For The Love of All Music: Old-Time Pianist Andrew J. Fletcher Considers Asheville's Future
Andrew J. Fletcher plays stride piano, a style that emphasizes percussive keying in the left hand and syncopated melodies in the right. While the name and technique may be unfamiliar, the sound of stride piano is instantly recognizable: clearly of the ’20s and ’30’s, it has roots in ragtime and exists as a critical marker between the early years of Jazz and its mid-20th century free-form experimentations. A cornerstone of the fabled music scenes of Harlem and New Orleans, stride piano’s heritage is interwoven with music lore and legend, rendering the form indispensable to American cultural history.
Public art is fragile,” he says. “When you try to regulate it, it becomes inauthentic. It crumbles and loses its quality.
Unsurprisingly, Asheville is known more for its preservation of Appalachian music than it is for Jazz. As a point of distinction, however, the ubiquitous folk twang that finds a natural home in this mountain city is superseded by the sheer size and scope of its feted music scene. Asheville’s population stands at roughly 83,000 people; in spite of its small size, musicians and fans alike flock to the city to partake in its wild embrace of the sonic arts. Home to many Southern folk and bluegrass bands, the city’s evident respect for its Appalachian surroundings is balanced by the presence of Moog, makers of some of the world’s best-loved electronic synthesizers. Jazz is no exception to the rule of musical diversity here: everything from traditional big-band to genre-bending avant garde styles can be heard on a weekly basis at venues such as The Grey Eagle, 5 Walnut and the Isis Music Hall. At the heart of this colorful effusion, however, are Asheville’s buskers, the street artists whom passersby inevitably encounter as they stroll through downtown on any given evening. Whether they amuse, enchant or irritate, the near-constant presence of buskers is a notable eccentricity in a city known for its quirks.
At the crossroads of Jazz, busking, and the broader Asheville arts scene lies Mr. Fletcher, who’s been making waves as a musician and grassroots arts advocate in the city for years. The pianist recently released his first solo album, heralding a new chapter of a career that’s already proved as intriguing as the place he calls home. I caught up with Andrew a few weeks ago to get a better feeling for his work and to hear his thoughts on the future of busking in Asheville. Our conversation turned into a lesson that began with the history of Jazz music in Harlem all the way to the politics of modern-day public art regulation, all with an evident fondness for his fellow street musicians. Though now semi-retired as a busker and spending a growing number of nights playing in cities far from home, his message serves as a clarion call to locals and visitors alike: if it is to exist at all, the freedom of Asheville’s world-class music scene must be defended.
Fletcher has been playing piano his whole life, cheerily noting childhood recitals as his entree into live performance. However, his career was launched on Asheville’s sidewalks and among like-minded artists in its public parks. After getting a piano retrofitted for optimal street performance, he took to such crowd-friendly haunts as Pack Square to display his flair for stride and other old-time styles. He notes that at the outset, the novelty of playing on a real piano as opposed to a portable keyboard was as much of a draw as the music itself; indeed, it’s not hard to imagine tourists and locals alike marveling at the instrument ensconced among more typical urban sights. With a nod to his lengthy tenure as a street musician, Fletcher observes that when he started, “nobody was going out with a piano and busking on the streets,” giving his act an edge.
While primarily a solo artist, Fletcher has no dearth of experience playing in bands. He cut his teeth on group performance with acts such as the Firecracker Jazz Band and the Big Nasty Jazz Band and has recorded with Pokey LaFarge and Jimbo Mathus, guitarist and producer of The Squirrel Nut Zippers. Impressive as this is, the primarily self-taught Fletcher considers busking to have been the most instructive experience of his career. “If you want to learn what’s fun and what works as an entertainer,” he notes, “how do you do that? You could try to convince a bar owner to let you play in their place, or you could try out the open mic circuit, but where do you really start? Playing on the street for people is a great way to learn what’s fun and what works.” Rounding out a natural gift for sound (though he sight-reads music swiftly, he claims he’s “more of an ear musician”) with college electives, he began to develop the style that’s earned him a strong following.
Sophisticated and accessible at once, this style presents classic American music in a way even non-Jazz lovers can appreciate – though not at the expense of quality: “It’s difficult to take jazz or traditional American music, lift it out of being a novelty, but keep it from being radio drab,” he observed, noting that “you shouldn’t need a college degree in jazz to appreciate it. Whatever I have to put into the music, it should still be easily consumable.” Though he ventures into related genres such as 1950’s rockabilly and gospel, Jazz is his home base, and he’s as familiar with its cultural significance as its standards. When pressed for a shortlist of artists he’d recommend to those unfamiliar with his style, he name-checks Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Earl Hines before elaborating on the career of Lucky Roberts, a gifted businessman and musician whose real estate developments helped launch the Harlem Renaissance.
With his keen awareness of how music can shape history, it’s little wonder that he took an interest in the political angle of Asheville’s busking scene after it began to come under fire. In the wake of restrictive policies designed to make the city more appealing to the hotel industry, Andrew was quick to see how current and past measures designed to “solve” issues related to local busking might not work. Not long ago,local musicians were banned from selling CDs on the street, a policy that “cut their income in half,” he says, and notes that this keeps more professionally-oriented musicians away from the sidewalks.
Regarding a current measure under consideration that would require buskers to play only in designated areas, he declares, “there’s no way to make a place specifically where the leaders in busking culture want to be. The best spaces for busking are where everybody wants to be.” He proceeds to analogize the busking situation with the hotel industry: “You get the best situation not by banning hotels or regulating hotels,” he notes, “but by making the city a place where the best hotels can come in, which moves the sleazy hotels to the outskirts of town,” and shares a philosophy that guides him: “Public art is fragile,” he says. “When you try to regulate it, it becomes inauthentic. It crumbles and loses its quality.”
His background as a working musician and advocate was picked up by a New York Times reporter earlier this year, who quoted him summarily in an article about Asheville’s busking controversies (read the New York Times article here). The case against street performance is strong enough to warrant strong feelings on both sides of the arguments. Its discontents claim that it attracts an itinerant population, creates calamity and blocks much-needed public sidewalk space. Fletcher, alongside fellow activists in the Asheville Busker’s Collective, claims that most of the case against busking is anecdotal, typically stemming from one or two bad experiences had by naysayers. It will not, he warns, be fixed with restrictive policies.
For all of the attention his political work has garnered him, Fletcher’s music still takes the forefront—though it can be difficult to separate out where his strong beliefs about busking end and passion for the music itself begins. Perhaps it’s not that important to do so:.“Louis Armstrong said ‘all music is folk music,’” he notes, a bon mots that is particularly meaningful in light of his career, and with the new album and a fan base that extends well beyond the street corner, Fletcher ‘s star is poised to keep rising. while giving street music its proper due. You can catch him playing with the Firecracker Jazz Band on Thursday Nights at 5 Walnut or at one of the many venues he frequents in the downtown area. He’s also active on Facebook and Twitter (@andrewjfletcher), and for more information about the advocacy collective he works with can visit avlbuskers.com. His new album, meanwhile, is the best testament to his passions: andrewjfletcher.bandcamp.com. A quick listen and you’ll see why so many want him, and all those who’d follow suit, to keep Asheville’s sidewalks alive with sound.
Emma Stamm is a writer and web developer based in Asheville; you can find more of her work here
Bandcamp (listen and download music)