Making a sound investment
By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- When Charles Strickland first floated the idea of buying a grand piano and asking musicians to come play it at the J.L. Young Public Housing Apartments, more than one person thought he was out of his mind.
But Friday night, Strickland got a standing ovation from more than 60 residents of the federally funded housing complex for the elderly.
The applause came while he stood in front of the piano -- and next to a nationally known concert pianist.
For more than a year, Strickland, a handful of other tenants and Tampa Housing Authority employees have worked to bring beauty into the lives of the senior citizens who live at the housing complex.
Strickland moved to the complex 15 months ago. He quickly noticed that the morale of residents was very low.
"Man does not live by bread alone," Strickland said. "These people needed music."
In short order, Strickland was elected to the council. That's when he brought up the piano. He told residents that if they bought one, he could bring good performers to the complex for free.
Strickland was a concert promoter when he was younger. For the first concert, he said, he would bring Mac Frampton, a show pianist from Atlanta. Frampton would play some gospel, some ragtime and some tunes from the 1940s.
But first, they needed a piano. Strickland and the board urged residents to use $3,000 -- half of the apartments' activity budget -- to buy the piano. Residents agreed.
The Piano Exchange in St. Petersburg gave them a deal on a shiny black piano for about $4,500. It agreed to deliver it for $3,000, even though the housing complex still owes $1,500 on the instrument.
Strickland and others circulated fliers, letting residents know that the first concert of the "Garden Concert Series" would be in the J.L. Young dining room.
"The anticipation!" Strickland said.
Women fretted about which dress to wear and which pins, necklaces and earrings to take out of the jewelry box. Some had never been to a concert. Others hadn't been to one in decades.
But most of the residents didn't know how big a deal this was until Friday night, when Jerome Ryans, executive director of the Housing Authority, stood up to speak.
Before Frampton took the stage, Ryan told the audience this would be the first time that an artist of Frampton's caliber performed at public housing -- certainly the first time in Tampa, and maybe the first time anywhere.
"This is something you did. You put this together," Ryans said. "If we just sit back and listen to what residents have to say, we can get a lot done."
Ryans announced that the Frampton concert was the first of many good things to come. In October, Strickland's band, the Three Baritones, will play. In November and February, there also will be performances.
Strickland, a handsome man with snowy hair and a black tuxedo, smiled big. Then, in a deep baritone, he introduced Frampton, whom he used to manage nearly three decades ago when Frampton was still up and coming.
"When other people didn't believe in me, he did," Frampton told the crowd.
Then came the music.
When Frampton played Ain't Misbehavin', the audience grinned. When he played a medley of gospel tunes, people clapped. And when he played Going Home, many blinked back tears.
"It's like I was transported back 30 years," said Dione Anderson, 56.
Anderson was wearing a shiny blue dress, a velvet wrap and rhinestone barrettes in her silvery hair.
"Music transforms you back to when you were 20 or 30," she said. "That's what it does."
-- Tamara Lush can be reached at 226-3373.
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