'Dueling Pianos' concert reproduces famous showdown between 'Blind' Boone and 'Blind Tom'

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 | 9:02 p.m. CST; updated 3:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 16, 2014
J.W. "Blind" Boone matched Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins, a nationally-known pianist, in a playoff at Garth Hall 134 years ago.

COLUMBIA — On March 3, 1880, J.W. "Blind" Boone went to a music hall on East Broadway and challenged Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins to a piano playoff.

Both men were virtuosos with the uncanny ability to recreate music after hearing it only once. That night, they took turns playing compositions for the other to duplicate.

The duel lasted several songs before the crowd erupted. The young hometown favorite had equaled the older and more established "Blind Tom," then the highest paid pianist in America who was a slave in Georgia before his talent was recognized.

On Monday night, the Boone County Historical Society recreated this piano duel exactly 134 years later.

More than 200 people attended the nearly three-hour performance in the county museum's Montminy Art Gallery off U.S. 63.

Tom Andes, resident pianist at Murry's Restaurant, was "Blind Tom," and Sutu Forté played the role of "Blind" Boone. Their piano showdown covered a range of classics from Bach to Chopin, as well as titles shouted by the audience, including songs by Leonard Cohen and Scott Joplin.

The original duel took place in Garth Hall, later the Haden Opera House and now the site of Commerce Bank at Broadway and Ninth Street.

According to a retrospective article in the Columbia Tribune dated July 25, 1912, "Blind" Boone started with a composition known as the "Butterfly galop," adding personal variations.

"Blind Tom" reproduced the composition and Boone's variations note-for-note. He then played "Delta Kappa march," another popular tune of the time.

Boone returned the favor, playing the piece just as his counterpart had, and, in the process, won over the audience.

"Garth Hall was packed and the audience applauded enthusiastically, delighted that Columbia had a musical wonder equal to Blind Tom," according to the article.

On Monday night at the Historical Society, a warmup preceded the duel — Andes first played Bach and then an improvised piece.

"I'm channeling the spirit tonight of Tom Wiggins," Andes said. "We both like to improvise, so this next piece will never be heard again."

Forté started with a piece by Chopin, which received a standing ovation. The flamboyant pianist had entered the room wearing a curly, black wig; in fact, during the entire playoff she remained in character.

She was led to the piano by a man who appeared to be her assistant. As he was leaving her side, she whispered, "Thank you, Mr. Lange" — a reference to John Lange, "Blind" Boone's manager.

During the actual duel, a third musician played a song and Andes and Forté had a chance to duplicate it — if they didn't know the melody, they improvised.

In the finale, audience members took turns requesting songs. When one suggested "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen, Forté was stumped, but Andes nailed it.

Another audience member asked for "Nola" and this time Forté prevailed. Both were able to perform Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

When the announcer asked who won, several people called out, "blind draw."

The event was sponsored by the "Blind" Boone Piano Fund, established by Bill Crawford, local historian and Historical Society president emeritus.

The musicians played on the crown jewel of the Boone County Historical Society, an 1891 Chickering and Sons piano once owned by "Blind" Boone himself.

"We are revisiting the past and how warm and friendly and rich it was," Forté said.

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