Robert Shaw performs at the "Play Me, I'm Yours" street… (Laura Nelson / For the Los…)
Robert Shaw, a piano teacher and former punk-rock musician, spent years telling his friends that Los Angeles was not a piano-friendly town. If a club or restaurant owned a piano — a rarity to begin with — they were just dormant keyboards. Opportunities to jam in public with friends were few.
So when his girlfriend walked him down to the Santa Monica Pier one April day, where a colorful piano was sitting in the open for anyone to play, Shaw experienced a bit of heaven. He rushed over and performed “Rhapsody in Blue,” attracting a small crowd in the process.
“It was a weird cosmic moment,” Shaw says. “How often do you get to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ on the ocean?”
As Shaw soon learned, that random piano on the pier was just one of 30 scattered in public spaces throughout Los Angeles — part of an international art project called “Play Me, I’m Yours” that began in mid-April and comes to an end on Thursday. Thousands of people have come out to play, from casual dabblers to struggling hopefuls to Juilliard-trained professionals. But “Play Me, I’m Yours” has also given quirkier artists such as Shaw an opportunity to perform their music for a curious-minded public — unearthing an idiosyncratic musical underground that’s been restricted to Los Angeles’s fringier venues.
Nothing’s quirky about “Rhapsody in Blue,” but stick around and you might hear Shaw break into pieces from his rock opera, “M16,” which he’s been trying to get produced for 10 years. It’s the story — prepare yourself — of a sentient rifle, born to a woman who was raped by a Sunday school teacher, that grows up and falls in love with a “gasoline mermaid” from another planet.
Yes, he's one of the musicians most Angelenos normally wouldn't get to hear.
Shaw doesn’t travel alone. Sometimes he’ll perform with trumpeter Jennifer Moore. Recently he’s been seen with self-taught, New Orleans-born jazz musician Blaise Delacroix, another member of Los Angeles’s experimental set. Last Sunday, at the piano on the Olvera Street plaza, Delacroix, who’s on a mission to play all 30 pianos (though, at only seven, he has a long way to go), performed “Ave Maria” — as a free-form, almost unrecognizable jazz song.
Of course, Delacroix and Shaw might not be typical of everyone who has played a “Play Me, I’m Yours” piano. But nobody is. The scene across the street from Delacroix, at the Union Station piano, was completely different, with professional choral conductor Brad Hubisz performing a soaring rendition of the popular Josh Groban song “You Raise Me Up.” What unites these disparate musicians is the spirit of community togetherness that defines “Play Me, I’m Yours.”
When Hubisz dropped some sheet music after finishing his song, a stranger in the crowd rushed over to help him gather it up. It’s just as Shaw had said earlier that day.
“This seems to bring out the best in most people.”