It’s early March, with Opening Day a month away, but Turner Field is literally abuzz with preparations. A noisy lawnmower trims new turf along the foul lines while contractors string wires and others lay on new coats of paint. Warm breezes and shirtsleeve temperatures are enough to complete the effect: though the Atlanta Braves may be in Florida for weeks to come, baseball clearly is around the corner.
In the press box, two rows up, Matthew Kaminski settles behind the keys of his electronic organ, the first time he’s been here since the last game of the 2009 campaign, which marked his inaugural season as the team’s organist. He’s here to talk to Georgia Music, but were this a game day, he’d be poised over the keys with ’phones clamped on, ready to play as soon as a producer provided a cue.
To his right, atop the keyboard, would be his laptop, logged into Twitter for real-time requests (@bravesorganist) and Rhapsody, for learning new tunes on the fly. And as soon as an opposing batter was announced—say, Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals, Kaminski would break into an appropriate song snippet, in this case, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Zimmy for Zimmy, as it were. Scattered throughout the stands, attentive baseball fans who know their musical references would chuckle to themselves.
In just one season of work, Kaminski has made a name for himself as a sly creator of musical in-game in-jokes with an interactive touch, adding new wrinkles to a ballpark tradition. But there’s much more to Kaminski than the Madonna tunes that accompany Alex Rodriguez out of the on-deck circle. He’s also an accomplished jazz musician who’s building a growing national reputation and has just released his first CD of Jimmy Smith-style soul-jazz, the excellent Taking My Time.
‘A lot of tapes’
Kaminski, a thirtysomething Chicagoan of Polish heritage, grew up a Cubs fan. But even though tradition-bound Wrigley Field featured (and still features) only organ music, with no music piped in from CDs—and even though Kaminski began organ lessons at age 5—he didn’t consider his current role a possibility until the Braves opportunity arrived.
“When I came in, I vowed I’d bring back the live organ because that’s such a big part of baseball,” recalls Scott Cunningham, appointed the team’s director of game entertainment in 2005. But it didn’t happen immediately, since the circuitry required for the enormous new electronic message board had forced the organ’s removal.
Once the team worked out a potential solution to have a keyboard sit toward the rear of the press box “We went searching for an organ player,” Cunningham says. “And it’s a tough thing to do. We literally found only three. So we took a chance on [Kaminski].”
To say it’s worked out well is an understatement, with Kaminski’s wry, genre-spanning musical serenades turning into conversation starters. From a J.S. Bach piece for Philly catcher Paul Bako to New Kids On The Block (“The Right Stuff”) for Mets third-baseman David Wright, each is sure to get a subset of fans elbowing each other.
“I mainly listen to the games on the radio, so I didn’t realize at first what was going on,” recalls Lucas Jensen, drummer for Athens popsters Venice Is Sinking and lifelong Braves fan. “I think I heard him jamming some ’70s faux prog like Kansas or Styx and thinking ‘Wow. Sounds like they got some new tapes.’ But then I kept hearing these odd musical cues underneath the announcers, and I’d try to pick them out, but I was all, ‘Man, that’s a lot of tapes.’ Then I heard about the Teixeira ‘Creep’ thing, and that’s when I found out about the ‘new guy.’”
As Jensen alludes, the tipping point for “the new guy” came in a midseason series with the New York Yankees, which marked the first return of former Brave Mark Teixeira. “Nobody told me if people were going to cheer for him or boo him,” Kaminski recalls. “I played [Radiohead’s] ‘Creep’ the second time around, because I heard a number of boos. … I had that one ready ahead of time. In fact, I got approval from the producer because I didn’t want to be too mean.”
“Approval?” Oh yes. The gig comes with a few rules. “You can’t do anything bad with the umps,” Kaminski explains. “‘Three Blind Mice’ is off-limits. And if there’s an argument, you can’t really spur things on.”
The walk-up music has to stay on the right side of the line as well. “What I’m known for is making fun of people—but in good taste,” he adds. “There’s nothing mean-spirited about it.” Though you wouldn’t blame Dodgers outfielder Manny Ramirez, serenaded with Huey Lewis & The News hit “I Want A New Drug,” if he begged to differ.
With each game day occupying at least eight hours (and more with rain delays) the Braves gig would be plenty for most working musicians, but Kaminski has many more irons in the fire. Throughout the week, as long as there’s not a home game, you can catch him with salsa ensemble Orquesta Macuba at Loca Luna, serenading dinner guests at Ray’s On The River, subbing with Mike Geier’s Kingsized or accompanying his favorite vocalists at Churchill Grounds, playing organ, piano or accordion, depending on the gig. Kaminski also has more than 20 piano and organ students and is pursing a graduate degree himself, at Georgia State University. If all that weren’t enough, Matthew and wife Kathleen are expecting their first child this fall.
And though the Braves job is a “dream,” Kaminski has his sights set on furthering his jazz career. On March 6, his ensemble played Atlanta’s Red Light Café in celebration of Taking My Time, Kaminski’s debut (on Tony Monaco’s Chicken Coop records) featuring equal helpings of originals and covers, the most unlikely being “Caroline, No” by the Beach Boys.
Then again, maybe it’s not such a stretch for a guy playing Radiohead on the ballpark organ and making it work. “Having this random genius up in there, playing name-that-tune with the fans, is a great touch, as it mitigates the tension between traditionalism and in-your-face audience participation,” Jensen enthuses. “Plus, the guy is just plain hilarious.”