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Sonoma County piano man Jim Davis goes back to where it all started

Published: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 3:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 3:15 p.m.

A lot happens in 50-some years. Certainly much has transpired since West County native Jim Davis last ascended the stage of the Sebastopol Veterans Memorial Building to play, in front of no one, the hall's resident Steinway & Sons grand piano.

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Pianist and piano technician James Davis checks the hammers in a 1927 Steinway grand piano at his shop on Friday, April 19, 2013. Davis recently renovated the piano that had long stood neglected in the Sebastopol Memorial Veterans Building.

(Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

In the late 1950s, the building custodian would trust Davis, then in his late teens, to practice and improvise at night, then shut off the lights and lock the door when he left.

Since then, Davis, now 71, has become Sonoma County's piano man, best known for his artistry at tuning and restoration.

The old vets building on High Street has just within the past year been transformed into the home of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. And you'd have to hear the piano to believe what's become of the 1927 Long-A Steinway. After years, maybe decades, of receiving little care and in fact having paint cans, stored tools and such heaped onto it, the piano has just been renewed — by Davis, and his son and fellow piano technician, Greg.

To celebrate the piano's restoration, and to help pay for it, the arts center has invited Jim Davis to return to the vets building stage and play it again, as he did so many years ago.

Davis, who grew up on an apple ranch southwest of Graton and aspired to be “the world's greatest piano player,” will perform at the May 4 concert an original, four-piece composition inspired by the Russian River called “To the Sea.”

The gregarious, literate musician and technician said it's astounding that after five decades he'll once again be on “the same exact stage with the same exact piano.”

He got his start, at age 5, playing at home. Nobody had to tell him to practice. One or the other of his folks would ask why he wasn't working in the orchards or milking the cow, and one of his eight brothers and sisters would tattle that he was inside, on the piano.

Davis remembers later discovering, as a teenager, the Steinway grand on the stage of the vets building. The custodian had no problem with him playing it after closing time. Young Davis would close his eyes and imagine the auditorium filled with people. “They were out there in my mind,” he said.

He played the 6-foot, 4.5-inch Steinway only for a year or so. After graduating from Pacific Christian Academy, where he met his future wife, Charnell, he studied at Santa Rosa Junior College and then majored in music at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

For a time as a young man, he kept body and soul together by performing. After he and Charnell married in 1964, they took an extended trip to Alaska. In Ketchikan, he landed a gig at the Narrows Inn that paid $250 and eight meals a week.

Certain realities of trying to make it as a professional musician, linked with an interest in learning to tune a piano, led Davis to the late Wayne Domeny, a blind man and master Santa Rosa piano craftsman. Domeny took him on as an apprentice.

Davis learned to tune, repair and restore pianos, then he passed the test required of a Registered Piano Technician. This year is the 47th that he has tended to pianos grand and humble throughout Sonoma County and into adjoining counties.

Among the instruments he services is the Schulz family's Austrian-made Bösendorfer. Davis one day remarked to the late Charles Schulz, the “Peanuts” creator, that he'd sure like to hear him play. He said Schulz replied the he didn't play — “Everything I know about the piano I learned from (his Beethoven-crazed character) Schroeder.”

For years now, Davis has made a gift to the Sebastopol Center for the Arts by tuning and maintaining its pianos at no cost. He said that when director Linda Galletta told him the arts center would lease and upgrade the Veterans Memorial Building in Sebastopol, “The first thing that came to my mind was that (Steinway) piano.”

Galletta said the piano did indeed come with the lease.

Davis went to the vets building and inspected his old friend. It was chipped and cracked on the outside, gummed up and in desperate need of renovation inside.

He trucked it to the shop at his home in Santa Rosa and with the help of his son, Greg, has replaced all the moving parts that transfer the press of a key to the striking of a string, as well as all the strings.

The ebony exterior could still use some attention, but the Davises have the grand sounding like new.

Jim Davis will come full circle with the Steinway when her returns to the stage of his youth on the evening of May 4 and performs on it before a real audience. The piano is ready and so is he.

“There's nothing like being on stage, if you feel confident and in control,” he said. “I have infinite knowledge of this instrument and what I can do with it.”

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