Piano Man

There was a time when Louis Colaiannia gave up playing the piano. The decision to quit came shortly after a large, drunk and clearly unhappy patron of the arts tried to heave one on top of him.

This was twenty years ago, in the decade of wide lapels and Earth shoes, have-a-nice-days and boogie nights. Barely out of his teens, Colaiannia was in his lounge-lizard phase, tickling the ivories at country clubs, restaurants and Holiday Inns. He'd grind out the standard cocktail fare: "Feelings." "Yesterday." The inevitable "Piano Man." Sometimes he'd sing a little.

"I got really burned out on it," Colaiannia says. "A lot of drunks. A lot of smoke. People wanted to tell me their whole life story, and I really didn't want to hear it."

One night at the Hiwan Country Club in Evergreen, a customer slipped a dollar in the kitty and asked Colaiannia to play "Brian's Song." He complied. "Then he comes back," Colaiannia recalls, "and says, 'That was incredible. That was so beautiful. The best I've ever heard. Can you play it again?' So I play it again. He comes back and requests it again.

"So I play it a third time. He walks up and says, 'That's the worst I ever heard. You suck!' He takes the piano and tries to push it over me. He pins me against the wall and starts throwing punches at me. I was training in martial arts at the time, so I could take care of it until people pulled him off me. But I decided I didn't need this anymore."

Colaiannia has since reconsidered. He has, in fact, drifted out of the music business several times only to return again and again, with the tenacity of a cyborg. He's been a keyboardist in local rock bands, a studio journeyman, a noodler of new-age ambience for a meditation tape. In recent years he's taken on the duties of composer, producer, distributor and promoter, issuing two CDs of his own work, lush stuff that blends pop strains with his classical training. And next month he plans to make history--or, at least, the Guinness Book of World Records--by playing the piano for 24 hours straight at Park Meadows Mall.

Although troubled by repetitive-motion injuries in his wrists so severe that he had to give up his dental practice a few years ago, Colaiannia has already played up to twelve-hour sessions on the piano, with only short breaks to answer the call of nature. To date, no one has cranked out a fully documented, authenticated 24-hour performance, but it's hardly a feat on the scale of, say, climbing Mount Everest. Colaiannia admits that the marathon is basically a gimmick, a way of raising money for children's charities in the former Soviet Union. "If I have to do this stuff to get people interested, I'll do it," he says.

It's the kind of gimmick you might expect from a fast-talking DJ, not a serious artist who's scheduled to perform his first symphony with the Khabarovsk Philharmonic Orchestra in eastern Russia this fall. But then, Colaiannia has never been one to cop an attitude about his music; his entire career has been marked by a resourceful fluidity, an ability to dodge labels and dead ends and reinvent himself in ways that allow him to develop his work on his own terms.

Lots of people know Louis Colaiannia, in one incarnation or another. They know him as an entrepreneur who runs a wellness center, a home health-care service, a dental staffing operation and other businesses out of an office in Arvada and his home in Evergreen. He's been nationally ranked as an intermediate competitor in karate and as a two-time Denver winner on the Amateur Bowlers Tour. Some people know him as their massage therapist. Until his retirement three years ago, quite a few people knew him as their dentist, Dr. Lou.

But after his marathon performance in a shopping mall next month, Colaiannia hopes to be known for something else: his persistence as a composer and musician. Despite drunk attacks and other setbacks, Dr. Lou has come to play. And play. And play.

When Louis Colaiannia was five years old, his parents encouraged him to choose a musical instrument to play. Neither his mother, Rose, nor his father, Louis Sr., who ran a machine shop for a gun-scope manufacturer, was musically inclined. Neither one had graduated from high school. But it was understood that Louis, an only child, would have opportunities that the west Denver couple had never had in their own youth.

Louis knew what he wanted. He had seen a dapper man on television play a white grand piano bedecked with a candelabra. The man was full of flash, the music packed with schmaltz. "I saw Liberace and thought he was pretty cool," Colaiannia recalls.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast