In his quiet way, Johnny O'Brien was the first performer at this year's New Orleans Jazz Fest. On opening day, he arrived not long after the sun came up and stood for a moment on the infield, taking in the annual transformation of the Fair Grounds. "It was the most beautiful I'd ever seen it in 30 years," he says. "The grass was so green, and the slate was clean. The palette was ready for whatever was going to happen."
O'Brien made his way to the stage of the Jazz Tent, where he sat down at the 9-foot Steinway concert grand piano -- a favorite of Herbie Hancock's -- to do some last-minute tuning and to play the magnificent instrument. "I was out here all by myself with no one to hear me except the guards," he says.
For three decades, O'Brien has been taking care of the pianos at Jazz Fest, checking them early in the morning, stopping at a stage between sets for a quick fine-tuning, performing emergency repairs. "Last year, one of the pianos fell through a soft spot on the Economy Stage and broke a leg," he says.
He fixed it. O'Brien is an accomplished musician, piano rebuilder and Steinway concert technician. He became a part of Jazz Fest when Sherman Bernard asked him to restore a 1927 Steinway that had been beat into submission by powerhouses like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Professor Longhair, James Booker and Fats Domino.
"Sherman was the piano tuner for the New Orleans Symphony for many years, and he was the first tuner at Jazz Fest," O'Brien says. Bernard was there when there was one piano at Congo Square in Armstrong Park. After the festival started to take off in a big way, he needed help, and he asked O'Brien to join him.
O'Brien's Jazz Fest baptism, a wet one, came the second weekend of his first year. "One of those New Orleans rain-and-wind events blew up and tore the tops off stages, and the tarps on the pianos blew away," he says. "On one particular piano, someone left the key cover up. We had to tip it over to pour the water out of it."
His two most effective technician's tools for drying out the actions on those soggy pianos? "Towels and a hair dryer," he says.
He was working on the last one when he heard someone behind him say, "We need to start." "I turned to look, and Booker was standing there," O'Brien says. "I told him, 'I did the best I could,' and he said, 'I've played on worse.'"
O'Brien's hardest Fest day each year is the Thursday before opening day, when he arrives early and stays late, doing the initial tuning on the pianos. The eight Steinway concert grands he works on, with occasional help from Bernard and another local tuner, are trucked in from New York and require major tuning after their long ride. He goes from stage to stage armed with a large toolbox full of tools.
Each of the 88 keys on the pianos has three strings that must be tuned. First, he tunes the string in the middle of each key, and then he brings the two outside strings in unison with it. "You have to have a very good ear to do it," he says. "As you go on working with pianos, your sense of pitch develops."
He tuned his first piano as a young musician in Richmond, Va., with a band he'd formed called Southern Light. When he went on tour, he always traveled with his piano. "It was expensive to get it tuned before every performance, so I decided to tune it myself," he says.
He bought a tuning hammer and some mutes and went to work on it a few hours before he was scheduled to perform. "I made a big mess of it," he says, laughing.
After that experience he bought a piano from a man who tuned and restored pianos. "He said, 'I'll give you a good price because it needs some work, and I'll show you how to do it,'" O'Brien says.
He ended up serving an apprenticeship at the man's shop, and he was hooked. In 1978, he discovered Willis Snyder, a master craftsman and technician who had built a piano restoration shop in rural Pennsylvania next to a trout stream. He found his way to Snyder's shop frequently in the years that followed.
"He was really the best," O'Brien says. "He was a remarkable man and a brilliant technician with a wonderful sense of humor. He kept me going, because the more you get into this, the more difficult it gets."
O'Brien also studied at the Steinway piano factory in New York and started attending the annual Piano Technicians Guild conventions, where he met the best technicians in the field.
His first botched piano tuning led him to a remarkable career of tuning and restoring pianos, even bringing them back from the dead. He restored a Steinway grand piano that was underwater during Hurricane Camille and another one that went through a flood in Jamaica.
"I've restored Steinways that have been eaten by termites, that have been through fires, that have caught on fire," he says. There's nothing he's afraid to tackle on a piano. "And there's a lot that can go wrong," he says. "A Steinway concert grand has 12,000 moving parts."
In 1981, O'Brien's Jamaican-born grandfather took him to see Jamaica, and it was love at first sight. What was supposed to be a brief vacation turned into a new way of living when he learned that the island had been without a piano technician for years.
He stayed there and began breathing life back into pianos, including two 9-foot Steinway performing concert grands at the Jamaica School of Music. "I spent 15 years there, commuting back to the states," he says. "I still work in Jamaica three or four months out of the year."
From the time he started working on pianos, O'Brien's life has been a nomadic one. "Last year, I was on 53 flights, all of them piano-related," he says. "Pianos have taken me to amazing places."
Some of his restorations are done at a shop in Yonkers, New York. Others, he does on-site. When Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, calls him to work in a recording studio on one of his mega-yachts, he goes. "It began as a friendship," O'Brien says. "He's a great guitarist and an accomplished musician, and I started jamming with his band. I'm astounded by how many friendships I've made through pianos."
He works with jazz musicians, classical musicians, performing artists who play all kinds of music, doctors who chose medical school over a career as a musician. Think of a renowned piano player and O'Brien has probably worked with him: Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Henry Butler.
"I worked with Henry Butler at a long-ago Piano Night at Tipitina's, and I was just taken with him," he says. "He stole Piano Night. He just tore it up that year."
He has worked with Allen Toussaint and Ellis Marsalis for decades, and they're two of his favorite musicians. "And Jon Cleary," he says. "He's one of my best friends, and he's a fantastic piano player."
O'Brien loves bringing a beautiful old piano to life, but that part of his job is a lonely one, filled with solitary hours of painstaking work. He also loves talking to the musicians, having long discussions about the voice and touch of a piano he is working on for them.
"The personality of a piano can be shaped by the technician," he says. "It's like you're taking care of a family member, and you're the doctor."
After he does the morning touch-ups at the Jazz Fest, O'Brien spends his time walking around the Fair Grounds, Panama hat on his head, listening. If he hears the piano in the Gospel Tent being played very hard, he knows he'll need to give it some TLC the next morning. "Those keys are going to stick," he says.
His favorite thing to do at the Fest is to stand back to listen to a musician play a piano after he has tuned it and given it a bright, clear voice. "I'm the man behind the scenes, doing the best I can to make the pianos sound and feel right for them," he says. "And in 30 years, I've never had a complaint."
Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at email@example.com or 985.898.4831.
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