Piano Man on a Mission

Kristopher Hull is zeal on wheels.

"That was the first time I'd ever seen him play for a large crowd of people," Dawn says. "I thought he was fantastic. And ... his strength of will to actually accomplish this thing was just stunning to me."

"I believed he would do it, because there was no way that he couldn't," says Troy. "His whole life was in that direction for so long, and it came down to the point where all he had was his piano and his truck."

A hit in Crystal Beach, Hull was invited to perform at the community association's annual charity auction, where a bidder would win a private concert by him. As he played, he was suddenly roused from his "pianistic ecstasy" by a hand grabbing his shoulder.

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.

He wheeled around to see an unfamiliar woman, who was hysterical. "I think that's your car!" she sobbed. Looking beyond her, through a set of glass doors, Hull saw what she meant. The emergency brake on his pickup truck, parked on an inclining street, had somehow disengaged and the truck rolled into the side of her brand-new 2008 Saturn Sky roadster.

The police were called, but nobody was injured, and Hull's insurance took care of the damage. Shaken, he returned to his piano and finished the concert. But when Staaffe showed up, more or less on a whim, to meet him shortly afterward, they agreed it was time to go south and try their luck in Miami.

Arriving in the Magic City in late February, Hull and Staaffe stayed in a series of low-rent motels around Biscayne Boulevard, from the White House Inn on NE 123rd Street down to the Best Value Inn on NE 52nd Street. They decided to stick around. Hull would cut his teeth on pianist errantry while the cold weather everywhere else subsided, and Staaffe would try to find work in his trade, fashion photography.

They found an unfurnished one-story duplex on NE 26th Street. It was mostly raw concrete and exposed wiring on the inside. But it was large and cheap and, most important, boasted a gentle concrete slope up to the door, perfect for getting the piano in and out.

They lucked into a sympathetic landlord named Richard Strell. A man about town and proud occasional political gadfly, Strell founded the Neighborhood of Edgewater Association of Residents. He introduced Hull to local singer-songwriter Jesse Jackson, who also got his start here a few years ago busking on Lincoln Road. Jackson was performing at his Tuesday-night residency at Amendment XXI, in the Design District, one night in March when he noticed Strell "with this scraggly-looking dude with crazy hair."

"Kris introduced himself, and I said, 'Dude, do you have your piano on you?' And he did. We walked out to the pickup truck, and he pulled it out and played it right there on 46th Street," Jackson recalls. "Then we wheeled it into Amendment XXI, miked it up, and had him play. And it was a hit. It was a fucking hit, man."

The two quickly became friends, especially when they realized they lived only a block apart. Jackson invited Hull along to his occasional Friday-afternoon gig — at the Skipping Stone children's activity center, off Biscayne on NE 71st Street. "I had brought a full band once, and I was playing my tunes, and the kids were a little bit — it was very difficult to keep their attention," Jackson says. "So Kris wheels his piano in there, and the kids — you could not peel them away. They were like, Oh, my god! They didn't know how to react — because of the music, and because it was a piano and it was huge. They were like, What is this thing? They had never seen or heard anything like that before in their short little lives.

"It was awesome. I like to think the measure of a good artist is one who can maintain the attention of children and drunks."

It was also through Strell that Hull would meet one of his staunchest local champions, one who would help legitimize his talent as an autodidact: Ruth Greenfield is a concert pianist and former chairwoman of the music department at Miami Dade College.

In 1972, Greenfield started the Lunchtime Lively Arts series, which ran for 18 years. "We'd have a concert, theater, or dance every Wednesday at noon," she recalls. "We began by going all over the city, which is what he's doing. We had the symphony orchestra at the courthouse; we were at Bayfront Park a lot." Hull's project, therefore, struck a personal chord.

"I had never heard of anything like it before — and I have met a few strange ones, including myself! But I must say I was tantalized by the idea that he had put so much work into Chopin, and that he wasn't just one of those kids on the block who was playing a little bit of jazz and rock," she says. "And I was taken with his personality.... He's not afraid to play; sometimes he has to stop a few minutes because he gets so passionate."

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