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Piano Man: Patron Brings Music To Lord's Diner

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Abigail Wilson
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The Lord’s Diner in downtown Wichita offers a hot meal 365 days a year for those in need. There’s a piano at the diner, open for anyone to play. Carrying a weathered blue backpack full of sheet music over his shoulder, pianist Chris Espey taught himself to play at the diner where he has been going to eat for more than a decade. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has his story.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Chris Espey

“I learned to read music in grade school through the band. I came to Wichita in a social situation where I had come to the Lord's Diner and I saw the piano and I decided 'I'm going to learn how to play the piano.' At that time, the management would allow you come in for six or seven hours a day so I put in, oh, I’d say roughly 1000 hours, and I walked away hopefully what people call playing a piano.

I started with playing scales and then songs that I could help my ear along with. Then I went and studied chord structures and progressions of cords and it just built up from there. Don't think it was easy. When I say 1000 hours, I don't think I'm exaggerating. 

People quit throwing fruit at me after about six months. Now, I probably play three or four times a week.

My signature song is 'A Wonderful World' by Louis Armstrong.”

 
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Credit Abigail Wilson

“I spent a lot of years working in Augusta, and then I also worked in Wichita and bounced around. I’m kind of an unconformist to society. I'm not dangerous, but I just don't always adhere to all of society's rules about what's considered the proper road to happiness.

I moved back to Wichita about 12 years ago. That's the time I started playing for the Lord's Diner.”

 
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Credit Abigail Wilson
Espey displays his collection of sheet music which he keeps in large three-ring binders. He borrows most of his music from the Wichita Public Library or makes photocopies of pieces he wants to learn.

"There's some regular players that come in on, for instance, the second Wednesday of every month and what not. But we keep it very informal and it's even more fun that way.

I occasionally play at the First Baptist Church, that's where I do most of my practicing at. They have a beautiful baby grand piano over there that I just adore to play. 

I play everything from Frank Sinatra to Queen to Bach, even some country western; I pride myself on being eclectic. I will play a seventeenth century American folk song immediately followed by Jethro Tull.

I am no different than anybody else that stands in line out here, except I have piano music on my back."

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To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter, @AbigailKMUW