Beside the book spines of Salinger and Hemingway sits James Jarvis at his piano every seventh day of the week. He is tucked in a corner of the store with novels all around him. A wonderful blend of ambient melodies and harmonies float from beyond the wooden bookshelves. The dim glow of lamplights hover as comfortable chairs and couches beckon readers to become an audience for this highly talented pianist.
Upon opening “The Hour I First Believed” to chapter one, a backdrop of jazz improvisation tickles the keys. The hammers and strings jump up and down, and the breaths of Jarvis infuse every note.
“After playing at the Calico Room three nights a week for about a year and a half, it was just time to move on and find another venue for my piano,” Jarvis says of his Yamaha P1 Model, built in 1960. “I was doing a walkabout downtown one day, scoping out the possibilities, and I wandered into Old Books. As I was walking through the bookstore, I spoke to [its owner] Gwenyfar [Rohler] about looking for a venue to place the piano. She said, ‘Why not here?’ And the rest is, as they say, recent history.”
Rohler loves what Jarvis has added to the bookstore. “He has his own following,” she says, laughing. “I’m serious! James and the piano bring an entirely different group of people into the store. They hear it, grab a book, and stick around. It provides a live connection of the old history between both literature and music—a perfect marriage.”
More than just a vessel for Jarvis’ playing, the piano welcomes anyone who would like to give it a whirl. Since its arrival on October 1st, there hasn’t been a single day where someone hasn’t come in and complied.
Ever the professional, though, Jarvis has been playing the piano for 35 years now. Still, he considers himself no master of the craft.
“I find,” he says, “that after all these years I’m still constantly learning. I’m a student of the instrument and it’s one unbelievable teacher.”
Jarvis discovered his muse while playing his grandmother’s Hawaiian guitar and listening to Cleveland rock stations on his AM radio. He went on to study music theory and history for a summer at Toronto University and then back in Ohio at Hiram College. Then and there he fell in love with the piano and began composing music.
“I had been around pianos most of my life,” Jarvis recalls. “But it wasn’t until I spent hundreds of hours practicing on the old Steinway grands that were in the practice rooms at Hiram that I realized this was something that would be a part of me for the rest of my life.”
His first few gigs came from performing several times live on WKSU’s late night “Fresh Air” radio program. A decade ago, Jarvis touched down in Wilmington. Since his arrival, he has played at The Harp, The Calico Room and at the late-and-great Soapbox. Not only can folks find him at Old Books every Sunday, he plays at The Art Factory off Surry Street every last Friday of the month. Occasionally he is there the fourth and fifth Fridays as well, to accompany the openings and closings of scheduled art exhibits.
Jarvis credits the piano as a roadmap of music. “It’s so visual,” he says. “The keys are placed in such a repetitious way that you can look down and see the path of notes that it wants you to take.”
Though Jarvis’ forte is the acoustic piano, he has played electric keyboard at different art fund-raisers and on local stages. The Yamaha P1 at Old Books is an extremely rare model because, actually, 1961 is the first year that Yamaha imported their pianos into the United States. This model remains a first in the country. “It’s like a utility piano for me,” Jarvis says. “I’ve had it for eight years, and I love to put it in different locations temporarily to try and reach people.”
Jarvis’ piano that sits in The Art Factory is one of his favorites. It’s a 6’ 6’’ Henry F. Miller, built in Wakefield, Massachusetts, over 100 years ago—“114 years old to be exact,” Jarvis beams. “It came in on a horse and wagon. The best models are the ones that morph in time’ the tone will become much richer.”
Jarvis knows his trade. He works at Piano and Organ Distributors and finds himself constantly surrounded by the instrument. “Each [piano] has a distinct personality,” he assures. “You cannot simply judge a piano. It just has to feel right. You can give me the best piano in the world, but if it doesn’t click with me, I’ll take one that I’ve had for years over it.”
His passion becomes apparent upon every word he utters about the instrument; more so, it comes through in his playing. Experiencing the live connection between Jarvis and his piano is like eavesdropping on a conversation between two old friends—exquisitely simple.
When stepping into the bookstore on Front Street on Sundays, one can never know what to expect. Jarvis is an improvisational artist and feeds off of the energy around him. He also has an abundance of material that he still deems in development. Jarvis takes good care of his work.
“All my compositions are like my children,” he says. “I love them all, and with time and nurturing they each take on a life on their own.”
“Southern Landscapes”—a sampler of styles and arrangements that represent the body of his work—showcases great examples of his depth and aptitude as a player. Yet, the isolated sound of a studio recording is nothing compared to hearing Jarvis live. Both “Blue Sky” and “Mystic Path” express experimental tendencies and evoke feelings of peace and serenity (check them out on Jarvis’ Facebook and ReverbNation pages).
Heading back into Old Books to commence his second and final hour, Jarvis turns to me, “I’ll leave you with this,” he says. “Sometimes, in a smaller town like Wilmington, you have to create your own venues. I constantly call different places, and try and make my own opportunities to show this city what I have to offer.”
Ultimately, it’s Wilmington’s gain that Jarvis and his best friend can keep intimating conversations in these public settings. Accidentally walking into one of his discussions can be a transformative affair.DETAILS
Pianist James Jarvis
Every Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Old Books on Front Street
249 N. Front Street
January 31st, 6:30 p.m.
The Art Factory
721 Surry Street