Busking Tahoe style with Jody Sweet

Jody Sweet is Tahoe’s own piano man. You can find him winter, spring, summer or fall, Thursdays through Sundays, busking in front of Best Pies Pizza in downtown Truckee. “The original story is somebody from North Tahoe High School dropped off a piano at Best Pies and left it there. I went inside and started to play. And then started playing on the street,” says Sweet.

4-6 p.m. | Thursday-Sunday | Downtown Truckee | In front of Best Pies

Busking is an art form in which street artists perform for tips. Sweet calls it artistic free expression.

Watch Jody Sweet busking on the streets of Truckee

“When you busk, you have to have your tunes down. I play Billy Joel, Elton John, Ray Charles and Dr. John,” says Sweet, breaking into a rendition of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

Sweet plays on a beat-up old piano from his youth that bears the signatures of more than 5,000 people who’ve passed by him playing on the street and stopped to chat or play a tune. Scott Adkins of “American Idol” fame, musicians from the band Toto, classical pianist Mark Yu and countless local musicians, as well as young people and passing tourists, have all left their marks on the exposed wooden instrument.

Jody Sweet plays on a beat-up old piano from his youth that bears the signatures of more than 5,000 people who’ve passed by him playing on the street and stopped to chat or play a tune.

Sweet grew up in this area. In fact, his family has been living in Tahoe since the 1860s. And he loves playing music. His real passion is teaching young people how to play the piano at the Tahoe Truckee School of Music. He donates all of his tips to their educational programs. He encourages his students to come and play on the street — and they get to keep their tips.

“I have one kid, 10-year-old named Cormac who comes down and belts out Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind.’ He’s a talented kid who can actually play. He only has 10 songs,” says Sweet.

Sweet offers kids who don’t have a place to play music, a chance to play. He’ll start with music that invites kids to linger. Sweet bangs out a few keys that sound like a bear approaching, followed by some birdlike high notes.

“When the kids walk by to listen, I’ll tell them a story. Many kids are fascinated they have never seen the inside of a piano with the exposed keys and they start asking questions,” Sweet says.

On any given Truckee Thursday, Sweet gets young people to play on his piano. He draws many of his students that are in the school’s jazz program. He shows them that they’ll receive tips because they’ve practiced and have talent.

“It’s kind of my shtick. I put up the umbrella and play. I used to play upstairs,” says Sweet, who points to what is now Art Truckee. “I grew up here and in the 60s and 70s. I played music there. Elvin Bishop and Pablo Cruz used to play here. It was Hurd’s Dance Hall and Saloon before it was The Capitol. I played with Johnny Bias for about five years and I’ve played with a cat named Mighty Mike Schermer, who was a pretty famous guitar player and lives up here. We still do some studio tracks together. I studied with a jazz pianist named Joanne Grauer, from Julliard, who was a pianist for Barbra Streisand.”

According to Sweet, who is retired, this is what fulfills him: “I want kids to play and actually master their instrument. Kids should be playing an instrument. I care more about kids learning. It warms my heart when they’re down here playing. I teach kids how to play. It’s my way of giving back.”

I ask Sweet if we can take a little video of him playing.

“Before you do, you gotta sign the piano,” he says, handing me a marker.

I scan the piano to find a place to add my name and sign above his keyboard.

For more information on the Tahoe Truckee School of Music, visit tahoemusic.net.

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Priya Hutner
Priya is a writer, personal chef and meditation teacher. Having moved to the mountains from Sebastian, Fla., she embraces the Tahoe lifestyle and loves to ski, hike, paddle and swim. Priya is the owner of The Seasoned Sage, a business that prepares organic meals and facilitates workshops that promote a health-conscious lifestyle. Priya writes feature articles about music, art, food and recreation. She loves to immerse in story. Whether jumping from a plane, eating obscure foods or hitting the Tahoe-Reno music scene, she is always up for adventure and experience. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience living on an ashram and working on a series of cookbooks.