Downtown pianos make a star out of local boogie-woogie pianist


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Chase Garrett's hands arch like the spine of a frightened black cat as his fingers fly up and down the piano keys. He pounds away on the ebony and ivory, playing riffs, slides, and shuffles with precision. The smile on his face and the tapping of his right foot in a black and white Converse sneaker remain constant as the chords spill out.

"Just 'cause I'm a tiny man doesn't mean I have a tiny heart," the pianist sings in a voice that resonates with a low-pitched strength that contrasts his diminutive appearance.

Sitting on a piano bench in downtown Iowa City, only his face, adorned with funky rectangular dark-brown-rimmed glasses, pops out from above the top of the instrument. Playing the donated hand-me-down with a blue polka-dot paint job is an adjustment from the 1925 Steinway Grand he plays at home.

His next tune, "Night Train," has a bluesy jazz sound and is the only piece of sheet music the young musician has ever learned to play. He attempts the more difficult Oscar Peterson version of the Duke Ellington/Jimmy Forrest song, which includes 10ths: His small hands must stretch an octave plus two keys. They don't always reach that far, especially when the song's tempo picks up, so he fakes the technique using both hands.

But Garrett is no fake boogie-woogie talent.

Passersby slow their pace as they hear notes pouring from the piano. Heads turn, camera phones emerge from pockets to capture the moment, and grins spread across faces as he plays.

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The 21-year-old Kirkwood Community College student and Hy-Vee employee has gained a degree of local fame thanks to the pianos recently installed downtown. And now, the young man whose performances have largely been confined to small audiences in Iowa City, is seeking a bigger spotlight. He will host a Boogie-Woogie Piano Stomp at the Englert Theatre this weekend with some iconic pianists, including Bob Seeley, Lluís Coloma, and Ricky Nye.

"I want to let Iowa City know about this great music," Garrett said about his passion — boogie-woogie. "I think it is a cultural form of America."

Boogie-woogie exploded onto the American music scene in the 1930s and '40s. While the term "boogie" was used in titles of songs dating back to 1901, the style gained popularity during the World War eras. Based on a 12-bar blues and known for its up-tempo beat and tendency to get people dancing, boogie-woogie shows up in such musical styles as swing, Chicago blues, and West Coast blues.

Putting on a show highlighting boogie-woogie was a dream of Garrett's, which became reality after he began playing on the downtown pianos.

"If it wasn't for the pianos outside, I don't know where I would be," he said.

The pianos appeared in Iowa City over the summer after the City Council approved a request from local business owners who wanted to enhance the community with public music. The "Play Me, I'm Yours" project, started by British artist Luke Jerram in 2008, inspired the project. Iowa City is one of many participating cities, which include New York and London.

"Prior to this summer, virtually no one knew Chase," said his father, Russ Garrett. "It's just the luck that seems to be his life right now. The pianos have just opened up the venue for him."

The instruments, combined with the influence of his musical mentors such as Nye (a boogie-woogie pianist from Cincinnati who hosts his own music festival annually), inspired Chase Garrett to show Iowa City what boogie-woogie is all about.

"He really has taken on a huge job," Nye said. "It's monstrous, and he has just been working so hard on it — it's very admirable."

Nye's and Chase Garrett's relationship dates back to a chance encounter five years ago. Nye received a message from the young pianist in Iowa City who had learned to play some of his pieces, including "Creole Boogie." Garrett wondered if Nye was ever coming to perform in Iowa.

"They say you make your own fate, and I am a big believer in that," Russ Garrett said. "It was sofortuitous for [Chase] to e-mail Nye."

Luck was on Chase Garrett's side; Nye was scheduled to perform in Iowa that Saturday.

Nye invited Garrett to meet him at a party where he was playing in Des Moines. The then-16-year-old made the trip with his father, because his dad said he wasn't allowed to drive that far away from home by himself.

At the party, Chase Garrett was surprised when Nye invited him up to the piano to play. His fingers hit the keys — and jaws dropped.

"I was really struck by his balance and the fact that he was sure of himself and he wasn't arrogant," Nye said. "He had a really strong sense of self and was just so fricken' good."

Boogie-woogie became Garrett's own style after Nye invited him to his Blues and Boogie Summit in Newport, Ky. Garrett went, not knowing exactly what boogie-woogie was.

He was mesmerized by the talent of the musicians at the event, bought all of their CDs, and transformed from a blues player to a boogie-woogie player within a year. During the following years, Garrett played at festivals around the United States, gaining recognition from other musicians and confidence on the keys.

But the confidence he feels while playing wasn't always a part of his makeup. High school wasn't easy for the Regina High School graduate. He spent a lot of time alone, playing piano or video games at home. He suffered from attention deficit disorder and felt like an outsider. The blues used to be his style of choice. But as his piano talent rose, so did his self-esteem.

Soon, the routine trips to the pianos on the Pedestrian Mall became easier — no doubt because of the growing crowds of admirers around him, intently listening to his music.

"It's definitely encouraging," Garrett said. "Just the other day, I went through my e-mail and had e-mails from 50 or 60 people who had seen me in the past who wanted to hire me."

His talent all started because of a Christmas gift.

When he was 9, Garrett received a keyboard for Christmas along with a ragtime CD from his grandmother. Putting both gifts to use, he learned to play his first tune, "Maple Leaf Rag."

"Ever since he was little, anything that he was really enthusiastic about — he has kind of gone overboard on," his father said.

Seven years of perfunctory lessons were the next step for Garrett. His teacher kicked him out because he wasn't practicing the assigned pieces — finding his own sound was more important.

And he certainly found it — Garrett now writes his own music. He is working on pieces such as "Witch's Brew" and "Madrid," and has shared these works-in-progress with residents at Walden Place Retirement Residence in Iowa City. That audience found it hard to believe Garrett didn't consider the songs final products.

On a recent visit, roughly 30 people bobbed their heads and tapped their toes in delight while he played "Boogie-Woogie with Me," "Hallelujah Train," and "Maple Leaf Rag."

"The piano will go to rest tonight feeling proud," said Jack Newman, a 90-year-old resident at Walden Place. "He must play 50 to 100 notes per second."

Newman and others, such as Ilene Ries, 87, agreed the music brings back memories of their past.
"I just love that kind of music," she said. "He is very talented."

Between songs, Garrett took time to chat with the crowd. He explained the history, the artists, and his personal experience with each of the songs. The group didn't miss a beat, asking questions and comparing stories with him.

"I thought if anybody likes this music, it's going to be these guys," he said.

At the end of the show, Garrett passed out fliers for his upcoming boogie-woogie show at the Englert Theatre. He received a hug from one female resident in return.

For him, playing was the easy part. Organizing a show was a much more difficult endeavor.
He admitted when he initially walked into the Englert Theatre to pitch the idea for the show, he had "no idea how to do this."

Sean Fredericks, the former executive director of the Englert, worked with Garrett to decide upon contract arrangements for the concert.

It surprised Garrett just how expensive it was to achieve this goal. He never anticipated spending almost $8,500 to make his dream come true. Garrett's father testifies to his son's willingness to take ambitious leaps to make things happen for himself.

"One hundred percent of this is his doing," Russ Garrett said.

Businesses such as M.C. Ginsberg, Music West, and Hy-Vee are among the sponsors of the concert. Others include Carolyn's Place Salon and Garrett Construction.

Funding for the show also comes from Chase Garrett's mother, who died in November 2009 of pancreatic failure due to alcoholism. Though she cannot be around to support him, the money from her life-insurance inheritance contributed to the concert costs.

With his mother's death, Garrett dealt with the end of another close relationship in his life. Only a couple months later, his "first real love" broke up with him.

"My heart just got ripped out, and I'm like, 'I don't know what to do,' " he said.

Garrett said he does not view tragedy in his life as helpful, but feels he is musically inspired by adversity.

"I think he takes a lot of solace in his piano," Russ Garrett said. "It is an outlet for him as well as a place to deal with his emotions and thoughts."

Chase and Russ Garrett, as well as Nye, said they are excited about the time the musicians plan to spend together. The trip is short for Nye, Seeley, and Coloma, but it will be enough time to make lasting memories.

"When we are not playing piano, like when we are eating and around the table, they tell stories," Chase Garrett said. "It's great to hear [their] stories … I wish I could have been there."

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