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At long last, the keys to it all

A pandemic piano acquisition a century in the making: After stops in Chicago, Sioux Falls, a school music room in Tigard & more, it feels like home.

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Four months ago my 400-pound baby finally came home for good: a cabinet-grand upright piano manufactured by the Cable-Nelson company of Chicago in 1917.

If the instrument’s 105-year journey to my house was a long one, it felt only slightly longer than the nearly half-century I’d waited to call a piano my own. This acquisition was more than a midlife-crisis or pandemic-induced indulgence. While carrying no delusions of talent, I’d been waiting to play for quite a while.

Dixie, Doris, and Deferred Dreams

When I was growing up in McMinnville my grandparents, who lived across town, had a spinet piano my mom had learned to play on as a child. If pressed, she could still play a song called “The Dixie Boogie.” But mom had also resented being all but forced to take piano lessons and compete in recitals for a decade, and made a point of not forcing me to do the same. The only problem is, I’d have loved to learn to play.

The writer in the 1970s, at his grandmother’s piano in McMinnville. Photo: Doris Lehman

My grandma, Doris Lehman, would sometimes play church hymns on her piano, but the adjacent TV was much more popular. When I, the otherwise-beloved only grandchild, began to excitedly bash away on the keys from time to time, her patience wore thin quickly. (To be fair, though, she did introduce me to my lifelong passion: photography.)

I’d only taken up music over the ensuing years in fits and starts. As a teen in the ’80s, I played trumpet in my junior high school band and learned to read music, but gave up the instrument after a year. In college at New York University in the early ’90s, I’d visited iconic jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard and Sweet Basil, to see acclaimed artists like Branford Marsalis, Art Farmer and Geri Allen. That inspired me, during a year off from college, to briefly take piano lessons with a keyboardist-roommate (in exchange for my cooking lessons). It was a fleeting arrangement; I soon returned to college. But the desire to play piano never quite left me, even as I moved to Portland in the late ’90s and proceeded to spend 25 years living in apartments too small for a piano.

Cable From The Past

All that changed in the fall of 2020, when I learned a friend of a friend on Facebook was giving away her upright.

In retrospect, this was a classic quarantine move. During the pandemic, so many of us seem to have made life changes of one kind or another—our jobs, where we live, who we live with—as if we’d all been reminded that life as we know it is precarious and short.

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I’d been yearning to get a piano, but had never taken steps to make it happen. Now, one was being dropped onto my lap. Well, thankfully, not literally dropped—the thing weighs nearly three times what I do. But all I had to do was schedule a delivery.

Julie Rawls, the acquaintance giving away the piano, had owned it for many decades. It was selected by her mother in law, who used to work for the Meier & Frank department store as a pianist; if a customer wanted to hear what particular sheet-music songs sounded like, she’d play them. “She gave my daughter lessons on it…but alas, Leslie lost interest,” Rawls explained at the time.

Lifting the hood on the vintage Cable-Nelson: like a harp hiding inside. Photo: Brian Libby

Visiting her house to see the piano, I marveled not only at its beauty and its warm tone. I also was astonished when Rawls lifted up the operable front wall of the piano—what seemed like a car hood—to reveal the entire inner workings of the instrument. This was no modest spinet piano like my grandparents had. As Rawls put it, this cabinet grand had the equivalent of a harp hiding inside.

Lucky as I felt to have found Rawls’ piano giveaway, in a sense she was lucky to find me. In recent years, there’s become a glut of old pianos, and even a decade ago The New York Times was reporting their increasing presence in city dumps. Most people who want to play just buy a digital keyboard, which takes up much less space. And even those who are buying pianos can purchase a new model for about the same as it costs to have an old one moved and repaired. Rawls later told me that if I hadn’t taken this piano, she was considering offering its raw materials and parts for free, because there weren’t any other takers.

2021: A Piano-Moving Odyssey

My partner (ArtsWatch contributor Valarie Smith) didn’t mind us getting a piano. As in years past when I’d considered it, there was no room in our small apartment. But we did have room in the basement, which thankfully had its own door. Yet if the piano was going to fit through the doorway, it would only just fit. The measurements showed there was one inch to spare.

Because I lived on a narrow street in Ladd’s Addition, Michelle’s Piano Company couldn’t get its delivery truck any closer than a block and a half away. I’ll never forget seeing the piano wheeled across 12th Avenue, a busy two-lane, one-way arterial, by a trio of young men, and then about 40 yards down the middle of Mulberry Avenue to my address. I’ll also never forget the relief I felt as the trio of movers successfully wheeled the 28-inch-wide piano down the sloping driveway through the basement’s 29-inch doorframe.

If all else fails, put it in the basement: the Cable-Nelson’s first stop on its journey to a new household. Photo: Brian Libby

Although the basement setting was a little rough, I was immediately delighted having the piano here. Yet if squeezing a cabinet grand into this dusty subterranean space was ill-advised, so too was arranging to have one delivered while my partner and I were house-shopping. In fact, just 24 hours after the piano was delivered, our offer on a home was accepted. Suddenly, we were getting a lot of keys.

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As is my nature, I immediately began worrying how the piano would squeeze into our next home. The front door was plenty wide, but the floor plan necessitated a right or left turn that my measuring tape indicated there wasn’t room for. There were double French doors facing the back yard, but how would they get it to the back yard? Which is to say nothing of the decision about where to put it.

Six weeks after their first Cable-Nelson gig, the same three movers were back for this repeat engagement, taking the piano to our new house, three miles away. To get the piano up a dirt embankment, around the side of the house and to the back patio with the French doors, they produced a cart for the piano resting on small tires—about the size of a child’s starter bicycle. As three of us pushed this behemoth up the embankment and a fourth pulled from the front (using a bungee-cord-like belt tether), my first step sank straight down, as if the embankment were made of wet cement. Yet somehow the piano made it. Seconds later, it was in its chosen spot in our dining room.

Tuning Into History

Given the piano’s beauty and age, I yearned to know more about it and its manufacturer.

First, I looked up the Cable-Nelson Piano Company itself, which was still in operation as recently as seven years ago, as a subsidiary of Yamaha. When my piano was manufactured in 1917, the company had been operating for 14 years. Founded in Chicago, in its first two years it was known as Fayette S. Cable Company, until  H.P. Nelson joined the firm in 1905 and the company changed its name to Cable-Nelson Piano.

Say it loud, say it proud: Cable-Nelson Cabinet Grand Chicago. Photo: Brian Libby

It’s a testament to the popularity of pianos in the first half of the 20th century, particularly before television and radio, that Fayette Cable came from a trio of brothers who each owned their own piano company, and purchased two other piano companies to form this firm. In the late 1920s, Everett Piano Company acquired Cable-Nelson and production was transferred to South Haven, Michigan. Cable-Nelson became the merged company’s mid-priced brand, while Everett catered to the high end of the market.

As an affordable yet well-made piano with highly regarded tone, Cable-Nelson pianos became one of the biggest-selling brands in America during the height of piano production. [According to the National Piano Manufacturers Association, nearly 365,000 pianos were sold in 1910 alone, and between 1900 and 1930, the golden age of piano-making, American factories churned out millions.]

In 1954, the Hammond Organ company acquired both Everett Piano and Cable-Nelson; then, in 1973 sold them to Yamaha. In 1981, the Japanese company ceased production of Cable-Nelson, and Everett met the same fate eight years later. In 2007, Yamaha re-introduced the Cable-Nelson brand. It was again discontinued in 2015.

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When I had the piano professionally tuned last October by John Gilmore, I learned a little more.

“It turned out fine,” he began that afternoon, after completing the tuning. “And you got lucky, because I noticed it was in the Tigard school district.” He pointed to a small sticker inside the cabinet. “And usually pianos that wind up in schools really get beaten up.” He told me that during the pandemic, piano sales have gone up for more or less the first time in a generation.

John Gilmore is not just a piano tuner but a musician himself. Originally from Los Angeles, he’d played piano at iconic landmarks like The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and The Hotel Bel-Air. In the early ’90s, Gilmore even played a pianist in a Henry Weinhard’s beer commercial.

While tuning my piano, he also told me about his father, a 1930s San Francisco bandleader named Voyle Gilmore [John’s mother was the band’s vocalist] who later became a Capitol Records producer, arranger and vice president who worked with Frank Sinatra, Dick Dale, Dean Martin and Judy Garland, as well as with The Beatles’ manager and producer. “Dad worked with Brian Epstein extensively,” Gilmore told me. “He knew George Martin very well. When my dad was producing Sinatra, George came to L.A. to visit the session, before he had produced The Beatles.”

A little bit of history scrawled inside, from Sioux City, South Dakota on June 9, 1930. Photo: Brian Libby

It was too perfect for words. The Fab Four, my all-time favorite musicians—and my mom’s, whom she had seen perform at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum in 1965—were only three degrees of separation away, all thanks to this Cable-Nelson cabinet grand.

Gilmore didn’t just share his own history. He also uncovered a historical record hidden inside this instrument. Apparently it’s a piano tuners’ tradition to sign and date the inside plates of the pianos they work on. John found inside my piano two such signatures: one from 1930 (with “Sioux Falls” as the location) and one (sans location) from 1967, along with the undated Tigard School District sticker. For all I knew, the stressful double-move I experienced with this Cable-Nelson may have been one of its easier journeys.

Playing

First it was melodies from The Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django,” and Miles Davis’s “So What.” Soon after came The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” and an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack piece from Twin Peaks. In each case I could only conjure a small passage from the song, but that was enough to please me. A few days ago it was the bass part from a Tom Waits song, “Dirt In The Ground.” Just now, before writing this paragraph, for whatever reason I started playing the bass part to Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” I love that on a piano I can easily play the melody or the bass.

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Piano and pianist, posing in place. Photo: Valarie Smith

Although I still plan to take formal lessons, it’s amazing what you can learn by simply putting in 20 minutes a day noodling around. So many melodies I learned became mini-epiphanies: that they were just manipulations of keys near one another, in a kind of mathematical pattern. Just as computer code is all just combinations of ones and zeroes, so too is music just different combinations of a few notes and chords. It’s simple, and yet limitless. I remember in one YouTube piano-tutorial clip I watched to learn a C-chord progression, as part of playing the piano for one of my short films called Running In Place, the tutor estimated that scores or maybe hundreds of familiar rock and pop melodies could be played. And that’s just one chord.

What I actually enjoy most is not learning songs but, for lack of a better term, just sort of making sounds: trying different combinations of keys using most of my ten fingers. Sometimes they become beautiful accidental chords, and sometimes they sound discordant. But one thing about being a novice is that it’s easy to conjure a child-like sense of delight at what these 88 buttons can do when you press them. It’s like the quote attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach: “There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.” In my case, I don’t even hit the right keys per se. But even the wrong keys can make interesting sounds.

Instantly when it was delivered to our house, the piano seemed like it belonged there. Even on days when I haven’t played it, the instrument is evocative simply as a piece of furniture. Because pianos were once nearly ubiquitous in American homes, having it in my house makes it feel more like my home. I even think of my unplayed piano as a 400-pound work of art. Sure, it was a manufactured, mass-produced object. Yet the more time passes since manufacture, the more special an object becomes. There is great beauty in its tarnished old wood: the sense that it has stories to tell, from Chicago to Sioux Falls to Tigard and finally Southeast Portland.

Every day when I come into the dining room for the first time, seeing it has made me smile. I can’t say one listening to me bashing away on the keys would enjoy it. But that doesn’t matter. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught or retaught us, it’s that we need ways to lose ourselves, even for just a few fleeting moments in the course of the day. I may tend to play when no one else is at home, as if self-conscious that the ghost of Grandma will tell me to stop so she can watch As The World Turns. But when I sit down at my Cable-Nelson, for a time the world seems to pause.

At long last, sitting down to business and pleasure: After two heavy-duty moves in a matter of weeks, the 105-year old piano is settled into its new home, and new owner Brian Libby is happily at its keyboard. Photo: Valarie Smith

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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