Wed Aug 4 21:46:55 EDT 2010

    Piano Tuner Marks 25th Year at Newport Jazz Fest

      Unsung piano man: Professional piano tuner marks 25th anniversary
      at Newport Jazz Festival

        By ERIC TUCKER

        The Associated Press


Between each act at the Newport Jazz Festival, as the audience cheers 
and crews clear the equipment, Bill Calhoun darts onstage with a fistful 
of tools and parks at the piano.

He cocks his head, lowers his ear to the piano, taps ding-ding-ding on 
the keys, tinkers with a tuning pin here and there. When he's done, he 
scurries off stage.

It's a routine Calhoun has perfected. He marks his 25th anniversary this 
weekend as piano tuner for the celebrated jazz festival, which since 
1954 has hosted such luminaries as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy 
Gillespie and Ray Charles.

Calhoun generally has minimal interactions with the musicians, but his 
behind-the-scenes role is crucial to the festival's success. When Dave 
Brubeck hits a note that rings just so, it's of course a credit to his 
talent but also a testament to Calhoun's craftsmanship.

"The musician playing the piano has never played this piano before. 
They're going to walk on stage, introduce themselves to the audience and 
then sit down at a piano that they have never played," Calhoun said. "In 
a sense my job is to make it so that they have total trust in what the 
piano can do for them and how the piano sounds."

Performers who play Newport take turns on the festival's rented pianos 
rather than bring their own, creating the need for an onsite tuner 
sensitive to the instrument's notoriously fickle nature: Humid weather, 
common during the annual August festival, can knock the pitch out of 
whack. So can a pianist who pounds the keys especially hard.

"I'm insurance that the pianos will be in tune enough and in good enough 
repair," explained 55-year-old Calhoun.

Normally both he and the performers are too busy to greet each other, 
though sometimes they do. One time Chick Corea asked to meet Calhoun to 
feel him out and get a sense of the piano he'd be playing. He's also met 
Dr. John  a pianist of a strikingly "gentle" style, Calhoun says, 
despite his "funny little meaty hands."

And one summer, he found himself huddled beneath a piano with Herbie 
Hancock and his manager, investigating the source of a terrific bam that 
occurred after a structural piece at the instrument's base fell during 
the Grammy winner's performance.

"His manager looks at me and goes, 'Are you the piano technician?' I 
said 'yes.' He goes 'good' and then he looks at Herbie and says, 
'Herbie, get out of here!'" Calhoun recalled with a laugh.

As a boy, Calhoun was always more interested in trying to take apart his 
parents' piano than in playing it, though he is himself a pianist and 
fond of bluesy jazz.

The Dartmouth College graduate taught high school science before 
deciding to mesh his interest in music and physics. He enrolled in the 
piano technology program at the New England Conservatory in Boston, then 
was hired at the jazz festival in 1986 after making what he calls a 
"ridiculously low" offer for his services.

He's been there ever since, also working the Newport Folk Festival when 
a piano is needed for a performance.

Calhoun arrives at 7 a.m. and hangs with the sound engineers near the 
stage. He does full tunings and checks octaves at the start of the day, 
but between acts is when he really hustles  moving between performances 
on the festival's three stages with a tuning wrench and pair of rubber 
mutes. He typically has a narrow window to test the strings that 
correspond to each note, check the octaves and finger the keys to make 
sure the sound is pitch-perfect.

"He's very good and very fast, which you have to be. Sometimes there's 
only 15 minutes between two piano players. He's got to pipe right up on 
stage and make sure the piano's in tune," said Bob Jones, a senior 
producer with New Festival Networks, the festival's production company.

Calhoun is one of the festival's many unsung contributors who return 
each year and are vital to behind-the-scene operations, said Tim Tobin, 
the festival's operation's manager.

"They do feel as if it is a privilege to work for this festival because 
it is in fact the granddaddy of all jazz festivals," Tobin said. "When 
you're working with your family, they tend to stick around."

The festival celebrates its 56th anniversary this weekend with 
performers including Hancock, Brubeck and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Calhoun says he's tuned the piano of virtually every Newport performer 
in the last quarter-century, though one notable exception sticks out in 
his mind. One summer Bruce Hornsby swung by Newport while on tour but 
enlisted his own keyboard player to tune his 9-foot Baldwin piano.

It was, Calhoun politely suggests, perhaps not the best decision.

"Let's just say had I tuned the piano it would have sounded better, but 
you know, Bruce Hornsby didn't seem to care one bit what it sounded like."

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