Piano Man on a Mission

Kristopher Hull is zeal on wheels.

This past February 27 would come to be known as Kristopher Hull's Worst Day Ever. Armed with a full-size upright piano, a repertoire of Chopin's etudes and nocturnes, and his nerves, the 33-year-old pianist planned to storm Lincoln Road, guerrilla-style. He was going to bring classical music out of the concert hall and into the streets.

Inspired by his fictional role model, Don Quixote, Hull was in the early days of his quest, which he called "pianist errantry." He was accompanied by a pal, Swedish-born photographer Victor Staaffe, who was documenting the whole thing. Together that sunny afternoon, they unloaded Hull's piano from the back of his aquamarine pickup truck. Setting up a metal ramp from the edge of the truck bed, they used the electric winch specially installed in the back to carefully roll down the piano, which was custom-mounted on a steel brace and a set of four pneumatic casters. They loosened the straps that connected it to the winch and removed the piano's heavy black slipcover. Then Staaffe left with the truck to buy a bicycle in Coral Gables, and Hull was alone with his instrument near the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.

"When I'm about to go play, I actually get really, really tense," he says later, over pan con lechón at the Latin Café on Biscayne Boulevard. "You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if you're going to make any money, if people are going to like it, if you're going to play well."

The life of a pianist-errant can be lonely in Miami.
Victor Staaffe
The life of a pianist-errant can be lonely in Miami.
Kris Hull unloads his piano with the help of a winch installed in his truck bed.
Victor Staaffe
Kris Hull unloads his piano with the help of a winch installed in his truck bed.

Steeling himself, Hull pushed his piano into an empty corner in front of the New World Symphony building. He set up his card table with his self-produced CDs and a placard bearing his name. Then he began to play. Relaxing, he lost himself in the rapture of giving flight to the notes. A few people gathered, then about 30, then more.

Opening his eyes for a moment, Hull noticed two men charging down the pedestrian mall, wearing matching, logo-bearing polo shirts. They were Miami Beach code enforcers, he learned when they interrupted him, mid-etude. Because Hull was permit-less, he had to go. "If we weren't just doing our jobs," they told him, "we'd be out here listening to you play too." He was free to play on Washington Avenue, they said.

Mustering his pluck, Hull wheeled his piano down Lincoln as evening approached. He stopped on the east side of Washington, on the corner outside Walgreens. He began to play again, and was mostly ignored. A young woman asked to play, and as she pounded out a rudimentary rendition of Beethoven's "Für Elise," a crowd gathered. Then her boyfriend quietly offered to sell Hull his choice of coke or weed. Luckily, Staaffe soon returned with the truck.

Recalling his hero Quixote's multiple forays into the world, Hull remained undeterred. He loaded the piano back onto the truck bed and remembered that an acquaintance had told him to call on a friend's "expensive sneaker store" on lower Collins Avenue. He and Staaffe set off.

The store turned out to be Kidrobot, the Southeast outpost of a small chain based in New York that sells limited-edition clothing and collectibles — all sleek, high-design urban skate-kid couture. That night, Kidrobot was in the full swing of an opening party. Thanks, but no thanks; they had already booked a DJ, an employee told Hull.

And still, Hull rolled on, across Fifth Street and back onto the lower stretch of Washington. Hearing music through an open bar door, he stopped. It was Love Hate, the upscale retro-tattoo-art-themed bar owned by the stars of Miami Ink. Kitted out with stripper poles and low banquettes, it's an elegantly rowdy spot that throbs to old-school hip-hop most nights. But tonight there were live bands, and Hull thought he should take a chance.

He introduced himself to a manager but was met with skepticism. Suddenly there was an almost audible pop and a collective gasp. The lights blacked out in the bar — as they had done earlier that day throughout most of South Florida.

"So that's when I really turned up the heat on the guy," Hull recounts. "I was like, 'Don't be a fucking idiot, man. You'll be the only place on South Beach that has any music. It's Chopin; it's fantastic stuff. It's free.' I just pestered him until he finally said okay."

To the manager's open-mouthed surprise, Hull dutifully rolled in his piano, positioning it near the back of the bar. He sat down, stretched, and raised his arms to play.

Then the lights came back on.

"Sorry, guy! Gotta get the piano out of here," the manager told him. "See ya later, Elton John!"

"That's when it started to sort of dawn on me," Hull says, "that maybe this pianist errantry is a lot more difficult than I thought."


"Where this piano thing came from is one of the great mysteries of life," Dawn Hull, Kristopher's mother, laughs by phone from the family's winter home in rural Maine. Kris Hull was born in 1974 in Washington, D.C., but was soon transplanted to rural Kenya as he and his mother followed his father, Jon, a wildlife photographer. His first brother, Ryan, was born two years later, and his youngest brother, Troy, followed three years after that.

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