Cincinnati Made Me Who I Am, Long Before I Ever Heard of This City

It’s Music to My Ears: How Cincinnati Accompanied Me Through My Childhood
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Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

C
incinnati did not exist when I was a kid. I can’t remember when I first heard the name, though I’m sure that spelling it correctly came much later. I was born in Philadelphia—its own spelling nightmare—and lived there through high school graduation (from the same school as Bill Cosby, but I don’t brag about that anymore). Until I moved here in the 1970s, Cincinnati had no impact on me whatsoever. Or so I used to think.

I realize now that this town was a major influence on me almost from birth. Cincinnati accompanied me, without my noticing it, all through childhood and adolescence. “Accompanied” is the right word here, because I’m referring to my Baldwin Acrosonic piano that was manufactured on the street with my name, Gilbert Avenue. The Acrosonic shepherded my best days, and it is no exaggeration to call my Cincinnati-born companion my oldest friend. We’re life partners. This is our story.

My parents said I started demanding to sit at our piano soon after they purchased it, around when I began to walk. I’d been watching my father play, seen both of my older siblings get lessons, and probably assumed that hitting those black and white things was standard human behavior. Music, clearly, was as basic to life as breathing. That’s still true for me.

Recordings of my first days with the piano have not survived, thank God. Imagine The Beatles pounding the iconic final chord of “A Day in the Life,” but with mostly the wrong notes. Then imagine hearing the chord pounding again and again, with variations. That’s the sound of little Jay-Jay trying to imitate his dad playing “As Time Goes By.” Our Acrosonic, though, was built to take it.

The Acrosonic was introduced in 1936 as a home piano that could survive an amateur’s abuse, deliver a good sound, and still be affordable. This might seem like a ridiculously obvious marketing strategy, but it didn’t come easily to the Baldwin Piano Company. Their name had always stood for one thing: the finest pianos in the world, made with no compromise.

After achieving worldwide acclaim, you don’t title your next chapter Well, Here’s Something Acceptable. But by the mid-1930s, Baldwin desperately needed new customers. Piano sales had declined during the 1920s thanks to phonographs and radios, and the subsequent Great Depression made things worse. When the company decided to go mainstream and make a compact piano for the masses, the owners balked at putting the esteemed Baldwin logo on it. Instead, the new upright spinet—imagine a saloon piano without the tall top—would be called Acrosonic, a Greek-Latin hybrid meaning “good sound.” The words “Built by Baldwin” were in smaller letters off to the side, because, hey, there’s still plenty of cachet in that name.

It worked. The Acrosonic became one of the world’s best-selling pianos. By the 1950s, 15,000 units per year were marching out of the Gilbert Avenue factory toward music stores nationwide. That’s when my parents bought one and set it right by the stairs in our Philadelphia living room.

I loved messing around on it, eventually picking out melodies of songs I knew. By third grade I started lessons with Mrs. Pepperbridge, who also taught music appreciation at my school. Despite our good relationship, things went south. An 8-year-old, after all, has his priorities: I could practice every afternoon, or I could keep up with The Mickey Mouse Club. I chose poorly. My lessons lasted about six months. Still, I managed to retain enough basic concepts from Mrs. Pepperbridge so that, when I reached adulthood, I was able to appreciate Leonard Cohen’s tiny musical joke in the first verse of “Hallelujah,” his most famous song: It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.

Whichever version of the song you prefer, each of those musical terms has that exact category of chord playing underneath. The music literally “goes like this,” and Mrs. Pepperbridge had prepared my ears to catch it. She also stayed with me long enough to pry a small amount of actual music from my fingers. I have long been grateful to her for these two gifts, but I recently discovered that she gave me a third.

In 2017 I attended a Cincinnati Symphony concert, which rock radio DJs don’t normally allow themselves to be seen at, but I owed this night to Mrs. Pepperbridge. Back in music appreciation, she’d introduced our classroom to classical music by walking us through small doses of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor. I liked it so much that I saved some allowance, went to a record store, and bought my own copy—the first LP of my life. I still have it. My career as an audio professional became inevitable when I created little comedy skits on the family’s home tape recorder, using bits and pieces from that Mozart LP as background music. It was time now to pay tribute to Mrs. Pepperbridge and witness a live performance of Wolfgang’s opus.

At Music Hall, a fact noted in the evening’s program made me gasp: The very first piece performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at its debut show in 1895 was Mozart’s Symphony No. 40! My first LP! Maybe little Jay-Jay didn’t know that Cincinnati was in his future, but his piano, his music teacher, and his turntable were all trying to tell him something.

I stopped taking lessons in third grade, but I never stopped playing and learning at my own pace. I got better. I could hear songs and play them, sometimes impressively. This was a good social lubricant in adolescence, all thanks to the piano whose Cincinnati origins were still completely unknown to me. I grew up, left home, bummed around, and eventually moved here, but by then I’d played other pianos and forgotten the Acrosonic.

One day my mother called from Philly. She’d begun downsizing, and offered me the Acrosonic. It weighs 378 pounds. But I realized I could phone Baldwin for moving advice. By that point their manufacturing had left town (and the company would eventually implode), but a core of lifetime employees remained. My call was transferred to a guy who, upon hearing my story, asked for the piano’s serial number. Huh? Why would that matter? He made it obvious that he deeply cared about Acrosonics from Baldwin’s prime years, and he offered to bring my family’s piano back to the city of its birth for free. I’d be responsible only for the move from my mother’s home to a Philadelphia warehouse, where—these coincidences just don’t stop—Baldwin was assembling a shipment due for Cincinnati.

Ten days later, Acrosonic #458101 was back in its hometown. Maybe not at Gilbert Avenue, but at a nearby Gilbert address. Mine. It felt good to sit and touch the keys again.

Alongside my career as a Cincinnati radio personality, I’ve supplemented my income with freelance creative work for local ad agencies—including some commercial jingles you may remember: THE-E bicycle for me / Is at Montgomery Cycle-ree; Everyone knows / Grippo’s goes with fun; TASTE buds love LaRosa’s; T-i-i-i-m Timberman! And a lot more. Whether you remember these as entertaining or annoying, just know that all of them began with plunks on my beloved Baldwin Acrosonic.

My two children have repeated the cycle, watching their parents play, wanting to sit on that bench, and slowly turning their own noise into music. One of them eventually performed in local piano competitions, and the other—the one who quit lessons in third grade, like me—now plays professionally in a band. Today, my grandchildren are the fourth generation sitting at the piano manufactured on the Cincinnati street with my name.

There’s a song, one of my favorites, that starts this way: Late at night, when it’s dark and cold / I reach out for someone to hold / When I’m blue, when I’m lonely / She comes through, she’s the only one who can / My baby grand is all I need.

It’s Billy Joel’s love song to his piano. If your hands and your days, nights, and years have been spent with any musical instrument, you understand. Late at night, when it’s dark and cold, the ghosts of Gilbert Avenue are all over the world, sharing their songs. Had Cincinnati not sneaked into my own life this way, I would not be who I am.

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