Little Known Opus: Two Central Park Musicians Live to Play

Lincoln Center Isn’t the Only Place to Hear Great Talent


Published: November 3, 2010

Yuriy is pissed and for good reason—time is money, and valuable time is being wasted.

Performing nearly every day in the same spot, Ralph U. Williams, a Central Park saxophonist, plays at the Mall in Central Park. (Mike Madden/The Observer)

In the midst of playing his accordion while seated on a bench in the Mall of Central Park, Yuriy is approached by a T.V. producer in a headset who offers him $20 to stop playing for 10 minutes. Yuriy reluctantly agrees after some awkward questioning, taking the $20 and shoving it into a corner flap of his instrument case. He lights a cigarette, crosses his legs and waits.

Behind the producer is a camera crew of six people, following two of the housewives from Bravo’s series “Real Housewives of New York City.” The women sit on the park bench dressed in furs, knee boots and caked in makeup. The scene of the women looks unnatural—just as unnatural as Yuriy not playing his accordion.

After taking a long drag from his cigarette, Yuriy turns his head and says in his stern Ukrainian accent, “10 minutes…after 10 minutes, I play.”

Two days later, saxophonist Ralph U. Williams blows a dizzying riff from his horn while a short, well-dressed man with unusually tan skin nods his head to the absent backbeat, and says something in Italian to Williams. He throws a couple bills into Williams’ case, speaks some more with his hands, smiles, and walks off. A little later, more pedestrians approach Williams, call out for him, or ask him about his next gig.

Williams fills his lungs with air, pauses and commences once again.

Yuriy and Williams are just two of the dozens of street musicians that bring their talent to regular locations all over Central Park. Yet their talent is so uncanny and professional, one must ask the question: What are they doing playing in the park?

Like many other park musicians, it is a combination of factors. For Yuriy and Williams, it’s the hope of getting noticed, the chance of making a dollar and doing what they love. Their lives are colorful, yet tough, inspiring and straightforward.

Yuriy started playing piano and accordion when he was a child in Ukraine. Before coming to the U.S., he dabbled in acting with the help of some actor friends. Most of the time, he earned small speaking parts.

In the early 1990s, he travelled to the U.S. in search of what all immigrants want—something more than what they already had. “I like this country,” Yuriy said. “It’s the best country in the world. It’s the best country even if you don’t have a job. I don’t understand people who don’t like America.”

Yuriy is a private man; he refuses to give his last name, be recorded or have his photograph taken. His humor is dry, sarcastic and sometimes a little over the edge. Already upset about not playing, he sees an Asian family walk by and whispers to me, “The Chinese never tip well.” He is proud of who he is and what he does. This is a man who wants something more than sitting on a bench every other day but realizes there is no easy way to have it.

Born in Florida, Williams was a drummer in high school but got the urge to learn the saxophone in college. Like many accomplished saxophonists, he immersed himself in the soul of Gladys Knight and the Pips and Betty Wright, along with other R&B greats. As his time progressed, Williams seized opportunities to play with greats like jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines and vibraphone player Bobby Hutcherson.

After living in San Francisco, Williams found the move to New York easy thanks in part to the emotional support of a close friend and the legendary New York City jazz scene. “New York is really the jazz capital of the world,” he said.

Williams represents the quintessential New York City jazzman. He exudes “cool.” His reserved demeanor is almost intimidating. Williams’ presence is inconspicuous; his leather beret and his dark, oval framed glasses hide the emotion in his face when he plays. The only thing that moves is his bending back as he dives down the musical scale only to pick up a scattered array of sharps and flats.

But one thing is certain according to Yuriy and Williams: when it comes to performing, you need to love what you do. “If anyone tries to come out here and do this and not love what they’re doing, I think it’s really a waste,” Williams said.

Unlike other street performers, Williams has no job on the side—his job is playing saxophone. Yuriy has no steady job to fall back on; he plays for private parties, at Italian restaurants and with a group of French musicians to support himself from day to day. At the end of the day, he returns home to Brooklyn. Williams returns to the West Side, near St. Nicholas Avenue.

The interaction between Central Park visitor and street musician is a connection hard to find anywhere else. For many visitors of the park, the music played by Yuriy and Williams acts as narration to their outing, whether it’s a first date, a study session or a chance to get some fresh air and exercise.

Yuriy plays the accordion with a romanticism that is rarely heard in popular music. The paths of Central Park turn into the side streets of Paris and Buenos Aires. While waiting to talk with him, a young couple proceeded to waltz to one of Yuriy’s Parisian fairytales. Couples walk past, listen and walk away holding each other a little tighter.

Williams has been at the same spot so long that people now recognize him. “I’m a part of the park now. They expect to hear me every day,” he said. “If I don’t show up, everyone notices. It’s good to have people concerned.”

Although it may not be glamorous, Yuriy and Williams prove to me that the life of a street musician can be a lesson and a reward in itself. It is a life of the unexpected and uncertain, but a life far more valuable than a couple dollars in your case.

“I see smiles—happy faces. I see happy people, even if they don’t pay me,” Yuriy said. By this time, the “Real Housewives” producer has returned. Yuriy gets the OK to start playing again.