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Piano man opens up shop in Durham

Tom Merrigan is the piano man.
Tom Merrigan is the piano man.

Durham’s own piano man will soon play for residents in the mood for a melody.

Calling his venture the “Durham Street Piano Project,” Durham resident Tom Merrigan is raising funds through September to purchase an old upright piano on wheels that he can play in the streets of Durham. Merrigan plans to play for residents in locations such as the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Farmers’ Market and Five Points.

“I wanted to skip all the band stuff and just park myself where people can hear my music,” Merrigan said. “I have a lot of fun playing in my dining room, but I want to play to other people. I don’t want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. I just like it when I can play to some people, even if it is a couple [of] people.”

Merrigan set an initial fundraising goal in late July of $1,800 in 60 days and reached his goal in three days. He has now raised more than $2,500 and plans to use the extra funds for promotional purposes, like buying bumper stickers.

Merrigan left New York City in 2008 and said Durham’s calmer culture inspired his project. After playing in a two-man pop band while in New York, Merrigan switched over to more acoustical music with older roots and noted artists such as Jimmy Yancey, Fats Domino and Boogie Woogie as his musical muses.

“Imagine walking through the American Tobacco Campus and hearing gritty blues piano,” Merrigan wrote on his fundraising website Kickstarter. “Or, dancing to ragtime at Five Points. Or, nodding your head to boogie-woogie at the Farmer’s Market.”

Merrigan, an architect for the downtown firm Center Studio Architecture, said his company is committed to downtown revitalization. Merrigan sees his piano project as an extension of that work.

“Something like this can really make space within space,” he said. “You don’t have to have a venue like a stage. The idea is to take a very general space and then modify it how you would like. People may not realize that Durham is full of space to modify and turn into spaces for dance and music and for people to gather.”

Members of Downtown Durham Inc. have invested more than $1,000 collectively into the project, President of DDI William Kalkhof said, who decided to back Merrigan financially after hearing about the project from a co-worker. Kalkhof said he knew immediately that it had the potential to add something positive to the city.

“It is one thing to have someone to play guitar on the street,” Kalkhof said. “It’s a whole new level of coolness to get a piano out there.”

Downtown Durham has changed significantly since Kalkhof became president of DDI in 1993, he said. He added that the key to revitalizing the area is to combine big projects, such as the Durham Farmers’ Market and the Durham Performing Arts Center, with smaller projects such as the Durham Street Piano Project.

“Now we have a downtown with memorable experiences like the theater, the ballpark. And with the addition of Tom’s street theater to the mix, it’s a whole lot more likely that Duke students and staff will have reason to come downtown,” he said.

Merrigan said he has been “embraced” by the community in a show of support.

“In a bigger sense, I think it really speaks to Durham and Durham’s very proactive love of public art and local projects,” he said.

Junior Alex Swain, Duke Student Government vice president for Durham and regional affairs, grew up in Durham and said the project is at the heart of what the city represents.

“Street performance is not something that I see a lot in Durham and I think we could use some more,” she said. “Live music can change the mood of a normal space, and it brings a lot more business downtown and makes people more excited about going.”

Michael Goodman, vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns the 16-acre American Tobacco Campus, is another major contributor to Merrigan’s project. Goodman wrote in an email that he is excited to see Merrigan’s piano hit the streets.

“Projects like this really make you appreciate how special Durham really is,” he said. “Both individuals and companies came together to help someone fulfill their dream with the only payoff being something the entire community can enjoy.”

Due to fundraising guidelines outlined on the Kickstarter website, Merrigan will not be able to tap into his funds until late September or early October. Merrigan said he is planning to celebrate the success of the fundraiser by hosting a happy hour at the local bar sometime in late September.

In the end, Merrigan hopes the Durham community enjoys the free-spirited nature of his project as much as he does.

“You can dance if you want, you can just walk by or you can ignore it,” he said. “You can really do whatever you want. This project is more free, spontaneous and family-oriented—and that’s what I like.”

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