Tag: composer memorial

Constantly Missing Randy (Endless Bummer)

[Ed note: One of the highlights of this year’s 20th anniversary MATA Festival will be a repeat MATA performance of P(l)aces by Randy Hostetler (1963-1996) during the April 13, 2018 concert called MATA’s Greatest Hits. The posthumous world premiere performance of that composition, the score for which MATA co-founder Lisa Bielawa reconstructed from manuscripts, computer files, and videotapes rehearsals of the work in progress that she found among effects of his that his parents kept, took place during the very first MATA Festival in a concert on January 13, 1998 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Its extremely strange mix of metrical complexity, appropriated riffs from reggae, salsa, and many other styles of music, taped sounds of barking dogs, power tools, and lamps made it one of the legendary events in American music history as did its illustrious cast of perfomers: Bielawa and MATA’s other co-founder, Eleonor Sandresky, the Talujon Percussion Quartet, trumpeter Susan Radcliff, trombonist Monique Buzzarte, trombone, guitarist Oren Fader, Jack Vees on electric bass and washtub bass, percussionist Frank Cassara (who served as a timekeeper), and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, music director for the Pennsylvania Ballet. Since in addition to performing in that premiere, Jack Vees had an unusual relationship with Randy Hostetler, we asked him to share his memories about him and that premiere.—FJO]

It has been twenty years since the performance of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces on the first MATA festival. Randy was a composer whose works lit up our world—for many of us starting in the early 1980s—and that glow continues on through today.  His life was cut short (probably by Addison’s Disease) in 1996. His death left a huge tear in our community—not just because of the brilliance of his own works, but also because Randy’s generous spirit brought people of all sorts together.  Shortly after he moved to California, he established the series Living Room Music, which gave opportunities to many composers and performers and provided a much-needed outlet for alternative new music in the Los Angeles area.  It was through a network of friends and colleagues that I began to know of this extraordinary person.

One of the factors that makes writing this remembrance especially difficult is that Randy’s is one of my first and deepest friendships with someone that I never met in person.  OK, this will take a little explaining, but I think it will point out what a remarkable presence Randy is (not was) in this proto digital era.

Randy and I maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.

Randy and I somehow maintained an almost perfect symmetry of being on opposite coasts at exactly the same time.  While I was at CalArts (official student-hood starting in the early ‘80s) Randy was an undergrad at Yale. When I came East in the summer of ‘86, landing at Yale as a spouse-in-tow of a grad student (Libby Van Cleve), Randy was heading toward CalArts. I like to think we passed each other somewhere in Kansas.

Shortly after arriving at Yale, I began to hear stories from Martin Bresnick about this really cool, young composer I should have met, but who had just graduated and left to continue his studies at CalArts.  These included some of the escapades of Sheep’s Clothing, a student performance art group, under Martin’s direction.  That group has left a legacy of antics from its members, which included Randy, Jeff Brooks, Scott Lindroth, and David Lang.

And the Randy-related stories didn’t stop there.  Pretty soon I was hearing more about this “kid” from Art Jarvinen, one of my closest longtime friends and accomplices. Art and I had been involved in a number of Dadaist and Fluxus performances, so we were used to seeing and hearing things that most others don’t just happen across in their travels.  This is just to say that for Art to remark about something or someone, it really had to be truly remarkable on a grand scale, and apparently Randy was.

I would go back to Southern California pretty frequently in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, usually to take part in performances or the Monumentally Bad Poetry Soirees at Art’s house.  Although Randy would certainly be part of this crowd, it seemed every time I came west, he’d be on a trip somewhere else.  I was constantly missing Randy. Bummer.

Mel Powell, who had seen a lot in his lifetime (and had learned to let our silliness just wash over and not perturb him), knew that the “catchiness” of the surface of Randy’s pieces was a reflection and link to deeper truths, not just icing to hide the lack of them. If I would bump into him during my visits back to CalArts, Mel would often bring me up to date about the latest batch of crazy kids.  Even in this milieu, Randy stood out.  Mel commented about “that Eight-Ball piece” (actually titled 8) as being particularly memorable.  There was something about it that Mel knew was much more than witty novelty.  If you take the time to watch Randy’s performance of it, the experience is enthralling, and Mel knew it was brilliant.

Somehow as the late 1980s became the ‘90s, my trips to L.A. became less frequent, but the common use era of email began to open up other possibilities. Art Jarvinen was instrumental in connecting Randy and me.  We traded a few emails, and I believe that somewhere in a landfill in Connecticut there’s a NeXT cube with the extent of our correspondence on it.   In 1996, things seemed about to change.  I would be headed out west again, and this time Art was planning on setting up one of his incredible dinners for us to finally meet in person.

Then in February I got “the phone call” from Art.  Randy had passed away after what seemed to be a very brief illness.  Art was devastated.  Though being of stoic Finnish stock, Art could be tremendously impacted by friends’ deaths. In response to Randy’s passing, he wrote the beautiful Endless Bummer, a gentle and poignant turn on the surf music of “Endless Summer”.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces.

A graph paper page from the original manuscript score of Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces.

What I remember about the first MATA festival and the process of bringing Randy’s P(l)aces together is this: Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky had both gone to Yale around the time Randy was there. As they began the huge task of programming the festival, it was clear that P(l)aces would be an important element both aesthetically and emotionally.  To be honest, I don’t remember if they first asked me to play bass on it, or if I insisted that I had to.

If we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, P(l)aces is uncatagorizable.

P(l)aces shines a light on at least two important aspects of Randy’s work. First, if we try to put it into a particular box in terms of style, it is uncatagorizable.  However, it does have certain attributes of both modernist and post-modernist styles (and probably Classical and Romantic too, but that’s calling for a wider paint brush than I brought today).  I think it has something to do with Randy’s sense of how to take primal elements and to find how they relate in complex ways instead of taking the easier route of just being complicated. This has a benefit for the players.   As part of the ensemble, it always felt like individual parts were rooted in a familiar tradition, but all the parts together were unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Similarly, in Randy’s electronic works he manages to sculpt the familiar into the unique with the use of only the bare minimum of studio frippery.   A prime example is Happily Ever After. It has no robust algorithms, no elegant Max patches, maybe even no reverb.   What it does have is a collection of very human-sized stories told by many of his friends and recorded by Randy.  They all start the same way (“Once upon a time”) and all end the same way (“happily ever after”).  What happens to the individual threads in between is up to each storyteller, but the resultant whole is an exquisite tapestry woven by Randy that gives dignity to each of those threads.

Randy’s generosity towards other composers and performers carries through to all of us who listen to his work.  He never directs our attention to his own skill as a composer, but subtly shifts our attention to have us reconsider our own selves—and each other—in a more favorable and generous light.

A page from Lisa Bielawa's digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler's P(l)aces

A typical page from Lisa Bielawa’s digitally engraved score for Randy Hostetler’s P(l)aces showing his penchant for dense polymetric textures.

Crystallizing Emotion—Remembering Richard Hundley (1930-2018)

[Ed. note: Richard Hundley, a prolific composer of art songs for solo voice and piano, died on February 26, 2018 in New York following a long illness. Born in Cincinnati on September 1, 1930, started piano lessons at the age of seven and by the age of 10 had become obsessed with opera. In 1950, Hundley moved to New York City where he studied composition with Israel Citkowitz and Virgil Thomson, among others. Ten years later he was selected to sing in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus; through singing in the chorus he met a wide range of singers including Anna Moffo and Teresa Stratas who began singing his own songs on their recitals. Tenor and American art song specialist Paul Sperry began championing Hundley’s songs in the late 1960s and helped secure their publication.  Over the past half century, many of Hundley’s songs have become mainstays of American vocal music repertoire. In 2014, the Lotte Lehmann Foundation honored Hundley with its World of Song Award, fittingly presented to Hundley by Paul Sperry. In 2016, the New York Public Library acquired all of Hundley’s manuscripts, concert programs, photographs, and other professional materials.—FJO]

How do we deal with the loss of our dear, wonderful, frustrating, enormously talented Richard?  His were the first songs by a living American composer that I fell in love with and the love affair never ended.

I first heard Hundley’s songs in 1967 when I was just starting to sing.

I first heard his songs in 1967 when I was just starting to sing.  There was a concert of songs by Virgil Thomson and Richard Hundley at the Overseas Press Club in New York and a good friend of mine was singing, so I went to hear it.  I was blown away by two of Richard’s songs: “The Astronomers” for its beauty and “Some Sheep Are Loving” for its humor.  I went backstage, introduced myself, and asked if I could get the music for those two songs.  Richard said no.  But I am persistent when I want something; two years and several attempts later, I got the music and our friendship started.

Because of connections I had with publishers through being on the board of the American Music Center, I was able to help get his marvelous Eight Songs published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1981.  I was told that Richard drove them crazy when they published “The Astronomers” as a single song, because every time they engraved what he sent them, he made changes.  In those days changes meant a lot of work, not a minute or two at the computer.  Boosey made me extract a promise from Richard not to do that with the Eight Songs.  He promised, but all his friends knew that he couldn’t possibly have kept to it.  He did do less of it, however, and I imagine that frustrated him.  When he sent me a copy of the published book, he had already penciled in a change to “Come Ready and See Me.” He had changed a 16th, 8th, 16th note pattern to a triplet of 8th notes.  That’s a distinction that most singers seem to ignore anyway.

Here are some thoughts I wrote down as a preface to the publication of his Eight Early Songs in 2016:

Richard Hundley said his objective as a composer was “to crystallize emotion.”  He succeeded amazingly well.  Some of his pieces I find heartstoppingly beautiful: “The Astronomers,” “Come Ready and See Me,” “Waterbird.”  He mastered the art of agonizing over details until he produced something that sounds simple, even inevitable.  I think he has taken the apparent simplicity of his mentor and friend Virgil Thomson and invested it with more urgent emotion.  His melodies stay in the mind.  In his harmonies and open spacings he sounds American in the sense that Copland created a recognizably American sound.  And he has the American gift for exuberance and humor: look at “Epitaph on a Wife,” “Some Sheep are Loving,” “Postcard from Spain,” and “I Do!” for examples.

Hundley’s training differed from that of many other Americans. He never went abroad to study, and he credited his three years in the Metropolitan Opera chorus—and his even longer stint as accompanist for Zinka Milanov’s lessons—as formative to his gifts as a song writer.  There is no question that he understood both the voice and piano perfectly.  And singers love his songs.

Richard Hundley and Paul Sperry in 2014.

Richard Hundley and Paul Sperry in 2014.

Hundley’s songs, like Schubert’s, are easy to fuse into marvelous recital groups. He has written every kind of song: slow, fast, wet, dry, funny, moving, waltzes, fox-trots, major statements, little bonbons. I’ve been singing “Ballad on Queen Anne’s Death” and “Some Sheep Are Loving” for close to forty years and have never grown tired of singing or hearing them.  As “crystallized emotion,” they are gems.

Hundley’s songs, like Schubert’s, are easy to fuse into marvelous recital groups.

Many of his friends had visits from Richard when he wanted us to help him make up his mind about a detail, like whether some passage should be marked mezzo forte or poco forte, a decision which could tie him up for weeks.  But after all the agonizing, out would come another marvelous song.  All his friends have favorite Richard stories, but more significantly, we, and generations of singers, will always have his songs. Beside that, everything else pales.  I have always felt privileged to have had the opportunity to sing his music and to show it to others.  It has been painful to watch him diminish with no hope of recovery.  It is painful to know that I won’t see him again.  But he will live every time any singer performs a Hundley song.  I’m sure that that happy immortality is what he lived and worked for.

Remembering Halim El-Dabh (1921-2017): A Citizen of the “Fourth World”

I still remember the first time I heard recordings from The Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center that were issued in the early 1960s on Columbia Masterworks, as major a label as it got back in those days. (In fact, the head A&R guy there, Goddard Lieberson, was so powerful that he had the nickname “God.”) But by the time I got my hands on these LPs, bought for a pittance in a second-hand shop in the early ’80s, their liner notes’ claim of this being the music of the future seemed somewhat quaint. There was, however, a track on one of those records that didn’t sound at all like either wishful thinking from the past or a never-arrived-at future; it was just plain weird, but in a wonderful way. It was Leiyla and the Poet by an Egyptian-born composer named Halim El-Dabh.

El-Dabh came to the United States on a Fulbright in 1950, studied with Ernst Krenek and Aaron Copland, and wrote scores for Martha Graham. He was subsequently invited to work in the electronic music studio at Columbia University by Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky, after having already pursued electronic music independently. (Over a decade earlier in Cairo, he had already experimented with manipulating sounds using wire recorders at least four years before Pierre Schaeffer “invented” musique concrète.) To my 1980s ears, the 1959 piece he created at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Leiyla and the Poet sounded like a bizarre amalgam of psychedelic rock and the emerging global “world music” that was being created by traditional musicians from across the globe. But of course, Leiyla and the Poet predates all of those developments, too.

For decades that was the only piece of his I had ever heard, even though I treasured it. Then, at some point a little over a dozen years ago, Halim El-Dabh showed up briefly at the offices of the American Music Center to give us a copy of Denise A. Seachrist’s 2003 biography of him, The Musical World of Halim El-Dabh. After reading the book, I learned that in the late 1960s, El-Dabh accepted a tenured position at Kent State University in northeastern Ohio and, though he continued to travel around the world to teach and perform, it remained his home for the rest of his life. I had hoped to listen to more of his music, which is woefully underrepresented on commercial recordings (though there are some intriguing samples of it in a CD that accompanied the biography and on his website), and to eventually do a talk with him for NewMusicBox. But it never happened. On September 2, 2017, El-Dabh died at the age of 96, just a few months after attending the premiere of one of his recent compositions.

Back in June 2017, Tommy McCutchon, founder of the vital Unseen Worlds record label, conducted an extensive interview with Halim El-Dabh which might contain El-Dabh’s final in print reflections on his three-quarter-century involvement with musical traditions from around the world and finding ways to connect them together. In his preface to the interview, McCutchon stated that although the term “Fourth World” is now acknowledged as “the conceptual invention of American composer Jon Hassell, used to describe a particular style of ambient music he first popularized in the late seventies in collaboration with Brian Eno,” another example (which also predates it) is the “fully integrated cultural representation” in “the work of Egyptian-born composer, educator, electronic music pioneer, and ethnomusicologist Halim El-Dabh.”

‘Fourth World Music’ has since become a dominant sub-genre designation for any music that combines avant-garde electronic processing with a mélange of world music aesthetics. In it, familiar reference points intersect at an unlocatable place in the listener’s imagination, where the intellect is allowed to thrive. We can easily locate the Third World in popular culture, news, and travel, but the Fourth is the lesser-known beyond. It is not unlike four-dimensionality: we all know what 3D is, but the concept starts to get fuzzy when we talk about a fourth dimension.

For El-Dabh, however, this lesser-known beyond was where he and his music lived his whole life, and it was how he taught music to all people:

“I don’t like the idea of separation, and looking at it as something different. I don’t like that about Western music education. The way you start at school, the children have a natural rhythm. Teaching everything in 4/4 or 2/2 [meter]—I think there’s more to teach [than that]. I’ve met with a lot of elementary schools, and the kids have natural rhythms, a variety of natural rhythms. So, why should I hammer in them certain rhythms they’re really not used to? When you talk about Western music, that’s a huge tradition you’re talking about. The influence of Western music is huge. We just have to look at it in a variety of ways, and enhance in certain ways.”

Harmonies That Welcomed Imagination—Remembering John Abercrombie (1944-2017)

John Abercrombie set the template for me as far as how to play music with an open mind. His manner towards fellow musicians was one of total respect and equality. Through his playing and compositions, John embodied the essence of the truly great musicians that came before him.

While we all have spent/spend time practicing, John was more focused on using the process of playing as the main way to learn and get better. He loved it!  In his groups, he unselfishly provided an encouraging environment to grow and deepen as a musician / player.

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (Photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

Thomas Morgan, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron looking over a score during the recording session for the 2009 album Wait Till You See Her (photo © Robert Lewis, courtesy ECM).

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer. He could not help it—it’s just the way he was. John always welcomed his bandmates’ ideas and was a fearless team player. He had the whole package: energy, beauty, surprise, lyricism, soul, and swing.

The special thing that stands out about John is his natural democratic manner as a player and writer.

I never witnessed John having a “bad night.”

I remember he was a special guest on Jim Hall’s last gig (November 2013 at Lincoln Center’s Allen in New York.) Jim started the evening playing solo. John and I were backstage listening and John just started freaking out waving his hands up and down exclaiming, “Holy shit! That’s Jim Hall out there! He’s my hero! And he’s playing his ass off!!! What the hell am I supposed to do when I go out to play!!!!”

John made me feel that same way whenever I played with him.

An early ECM promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM)

An early ECM Records’ promotion photo of John Abercrombie (Photo © by Robert Masotti, courtesy ECM).

In spite of the countless hardships that life as an artist in an oppressive society presents, John never gave up his commitment to making music the way he wanted. He wrote beautiful melodies and harmonies that welcomed imagination. What a gift!

I believe that when a person we love passes, despite the traumatic, deep sense of loss and sadness, we get to keep the best parts of that person forever through memories. I am forever grateful to have been part of John’s life and music. He was one of a kind. An incredible listener. A truly great artist. With tears on my face and a smile in my soul, I miss you John.

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

Drew Gress, Marc Copland, John Abercrombie and Joey Baron in 2013 (photo © by Bart Babinski, courtesy ECM).

Suspending Time and Figuring Out the Impossible—Remembering David Maslanka (1943-2017)

Generous. Kind. Humanitarian. Gentle. Mentor. Humble. Friend. Oh, and a composer. My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was in the spring of 1986 at the University of Arizona when I led a performance of his 1981 wind ensemble composition A Child’s Garden of Dreams which had been commissioned by John and Marietta Paynter for the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Conducting this music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor and it was a work I returned to many times over the next twenty-six years. (Interestingly, A Child’s Garden of Dreams was both the first and last piece of David’s that I programmed, the last being in November of 2012, my final concert and recording session at ISU.)

My first exposure to David Maslanka’s music was a monumental, life changing experience for me as a young college wind band conductor.

I vividly recall sitting with Gary Green listening to the premiere performance of David’s Symphony No. 2 during the 1987 CBDNA Convention in Evanston, Illinois, gripping the seat, spellbound. The performing group was the combined Symphonic Band and Symphonic Wind Ensemble of Northwestern University conducted by John Paynter. Mr. Paynter had David say “a few words” prior to the premiere performance and I remember how this quiet, introspective individual speaking from the heart about his music captured me.

I moved to Normal, Illinois in the fall of 1987, beginning a quarter of a century journey with the Illinois State University Wind Symphony. When I arrived, I found a small, disheveled, underdeveloped group of students. We set about building an ensemble in an environment that previously had no wind band offering in the fall semester. In the spring of 1989, I “heroically” programmed Child’s Garden, which was a HUGE undertaking and underscores my naïveté at the time. David was very receptive to phone conversations, helping me realize the nature of his composition. He also spent time talking with a particular student who was having extreme misgivings about origins and the deeper meaning of his music.

Gary Green commissioned a “major work” from David, premiering Symphony No. 3 at the University of Connecticut in the fall of 1991. I attended the final couple of rehearsals and the premiere in Storrs taking advantage of the opportunity to spend some quality time with David on a couple of occasions, growing closer to his music and this quiet, generous man who would become my dear friend.

In the spring of 1993, both David and Gary came to campus for the final rehearsals and a performance of Symphony No. 3. I remember the experience being a real struggle for everyone involved, not the least of which were David and Gary.

When David was asked to write a piece, he composed until the music was finished. There was not a magic number of measures, nor was there a duration goal. Gary asked for a “major work,” not necessarily expecting a piece of the size and scope of Maslanka’s Third Symphony. Jerry Junkin commissioned a small work, maybe ten minutes or so, and received Symphony No. 4!

Jerry Junkin commissioned a small work, maybe ten minutes or so, and received Symphony No. 4!

I attended the final rehearsal and premiere of the 4th in Austin, Texas and developed a stronger, more intense relationship with David. We programmed it at ISU in the fall of 1994. That final week of rehearsals with David was the seminal experience for me, making a connection that lasted two decades. Following the stunning conclusion of the symphony and multiple “curtain” calls, I recall that David and I stood in the adjacent room for what seemed like an eternity waiting for the ensemble and audience to emerge from the performance space. Students and audience members alike said they were just “too drained” to move.

David Maslanka and Stephen K. Steele (center left and right) with organist Karen Collier and timpanist Karen Cole following our first performance of Symphony No. 4 in November 1994.

David and I with organist Karen Collier and timpanist Karen Cole following our first performance of Symphony No. 4 in November 1994.

We commissioned Symphony No. 5, receiving the parts for the first three movements prior to winter break in 2000. The Wind Symphony had a limited number of reading rehearsals before leaving for their break and we planned an extended rehearsal period across the Martin Luther King weekend, just prior to the spring semester beginning. David came to campus for those January rehearsals and we worked our way diligently through the first three movements over a number of rehearsals. Finally, he asked about the fourth movement. The students had it but we hadn’t read it as the parts arrived during the winter break. After we “slashed” our way through the movement, the room was deathly quiet. David slowly looked up and said, “My God, what have I done?” He decided at that moment that he NEVER wanted to be present to hear his music sight read again!!!

By the time of that workshop weekend I felt that I knew David very well. When he visited campus he stayed in my home. David traveled with a rolled up exercise pad he used for a thirty minute yoga stretching each morning at 5:00 or 5:30. He frequently cooked for us. It was not unusual for him to take hour or longer walks. Like the yoga, that too was a period of meditation for him. David HAD to have the daily New York Times cross word puzzle, which he did in ink! David was a very easy houseguest and we had some wonderful chats, not always about the music. We had shared stories, music, philosophy, passionate opinions and laughter. NEVER in all that time had I heard him swear. Not even “damn,” or “hell.” In the course of that long weekend, during one particular read-through, I had a metronome amplified through speakers so the ensemble could hear it, in an effort to help the ensemble develop a unified and steady pulse. David walked up behind me as the ensemble was slashing away and said directly in my ear, “Turn that fucking thing off.” I got the point; I never used a metronome in the same manner again.

David HAD to have the daily New York Times cross word puzzle, which he did in ink!

Symphony No. 5 was important in many ways to the relationship between David, the Wind Symphony, and myself. David returned to campus for the premiere and to travel on tour, culminating at the University of North Texas, site of the 2001 CBDNA convention. David convinced me that the piece needed to be recorded and released through Albany Records. I resisted, not being a fan of the measure-by-measure recording process that had become standard practice by then. He put me in touch with Jeff Harrison in Massachusetts who talked me through the recording process that would produce a musical representation. Jeff loaded up his gear and met us in Dallas. We arranged the use of a west Dallas high school auditorium and recorded all the repertoire we planned to perform at CBDNA the next day; this became our first Albany release. That began a long relationship with Jeff Harrison, Susan Bush of Albany Records, David and myself, releasing more than twenty recordings through 2013. David produced each and every recording; painstakingly involved whether it was his music or not.

Stephen K. Steele and David Maslanka looking through one of his scores near a kitchen sink.

David and I looking through one of his scores at my home in Hudson, Illinois in November 2010.

David and I often talked of the “ripple effect.” He realized the importance of working with the conductors and ensemble members who were preparing and performing his works. From a small core of conductors and their students, a “ripple effect” has been occurring and will continue to build. He tried ever so diligently to be present for each and every conductor who invited him to be part of his or her experience.

A former student was asked to describe his experiences with David and said, “You just can’t explain someone’s soul.” David did that; exposed his soul, in his music, in his teaching, in his conversations with you. His music does that with audiences. He and his music communicate at a deeply intense and personal level. To David, the act of making music is pure meditation at its most basic level, music provides the most basic form of communication. If those whom he touched were willing to listen and do the things he suggested, they too would experience these things that seemed so unlikely and confusing to most. Time is suspended when playing and/or listening to David’s music. It never failed. Each and every time on the podium in concert, when turning the final page, I would always think “Really? Already?” David wrote music to satisfy what the music needs rather than the opposite. He frequently told me that he would be finished with a particular composition when the music said it was finished.

David and his music communicate at a deeply intense and personal level.

David’s music could be extremely difficult, but his expectation was that the musicians would figure out how to make it possible. I recall a trumpet teacher commenting that David didn’t know how to write for trumpet. My reply was that David didn’t know how to write for bad trumpet players. My experience was that for those individuals who were diligently prepared and paid attention to the music, they were better musicians as a result of the process. A tuba player brought an oxygen tank to a rehearsal of David’s Symphony No. 8 to assist him with the sustained B. If you know the piece, you know of what I am speaking. On the side of the cylinder was written “for use during Maslanka’s Symphony No. 8.” Many people have thought that they couldn’t possibly play David’s music with their groups. He would show them that they could. In rehearsals he would make very soft and gentle suggestions, most often regarding what was clearly indicated in the score and parts. He simply called it “paying attention.” I used David’s Collected Chorale Settings, 117 four-part chorales composed in the 18th-century style, to begin every rehearsal in order to set the “tone” and intonation as well as to assist with the notion of “paying attention” and laying the foundation of the ensemble “sound.” David scored these chorales from his daily work with the 371 Four-Part Chorales of J. S. Bach, using the original melodies and composing new alto, tenor and bass lines.

David at the piano in Missoula, Montana, in June 2008.

David at the piano in Missoula, Montana, in June 2008. David began each composition session playing and singing Bach chorales. He said the most important aspect of succeeding was to “show up.”

David’s music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble.

David’s music notation was always very specific. His work in rehearsals to gain the marked tempi and expressive marks made the music come to life. However, to David, it was not about the perfect performance, it was about the experience the musicians and audience could gain from it. David’s music speaks, regardless of the technical proficiency of the individuals or the collective ensemble. Once, during a rehearsal of the final movement of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, I looked at the principal flute who had tears streaming down her cheeks as she played the final flute solo which ends the piece. Yes, she cried during the concert as well.

David had an uncanny ability to connect with people. And I mean, immediately connect with people. He ALWAYS had time for people, whether during a residency, during a convention, on the phone, via email, whatever. It didn’t matter whether the person was a fellow composer, a conductor, a college student, a high school student, or an interested community member, ANYONE. ALWAYS. It was not unusual for David to have developing composers visit Missoula for a week or more of lessons and meditation.

David Maslanka (far right) and Stephen K. Steele (center) with students: taken at a steak house during the Symphony No. 5 tour and CBDNA performance in Denton, TX, February 2001

David and I with students: taken at a steak house during the Symphony No. 5 tour and CBDNA performance in Denton, Texas in February 2001.

David always used pencil writing his scores. Always. He told me it connected him more personally to the music. I believe that to be true.

David kept a relentless schedule of residencies. Typically, he travelled from November through May, spending time with conductors and ensembles that invited him to their campuses. He worked with community groups, high school bands, and university ensembles. He connected with students, conductors, and community members, causing the ripples to spread and grow.

David connected with students, conductors, and community members, causing the ripples to spread and grow.

The work we did with David on No. 5 led to more commissions. We commissioned, premiered and recorded symphonies 7, 8 and 9. Between 2001 and 2012, there were many other commissions, premieres and recording projects as well. He wrote many lovely concerti for wind instruments and wind ensemble, occasionally utilizing beautiful cello writing in the score. One of David’s favorite compositions was A Carl Sandburg Reader for baritone and soprano voice and wind ensemble. (David had a strong connection to both Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandburg.)

During his residency for No. 9 we made plans to commission Symphony No. 10. David was adamant about needing to write 10. We decided to let a bit of time lapse following 9 before building plans for 10. Our goal was to premiere and record 10 in the spring of 2014, which I projected to be my retirement concert. Things came to a sudden and unexpected end when I left ISU in the spring of 2013. What to do with 10? David had a growing stack of sketches that “belong in 10.” During the spring of 2014 we came to an agreement with another conductor to lead the consortium supporting the completion of 10. The consortium got off to a rather slow beginning, picking up steam in the summer of 2016.

At almost the same time, a consortium for No. 11 filled its membership rapidly, putting 10 in jeopardy. David asked if I would complete the consortium for 10, to which I agreed. My goal was to reach forty members. I only achieved thirty, but David assured me that it didn’t matter, 10 was well on its way. We aimed for a September 2017 premiere with a Tucson professional ensemble. The premiere of No. 11 was to be in the spring of 2018 and he would get some space between them.

The residency travels between November 2016 and May 2017 were particularly grueling for David. He complained of constant fatigue and the inability to compose. When he was finally finished and returned home for the summer, his wife Alison was bedridden.  Very soon after that, David not only found that Alison was terminally ill but that he was in an advanced stage of colon cancer. Through all of this, Alison continued to urge him to complete 10 since it was through his composing that he lived. Alison passed away on July 3 and David passed away on August 6.

Alison and David Maslanka in late June 2017

Alison and David in late June 2017.

David left clear notes for an anticipated completion of his 10th symphony.

Before his death, David told me he was dedicating 10 to Alison. His scoring was complete for the first movement and most all of the second. He had crossed out the work on the third movement and replaced it with sketches. This was to be the centerpiece for Alison. The fourth movement is fully sketched but will require some interpretation. He left clear notes for an anticipated completion of the symphony. David’s son, Matthew, owner of Maslanka Press, who knows his father’s sketches and composing well, is convinced at this point that he will be able to successfully complete the score. We hope for a March 2018 premiere. Nearly all the membership of the No. 11 consortium is opting to join with the No. 10 membership. All commission fees will become the seed money for the Maslanka Foundation.

My wife Andrea and I, along with many of our friends and colleagues, will travel to Missoula for a September 3 memorial honoring Alison and David. I am a better person having known David. The world is a better place having David’s music. May the ripples continue.

Alison and David Maslanka dancing outside in June 2008, somewhere in Wyoming

Alison and David traveled to middle America to attend our 2008 wedding. Andrea and I took them home from Hudson, IL, sharing our honeymoon, somewhere in Wyoming, June 2008.

Victor Pesavento
ISU Alum
Freelance musician in Los Angeles
Golden State Pops Orchestra Music Director

(The following text has been reprinted from his Facebook page with permission.)I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Maslanka on two or three occasions while in the Wind Symphony at Illinois State University, always on a “professional” level. I never had the chance to hang out with him after rehearsals or any other informal situations so I can’t speak about him in that regard. However, as a clinician, he struck me as a very warm, caring man. He was always encouraging of the group and I always loved listening to his stories about what the inspirations were for his compositions.

My first experience with David’s music (that is, outside of Rollo Takes a Walk during a summer music camp) was with Symphony No. 4. We performed this monumental work only a year after its composition. I remember weeks of grueling rehearsals in which Dr. Steele systematically tore apart the ensemble and then slowly put it back together piece by piece, 16th note by 16th note. There were many tears shed and I’m sure some blood also along the way.

There were many tears shed and I’m sure some blood also along the way.

The symphony was technically beyond most of us in the group, but away we sequestered ourselves in the dungeon-esque practice rooms of the Cook Hall castle. At any given hour of any given day you would find at least one member of the clarinet section toiling away at one-quarter speed some hellish passage that would probably be equally difficult even if written for a piano. I remember hours spent on two bars here or two bars there, each more impossibly difficult than the prior, just to be able to lock seamlessly into the “grid” when I got into rehearsal with everyone else.

Among the pains were of course the pleasures. Anyone who knows the piece will recall the first 29 bars as an a capella horn solo in the key of G with the ensemble entering on a beautiful G major chord as the horn completes the opening thematic statement. I will never forget the day that the horn soloist (Kent) decided to transpose his opening solo by a half step, making for a wonderfully awful sounding surprise when the band entered (still in G) in bar 30.

As we neared the end of the cycle, after all the hours spent in the practice rooms and in ensemble rehearsal, after all the metronome batteries had died, the week of the concert was here. The first rehearsal with Dr. Maslanka came and we were all very excited to perform for him this piece on which we had worked so hard. In Cook Hall room 212, during that rehearsal, the ISU Wind Symphony gave what might have been the best performance in my entire tenure in the ensemble. I say “might have been,” but more on that in a bit. This rehearsal “performance” was nothing short of spectacular. The group was so focused that you could reach out and feel the energy and life force in the room. We finished the piece and all looked around at each other with huge grins on our faces. All those hours in the practice rooms had paid off and we were now seeing the results. The only down side…did we just peak? Surely we couldn’t re-create that same level of symbiotic energy later in the week for the concert. This had to have been the pinnacle of our labors.

After all the metronome batteries had died, the week of the concert was here.

The next couple of rehearsals we didn’t really hit the technical side of the music too hard. Instead, Dr. Maslanka took us on a wonderful ride of imagery and symbolism. This trumpet lick here signifies this and that impossibly difficult run in the saxes signifies that. Hearing his stories about how President Lincoln’s funeral train fit into the music was truly enlightening. At this point, there weren’t any scales left to practice; no more notes to learn. This week was when we learned the music.

Armed with our hard earned technical proficiency and with this new musical insight from the composer (and thankfully a bit of tapering on the endurance of the chops), we arrived at concert day. The concert opened with a fantastic Alfred Reed piece for wind ensemble and pipe organ and as we finished I remember thinking, “Holy shit, that was #$%^ing unbelievable.” We followed the Reed with pieces by Grainger and Weinberger, both of which were accompanied by the pipe organ. Finally the time came for the Symphony.

Payoff time.

I always get more nervous listening to a colleague play a difficult solo than when I myself am playing a solo. In this case, I can’t even count on one hand the rare times Kent had chipped a note in rehearsals; he was automatic (even sight transposing a half step out.

I learned that day what it meant to be a true professional.

Twenty-nine bars of unaccompanied horn solo to begin a symphony. Weeks and weeks of rehearsals. The group was feeling confident, especially after how great the concert was going so far that evening. All it would take would be one chipped note, one missed partial on a lip slur from the horn solo to break everyone’s concentration. No pressure, right? I would like to say that Kent played the solo as well as any other time he played it in the countess rehearsals leading up to that moment. He didn’t. He played it better. With the spotlights on and with hundreds of audience members waiting with anticipation, he played with the most musicality and passion that I had ever heard. I smiled a huge grin and breathed a heavy sigh of relief when that magical G major chord sounded in bar 30.

During a thirty minute piece, you usually have no choice but to let your mind wander a bit while counting rests. I don’t remember losing focus for even a beat. It felt as if the ensemble was breathing and playing all as one unit, as if we were just puppets whose strings were being manipulated by some outside being. There were missed notes. There were rhythms that weren’t quite locked in. The difference this time was that were weren’t playing the notes or rhythms. We were playing the music. I remember tearing up a little bit during the clarinet extended technique section mimicking crying babies. Maybe because of the music, maybe because I knew all the hard work that everyone put in was paying off greater than we could have ever imagined. As we neared the end of the piece and the “Old One Hundredth” anthem started sounding, I could sense the horns to my left (Kent, Brandon, Eric and Marc) starting to let loose a bit more, everything seemed so easy. We were playing the loudest I’d ever experienced in that section but yet it felt effortless.

As Dr. Steele gave us the final release of the piece (an ending, I contend, that rivals any Mahler symphony), I remember taking a deep breath and thinking to myself, “Well, that wasn’t too taxing, I could probably play that whole show again tonight.” I was quickly brought back to reality when my knees buckled and I almost fell back into my chair as the section was summoned to stand for a bow.

I mentioned earlier that I thought that there was no way that we could have performed better than our first reading for Dr. Maslanka. I was right. We were nowhere near as technically sound as we were that rehearsal, but none of that mattered. The difference in musicality was immeasurable. Everyone in the room felt it. I can’t think of another concert I’ve performed in or attended that elicited this level of emotion from an audience. Looking out of the audience, there were a number of people crying, overcome by the journey that Dr. Maslanka’s music had just taken them on. The wave of emotion wasn’t just reserved for the audience, either.

Of course, it’s always said that you get out of something what you put into it and I think that may be why all of us involved in this performance look back on it with such fondness. We worked our asses off for months on this music and then when Dr. Maslanka showed up and shared himself with us, we became emotionally invested as well.

This is the single greatest performance I’ve been involved with.

To this day, this is the single greatest performance I’ve been involved with. Not because it was technically perfect, or because the group was so talented that we could play this incredibly difficult music like it was whole notes…but because of the exact opposite. Because we earned it. As a group. And Dr. Maslanka was the whole reason. His music, his being, his guidance and most of all, his passion for making music and for working with groups like ours.

To Dr. Maslanka, may you rest in peace. Thank you for giving me and my colleagues a memory that we will carry with us our entire lives.

David Maslanka and Stephen K. Steele with the ISU Wind Symphony horn section: taken during the recording sessions of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, November 2012

David and I with the ISU Wind Symphony horn section: taken during the recording sessions of A Child’s Garden of Dreams, in November 2012.

Emily Nunemaker
ISU Alum
West Carroll High School Band Director
Mount Carroll, Illinois

(The following text has been reprinted from her Facebook page with permission.)So in this mourning process that I’m sure all the ISU kids are experiencing, I’m listening and remembering. I’m on a road trip alone and had to pull over while listening to the 2nd Symphony. I forgot how visceral the middle movement is, how dark and ominous and impending. It shook me absolutely to my core.

I remembered my very first impression of this music. I remembered wandering lost, looking for my first wind symphony rehearsal and being shown how to find the room by an older musician. I remember opening my folder to the first two cycles worth of music and eyeballing some Hindemith and being like, “okay, that seems fine” and then pulling up Symphony No. 2 by a man I’d never heard of, David Maslanka, and at first glance (and every subsequent glace) thinking “Oh shit, I’m in the wrong place. I don’t belong here. I can’t do this.”

I nearly left, as a wet behind-the-ears freshman I thought surely there was some mistake because I couldn’t possibly be expected to play this. But something made me stay and work harder than I ever had in my life to earn the right to play it and to do so among the most superb musicians I had ever encountered and for the most intense, terrifying, and utterly brilliant conductor I had ever encountered, Stephen Steele. Now I was a solid reader but I failed miserably at my first stab and spent more time working that monster than the 4th and the Mass combined. (Maybe I was more Maslanka ready the next few times?)

But the payoff, oh the payoff.

I wanted to be worthy of being in that section, worthy of playing that piece.

If you don’t know the E-flat solo in movement 1, then you can’t possibly imagine my awe to hear Mandy Fey Carota put so much passion into every swell of every note. Listening now I’m in tears remembering how she and Christine Hoover Tuck were my first true clarinet idols and it was No. 2 that did it. I wanted to be worthy of being in that section, worthy of playing that piece. Now listening I remember the 3rd movement ripping through me tearing me limb from limb and then putting me back together better than I was before.

That is Maslanka’s music to me, destroying everything I think I know about myself and returning me to myself better than I was before.

Members of the ISU Wind Symphony

Members of the ISU Wind Symphony during a rehearsal with David, in November 2010.

The Man With Qualities: Remembering My Friend, Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017)

I feel as though I knew Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017) long before I actually met him.  Our good friend Doreen Rao would say, over and over again, “You must meet Daniel.”  Or she would occasionally start talking about him as though I already knew him. To say that he had achieved a certain kind of legendary status in my mind before we even met is no exaggeration.  Now, after his untimely death, while it is still too fresh for me to contemplate, I’m trying to remember everything I can about our friendship.

Disclaimer: I only knew Daniel for 15 years. He lived in New York, in Napa Valley, at Yaddo, at Wurlitzer. He traveled and sometimes lived in his hometown of Elgin, Illinois, where he spent his final few years. I’m sure there were others who knew him better, longer, in different ways. We shared a close community of friends from our Choral Music Experience (CME) and Boosey & Hawkes worlds, and I had the privilege of copyediting much of his published choral music.  But I do believe that we shared special bonds—as composers, as Boosey & Hawkes and CME composers, as Midwesterners, as sons, and as, well, just as guys.

When the time finally came for us to meet, I began to understand. This was a rare man indeed. We met in 2002 at the CME Choral Teacher Training Institute, held that year at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. By then, I had heard other stories about Daniel from New Yorkers who knew him and his music.  When I asked conductor Francisco Nuñez about Daniel, he just smiled and said, “Daniel……you don’t know Daniel? You have to meet him.”

It was a late night in Maynooth after a whole day of teaching and singing. A group of us had found an empty room in a dormitory with a few bottles of wine and this man, my age, with what my children immediately dubbed a “perpetually astonished” look, was in the front of the room, reciting Pushkin poetry in Russian from memory.  Oh my.  At various times I heard him recite dozens of poems for memory: Yeats, Cummings, Sandburg, Pushkin. I think he was always no more than a few seconds from breaking into poetry. Maybe a millisecond.

All week we had been studying and rehearsing Daniel’s Irish Cantata, Out of the Mist, Above the Real. The music was penetratingly beautiful and seemed to be steeped in its Irishness.  But Daniel was from Elgin, Illinois.  He was educated at the University of Illinois and The Juilliard School in New York. I later found that he had gone on a pilgrimage in Ireland while the piece was in its conception phase. This piece became a romantic soundtrack for my daughter Lindsay and her husband Chris Lees, as it wove its way from the Dublin CME performance to their proposal and their wedding day.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.  When he liked a poem, he memorized it. He fell in love, poem by poem.  But that’s the way he was about most things. Every time I asked him what he was reading, he would say The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I would answer that he had read it before. And his response was always the same: “But Lee, it is so wonderful!” If he loved a cup of coffee, then he adopted that coffee shop as his own, and Mike as his own personal barista. If he had a great glass of Prosecco, it was always going to be Prosecco. He enjoyed—friends, music, dinners, celebrations, ceremony, performances—like no one else I’ve ever met.  He was loyal to his friends, and it took a lot to turn him away.  He was a man who lived in perpetual astonishment or, one might say, in italics.

When I asked Daniel to write a choral piece for my New Classic Singers, I apologized for the inadequate fee. He answered that this was his “coming home to Illinois piece,” setting Carl Sandburg poems and dedicating the work to his Illinois family and friends. We agreed on a length of four to five minutes for the piece; I was so excited that he would be writing for our group.  Eventually, the piece stretched to a four-movement, twenty-minute piece.  Fortunately, knowing this was probable, I had saved room on our program for something longer. Daniel often complained about being perpetually behind in his writing (like many composers). We agreed that if he held to the proposed length of his music, he’d never be behind.  But that wasn’t Daniel.

Because Daniel lived FULLY. Not excessively, but fully. I think he fully enjoyed every meal we ate together, whether it was a modest meal of take-out chicken in his kitchen or mine or an expensive meal in an Italian restaurant. Each bottle of wine, each glass of Scotch, every bowl of nuts was the best.  And he always took the time to remark about how wonderful it was. He was the most gracious guest and host. He came to my mother’s Passover seder twice, with each trip up to Milwaukee and back to Chicago filled with the eager anticipation and then the avid memory of the occasion, the conversation, the food.

Daniel Brewbaker and Lidia Bastianich holding glasses of red wine at a dinner table.

Among Daniel Brewbaker’s dearest friends was the celebrated and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich. Here they are sharing red wine and a meal at Bastianich’s New York restaurant Felidia.

Like most composers, he loved listening to performances of his music and loved the people who performed it. But he also loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else. I can still hear his imitations of musicians he had known—especially his teachers Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, and Gordon Binkerd. All the imitations had a similar accent, but they were performed with glee and captured essential wisdoms he had gleaned on his path. What he loved about living in Manhattan was how close he was to great art, culture, and music. And to people.  It seemed Daniel knew everyone in the New York music world.

Daniel loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else.

Daniel was a devoted son.  We talked often about our relationships with our mothers—since we were born only three days apart and had mothers of a similar age.  As his mother, Ruth, grew increasingly infirm and he was torn between his New York life and his Elgin mother, we talked often about the choices he faced. As an only son, he was keenly aware that her world revolved around him and he did his best to be there for her in her declining years.  As she lay dying in their Elgin home, he asked me to come say Kaddish for his mother. For Daniel, a born Midwestern Lutheran and an avowed Buddhist, there was no limit to the accumulation of the spiritual wisdoms he loved.

He never failed to tell me how lucky I was in my life, especially my dear children, whom he loved. He was in love with many people—other composers, teachers, women—and freely expressed that love. And he was well-loved by his childhood friends from Elgin, who proudly revered him as their native son composer.

I could go on (more than I already have).  He was a dear friend. He was a gifted and talented composer, with the lyrical inspiration and the well-honed craft to back it up. I admire and love his music. His music had an ardent, unforced lyricism, and extravagant harmonic language.  He even loved counterpoint in an age which often doesn’t. He was a voracious lover of life, in all its facets. He was not the most practical person I’ve ever met (!), but he lived with grace, style, and appetites for the beauty of life and its joys. One was never at a loss for conversation when he was around.  One had the feeling that every dinner, every concert, every party was the event of a lifetime for our friend Daniel.

Daniel even loved counterpoint in an age which often doesn’t.

In a world which might value achievement more than soul, quantity more than quality, and prose more than poetry, Daniel was those things for me and I think anyone who met him. Celebrities were drawn to Daniel, and he to them. I think all of us knew how special he was.  He was, truly, The Man With Qualities. At the end of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote says, “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.”  I think for Daniel, it was adding some measure of poetry to the world.  He certainly added it to mine.

Lee Kesselman, Robin Kesselman (holding a doublebass) and Daniel Brewbaker.

Daniel (right) with me (left) and my son Robin Kesselman (Principal bass, Houston Symphony) in Elgin, IL December 2015

The Big Man with the Big Sound–Remembering Arthur Blythe (1940-2017)

Big Arthur Blythe, the big man, with the big sound.

That’s the way I will always remember him: big sound / big heart / big laughs / big personality.

I can hear him now, saying playfully, “You’re good, but you’re not that good.”

He had many phrases of playful wisdom, but this is the one I remember most. A reminder of his humility, he was not only saying that to who ever he was speaking to, he was also reminding himself to keep searching, HUMILITY TO THE END.

He inspired me and many, many others, a great man, with the great sound.

He will be missed!

Ed. Note: This Spotify playlist of recordings by Arthur Blythe is but a small taste of his output. But whether he’s playing his own compositions or finding new ideas in a standard, you can always clearly hear his big sound.


Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake wearing matching outfits and holding saxophones.

Arthur Blythe and Oliver Lake

Smooth Sailing: Remembering Francis Thorne (1922-2017)

When Francis Thorne’s daughter Wendy called to tell me of Fran’s passing, she said that when she read my last note to him—which I had sent a few months earlier when his memory was nearly gone—he responded, “Oh yes. I’m F and she’s R.” Here I must admit that I’m paraphrasing his comment and will not be held accountable for any factual errors herein, due to my own aging memory. In fact, when asked to write a memorial essay about F—a.k.a. FT, Franny, or Fran to me and his many friends and acquaintances—I initially refused for fear that my memory would forsake me. But it didn’t take long for me to relent.

I hadn’t even met Francis Thorne when, as general manager of American Composers Alliance (ACA), I fought against his being hired as executive director and had to be talked into accepting the inevitable—primarily by Joan Tower during some lengthy phone conversations, as I recall. Having gone through three EDs in almost the same number of years, I was more than reluctant to have another boss running the place while the staff was doing just fine on its own. (In hindsight, perhaps I wanted the job for myself, which eventually did come to pass, but that was not part of my argument at the time.)

We met over lunch, with Joan, I think. In any case this handsome, charming, composer/administrator/businessman won me over within the hour, and it was smooth sailing after that. In Fran’s case, smooth sailing isn’t a cliché. He was in the Navy during WWII and had a tattoo on his arm to prove it.  (I never did get used to seeing him in short sleeved shirts.) Come to think of it, he wasn’t all that much of a businessman: having received a sizeable inheritance, he fled Wall Street and proceeded to set up the Thorne Fund, giving away the bulk of his money to needy composers. But he was well-connected, which came in handy later on when he founded the ACO. Meanwhile, he was good for ACA, and it was good for him. The only time I ever felt that Fran was my boss was when he summarily fired our bookkeeper, whom I had hired and considered a friend. There was no discussing it with him.

To celebrate ACA’s 50th anniversary, Fran decided to mount a concert of contemporary chamber music by ACA composers. It was a huge success, and we all agreed that what the city needed now was a group dedicated to contemporary orchestra music—the now-famous American Composer Orchestra (ACO). Since F was still ED of ACA at the time, the two operations were closely connected. I was appointed a member of the ACO board, and the ACA secretary took the notes at its meetings. Until Fran left to take full-time care of the infant orchestra, he shuffled between ACA’s office and outside appointments with potential funders. He knew well the value of visibility, and sometimes he got totally wrapped up in it. On several occasions when I went with him to a party or some other affair, looking to establish or strengthen connections, we’d enter together, but long before the evening was over—having seen and been seen—F would just leave me there without a goodbye. I got used to it eventually.

Despite the fact that Franny was a composer of serious concert music (jazz-inflected as it often was), he cherished his time as a performer in the New York jazz clubs, and he continued to play piano and sing the American songbook whenever and wherever he had an opportunity. In our phone conversations during his last years in an assisted living community, he often said that performing for his friends there was one of his joys in life, even when he had forgotten the words.

Francis Burritt Thorne, my friend, my colleague, and for a while my client, there are some things my memory will always retain.

Francis Thorne

Francis Thorne, photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra


Cut off before the double bar
Like an unfinished composition
You take your final bow
And leave us in the dark
About what might have been.

The empty stage, the silent hall,
May indicate the concert’s done
But oh, dear friend, the encores never end,
For we are the singers
Who remember your song.

—Rosalie Calabrese

A Model of Generosity and Wisdom—Remembering Karel Husa (1921-2016)

Karel Husa on his 80th Birthday

I first heard Karel Husa’s music in 1973 as a 17 year-old freshman piano major at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The faculty String Quartet played his Pulitzer Prize winning piece, String Quaret No. 3. Though I wasn’t yet a composition major, I had been composing since I was 8 years old. My own stylistic bent was definitely grounded in the more traditional: my first musical loves were Chopin and Gershwin. Husa’s quartet wasn’t like anything I had ever heard before. I was immediately struck by its dramatic thrust, its imaginative colors, but above all by the masterful unfolding of motives building phrases, phrases building sections, and sections building movements; in other words, true rhetorical traction, a complete unity of form and content. I see now that the force of Husa’s musical ideas transcended style and taste.

Several years later, during my studies in Paris with Husa’s former teacher Nadia Boulanger, I turned my attention to graduate school. I somehow got a hold of the University of Michigan Wind Ensemble recording of Music for Prague and Apotheosis of This Earth, conducted by Husa. Again, though the character of this music was markedly different from the direction I was taking, I found myself completely in thrall to the unfolding dramatic line of both pieces. Many years later, as an active composer and teacher now for over three decades, I understand something I only intuitively sensed: Husa was a master of what Boulanger called “the long line”—meaning that a work unfolds in such a way that expresses an absolute concentration of thought and feeling. I had learned that from Boulanger; Husa’s music was confirmation. I decided to apply to Cornell to study with Husa, as so many did during his nearly 40-year teaching career at Cornell and at Ithaca College.

Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?”

As a mentor and teacher, Husa was a model of generosity and wisdom. After my first year I had a crisis of confidence because I had not composed much music, and was also dealing with important questions of personal identity. I had effectively withdrawn from the program. Husa seemed to intuitively understand all of this. He invited me to visit him at his summer home in Interlaken, New York, to talk through my dilemma. I was considering focusing on theory teaching and conducting in my graduate studies instead of composing. Though a masterful conductor himself, he said to me: “You can compose. If you can compose, why would you want to be anything else?” I realize now that Husa was affirming what Virgil Thomson so insightfully described in his book The State of Music: “Music is an island with four concentric circles, the inner circle and summit being Musical Composition.” His encouragement helped me gain some much-needed perspective on my situation. I recommitted myself to my studies with him, and soon experienced a true artistic “breakthrough”, composing a twenty-five minute string quartet under his guidance.

Husa was also an extraordinary teacher of conducting. The skills I learned in his class inspired me to pursue for a time a career in conducting along with composing. My memories of singing many of the major choral masterworks under his direction, such as Handel’s Messiah and his own Apotheosis of This Earth, are among the most vivid of my student years.

In his later years, Husa’s composing slowed down, but his generosity towards his former students continued, recommending them for grants and teaching positions. I spoke to him just a few weeks before he passed away on December 14th, and he was completely alert, questioning me about my activities with the warmth and attention that marked every interaction I ever had with him.

I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I particularly remember watching Husa conduct a rehearsal in 1980 of Music for Prague with the Interlochen Wind Ensemble. I was standing in the back of the stage, where I could clearly see his face. At the moment in the first movement when the three trumpets enter on a unison D, the look on his face was a terrifying and thrilling combination of anger and absolute power. He was seeing as if for the first time the Russian tanks rolling into Prague. I have rarely experienced such a fusing of emotion with musical expression.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had contact during my formative years with a man of Husa’s gifts and humanity.

Karel Husa standing surrounded by a string quartet rehearsing in his home.

Karel Husa giving advice to a string quartet consisting of North Carolina Symphony musicians, including his granddaughter, Maria Evola, right, during a rehearsal of his Pulitzer Prize winning String Quartet No. 3 at his home in Apex NC on October 29, 2006. (The other musicians, from left to right, are David Marshall, Elizabeth Beilman, and So Yun Kim.) Photo by Takaaki Iwabu, courtesy G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers.

A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)

Mose Allison. (Photograph © Michael Wilson)

If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.

—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)

I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.

—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)

I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.

There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.

They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”

Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:

“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”

A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!

To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:

“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”

I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”

The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:

GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?

MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.

GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?

MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.

For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:

Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.

I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.

Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.

Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)

For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.

The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!

Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran

The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.

I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.

Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.

But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.

As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.

I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.

I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.

But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:

It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.

For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”

I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.

As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”

Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.

For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.

Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.

One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.

When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.

I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.

A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison

By John Allison

I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.

Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.

My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.

About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.

Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.

I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.

In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:

There are very few places in the world where a person could have heard as many different kinds of music as I was able to hear growing up in Tippo, Mississippi. Also, the aphorisms, the ironies, the speech patterns with their exaggerations and understatements have served me well and are still a part of my dialogues with myself. If it takes a village to raise a child, then I was certainly raised by Tippo, Mississippi.

Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
Mose was in New York City in 1956 playing piano with the giants of jazz, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Zoot Simms, Stan Getz and others. After a short time Mose presented a cassette tape to Prestige Records. The executives at Prestige loved what they heard and immediately had Mose in the studio recording. What Mose gave them was a suite of sketches, songs, evoking the atmosphere of his home town, Tippo, Mississippi. Mose called it his Cotton Country Suite, the record company renamed it, Back Country Suite. Songs from that era included; “Parchman Farm,” “Blues,” “One Room Country Shack,” “Highway 49,” “The Hills,” “Mojo Woman,” “Devil in the Cane Field,” and “Creek Bank.”
From that first record Mose was receiving critical acclaim from audiences and critics alike. Mose went on to record two more albums that same year. It was 1957. Today there are over 50 albums to choose from. My dad wrote over 220 songs. Most folks know four or five. My advice, listen to more Mose!

One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.

When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”

Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”