Someone Find a Piano! John Legend Jams at The Wall Street Journal’s ‘WSJ Café’

On Wednesday afternoon in the News Corporation building on Avenue of the Americas in midtown, John Legend walked quickly out of the glass doors of the sixth-floor elevator bank and into a small video studio across the hall. Two “On Air” signs were lighted up in the hallway. A man almost twice Mr. Legend’s size wearing a red polo shirt and carrying a duffle bag followed close behind. Mr. Legend was running late to film an episode of “WSJ Café,” The Wall Street Journal arts videocast.

Down the hall from the studio, row after row of Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal reporters and editors were sitting at their desks working in front of computer monitors in the The Hub. The latest news coming off of different wires was projected on one wall. In managing editor Robert Thomson’s glass office at the back of the room, the lights were off.

“Back in the old building people would come into our actual café. Now they come into our fancy studio,” Christopher Farley told The Observer on the phone Friday morning. Mr. Farley edits The Journal‘s “Speakeasy” arts and entertainment blog and hosts the videocast. “It was kind of cool to have people there eating their bag of chips,” he said of the authentic café experience. Since The Journal moved into the News Corp. building, staffers claim the limited number of seats in each performance over email. It’s first-come, first-serve.

An eight-note scale drifted from inside the studio out into the hallway where members of The Wall Street Journal‘s video staff scurried back and forth getting ready for the taping. One staffer was checking her email on an iPad as she walked by. She stopped to tell The Observer that Mr. Legend is the first musician to arrive late at the office. (The video staff, which publishes an average of 700 videos per month on The Journal‘s different channels, is usually on a tight schedule.) Mr. Legend was also the first musician to refuse to perform on an electronic keyboard.

“He would only play a piano,” Mr. Farley told The Observer on the phone. “We’re not gonna’ have a piano lying around The Wall Street Journal!” he said.

Mr. Farley and the video team found an upright black piano for Mr. Legend to play. “Getting it through those small studio doors was sort of a nightmare,” he said. “It gave us all gray hairs.”

As Journal editors and staff filed into the studio, Mr. Legend sat at the piano holding a paper cup full of tea with his shoulders hunched and his lips curled inward. His left foot rested next to the pedals and he glanced at the studio door out of the corner of his eye. He waited for the door to close. “Hello, how’s everybody?” he said quietly.

Wearing a black suit and a black shirt, Mr. Farley stood up to start the recording and introduce Mr. Legend. After three takes, Mr. Farley delivered an introduction he was satisfied with and took a seat in the front row.

Mr. Legend began to play his song “Wake Up!” (“The world won’t get no better, if we just let it be [piano fill]. The world won’t get no better; we got to change it, just you and me”). A middle-aged man in a striped shirt gently bobbed his head along with the music, and another lady across the room slowly rocked in her seat. At the end of their song there was a polite round of applause.

Then Mr. Legend performed “Shine,” which he wrote for Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’. This time he sang mostly with his eyes closed. When the applause died down after the song, the cameraman put his camera down and, with the help of an assistant, placed two black egg-shaped bar stools in front of the piano for Mr. Farley and Mr. Legend.

Mr. Farley asked Mr. Legend about his music and then his politics. “I read a lot. I pay attention to what goes on in Washington, and I was paying attention long before this election, and I never expected that this was gonna’ be a magical pony ride, you know?” Mr. Legend said, sitting atop the stool with his hands clasped in his lap. He was talking about President Barack Obama. “They say governing is like prose and campaigning is like poetry, and the campaigning part was the sexy part for a lot of people, but the governing part is not sexy at all.”

Mr. Farley told The Observer on the phone that it wasn’t hard to get musicians to come to The Journal. “Our traffic has been increasing — ballooned! — since I took over,” he said. “It’s never a hard sell to get them to talk to us. There’s a growing recognition that The Wall Street Journal has more readers than any other paper in the country. Their publicists are reading stories about The Wall Street Journal and our circulation. People who read The Journal have the money to go out and buy these ridiculously expensive CDs.”

A musician like Mr. Legend would have no reservations about performing at The Journal, Mr. Farley said. Mr. Legend attended the University of Pennsylvania. “He also worked for Boston Consulting Group,” Mr. Farley added, “so he knows The Journal inside out, too.”

Mr. Farley said that he admires the ESPN commercials that show athletes in the network’s offices hanging around and doing different things like making Xerox copies. He likes the idea of musicians roaming the halls of The Journal. “It’s also somewhat of a culture clash,” he said. “Someone like Tom Morello — he was there more out of curiosity.” Mr. Morello, a guitarist for the band Rage Against the Machine, performed on WSJ Café in 2009.

Mr. Farley said that he would like to film WSJ Café performance in the middle of The Journal‘s news hub down the hall. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said. “I think it would be kind of fun to disrupt things and sing right in the middle of where people are reporting.”

“If we ever get Bono,” he added, “that’s where I want him to play.” / @zekeft

Someone Find a Piano! John Legend Jams at The Wall Street Journal’s ‘WSJ Café’