Andrew Fletcher earned his credibility as a musician by doubling as a piano mover.
“I’ve never claimed to be the best piano player in town, but I will claim to be the hardest working,” he said. “And when people watch you unload a piano from a truck and wheel it into a venue, they’ll believe that claim.”
Early in the last decade, Fletcher and his piano on wheels were common sights in Asheville clubs and on downtown street corners. Several years ago, Fletcher was on the front lines as buskers fought against proposals to regulate their trade. Today, some might know Fletcher more for his appearances at meetings of the city council or downtown commission—representing the interests of musicians—than for the music he makes.
The 37-year-old pianist is hoping to change that, at least for now, with a new album of music produced by the Firecracker Jazz Band. The band celebrates with a March 14 performance at the Mothlight in West Asheville.
“I never really intended to be a professional performing artist or otherwise. I just sort of fell into it as the world and my own life turned,” he said. “There’s a rebellious spirit of individualism in those early jazz records, which I really gravitated to.”
The life of an itinerant jazz pianist is about the last thing expected of Fletcher, who grew up the oldest of five raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fletcher was 12 when his family moved from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Tryon, N.C., and he remembers spending countless days and hours going door to door to peddle his faith.
You don’t know fear until you’ve walked up to a trailer in the middle of nowhere and knocked on a door with a bible in your hand and saying ‘Maybe you’ve got the wrong Jesus,’” he said.
Fletcher created a temporary rift in his family when he left the faith in his early 20s, but he said the foundation of that upbringing proved critical in 2014, when he joined the pushback against proposals in Asheville to formally register buskers, conduct background checks and mandate they wear identifying lanyards.
“One of the things I learned was just to care for your neighbors and love them so much that you will tell them the truth. So when my neighbors were these buskers and my other neighbors were elected officials and city staff, I had to love all these people enough to tell them the truth, and that was that the city was trying to hurt us,” he said. “I felt (the proposals were) a real violation of first amendment rights to sing a song on the street like people have the right to have conversations on the streets.”
Fletcher didn’t have a clear direction as a musician until Reese Gray, the pianist at the time of the Firecracker Jazz Band, began mentoring Fletcher on early 20th-century jazz.
“I’d go over to his house and I’d bring a bottle to drink and sit at his elbow, and he would put 78s on a hand-cranked Victrola of the original Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers,” he recalled. “We’d listen to the music and we would sit at the piano and he would show me how to play the music.”
When Gray left the Firecracker Jazz Band, 10 years ago, Fletcher replaced him. He’s worked steadily as a musician ever since joining the Firecracker Jazz Band, performing about 200 gigs each year. Just last fall, he lost one of the few great-paying gigs in town—playing piano a couple hours a week at the Omni Grove Park Inn—when managers there proposed that some regular musicians there put in more time with reduced pay. Fletcher said no, a decision he knew would cut hundreds of dollars of monthly income.
“It was a top-tier gig here,” he said. “To honor my principles of what I think is fair pay, I had to take a walk. I could not have pride in myself if I took that. I’d rather eat ramen for another month.”
Fletcher ran an unsuccessful campaign for an Asheville City Council seat in 2017, but knew then it wouldn’t be the end of his political career. He’s a member of the public art and cultural commission, new vice-chair of the Downtown Commission and on the board of the Asheville Music Professionals. He’s also on a community advisory forum of Blue Ridge Public Radio.
“I definitely see a future in leadership for myself,” he said. “But when that time comes, I want it to be not based on an ambition for the future but on a record from the past of really going to bat for working-class creatives and regular people in the city who make this place run.”
Andrew Fletcher is a member of BPR’s Community Forum, the station’s community advisory group.