If you notice live music performances at the world’s busiest airport over the next few weeks, it’s not just because of the holidays.
For nearly a year, Hartsfield-Jackson International has paid musicians to entertain travelers every weekday. They include people who play violin, saxophone, keyboards and guitar. They come from a variety of backgrounds — members of bands or orchestras, touring artists or recording musicians in studios.
They play in the domestic terminal atrium and near security queues, in the international terminal and on concourses where travelers wait for flights.
“It brings a bit of soul and culture to the place,” said traveler Mike Lincoln, who passed through Hartsfield-Jackson recently. “Takes away the coldness of it.”
Keyboardist Darren Wagner thinks music “brings more of a calming atmosphere” to the airport — and has brought more stability to his own work playing gigs. At the airport, he plays classic R&B, jazz and popular songs “from an approach of relaxation.” Outside of the airport, Wagner plays in church on Sunday mornings and in clubs around Atlanta.
Wagner was one of about 60 musicians who auditioned about a year ago to play up to a few days a week at Hartsfield-Jackson. About a dozen made the cut. The airport pays the musicians $75 an hour, as part of a $350,000 operating budget earmarked to improve the customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson.
More musicians will be stationed around the airport over the holidays, said Chester Cook, a former airport chaplain and current guest relations manager who runs the musicians program.
‘A great job’
Ken Lambert, a substitute musician for the Atlanta Symphony, has played with the Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Pops Orchestra and in orchestras in Greenville and Savannah — and now also plays at the airport.
“It has turned out to be a really great experience, a great job,” said Lambert, who lives in Lawrenceville. “It’s actually enabled me to do a lot less traveling, to have a local job like this.”
Lambert called the airport gig “very rewarding. People are bored or stressed… I feel like I’m able to make an impact.”
He said travelers have come up to him crying. Others leave notes of thanks.
“People constantly are surprised” to see a violinist playing at the airport, he said.
Lambert says he plays a lot of Disney songs and other pieces for children traveling with families, including music from The Little Mermaid, Lion King or Star Wars. He says he gets requests every time he plays at the airport.
Spending a few days in the airport a week, Lambert has learned a lot about Hartsfield-Jackson. “Some of my favorite restaurants are here,” including Grindhouse Killer Burgers and Cafe Intermezzo, he said.
Giving good feelings
Tenor saxophonist Dwan Bosman plays at Alpharetta jazz club The Velvet Note, but says when he plays at the airport, he finds “toddlers and teens are very fascinated with the instruments.” And he’s seen many well-known musicians come through the airport, from Phil Driscoll to the Whispers to hip-hop stars.
“In my opinion this is definitely the top gig in the city,” Bosman said. “We play for 250,000 passengers” who pass through the airport daily. “If someone is heading to a funeral, it could give them some encouragement. It’s a good feeling.”
James Cobb, an audio engineer and classical guitarist who lives in Decatur, said hearing familiar songs is “enough to ease their stress and remind them that they’re actually having a good time traveling… They’re just sitting at the gate waiting to board, so you can really make their day.”
After seeing and hearing live musicians, “people walk away from Atlanta airport saying, ‘Wow, that was a cut above,’ ” Cobb said. He said that’s particularly true when “they hear that we’re employees, that we’re not busking. Atlanta and Hartsfield were actually forward-thinking enough to hire professional musicians.”
Cobb said the airport was careful to hire real professionals. “Everybody here is good,” Cobb said. “The people who have worked really hard to make a living deserve a break — deserve steady work.”