March 21, 2006
Real Good for Free
Sometimes when I am in lovely Burien, Washington, I hear a guy playing sax outside the Albertsons. To appreciate the unusuality of this you would probably have to have some experience of lovely Burien, Washington. For instance, it seems unlikely to be the first place where a street musican looking for a crowd might consider setting up. Perhaps he lives close by.
There wasn't much of an audience -- just me and one other guy. I was going to give the sax player a buck, but I saw that he was selling homemade CDs, so I gave him the $5 he was asking and took the CD home. According to the cover, I had been listening to McKinley Cunningham on alto sax. The CD wasn't bad, considering, although it was pretty clear why the guy isn't gigging around town. [Sample, :30, 500KB]
I love street musicians. Of the many people on the street who solicit you for money, I'm most inclined to give my "spare change" to people making music. I've heard buskers play everywhere I've traveled. Any zocalo in Mexico will have a gang of musicians you can hire to play you a tune. In Munich I heard some virtuoso accordion and balalaika players, who I assumed were Russian students. While we lived in England, the London Underground authorities tried to ban buskers from the tube stations, but were forced to relent after popular outcry. Here in Seattle we have our own established acts -- the blind, guitar-playing lady with the seeing-eye child; the not-so-good accordion player who played downtown by the (then) Bon; the Peruvian guys at Westlake with their panpipes and microphones (!); the sax player who plays outside Pacific Place, probably to the consternation of all the hoity-toity merchants there; long ago, the guy who had a big ol' black St. Bernard-y dog and who played violin on Broadway. At the Pike Place Market, there's the guy with the piano on wheels, and there's the designated busking spot near the original Starbucks where on Saturdays, if you're in luck, you can hear the a cappella gospel quintet.
You have to wonder how my buddy McKinley came to be playing alto sax in front of an Albertons in lovely Burien, Washington. I googled him and ran across a note about a presentation he'd given at a local community college. He was referred to as a "displaced homemaker" who was "homeless after moving to Seattle." Interestingly, he was intending to get a master's degree. There's got to be a story there.
There are stories behind a lot of the buskers you see from day to day in your town. For many years there was a guy who played trumpet with Dizzy Gillespie cheeks and who was a fixture at any big gathering -- we used to see him in front of the Kingdome before football games, blowing his trumpet and using his feet to shake a big coffee can of coins. This, as it turns out, was Richard Peterson, and local filmmakers made a movie about him, which they named "Big City Dick". Some folks made a movie ("Derailroaded") about the L.A. street musician known as Wild Man Fischer, who had a brush with fame, although he was also apparently a severely disturbed dude. You could probably make a pretty interesting movie -- or at least write an interesting article -- about a lot of these players.
So next time you hear someone out playing on the street, give 'em a buck or two. And if you're looking for a story, try taking them out for a cup of coffee or a beer. If you hear anything interesting, let us know.