A CD player in his lap, earphones on his ears and sunglasses shading his eyes from the afternoon glare, Russell Lynch tickled the keys of an old Kimball piano on Poplar Street.
“I’m trying to learn this song by Otis Redding ...,” he said with a pensive expression.
Lynch, also known as Brother Kwame, learned to play the piano at age 5.
In recent months, he moved into the Dempsey Apartments on Cherry Street. About the same time, old, decorated pianos began to pop up in public places downtown.
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Though Lynch focuses on playing the drums now, he was drawn back to the row of 88 keys in an open invitation he couldn’t resist.
“This has brought me back to the piano. I wish my mother could see it,” he said with a grin. “By having these pianos all over town, it gives me a way to practice. It’s been a blessing to me. .... I don’t know who’s done this, but if you know who’s done it, tell them thank you!”
Besides the abstractly white and black painted piano on Poplar Street, there are others of different themes at the Tubman Museum on Cherry Street, at the Macon-Bibb Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Allman Brothers Museum and the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
The group behind the painted pianos is Friends of Macon Music, a nonprofit that is a “collective of various artists, musicians and professionals who have been thinking about the constant lack of active music” in Macon, said one of its members, David Thompson, a co-founder of Piedmont Construction Group.
The painted pianos are made possible by a $10,000 Downtown Challenge grant from The Peyton Anderson and John S. and James L. Knight foundations awarded to the group in June. Similar projects have been successful in major cities all over the world.
However, the grant money isn’t spent on buying pianos in Macon because “they’re everywhere, and they’re not being used,” Thompson said.
Rob Schneck, a member of Friends of Macon Music who works at the Rescue Mission of Middle Georgia, said people who’ve donated pianos often are happy to reclaim some real estate in their homes or storage units.
The nonprofit will come pick them up for free.
“We got one from a lady who’d had it in a storage unit for the better part of three years,” Schneck said. “The gratification of knowing that it was going to get played again and that other people would experience hearing it get played, that was enough for her.”
In 2017, eight additional pianos are planned in new locations, Thompson said.
However, many of the six pianos set out in 2016 are not in tune. When they are tuned, many players say it isn’t long out in the elements before they begin sounding dissonant.
“It’s incumbent upon us to figure out how we’re going to do better maintenance,” Thompson said, adding that the group is working to identify partners near each piano to help keep them tuned.
‘People need good music around Macon’
Rashaun Boash, a 31-year-old who lives downtown, plays the piano on Poplar Street almost daily.
“I have a straight passion for music,” he said.
When he first saw it sitting there under a covered area between First and Second streets a few months ago, “the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve found a piano I can play and enjoy myself. I ain’t got to worry about people bothering me, ... no matter what time a day it is.”
Sporting a Chicago Bulls hat, Boash played songs of worship from church — and some that he’d made up.
“I just enjoy doing it because it makes people smile. It makes people feel like everything’s going to be OK for the day,” Boash said. “I like coming around people and expressing my music and my gifts towards them, because you never know what somebody’s going through.”
Boash said he’s trying to learn how to write music “because people need good music around Macon and people need somebody to take the time out to play music that’s going to touch their soul.”
One blustery day in December, the unmistakable tune of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” could be heard above the chatter of those waiting at a bus stop.
Randy Bedingfield, 61, is “the unknown Lizella composer,” he said. He has accompanied dozens of plays at local theaters over the years and regularly plays the painted pianos.
“I offer free lessons,” Bedingfield said. “That’s my form of ministry to people here on the streets.”