Concert funds key to restoring ‘Blind’ Boone’s famed piano

Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:36 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

At first glance, the instrument sitting in the corner at the Walters-Boone County Historical Museum doesn’t look like much. Its sandy-colored surfaces are smooth but dull, and it is far removed from the bright, hot lights of a concert stage.

The only evidence of the instrument’s glory hangs on the off-white walls that surround it: a portrait of legendary ragtime artist J.W. “Blind” Boone and a plaque detailing the history of the piano he played.

The Boone County Historical Society will host a benefit concert at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 to help fund what it calls “extensive maintenance” on the piano. Based on an estimate by Hennessy Music, the repairs will cost $4,000 to $6,000.

The piano was donated to the society in 1972 and is considered one of the jewels of the society’s collection for a number of reasons, said Deborah Thompson, executive director of the museum.

“First of all, it was Blind Boone’s,” she said. “Second, it tells of a time when music was in transition and was a big part of everyone’s life. You couldn’t turn on the television or play Xbox.”

Gary Smith, president-elect of the society, said the process of restoration will be difficult because of the piano’s age.

“It’s like working on a fine-tuned antique,” he said.

Among the parts that require fixing or complete replacement are the felts, hammers and wires.

The concert will feature internationally acclaimed ragtime musician Mimi Blais of Montreal, who plans to play both classic ragtime and some of her own compositions. She has played several concerts in Columbia since 1990, including the J.W. “Blind” Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival. Blais played Boone’s piano once before in the early ’90s and described it as a great instrument.

“I was impressed with the beauty of the piano,” she said.

The instrument was made in 1891 by the Chickering Company in Boston. It was specially crafted for Boone, who had broken other pianos with the force of his playing, Thompson said. She added that Boone used the piano for more than three decades and even took it abroad when he played.

The piano is still played several times a year, including at the Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival and during the Christmas season.

Blais, who described local ragtime fans as an appreciative audience with respect for the artists, said she had not yet decided on the specifics of her program. She just wants audience members to enjoy themselves.

“Ragtime is a good time,” she said. “It’s always been like that.”

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