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Bryant Park’s Piano Series Offers Hopeful Note to New Yorkers

The Wall Street Journal
August 13, 2020
By Charles Passy

These days, New Yorkers have few opportunities to hear live music because of the coronavirus pandemic. Concert venues remain closed and festivals have largely been curtailed.

But for three afternoons a week, audiences still gather in Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park to hear some jazz piano.

The piano series has been a mainstay since 2004, presented as part of Bryant Park’s larger array of cultural and recreational offerings, ranging from yoga classes to film screenings. The park, which is managed by a nonprofit corporation, has curtailed some activities because of the virus, but not the lunchtime keyboard sessions.

And that is literally music to the ears of the many regular attendees, especially during the pandemic.

“I try to come all three days if I can,” said Harry Hollis, a 71-year-old retiree who lives in Queens’ Jackson Heights neighborhood.

For the performers, the series has always been a special occasion, an opportunity to perform for crowds—socially distanced these days, of course—in a relaxed, open-air setting.

“I love to play in the elements of life,” said Danny Mixon, who performed earlier this week.

A veteran jazz pianist who has appeared alongside such artists as Charles Mingus, Lionel Hampton and Betty Carter, Mr. Mixon is representative of the caliber of artists the series has featured. The park’s focus is often on jazz in its many forms—stride, ragtime or more modern styles—but there are occasional detours into standards, pop and R&B.

Frank Owens, a pianist who has appeared on the series multiple times, said he once even fielded a request for a classical work—Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”—and he gladly obliged.

Mr. Owens, who will be performing at the park later this month, added that it can get a little sweaty playing in the midday sun, but he actually finds that energizing.

“The heat doesn’t bother me. I’m never too hot,” he said.

Daniel Biederman, executive director of the Bryant Park Corporation, the nonprofit entity that oversees the greenspace, said the inspiration for the series came from a visit he made to Disneyland, where he observed a ragtime pianist in action to the delight of patrons.

“I said, ‘We got to do this,’ ” he said.

The series has indeed attracted many regulars over the years. Sona Cohen, a resident of Manhattan’s nearby Murray Hill neighborhood who is studying jazz, said it inspires her to be a better performer.

“I’m just enthralled watching these pianists and hoping I can pick up something,” she said.

Normally, the series begins in early May and runs five days a week through September. This year, the park had to delay the start until late June, but it was committed to doing it, once it determined it was safe to do so.

“It was important for the morale of the city,” said Mr. Biederman, who added that the schedule will be increased to five days next month.

The crowds for the series are smaller this summer, particularly because there are far fewer office workers in the area. But the regulars who come don’t seem to notice, so grateful are they for the music and the camaraderie of the fellow jazz lovers on hand.

Richard Asaro, 72, a resident of Queens’ Middle Village neighborhood, is another of the series’ faithful followers. Having recovered from a case of the virus that put him in the hospital for a month earlier this year, the retiree said he was extra thankful for the music.

“It is great to attend and be back on my feet,” he said.