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.

His parents dutifully bought him a piano from the Onofrio Piano Company. His first teacher, Delome Kerstner, remembers Louis as something of a prodigy. "I would classify him as one of the best I had," says Kerstner. "I could give him music that was considered difficult for someone his age and he could master it."

Colaiannia says that Kerstner--who now lives in Ohio and is eagerly awaiting a Colaiannia concert in Columbus next month--made him appreciate that there was more to playing the piano than just scales.

"She always made it interesting," he says. "I was having trouble with this one Rachmaninoff piece. I just couldn't get it. She said, 'If you play it properly, you'll hear water in the background.' I thought she was this crazy old lady. I played it and played it, and I didn't hear anything. Then I started to hear it. She was right. That's when I realized you could create emotion through music."

Colaiannia took lessons from Kerstner for seven years. When she moved away, he studied with Kathleen Joiner, then the pianist for the Denver Symphony Orchestra. But he soon had a falling out with Joiner over his refusal to give up playing basketball; Joiner didn't want him to risk injuring his hands. He had a shot at a traditional career as a concert pianist, but Colaiannia wasn't prepared to invest the kind of single-minded devotion to classical music that would lead him to a conservatory.

"I thought if I did that, I would end up teaching piano in a basement somewhere to a bunch of kids who didn't want to learn it anyway," Colaiannia says now. "I wanted more out of life. I knew if I was ever going to do music, it would be my music. And if nobody in the world liked it, so what?"

With his parents solidly in his corner, Colaiannia went on to earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Colorado. He never quite abandoned the piano--he played ragtime at the venerable Red Slipper club, accompanied silent movies at the Hungry Farmer, then slipped into the soft hell of the cocktail-lounge circuit--but most of his energy was poured into pre-med classes. Colaiannia had an idea that he might make a pretty fair heart surgeon. After three years he had most of the requirements for medical school completed but was still a few credits short of an undergraduate degree. A counselor suggested that he apply to dental school, just for the practice. Much to Colaiannia's surprise, he was accepted. Curiouser still, he decided to check it out.

"I thought that if I turned them down, I probably wouldn't get into medical school," he says, "so I went ahead and accepted the position."

Dentistry paid the bills, but Colaiannia was soon bored with the routine. He turned to buying and selling practices, then became the director of a dental-insurance company. His musical career had dwindled to occasional stints with fleeting rock bands. Once in a while he got to rub shoulders with celebrity--a studio session with Alice Cooper, performances at private parties for the likes of David Niven and Sid Caesar; even a backstage meeting in his youth with his idol, Liberace, who advised him that family was very important--but as the years wore on, it seemed that Colaiannia was not destined to shake up the music world after all. To most of the people he met, he was Dr. Lou.

Two events several years apart helped turn things around for Colaiannia. In 1988 an acquaintance asked him if he could provide the background music for an instruction tape in meditation that was being prepared by a Boulder company. "Up until then, I'd been trying to write songs that someone would play in a piano bar some day, with lyrics and everything," Colaiannia says. "I'd never done anything that might be considered new age."

The company paid him a hundred dollars for his piano ramblings. The tape was so successful that another version, featuring just the music, was quickly released and sold thousands of copies. Colaiannia never saw another dime from the venture, but his emerging rep as a new-age composer secured him a concert at Chautauqua in Boulder, sponsored by radio station KHIH-FM/95.7. That in turn led to several offers from Narada and other record labels. Unfortunately, the timing was all wrong. Colaiannia was a divorced single parent; his son, Louis III, was only five years old. The labels expected him to perform as many as 300 concerts a year. Colaiannia figured touring was out of the question until his son was older.

He would, he decided, concentrate on composing rather than performing. But he kept his work to himself, right up to the death of his father in 1994. Colaiannia was devastated.

"My father and I were extremely close," he says. "Best friends. Dad was the person who always said I could do whatever I decided to do. He would even come to the concerts when I was in a heavy-metal band. He hated the music, but he would come. When he died, I was the executive director of an insurance company, and it looked like that was all I was going to be."

The loss of Louis Sr. sparked something in Colaiannia. He began building a theme around the notes D-A-D, a piece that developed with a certain classical rigor but oozed new-age romanticism. "That was my personal space to go and grieve," Colaiannia says. "I could think about my dad and it was okay. I never wanted anybody to hear that song."

Yet as is often the way with such things, Colaiannia ended up playing "Tears for Dad" for a few admirers, then a few more. People told him he ought to record it. In 1996 he made it the lead track on a self-issued CD of his solo piano work, Corners of the Soul. (Titles aren't Colaiannia's strong point; he tends to favor thoroughly unhip and teeth-gritting phrases such as "Love's Own Way," "Forest Splendor" and "Dancing Snowflakes.") Now past forty, he figured any shot at commercial success was long gone, but at least he could distribute a few copies to his friends. But then a woman at the Media Play store in Littleton got ahold of a copy and asked him to perform at the store, and then the regional office put in an order, and Barnes & Noble followed suit, and people started playing "Tears for Dad" at their fathers' funerals and raving about it on the Internet. Colaiannia's private grieving space had become his signature song.

The response was particularly gratifying because of a momentous decision Colaiannia was facing concerning his hands. Although he'd kept up his dental practice only sporadically, years of close work in people's mouths had left him with chronic wrist pain from carpal tunnel syndrome. "I wasn't paying enough attention to my posture," Colaiannia says now. "If I would condense an amalgam or scale teeth, I was done for the day. I couldn't even grasp the handpiece."

Surgery might relieve some of the pressure on the median nerve, doctors told him, but it could also affect his dexterity playing the piano, which had never bothered his wrists. Confronted with a choice between early retirement from dentistry or jeopardizing his work as a musician, Colaiannia didn't hesitate. There were plenty of other ways to make a living.

"I'd been trying to get out of dentistry since I was a sophomore in dental school," he says. "Now I'm just trying to make enough money so I can pursue the music and not get my fingers wet anymore."

Now that his son is older and his career is taking off, Colaiannia has performed in dozens of venues for all sorts of people. He's played for sit-down crowds at the old Vogue Theater and the Denver Botanic Gardens, for the strolling hordes at the People's Fair and the Cherry Creeks Arts Festival, for passersby at shopping malls and bookstores in several states. No one has tried to bury him under his piano.

His music may be hard to categorize--CD stores can't seem to decide if it belongs in the classical, jazz, new-age or "contemporary" bins--but it has attracted a following in unlikely places. Colaiannia says that Salt Lake City loves him. Following in the footsteps of Liberace, he's currently in discussion with the entertainment moguls at the Belaggio Hotel in Las Vegas about late-summer dates in that toddling town. An Israeli television news program has contacted him about doing a segment on the piano-playing dentist.

And there are classically trained musicians in Kiev and Khabarovsk--a small, isolated city in far eastern Russia--who are hot for his program. The Russian connection arose out of Colaiannia's involvement with the Denver-based Joy of Music Marathon, which brings together musicians to perform simultaneous concerts in different countries to promote world peace and various music-oriented charities; that led to musicians in Khabarovsk performing Colaiannia's music and an invitation to debut his first symphony there this fall. In a short essay, Russian musicologist Elena Soloviova describes Colaiannia's work as "simple, harmonious and elevated" and "extraordinarily democratic," and suggests that it may be "the music of the third millennium."

Colaiannia says that he's been consciously attempting to develop his music in a more classical direction while keeping it accessible (and, for the most part, short--few of his pieces exceed a commercially viable five minutes). He added orchestration to his second CD, Sailing on a Dream, to bring out its richer harmonies. While his work shuns the dissonance and formalism of modern highbrow music, you can detect traces of his classical schooling in the melodies: echoes of a Chopin polonaise in one piece, of a Ravel toccata in another, the ghost of Rachmaninoff humming in the wings. The shameless emotionalism of it all seems to fall somewhere between the romantic tradition and the syrupy stylings of John Tesh, but Colaiannia resists talking about his "influences" and technique.

"I try to convey emotion," he says. "I don't want people to analyze it. I get a lot of mail, and people just open their hearts. They tell me terrible stories about being molested in childhood, how something in my music reminded them of that and helped them to heal. If they want to call it new age or classical, I don't care, as long as they feel something from it."

Next month Colaiannia plans to bathe the Park Meadows Mall with healing vibes for 24 hours, pausing only for a brief coffee break every hour or two. The marathon will begin on the evening of August 13, move inside the Sam Goody store after the rest of the mall closes and continue until the evening of August 14. Shoppers will have a chance to hear the entire Colaiannia oeuvre over and over, including the world premiere of a solo piano version of his 45-minute symphony Journey of the Soul. They'll also be encouraged to sign a banner the pianist will be taking to Khabarovsk in October and to make donations that will help fund medical care, music scholarships and other causes in the region.

"The situation in eastern Russia is horrible," Colaiannia says. "There are people making eight dollars a month. There's a tuberculosis clinic that really needs a fax machine. I have no desire to set a world record, but I do have a huge desire to help children, and this is a way I can get people interested."

The physical demands of performing in public for a night and a day don't worry Colaiannia. Years of playing malls and bookstores, not to mention the rigors of his early Holiday Inn gigs, have toughened him for the ordeal ahead. He doesn't even consider it an ordeal, having played the same Sam Goody store on a regular basis in recent years. "The first time I did it they told me to stay as long as I wanted," he says. "Twelve hours later they shut the mall down, and I had to leave."

Endurance, in Dr. Lou's case, comes down to a matter of passion, discipline--and adaptability. Years ago, in a high school basketball game, he stole the ball, broke away and made a right-handed layup from the left side of the basket. Everyone cheered except Louis Sr., who was livid. After the match, he told his son he should have used his left hand.

"That was a morning game," Colaiannia recalls. "We got home and went out to the backyard. He'd bounce me the ball, and I did lefthanded layups all afternoon. The only time I stopped was to eat and to go to the bathroom. We turned the lights on in the evening and went on and on. When I was recruited by CU, one of the things they noticed was that I could shoot left-handed as well as right-handed."

Colaiannia gave up competitive karate a few years ago because it made his hands feel gummy. After he developed the carpal tunnel problem in his wrists, he fretted that he might have to give up bowling, too; instead, he learned how to bowl with his left hand whenever the right was bothering him. Although he surrenders a few pins in the process, he still plans to compete in the amateur nationals in Las Vegas next spring. Sports are his first love, an older claim than even the piano.

These days, though, he does his best work with both hands.

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