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Fixing the Pianos of New Orleans


Reporter Nick Miroff noticed an unusual classified ad on a New Orleans website a few months ago. It offered free pickup, tuning and repair for pianos that had been damaged by the wind and water of Hurricane Katrina. The man who wrote the ad is name Peter Spring. Nick tracked him down and brought back this story about grieving fathers, loss, and the restorative power of music.

Mr. PETER SPRING (Piano Tuner): This will be the crucial telling. I'm going to guess that this is the water level right there. That's definitely rust, even though these are copper.

(Soundbite of a piano)

Mr. SPRING: A lot of them are still loose in playing. So the action, the machine parts of it, might be okay, although there's mold.

Well, my name is Peter Spring. And I came down here from southern Oregon. When I saw on the news what was happening, I just wanted to do something.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. SPRING: I figured, hey, a lot of people can't do this, but I can. I can pick up my tools, I can take my trailer, go down there, and just help out, moving pianos, fixing them, tuning them.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. SPRING: You can hear the wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.

I collected about 45 musical instruments to bring down and give out to musicians who lost theirs, to try and help the city recover through music. Because four years ago, my son, who was a tremendous bass player, died of cancer, and so I've been dealing with loss now for four years.

It doesn't look cracked.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. SPRING: Sounds good. Feels good. One way or another, I'm going to get some use out of this, some good out of it.

Ms. BARBARA LANE (Piano Player): I cannot believe this. I cannot. I'm really, I'm just like shocked. Somebody calls you up. I'm in the middle of boxes up to my nose. And somebody calls you up and says, would you like to have a piano?

(Soundbite of laughter and piano music)

Ms. LANE: My name is Barbara Lane. I play at the Le Pavillon Hotel. Usually, it's six nights a week from 5:00 in the afternoon until 11:00 o'clock at night. And I've had a pretty long streak of rough luck in the last six months. I lost my father. I flipped my car. I had this wreck, and Katrina and Wilma and Rita. But I can play. I can sing. I fell on my head but I'm okay. I can still, you know, remember a few lyrics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANE: Thank you.

Mr. SPRING: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPRING: Well, I'm a third responder. I'm not interested in danger. It's not my thing. I'm not here to clean up, you know. I'm here for morale. And one of the first guys that I gave a good instrument to needed an alto sax. So I called him up and I said I got an alto sax for you.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. ANTHONY DURANDON(ph) (Sax Player): My name is Anthony Durandon. And I've been doing electrical work about 27 years now. I've been playing music about 45 years. I live in the Ninth Ward, the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the sections that was hit the hardest. Words could not describe the devastation that's down there. You know, I still have yet to get into my house, because there's so much debris that's washed into my house.

Mr. SPRING: When he first got to play an alto after losing his in the storm, he went out to the park and played for six hours. It was just...

Mr. DURANDON: We met. He had two saxophones. He gave me my choice.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

Mr. DURANDON: And from him, I went straight to the park. And I would dial various friends. And as soon as they would say, hello, I would start blowing, eee, daa, beee, daa, eee, dah. Whatever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DURANDON: And, you know, just telling them, hey, I finally got a horn. I have a horn. Is it your horn? Don't worry about it. I have a horn. And I just blew and blew, and I just couldn't stop blowing. I mean, I called people in California, New York, D.C., New Orleans, Birmingham. I was just calling all over the country people that I knew to celebrate my joy.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SPRING: So he told all the rest of the guys in his band that there was this guy from Oregon bringing down instruments, and giving them away to musicians, and they should give me a call.

Mr. DURANDON: Well, believe it or not, the music has brought some constant, and also, is settling. Because I was at a - I'm still sort of at a standstill, as to what's next, what to do next. The family looks at me, and the same question. What next, Dad? What next, husband? You know? And, you know, only time can tell. I really don't know.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. SPRING: I'm putting this piano back together now. I tuned it up yesterday. And now we get to take it up to La Place, and help fulfill one of the last wishes of a seven-year-old's mother. I was delivering a washer and dryer for some upstairs neighbors. So I always pull up in my little trailer, you know.

Mr. GLENN BERNARD (Piano Recipient): I met him moving somebody's washer and dryer. I gave him a hand.

Mr. SPRING: I told him I had this piano business. And he said, You know anybody who teaches piano? And that I don't really know, because I'm really new here.

Mr. BERNARD: And that's when I found out who (unintelligible) talking. He offered to give me a whole piano. He offered this. He didn't ask me for nothing, you know.

Mr. SPRING: And he said, well, my seven-year-old son. My wife died two years ago, and one of her last and deepest wishes was that he would play the piano if he wants to. And that was the key words, if he wants to.

Mr. BERNARD: Somebody giving me something, I never met and never knew. And that's a man people got to love. You know? That's a man with a heart.

Mr. BERNARD: My name is Glenn Bernard, born and raised in New Orleans. Born of Catholic religion. Right now I'm disability retired, because I got a bad heart. And my main thing right now is my son, because my wife, deceased. And my responsibility is for him to become a stronger man in his life before I was to leave, because my wife had a good heart. It just goes to show you how the way the world is.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BERNARD: My wife was a lot to me. I know his child was a lot. So parent that lose his child before his self, you never (unintelligible). But look at the spirit in that man. That man still laughs. He's still excited about life. Now, he ain't been through the tragedy that New Orleans people have been through, because you've got a lot of people that's hurting here.

Mr. SPRING: It does help when people here find out about the depth and the quality of my loss. It helps them understand and believe that I'm not here to take anything from them, to get anything from them. I came down because I know about loss.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BERNARD: Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPRING: All righty. We'll just take it on down.

(Soundbite of moving objects)

Mr. BERNARD: We've got a whole new set up here.

Mr. SPRING: Oh, yeah, Man. This is what I do. Now we're just going to have to pick it up on the back two wheels.

Mr. BERNARD: I'm a get it.

Mr. SPRING: No. No. Don't even lift. Don't lift. Just let it roll.

(Soundbite of rolling object)

Mr. SPRING: Aw, and it would look nice in here, too. So, and it's even a short one.

Mr. BERNARD: Oh, yeah.

Mr. SPRING: So it's just right for a child.

Mr. BERNARD: It's more easier for him to learn on this.

Mr. SPRING: Yeah. And the bench that goes with this is a little bit shorter, too.

Mr. BERNARD: Yeah.

Mr. SPRING: So it will be easier for him to reach the pedals.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. BERNARD: You got a book right there you could try. You can try.

Mr. SPRING: My son, Steven, was born in '79.

(Singing) I see trees of green.

The first time that he had cancer was 13.

(Singing) Red roses too.

He knew he was on serious borrowed time.

(Singing) I see them bloom...

So he burned hard and fast.

(Singing) ...for me and you. And I think to myself...

Mr. BERNARD: It's a wonderful world. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPRING: (Singing) ...what a wonderful world.

Tower of Power is an Oakland, California-based soul band. Anyway, on the way to cancer treatment up in Portland, they were giving away a free concert. And we went to see them. And through that experience of watching Steven, who knew everyone of their tunes the instant they started it, I asked if he could meet them. And the upshot of that came that they gave us all-expenses paid trip out to Maui to hang out with them for five days, which ended up with him closing the show at this Cancer Society benefit, and knocking their socks off.

They gave him a big, fat bass solo in the middle of it, and invited him to sit in with them at the Fillmore for Christmas, and at Harrah's in Reno for New Years. And he couldn't do it because he couldn't take the travel. And whoo...

(Singing) And friends shaking hands saying how do you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPRING: (Singing) They're really saying I love you.

After he passed, I called the guys in the band to tell them. And they had been talking about him that day. Because they'd had a guy in that day doing an audition, who had played all the right notes, and he was perfectly adequate. But that's all. That wasn't good enough. And they were trying to put their fingers on it, on what was missing. And finally, one of the guys said, We need somebody who can play like Steven. Ahhh. And the leader of the band told me that if he'd been available, he probably would have had the job. That's how good could he was.

(Singing) What a wonderful world. Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERNARD: Love, I swear.

Mr. SPRING: Yeah. There you go.

Mr. BERNARD: Thank you, Man. You make me think I'm a musician.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: This story was produced by Nick Miroff and co-edited by John Moe Allen. To see pictures of Peter Spring and Glenn Bernard, visit our website at npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Miroff