Nonprofit PULSE Celebrates a Year Paying Musicians to Liven Up Downtown: 'Now It Seems Normal'

Maurice Curtis slaying the saxophone at Pegasus Plaza
Maurice Curtis slaying the saxophone at Pegasus Plaza
David Worthington

The melody of a saxophone isn’t the sound you’d expect to hear outside at Pegasus Plaza in downtown Dallas. But ever since David Wiley and Rachel Roberts started their nonprofit Performers for the Urban Life Street Experience, or PULSE Dallas, about a year ago, buskers have been appearing not only at the plaza every weekday afternoon, but also at West End Commons, the Cancer Survivors Plaza and, before its renovation started, Browder Street Food Truck Plaza.

But Pegasus Plaza, surrounded by apartments, corporate buildings and skyscrapers, is the preferred spot for buskers to play, Wiley says. Some give only one performance, while others like Maurice Curtis, David Driftwood and his daughter Kat Gillham participate in a 12-week residency program the nonprofit group now offers.

“I’ve been flooded with more musicians than I have the money to pay,” Wiley says.

Since they officially announced their plan in early March 2016, PULSE Dallas has received support from places like the law firm Gibson Wiley, PLLC; the Downtown Dallas Neighborhood Association and MacKenzie Funai. Downtown Dallas, Inc. has been their biggest supporter, and they’ve been able to bring nearly 40 buskers to the plaza over the past year.

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Wiley started PULSE Dallas after he visited cities such as Nashville and New Orleans where street musicians have become fixtures on street corners. He wanted to revive the days of Blind Lemon Jefferson perfecting the blues on Dallas street corners by paying professional musicians to busk on the corner of Main and Akard streets.

Wiley and Roberts discovered the City of Dallas does allow busking in the Central Business District as long as the street musicians don’t solicit for money. They decided to pay $50 for the hour performance and allow street musicians to keep their donations.

Roberts, who works as community relations and marketing consultant for The Statler, says she’s been promoting the PULSE music program among her network connections, trying to get companies like The Dallas Morning News and AT&T to support it.

The Statler will be co-sponsoring the PULSE music program with PULSE Dallas and Downtown Dallas, Inc. to continue offering public performances by talented musicians as part of a grassroots marketing campaign, Roberts says.

“Music is central with the Statler brand and its history,” she says. “I’m really hopeful that we can inspire other businesses to sponsor the program.”

This sponsorship will allow PULSE Dallas to continue to grow and provide opportunities for buskers not just to earn a few extra bucks but also be invited to play private engagements and find other ways to support the community with their music.

Kat Gillham and her father David Driftwood play every Thursday as part of the PULSE’s residency program, and now offer music lessons to the homeless over at the Stewpot.

Driftwood, who plays guitar, was introduced to busking when he lived over in Europe. When he returned, Gillham said she wanted to try it with him. She read the Observer’s original article about PULSE Dallas, contacted Wiley on Facebook and they soon found themselves jamming on the street corner of Main and Akard streets.

“It’s different in a pub because people know you’re supposed to be there,” says Gillham, who plays the keyboard. “I could tell that people didn’t know what to think, didn’t know if you’re supposed to be there. The looks that you get from people when people suddenly show up on the street corner to play music, but you do it enough and now it seems normal.”

Gillham says performing on the street corner led her and her father to want to teach homeless people how to busk. They wanted to help them find a way “to escape” by putting an instrument into their hand. Wiley introduced them to Cynthia Brannum, the director of the Stewpot art program. They now give guitar lessons at 2 p.m. on Thursdays after they finishing their street corner performance over at Pegasus Plaza.

“It’s a fantastic experience,” Gillham says, “and I love the whole idea of the PULSE program and it is phenomenal. Standing on the corner, I see it making an impact not just with us but on every single person that walks by.”


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