Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

The surprising link between Brigham Young, an early leader of the Mormon Church, and Brockett Parsons, the keyboardist for Lady Gaga, is a 77-year-old former cowboy named Gerald R. Daynes.

Daynes, who goes by "Skip," is the fourth-generation owner of Daynes Music, a $6 million Steinway piano dealer in Midvale, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. Utah has the most pianos per capita of any state, a consequence of Mormons' love for music and more than a century's worth of the Daynes family's support for performance and education. From the day in 1862 when Daynes's great-grand uncle was tapped by Young himself to be the first organist for the Mormon Tabernacle, his family has scored the life of this mountain-cradled city. His grandfather helped create the Utah Symphony. His father provided space in the store for the Utah Civic Ballet (now called Ballet West). In 1973, Daynes offered one of three buildings he owned on Main Street as the first home for Utah Opera.

Today, Daynes has emerged as an unlikely champion of technology, enticing young players with leading-edge digital devices. His motives are both personal and societal. The business was built on generations of customers who first visited Daynes Music when their children performed in its chandeliered Steinway recital hall. ("Without piano teachers we would not have a business," says Daynes.) But he also believes music education--an endangered species--improves academic achievement. "Computers and cell phones and laptops are taking over the music industry," says Daynes. "Who wants a piano? We have to make playing piano cool again for kids."

Toward that end, Daynes has become a dealer of digital pianos designed by inventor and futurist Ray Kurtzweil. And he has installed on every new Steinway and Story & Clark instrument in the store an optical sensor, called PNOScan, that allows composers, piano students, and others to add digital effects and translate their performances to a computer in the form of sheet music. Daynes Music is an ardent advocate and trainer for PNOScan, which was developed by a Pennsylvania company that once made music rolls for player pianos. Lady Gaga's Parsons is among the musicians making pilgrimages here to learn about the technology, which he incorporated into his edge-pushing custom 360-degree keyboard.

In the Salt Lake health community, too, Daynes's presence is felt. His youngest son, Tim, is quadriplegic after a diving accident in 1989. Sensitized to the needs of the ill and injured, Daynes has donated pianos to numerous hospitals for music therapy classes. He also raises dogs to visit patients there. "I have taught all my dogs to play the piano," says Daynes. One golden retriever, Colonel, lent his paws to a concert with pianist Roger Williams.

"It's hard to think about music in the state of Utah without thinking about Skip Daynes," says Jeff Young, whose two piano-major daughters have performed in countless recitals held at Daynes Music and in musical events organized by the company. "In terms of music culture and education he is an absolute pillar of the community."

And even in his 70s, "Skip personally loads and unloads the pianos," says Young. "There's nobody like him."

From wagon train to Tabernacle.

The musical Daynes family--British-born converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--trekked across the Plains in 1862 as part of the Homer Duncan party of pioneers. Patriarch John Daynes pulled a handcart bearing a pump-organ. His son Joseph, 14, earned the occasional ride by playing a concertina for children in the wagons.

The party arrived in Salt Lake City and, in Washington Square, gathered around the organ to sing hymns while Joseph played. "Brigham Young put his hand on Joseph's shoulder and said, 'Young man, you will be the Tabernacle organist,'" says Daynes. First though, Joseph had to help construct the imposing instrument. At age 16, he assumed the bench, a position he held for 33 years. During that time he composed some of the church's most popular hymns.

John Daynes opened a jewelry- and watch-repair business in a log cabin he built on Main Street. The family also sold pump-organs and stringed instruments, which traveled from the East Coast over the Rockies in ox carts. "Music has always been a very strong part of the Mormon heritage, so there were always gatherings in homes and church meetings where they would sing songs," says Daynes.

In 1873, Daynes convinced Steinway & Sons, in New York City, to ship a grand piano 14,000 miles around the Straits of Magellan to Salt Lake. As a strategy, selling grand pianos in a pioneer town sounds quixotic. But "the city was growing very fast and when people would come through to pan for gold in California, they would stop here," says Skip. "All of a sudden this was a nice community. They had built nice streets, nice homes." Daynes Music and Jewelry became the first Steinway dealer west of New York.

The piano titan of the West.

By his second wife, Joseph Daynes had two sons, Fred and Royal, who took over the business. Fred left for his LDS mission in England and, when he returned in 1900, found Royal ensconced atop a significantly larger company. "Fred said, 'I am the oldest brother so I will take over now. You can work for me.' That did not work out too good," says Skip. The brothers split the business: Fred took jewelry and Royal took music. They never spoke to each other again.

The jewelry business failed. But the music side--renamed Consolidated Music by Royal--expanded into Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado. At its height, the company comprised 25 stores.

By the 1920s, Royal was selling pianos from Estey, Story & Clark, and other manufacturers, as well as band instruments. In the American West, he was titan of pianos. Whenever Royal got wind of a potential upstart, "Grandfather would call the manufacturers and say, 'My good friend wants to be in the piano business and I will be the distributor,'" says Daynes. "It was his way of controlling all the pianos that were coming into the area. And he would keep the very best brands" for himself. Royal also trained all the region's piano tuners.

The Depression took a predictable toll. But unlike his competitors, Royal never declared bankruptcy. He contracted the business and, when the economy improved, changed the name back to Daynes Music Company. He also expanded the sheet music collection, which became among the retail world's largest. "When publishers put out something new, grandfather would say, 'Send me 100 copies,'" says Daynes. "I remember when I was young taking a whole truckload of music to the post office every two or three days. It was going out to bands and orchestras in Montana, different areas in the West. A lot of it was going over to Europe."

Royal's son Gerald succeeded him in the 1950s. He moved the flagship to a building next to Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the first department store in the West. As technology evolved, he added stereos and televisions to the mix.

In the winters, Skip Daynes would help his father in the stereo department. The rest of the year, when not in school, he worked on his uncle's 180,000-acre ranch. "My father wanted me to take over the ranch. He thought the piano business was too hard," says Daynes. But in 1965, he returned from a mission in Uruguay to find that his ailing uncle had sold the ranch. Daynes got a job at Sears, went through management training, and then took over the family business.

Keys of influence.

The band instruments are gone. So are the TVs and stereos. The Tabernacle organ, maintained by the family for decades, now has its own private tuner and technician. But in this community, Daynes Music, now at a single location, will never be just a piano store.

Piano students still regularly perform here, where they are greeted by Reggie or Diva, the family's current therapy dogs. ("Petting a dog before you have to go in and play on the nine-foot Steinway settles you down," says Daynes.) A fellow of the Utah Music Teachers Association, Daynes supplies instruments for concerts around the state and helps match prospective students with instructors. Older students play his instruments as well. Almost all the state's colleges are Steinway-only schools, converted over the years by Daynes. The University of Utah alone has purchased 180 pianos from the business.

And when musicians roll in for the Deer Valley Music Festival or the Salt Lake City Jazz Festival or the Snowbird Music Festival or to play at some of the smaller venues around town, they rent their grands from Daynes. Over the years, everyone from Vladimir Horowitz to Lang Lang has finessed the keys of a Daynes piano.

Also finessing the keys these days is Daynes himself. Using PNOScan, he is teaching himself to play. "I was a cowboy who took over a piano store, so I am not a good pianist," says Daynes. "I can play children's songs and some church hymns. Now I am learning."

Published on: Sep 26, 2016