When students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) aren’t listening to music on their headphones, another soundtrack attends their comings and goings on campus: that of jazzy, cascading xylophone music, provided by a street musician many refer to simply as “Xylophone Guy.”
Positioned in front of the Citibank on Monroe Street and Michigan Avenue from mid-morning until roughly 5 p.m. nearly every day of the week, accomplished vibraphonist and composer Preyas Roy treats the citizens of the Loop to a catalog of pop and jazz standards with plenty of improvisational flair. Though they may enjoy Roy’s music, few students or workers realize just how accomplished a musician “Xylophone Guy” really is — and that he might be the happiest guy in all of downtown.
Mallets and Mentorship
Roy, who was born in Syracuse, New York, started playing the mallets when he was about 11. Though he has been playing ever since, he has not always been what he is today: a full-time, professional musician.
“I came to Chicago to study math at the University of Chicago,” Roy said, “and I started playing music around town maybe eight or nine years ago. Eventually, I left school — because I wanted to be a musician.”
Roy found his people on the jazz circuit and connected with a mentor: celebrated Chicago jazz violinist Sam “Savoirfaire” Williams. But Roy quickly felt the harsh realities of trying to make a living as a musician, even in a big city like Chicago.
“I was gigging and working, going to jam sessions, doing stuff that musicians do, but I wasn’t making any money doing it and no one I was talking to was making any money doing it, either,” he said.
“There’s just not a lot of work and what work there is doesn’t pay what it needs to. Gigs generally pay a hundred bucks. If you work for a hundred bucks every night, you’re still struggling. So that kind of pushed me to try playing on the street.”
It was Williams who gave Roy the scoop on street performance — also known as “busking.” Much of Williams’ income comes from the hours he spends busking at O’Hare Airport; if Roy is “Xylophone Guy,” Williams is “O’Hare Violin Guy” for many travelers traveling in and out of Chicago.
“Sam taught me how to play out [on the streets], how to set up, how to be safe,” Roy said. “And that was about three years ago.”
Punching The Clock At Michigan and Monroe
Before coming to his current corner back in August, Roy — who has played in jazz combos all over the world — played for two years near Millennium Station at Randolph Street. It was only after some residents in the area expressed the desire for a quieter neighborhood that Roy needed to seek a new home base.
When the jazz combo that had been playing at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street all summer moved to a spot on State Street, Roy set up shop. It wasn’t a difficult transition; he already had his street performer’s license (a requirement for those who play music in Chicago’s public spaces and one currently under scrutiny for those who wish to play on CTA property) and his prior experience meant he had all his gear ready to go: instrument, personal effects, tip bucket, clothes appropriate for the weather — Roy wears many layers under his fashionable, multicolored poncho — and his metronome, though you’ll never hear it. Passersby may have noticed a wire running from under Roy’s hat and under his chin; that’s the cord to his headphones, which plug into the phone in his pocket. “I tried playing without a metronome for awhile,” he said. “My timing was getting really bad, so I started using a metronome app.”
To be sure, there are challenges of busking on one of the busiest corners of the city.
“I do get harassed,” Roy said. “Definitely not every day, but definitely every week. Most of the time, it’s harmless — mostly junkies and drunks who don’t understand that they’re not supposed to be here. Kids generally don’t mess with me except the ones who try to rob me. That’s happened twice.”
Roy said that both times kids tried to grab his bucket, it “didn’t go well” for the thieves. The bucket is tied to his instrument stand and he’s not one to relinquish his paycheck, as it were, without a fight. “Both times,” he said, “I chased them down.”
“Play What You Love”
But the little annoyances of playing outside — rowdy kids, subzero temperatures — are nothing compared the joy “Xylophone Guy” gets from doing his favorite thing: playing music in a place with vibrancy that can’t be found in a concert hall.
“I play all day. I literally play, then I eat a sandwich and I smoke a cigarette — and then I play some more. That’s what I do all day. I do what I love. It’s awesome. And I really love the intensity of it. All the noise and chaos of being downtown sort of forces you to dig really hard and find the zone. It’s a challenge you wouldn’t have normally onstage if people came to listen to you; you’re sort of automatically focused and everyone is sort of focused for you.”
As for his repertoire, SAIC students hurrying between Pret A Manger and the Sullivan Building may hear jazz standards or pop songs, but they can be sure they’re hearing music that has passed the Preyas Test. We have Roy’s mentor to thank for that.
“[Sam told me], ‘Don’t pick music you don’t really love, because you’re not going to be able to deliver,’” Roy said. “You have to play music that’s instantly recognizable and that you can play really hard. And that’s kind of a cool challenge, to find that stuff. It makes me dig back from before I started studying music, like, what was I listening to? Billy Joel and Motown and Beatles. And it’s kind of hilarious because I spent 15 years studying nothing but bebop and free jazz! It’s funny how things happen.”