SOME SIGHTS PEEL BACK your eyelids and jet right into the brain, never to be forgotten.
In my midteens, I acted in a 1973 production of “Hamlet” at the tiny Stage One Theater in Post Alley, just north of today’s Gum Wall. Post-rehearsal, as I climbed narrow concrete steps up to Pike Place Market, a busker dressed all in white and sporting a mime’s makeup danced and lunged through a cheering crowd.
Armed with a set of spoons, he battered them against every available surface — from his knees, teeth and cheeks to pillars, sidewalks and banisters — scooping rhythmic staccatos out of thin air. He was Artis the Spoonman, and I was spellbound.
“I’d been playing spoons since I was 10, and always wanted to be a performer,” recalls Artis, now living in Port Townsend. Moving to Seattle from Santa Cruz, California, he frequented Fremont taverns, playing jukebox duets for tips, and he soon established a fan base.
Next stop: Pike Place Market, not yet a tourist haven but a place where locals gathered to shop and stroll.
“Aside from street fairs, the Market was one of the only venues for buskers in the early 1970s,” Artis says. “We had a busking community, share and share alike, performing in the commons for the people.”
Pianist Jonny Hahn, originally from Champaign/Urbana, Illinois, still shares that sensibility. Busking since 1986, he embodies the Market’s soundtrack.
“I play a combination of lengthy improvisational instrumental pieces and songs with lefty political lyrics,” he says. “The Market has been my home because of the artistic freedom quotient.”
Wrestling his 64-key acoustic piano onto a Pike Place corner every day, he bears bittersweet witness to a particular strain of social evolution.
“It started with smartphones,” he says. “People’s attention spans were diminished by orders of magnitude. Constant texting and Googling and taking photos completely altered public space.”
Dealing a further blow was COVID-19. In March 2020, Market busking was prohibited. Hahn relocated, playing his piano beneath the old Green Lake Aqua Theater until the Market reopened to performers June 25.
Public response to his return moved Hahn deeply: “It was just heart energy spilling over. People just kept saying how glad they were to have me back. The music was something they really, really missed.”
However, few other performers have returned to a place once considered a busker’s paradise. Will they come back? Hahn is wary of predictions.
“I don’t have any idea what will happen next month or next year,” he says, “but I am committed to Pike Place Market.”
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