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All that Jazz: Merriman's Playhouse bringing music to South Bend

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There's a place in South Bend that's preserving the art of jazz.

At Merriman's Playhouse on Mishawaka Avenue, Mary and Stephen Merriman don't see their day-to-day work as a business, they see it as a lifestyle.

"It's nothing like I've ever been to before," said Russell Faeges, who regularly goes to live shows at Merriman's Playhouse.

It's bands like 'Fareed and His Funk Brothers' from Chicago that draw a regular crowd on a Saturday night.

"A lot of the music we play is very intimate," Fareed Haque. "It's nice to have an environment like this where the audience is very passionate about the music, where the presenters are very passionate about the music and about the sound and about the ambiance, while people are relaxed in a place where they can feel comfortable, not sitting no egg shells worrying they’re going to say or do something wrong."

The venue draws a small but loyal crowd of listeners on open sessions on Tuesday nights and live performances on Saturdays.

"We created this place to sort of have a paradigm shift in our cultural experience," said Stephen Merriman, owner of Merriman's Playhouse.

A few years ago, before the playhouse, Mary and Stephen opened 'Merriman's Piano' up for business.

"We're trying to re-establish in our culture this musical idea, these 12 tones and having that kind of sneak into their lives and living room in this box of wires," Merriman said.

The place is filled with boxes of wires because Stephen repairs all kinds of pianos.

He rescues most of them from junkyards.

"Bringing it in, shining it up, cleaning it off, tuning it, fixing the wires, re-solidifying sound boards and bridges and all kinds of little things," Merriman said. "You know, making them work again."

He's resurrected hundreds of pianos over the last 30 years and personally delivers to their new homes looking brand new.

"To get them back in the living room in an affordable way," he said. "They're high quality instruments."

When he was 20, Stephen was a drummer in a band travelling the country that was desperate to play.

"We made up these shows called the 'Spice of Life Neighborhood Party and Fair' because we couldn't get a gig," he said. "Nobody would hire us."

That's when he met an expert pianist in Boulder, CO.

He taught Stephen how to fix pianos because it was the only way they'd make money.

"If it was in Cleveland, if it was in Indianapolis, if it was in Milwaukee, wherever it was – we would do that for a while, then put on our 'spice of live neighborhood party' and then off we would go," Merriman said.

He eventually landed back in his hometown of South Bend and opened Merriman's Playhouse.

"All the people that play here are all the people you can go to Chicago to see," said Holly Swanson, whose son plays in live jazz shows at Merriman's Playhouse.

"This place is totally the outgrowth of the gig that I would have wanted when I was out there on the road," Merriman said.

It's a place built by an artist who spent years playing a tune that was a little misunderstood.

When all along, the right note was here at home.

"What you can tap into fundamentally as a human being I think is way more fulfilling than nickels and dimes you can rub together," Merriman said.

Mary and Stephen play music during their Jazz open session nights on Tuesdays from 7:30-10:30.

They're also planning to expand the playhouse with a bigger stage and seating area.

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