| By Andrew Gilbert
On a recent balmy Sunday night, Piedmont Piano overflowed with people drawn to the brightly lit showroom by an all-star quartet bristling with jazz heavyweights—musicians usually found at Yoshi’s or other major theaters. Almost as eye-popping as the band led by pianist Taylor Eigsti was the improvised desk I used to take notes on the performance, an elegant 5-foot Steinway M made in 1956, listing for $39,500 (piano bench and delivery included).
Since relocating from Piedmont Avenue to Oakland’s burgeoning Uptown district in January of 2010, the venerable piano emporium founded by the passionately musical Callahan family has turned into one of the East Bay’s most reliably interesting venues. Presenting some 100 shows a year, the store offers good acoustics, a pleasantly informal vibe, and the wondrous experience of being surrounded on three sides by dozens of awe-inspiring instruments.
“The way that the space is set up with the audience sitting in the middle surrounded by a ring of pianos, some folks have suggested there’s an acoustic quality added by the instruments themselves, as they’re all so resonant,” says Piedmont Piano proprietor Jim Callahan Jr., who offers a cheerful caution before every show that patrons should refrain from placing a drink upon a piano lest they go home with an unintended purchase.
Pianists have naturally gravitated to the venue, drawn by long-standing ties to Callahan and by the opportunity to play magnificent instruments. Over the past three years the room has hosted a dazzling array of keyboard talent, including Denny Zeitlin, Henry Butler, Omar Sosa, Larry Vuckovich, Jovino Santos Neto, and Art Lande, who returns to Piedmont Piano with his quartet on May 10. Callahan is also partial to vocalists, Brazilian music, and European classical artists.
In many ways the piano business has avoided the tsunami of digital disruption upending so many other brick-and-mortar enterprises. While costwise, acquiring a piano can be akin to buying a car—Piedmont Piano offers instruments from under $1,000 to well over $100,000—musicians and venues ready to invest serious capital in a good instrument bring another level of emotional involvement to the purchase. Add to the expense the necessity of spending time getting acquainted with an instrument and it means that Amazon and eBay are unlikely to take over much of the business. The relationships forged between dealers and musicians also mean that a welcoming showroom like Piedmont Piano can serve as far more than a commercial endeavor.
More than a venue, the space has become a laboratory for players like Eigsti. A former prodigy who started accompanying jazz greats like vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Red Holloway, and vocalist Kevin Mahogany while still in high school, the 28-year-old Eigsti has thrived since relocating to New York City in 2007, but he still spends a good deal of time in the Bay Area, where his roots run deep. When he’s in town, the Menlo Park–raised pianist has taken to dropping by Piedmont Piano after hours to record himself as he hones music for a solo piano project.
“What Piedmont Piano has become is pretty phenomenal, to have a cultural hub like that,” Eigsti says. “Not only are there some of the best pianos I’ve ever played, the vibe is so conducive to concerts. There’s something magical about playing in that room. It’s acoustically amazing and there’s the positive vibe they’ve created. I’m just excited to be part of the community there.”
Pianists are a famously fussy lot who can talk into the wee hours about the damaged, abused, out-of-tune, and otherwise ill-treated instruments they’ve encountered. Piedmont Piano is a tonic for even the most persnickety player. Stories abound about Callahan making it possible for pianists to obtain coveted instruments. The day after the Eigsti performance I ran into Callahan around the corner at the lauded new eatery and jazz club Duende, a partnership between former Oliveto chef, Paul Canales, and impresario Rocco Somazzi. He was arranging with them to bring over a new piano for the space, a rental service he’s provided for numerous small venues.
Callahan came to the business via the old-school route. His family relocated to Oakland from Washington, D.C., in 1956 when his father, Jim Callahan Sr., landed a French horn chair with the San Francisco Symphony (a gig he held for more than a quarter century). In those days the symphony’s six-month season left many musicians dependent on outside income, so he learned the piano tuning trade and launched his part-time Callahan Piano Service in Oakland in 1957. As the Callahan clan grew, music and piano maintenance became a family affair.
“I had seven brothers and sisters, and my mother was a musician, too,” Callahan says. “Everyone played some instrument or another, and we always listened to all kinds of music. When my brothers and I got into high school, my father encouraged us to get into piano tuning. As it turned out, my three brothers are all piano tuners. I was more interested in the instruments themselves. That’s how the store got started by all of us in 1978.”
Fascinated by the variety of tones and cadences produced by different pianos, Callahan decided not to pursue an architecture career with his newly minted degree from U.C. Berkeley and joined his brothers John and Michael in Callahan Piano Service, based in Alameda. But with customers constantly inquiring about where to find a good deal on a quality used instrument, they realized that pianos offered another business opportunity.
In the fall of 1978 the family opened its piano store in a converted Piedmont Avenue garage, a partnership between Jim Sr., Jim Jr., John, and Michael Callahan, an establishment specializing in vintage Steinways that they’d lovingly restored.
By 1980, John and Michael decided to devote themselves to Callahan Piano Service (joined by their younger brother Matt), leaving Piedmont Piano as a separate entity in Jim Callahan Jr.’s hands, though the two businesses continue to work together seamlessly in providing piano services. Situated for 25 years at 4382 Piedmont Ave., the company steadily expanded its pianistic purview, serving as an authorized seller for Yamaha, Fazioli, Mason & Hamlin, and Bluthner.
The Piedmont Avenue store presented occasional concerts “but there was nowhere to move the pianos out of the way,” Callahan says. “It was a major upheaval to clear enough space for chairs. When the company expanded with a second store in San Francisco in 2004, the layout made it possible to build a little stage.”
As the region’s only authorized seller of handcrafted Faziolis (the first pianos ever built using wood from the same northern Italian red spruce forest once harvested by the Stradivarius family), Callahan thought it would be a kick to offer the space as a free service to teachers for student recitals (which is kind of like sending out student drivers in Maseratis, minus the chance of a spectacular crash). When word went out on the piano grapevine about the opportunity to play a Fazioli, Callahan’s phone started ringing, and the San Francisco store turned into a part-time venue presenting several concerts a month.
When the 2008 economic downturn necessitated closing the San Francisco store, Piedmont Piano consolidated its operations in Oakland, opening a new store in 2010 at 1728 San Pablo Ave. in an art deco style structure that opened in 1946 as the California Furniture Company. Located directly behind the Fox Theater, the building was long home to the California Art Supply Company and still boasts a panoramic storefront.
Callahan remodeled the space to maximize its potential as a performance space, and within days “some jazz heroes of mine were calling looking to play here, saying, ‘Hey, I heard you can put on concerts at the store,’” Callahan says. “Oakland was very welcoming of the idea of putting on shows, so it’s all legit. We see it as a form of promotion for the store, and I do end up getting inquiries about instruments.”
For music lovers, Piedmont Piano has filled a gaping hole in the Bay Area jazz ecosystem, which often leaves well-traveled masters with few performance options. Pianist Dick Whittington, who makes his third Piedmont Piano appearance April 12 with ace bassist John Wiitala, drummer Vince Lateano, and special guest Andrew Speight on alto sax, knows something about the way a venue can take on a life of its own.
After spending his formative years on the Southern California scene accompanying jazz giants such as saxophonist Dexter Gordon, trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden, Whittington moved to Berkeley, where he eventually ended up buying the Maybeck Recital Hall. From the late 1980s to the mid-’90s, his living room performance space in the Berkeley Hills hosted a glorious run of concerts, including 10 duo sessions and 42 albums featuring solo piano recitals by jazz royalty (on pianos supplied by Callahan) documented by Concord Music.
“The hardest thing about the gig is trying to decide which one to play,” Whittington says. “It’s really a luxury you seldom run into. I was spoiled at Maybeck, but here you have all these great pianos, and it will have been tuned that afternoon. There are no excuses when you play there. It’s kind of unnerving.”
For info about upcoming shows at Piedmont Piano, 1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland: (510) 547-8188 or piedmontpiano.com.
Andrew Gilbert, music critic for The Monthly, is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers music for numerous publications.
Keys to success: (Top) Jim Callahan Jr. (left) and his brother, John, owner of Callahan Piano Service, on either side of Jonathan Cain, pianist of the San Francisco band Journey. (Middle) Jazz fans at a musical event at Piedmont Piano’s art deco space on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. (Bottom) Piedmont Piano owner Jim Callahan Jr., left, with acclaimed saxophonists Dana Stephens and Evan Francis, and pianist, Taylor Eigsti (seated). Top and bottom photos by Peter G. Marcus; middle photo by Jim Callahan.