Tom Ross: Rockin' Charlotte International

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— Descending in the darkness into Charlotte the other night, I experienced regret that my first trip to North Carolina wouldn't provide me with any sense of the place.

It is a fact of modern airline travel that all of us have touched down in many more cities than we've ever truly visited.

Heck yeah, I've been to Houston! That's where we changed planes on the way to Cancun. Or was it Dallas? I haven't ever really "been there," either. However, I'll never forget that one trip to Big D when the shuttle driver almost knocked me down in the overcrowded concourse.

I didn't have unrealistic expectations when we took off in Denver, bound for Buffalo via Charlotte. I knew I wouldn't glimpse the skyline of the Southeast's growing financial center, and I was fairly certain I wouldn't sample indigenous cuisine in the concourse.

What I did not anticipate was that on a Wednesday evening in a busy hub airport, I would be entertained by a live music performance.

Charlotte-Douglas International Airport seems to be arrayed like a wagon wheel, with concourses emanating like spokes from a hub.

Our itinerary called for us to transfer from the United Airlines concourse to one of the many U.S. Airways gates in another concourse. CLT hosts 613 daily departures, and of those 526 are operated by U.S. Airways or one of its "express" partners.

The first things we noticed upon leaving the United concourse and entering the heart of the airport were the rows of white rocking chairs that ringed it. Travelers with books and laptops occupied almost all of the wooden chairs.

If you've traveled through Charlotte, the white rockers aren't news. They've been there for a decade, ever since they were first introduced in 1997 in conjunction with a photography exhibit that documented the tradition of "front porch sitting" in the Carolinas.

The chairs were so popular among travelers they remained long after the photo exhibit was taken down.

It turns out the chairs really are emblematic of Carolina culture. They are handmade of native oak by Troutman Chair Company based 45 miles north of the city. Each chair features detailed interlocking joinery; they aren't glued together.

Interspersed with potted trees, the chairs transform the bustling terminal into a facsimile of a residential street.

The very next thing we noticed in the airport hub was piano music that sounded distinctly different from the tinny music you hear on airport speaker systems.

Could there be a piano bar in the Charlotte airport?

You bet there could.

The circular "bar without walls" stood out in the open. Next to it, a man with a head of wavy gray hair and a full beard effortlessly played melodic jazz on a baby grand piano with a badly out-of-tune high B note. In spite of the sharp note, the musician improvising beautiful jazz evoked the themes of American folk music.

I was immediately struck at what a brilliant move it was for either airport management or the greater Charlotte Convention and Visitors Bureau to hire a "street" musician. But it turns out that I had it all wrong.

After we grabbed a couple of glasses of Guinness, we seated ourselves close to the piano and I noticed that the musician had the standard-issue black, wheeled carry-on suitcase.

"I come to Charlotte often, and I like to sit down and play for a few minutes," Butch told another bar patron.

We sat where a steady stream of travelers provided a blurred backdrop for the baby grand and let Butch's music wash away the stress of travel.

When he took a break, I told Butch his music reminded me of the playing of jazz great Keith Jarrett.

"He's one of my biggest heroes," the piano man said. "I'm in software now, but I played professionally for many years."

After a time, another musician, a man dressed in a mustard yellow suit who played jazz tinged with Dixieland, bumped Butch from the piano bench.

After three numbers, he jumped up and grabbed his carry-on.

"I have to catch my flight!" he called out to no one in particular.

And so did we.

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