Imagine strolling through downtown Durham and hearing a strange sound echoing off the buildings. You turn a corner and a couple of blocks away, a small crowd has gathered. In the middle is a guy wailing boogie-woogie blues on a battered, old upright piano. It's infectious, energetic music, and it's impossible to not nod your head, tap your foot.
Welcome to an evening on the streets of Durham, as imagined by Tom Merrigan. An architect by profession, musician by avocation, Merrigan has a plan to attach wheels to a piano, strap it to a trailer and play it on the streets of Durham.
Merrigan wants to have regular locations—possibilities include Five Points, American Tobacco Campus and the farmers market near Durham Central Park—as well as a mix of impulse stops. Where he ends up on a particular day is at his whim. "It can happen like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "It's not like 'I've bought tickets for an event that's two months from now.'"
Merrigan conceived of the project six years ago in New York City, where he had moved to work after receiving a master's degree in architecture from the University in Maryland. In his spare time, he played piano in a two-man pop band. His music was well received online and was used in commercials by companies like Motorola and Nike. But the introverted Merrigan had trouble enticing people to come to shows. "We'd drag our friends out once every couple months and there'd be 10 people in the audience. It was sad."
Pulling off a successful show is a miracle of coordination. "There's just a million chances for it not to work," Merrigan says. First, the band's flyer has to catch the eyes of passersby; if sent via Facebook or email, it has to make it past both electronic and mental spam filters. Those intrigued, if they don't forget, have to look up the band's music and decide if they like it, then check their schedules and their friends' schedules—all before they even think about spending money on a ticket.
While watching a hip-hop group perform on the streets of New York, Merrigan realized that kind of performance was a shortcut to all those complications. "There's a built-in audience just kind of there," he says. "There's nothing more random than who happens to be walking by at that particular moment."
There's no need for a stage, either. Merrigan borrows architectural terms to explain that the street piano grabs attention by creating a "space," like a rug in an otherwise empty room. In a more abstract sense, space is also created by the surprise of seeing a piano on the street. Merrigan wants an old upright that's beat-up, nicked, well-used, idiosyncratically out of tune, like the kind you'd see in a bar or parlor. "It's turning the piano on its head a little bit," he explains, "because there's this heavy interior thing, a piece of furniture, on the sidewalk."
The street piano as a "space" forces people out of the unthinking routine of walking on the sidewalk. He imagines a very fluid environment, with people leaving, joining, dancing, turning to chat with one another and talking to him between songs. He even toys with the idea of turning one side of the piano into a chalkboard and leaving out sidewalk chalk for children to draw. "It's a little bit of a dialogue," Merrigan explains. "There are just so many interactions that can happen."
Musically, too, he wants it to be as much fun as possible for both the audience and himself. Since moving to Durham three years ago, he's moved away from pop into the acoustic piano styles of the mid-20th century, especially boogie-woogie blues. "Boogie-woogie blues is so unbeatable because it's so basic and raw and just comes from the heart. There are no complicating parts to it," he says. "It's real nod-your-head, tap-your-foot kind of music."
But Merrigan doesn't want his piano to be just a silly spectacle. "I'm taking it seriously enough to write my own music, to write lyrics and put together these songs and practice them," he says. The original inspiration, after all, was as a shortcut to perform his music to a wider audience. "It's laid-back more in the sense that it's random and spontaneous."
To raise money for his project, Merrigan started a project on the fundraising website Kickstarter on July 30. He set a deadline of 60 days to reach his goal of $1,800, with the expectation of spending several hundred of his own money.
He reached that goal in three days. By the fourth day, the pledges had exceeded $2,000. They came from all over Durham: from Merrigan's friends to strangers on community listservs to large companies like Capitol Broadcasting, Durham Marriott and Downtown Durham Inc.
"This is so Durham," said Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., whose board of directors made up almost half of Merrigan's pledge total. "This is an individual who has a love and wants to bring some lively music to the street level for people. I think he will be so entertaining on the plazas and streets of downtown."
Unfortunately, due to Kickstarter rules, Merrigan's funds won't be available for two months. Until then, he says he'll keep writing songs, and keep people posted on the Internet. It's interestingly out of character from the shy and publicity-averse Merrigan, but he feels at home in Durham. "This is a rare opportunity to really let the things I feel I'm good at be embraced by the community."