Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Herbie Nichols' "The Jazz Life" - Part 1

Although practically ignored during his lifetime, Herbie Nichols is now widely regarded as an innovative and original composer, with a style reminiscent of Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill. Nichols was famously profiled in Black Music: Four Lives (later reprinted as Four Lives in the Bebop Business) by A. B. Spellman, who described Nichols's literary inclinations.

However, no mention was made of his contributions to the legendary Black newspaper The New York Age in 1941. These articles, which I stumbled upon in the archives at, provide a fascinating glimpse into New York show business, and especially the Black experience in the business, during the mid-late swing era. Nichols, born in 1919, was 22 years old when these articles were published.

"The Jazz Life" was a series of eight articles; the first four are published below. The rest of them will follow in another post.

The New York Age ceased publication in 1960, three years before Nichols passed away.

Disclaimer: I am not aware of whether Herbie Nichols' intellectual property is currently being managed by an estate or any legal entity. By publishing them here, I do so for educational purposes only. I am not claiming ownership of, and am not making any money from, his writings. If you have a legal claim to these writings and would like them removed from this blog, please let me know and I will oblige.

In the mean time, please enjoy these writings with the following music:

For further reading, check out Ethan Iverson's blog, which features an article of Nichols's from 1946 in Rhythm.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Saturday July 5, 1941 (p. 10)

The average person goes to the dance hall, cabaret, musical revue or party for a good time and returns home exhausted. The musician is the composed person you meet on arriving and the composed one you leave when you make your departure. Aside from playing the part of the capable entertainer his appearance must remain impeccable and he too, must at all times appear to be enjoying himself. (His real attitude toward any proceeding, of course, is seldom made known to the public.)

Jazz, (or swing music,) is the prevalent type of music dispensed for dancing in the United States today. Few of us know how it evolved to its present state. One thing that is quite certain - and unfortunately so for the colored musician - is the fact that the incorruptible American jitterbug apparently believes that the supreme haven of this musical art lies in the hands of the colored bands. The overwhelming and repeated financial success that we have enjoyed in this field, I believe, proves this to be true.

Jazz artistry reigns supreme in our group. It has been this department's contention that when it comes to jitter-buggin' and swing music we stomp louder and more often than the other fellow, and apparently find more pleasure in so doing.

The jam session has finally come to the attention of our swing magazines. Some musicians would rather miss their sleep than pass up a chance to hear Roy (Little Jazz) Eldridge or The Hawk at a jam session. If you haven't heard pianists Art Tatum, Kersey, Marlowe or Phipps at such a session then you have missed a lot of powerful piano playing. To the jazz musician who wants to learn more about syncopation and who wants to stay in the groove, these sessions are more in the nature of attending school.

Every group of people in the world is exponent of some particular type of music or dancing. Naturally, if this music or dancing catches on with the public there is going to be many imitations. The people of Lapland, who have their own musical dances, ordinarily would not attempt to make lasting reforms either in the music or the dance form of the rhumba. However, if it were a matter of radio commercials, big time vaudeville dates, hotel jobs, moving picture work, fat recording contracts and other million dollar considerations one wouldn't regard the situation as ordinary any longer. As a matter of fact with this always in mind the average Spanish person would be better prepared for the ensuing mutilation of his beloved rhumba.

Jazz is a big business and cannot be divorced from the Negro. It is still a lucrative field and if taken more seriously by some can be made to yield even more of that green stuff - yes indeed!

Saturday July 26, 1941 (p. 10)

The mainstay of the night-life world is the night club. For the most part these are tinsel palaces that glitter and hold forth with much seeming gayety. From the quaint glass stirrers to the quaint inhabitants, these institutions belie their real purpose - that of making money.

Some old-timers impressed me very much with one statement: "In the night club racket," they said, "the ends and the means are never confused as in the case of other businesses." Here's a situation where the salesmanship is so all-inclusive and so much remain at stake that only a hawk - a night hawk, a hardboiled one at that - can reap a profit and stay in business for any length of time.

Night club operators had their heyday during the bustling "twenties" and "thirties". This was the period that witnessed prohibition with its speakeasies and bath-tub gin. Money flowed freely and was made all up and down the line.

How it was made is another matter. Earnings came under the heading of various fees. How else could they be explained? Many bootleggers owned speakeasies and supplied these with their own liquor. This was an illegal but highly profitable and effective example of the vertical combination. On looking back on all this you wonder how it all came to pass.

There are two ways that a night club may take in money: by means of a cover charge and by selling various services. A night club is allowed to charge you its own fixed price for services rendered. This is legal. The government does not control retail prices, except in cases of emergency.

To start a night club you get in touch with License Commissioner Moss. Right away you're fingerprinted and mugged (photo taken). You'll have to take out cabaret and liquor licenses. There is also a license issued for the sale of cigarettes. The fire, health and police departments must give you a clean bill of health. And then there are the musicians' and performers' unions that may compel you to sign contracts with them. Bear in mind that we have only cited the licenses that must be gotten, which also call for periodic renewals. It is no wonder that some clubs blackball roustabouts and other ne'er-do-wells. They simply aim to insure a good night's receipts.

Many cliques are formed in this business. Because of the higher rents that are expected of night clubs and the seasonal rise and fall of business, a dependable clientele must be assured. Whatever is made during a good season which in some instances lasts for several weeks or months may have to be depended upon to tide one over a slack period which may last several times as long.

The night club visitor looks forward to the floor show as the climax of the night's entertainment. To the manager, this comes as an anti-climax. He depends on eagle-eyed, sure-footed waiters with a gift of gab to bring in large orders between those periods of loud entertainment. All that he seeks in a floor show is brevity, bounce and balance.

A successful operator strives for individuality in his club. From the tableware to the way the band stand is set up, nothing is overlooked. This calls for a versatile person who may be called upon at times to play the role of interior decorator and stage hand, accountant and efficiency expert, chorus director and dancer, and who, moreover, is expected to be the social glad-hander on all occasions.

Night club operation is a singular vocation. The main commodities are glamour and gayety. Fashion and style changes are first seen in the niteries. They are the show places of the nation - the social marts. It is the night club operator's business to supply the fanfare and to reap any and all possible profits.

Saturday August 2, 1941 (p. 10)

War is a boom time for songwriters. We recall that it was during and following the last war that the jazz life came into being. Entertainers did all right for themselves during that period. It was the goal of the average musician to cross the big pond, and many of them did just that. And it was during that period that Harlem became known as the bohemian section of New York. This situation almost brought a permanent vogue in literature. Such writers as Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay did much to publicize this era.

It was during that era that the first efforts to organize Negro musicians got under way. Local 310 was a Negro Musicians' local. The Clef Club was on the downgrade, but still maintained its headquarters in West 53rd Street. Such other clubs as the Bandbox and the Rhythm Club, operated by the late Bert Hall, came into being.

The parlor social era, which followed, won't be soon forgotten. During that period the kazoo became a full-fledged instrument, right alongside the venerable violin. At the average party you would find the kazoo player teamed with the pianist, the drums or some other instrument being added if the sponsors felt like oversporting themselves. The great parlor social piano player was "Fats" Waller. If you listen to his Bluebird recording of "The Joint is Jumpin'" you'll see what I mean.

The whole complexion of show life has changed in a few years. From dramatic stock, the Lafayette went to colored musical revues, with such names as Leroy Smith, Sam Wooding, Drake and Walker, the San Domingans and the Smarter Set Shows featured. The old Lincoln Theater brought out Mamie Smith and other blues singers of that day.

The small cabarets and dance halls were twice as active during this period. Everybody had a job and belonged to some social club. Some of the orchestras that catered to these groups were the Congo Knights, Ernie Ferguson and his Midnight Ramlers, Gus Creigh.

Harlem used to hum in those days with the social activity centered in the neighborhood from 133rd to 136th street - Baron Wilkins Club, the Pirates Cove, the Dunbar, the Nest, the Turf Club, the Checker Club, the Saratoga Club, Connie's Inn, the Bronze Studio, and the 101 Ranch are a few of the night spots that are no more.

Will history repeat itself in this direction?

Saturday August 9, 1941 (p. 10)

Chappie Willet, head of the only Negro booking agency on Broadway, would like to see colored sets multiply and become more varied in text. From his advantageous position in the heart of the downtown theatrical district he is able to realize and appreciate the growing bemand for colored acts more than anyone else.

The "Bye Sisters," young singing and dancing trio now appearing nightly at the Elks Rendezvous, are under his personal management. In a fast stepping revue, headed by the inimitable Willie Bryant, they more than hold their own. These girls have personality plus, and after you hear their hep musical version of "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and "It's Hurry, Hurry, Hurry with a Solid Jive" you'll agree that they are a welcome addition to the entertainment world.

Chappie Willet's business office and studios are located at 156 West 44th street. Besides the booking agency angle, which takes up a lot of his time, he personally supervises a recording studio and a music school. All this in addition to being [among] the most prolific arrangers in the music business. Because of his policy of treating the little fellow and the big fellow alike, he has been able to build a reputation for himself that is unique in music circles.

He has kept pretty busy these last few years. He has written the music for many musical comedy shows and night club revues, including those of the Cotton Club, the Plantation and "The Hot Mikado." He has had wide experience with bands, having done much arranging for Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder and many others. He has also done work for Gene Krupa, including the writing of his theme song.

Chappie Willet does most of his arranging for stage acts, practically dominating this field in particular. Such acts as the Nicholas Brothers and the dancing DeMarcos got Chappie Willet for new arrangements whenever they're in town. Whenever you hear the famed Peters Sister or Avia Andrew bringing down a critical Broadway audience with applause, the chances are that the fine accompanying arrangement to which they are singing was written by and rehearsed in conjunction with Chappie Willet.

Mr. Willet deserves a lot of credit for his pioneering efforts in many fields of the jazz life, also for his avowed interest in all newcomers.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Strange Case of Ella Malone

By the late 19th century, improvisation in "classical" music was relegated to composers, organists, and a few virtuoso performers. In general, it was not taught as a part of standard music education, until Emile Jacques-Dalcroze began his influential work in Switzerland. So for most Americans it was quite a spectacle to hear someone improvise music, especially if the end result sounded as if it had been planned all along.

I recently searched for the phrase "improvises music" and turned up the interesting story of Ella Malone from San Jose, CA. Ella was a teenager who was first reported in the San Jose Mercury as having extraordinary experiences in which she channeled spirits while playing the piano. Her story is worth quoting at length (author is unknown)
"She goes into a trance, in which she claims to be, not Ella Malone, but a man named Charles S. Evans, who died several years ago, but who was, while living, a musician and a member of a minstrel troupe. While in this state she is said to execute difficult music on the piano with her eyes closed, she being evidently in an abnormal condition. After a few performances of this kind she is able to give the same music in her normal state. In this way, in less than a year, without any previous knowledge of music, and without any present knowledge of written music, she is able to execute many difficult pieces with the skill and precision of an artist. At times her 'control', as the influence is called, improvises music, and has composed several pieces in which Ella plays in her normal state. In this way she is acquiring her musical education independent of books of earthly instructors."
Malone's story made a small splash in the fall of 1877, with her story being retold in newspapers in Reno NV, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Holton KS, Davenport IA, and Pulaski TN. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dismissively wrote that "If the spirits' music is no better than their literature, she might do better to learn from a dog with a tin kettle tied to his tail."

Ella Malone is known to have given a concert at Little Music Hall on 19 September 1877, which was very well reviewed. The Batesville Guard (Batesville, AR) reprinted the report from the San Jose Mercury (author, again, unknown) :
"The so-called trance medium, Miss Ella Malone, of this city, assisted by the Parkman family, gave a concert at Little Music Hall last evening. The attendance was not large. Shortly after 8 o'clock, an overture having been played by Professor Parkman, the medium was introduced ... she rubbed her eyes a few minutes, after the style of Fannie Allyn and other "trance mediums" who have appeared here in public, turned to the master of ceremonies, who bound her eyes with a handkerchief, after which she was apparently seized with a fit of trembling and jerking. This continued a minute or two and the agony was over; she was then, as the Spiritualists say, "possessed, or under control." Without more ado she turned to the piano, a Weber furnished by Morton & Co., and commenced her execution, and, in the language of a bystander, proved before five minutes had passed that she was a "lightning striker." Her movements were all characterized by the same irresistible nervous twitching, and the way she clawed the keys while executing some of the lively Irish reels, was simply marvelous ...
She then executed a piece which she informed the audience was the "Wrecked Daughter," and another entitled "The Soldiers Crossing the Plains," followed by the "Arkansas Traveler." The latter was perfect. After this she played a piece not in print, called the "Spirit March," which came from the "Higher Powers," whoever they may be. After this exertion, she asked that the band would play while she rested ...
At the close she asked that the boy violinist play what he pleased and she would accompany him. He did so, and gave a musical medley which in the main was accompanied correctly. At times she was at fault as if finding the keys, and in one instance she failed, and listened for the time to end. She then sang "Come to that Beautiful Shore," with much expression. The "Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane," was next, but the lines were given as if by spasmodic effort. The "Blue Danube Waltz" and "John Brown's Body" followed, both of which were rendered in first-class style.
A Mr. Hughes, a violinist, in the audience then asked to be permitted to take the boy's violin and see if she could accompany him, and the test was satisfactory. We allow all who were present to draw their own conclusions, as to whether the girl is an expert musician, figuring to be controlled, or is controlled, by a supernatural power. Suffice it to say that, taken throughout, the entertainment was pleasing and well worth the admission fee."
I was unable to find any information about "Professor Parkman" or "Charles S. Evans".

An Ella Malone was reported to have committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1907. Perhaps it's the same person. In any case, I couldn't find any other leads to what happened to her. If this is the same Ella Malone, it is a tragic end to what could have been a remarkable career.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival (1920)

Earlier this year I came across this piece from the Times of London, written in 1920. Prompted by an upcoming visit by the great French organist Marcel Dupré, the anonymous author takes the opportunity to write a bit about improvisation, its similarities and differences to the creative process involved in composition, and its decline as a practical part of a musician's toolbox by the early 20th century. It was clearly written from a perspective of familiarity and sympathy with improvisation, and it's especially interesting that it was written before improvisation became a "hot topic" for composers, yet foreshadows some of the discussions which continue to this day.

 Here are some TL;DR highlights.

  • "Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers."
  • "[T]he pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others."
  • "Improvisation [is] clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same."
  • "Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, 'Now what do you think about it?'"
(Disclaimer: I mulled for a while about whether to make this available. Obviously I didn't write it, so I don't claim authorship. But I think its historical importance to the subject of improvised music, and organ improvisation in particular, make it worthy of sharing in cyberspace. To me, the internet is about sharing information with other interested parties. I don't, and never will, monetize this blog. If you claim a copyright and would like this content removed, feel free to contact me.)

(Also: The author, in keeping with the sexist parlance of his day, assumes that all people involved with music are "men", and exclusively uses the male-gendered pronouns. I transcribed the article as-is, but I do not condone this kind of speech.)

Extempore Music - A Precarious Survival

The Times - London - Saturday 4 December 1920

Author unknown

Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
The report of M. Marcel Dupré's skill in improvisation on the organ, which London is to have the opportunity of appreciating at the Albert Hall next Thursday [9 Dec, 1920 - ME] naturally raises the question of extempore music, and its place, actual and possible, in the developed condition of modern music.

A correspondent writes to us to tell of an improvisation by Mr. Alfred Hollins, the well known blind organist, which was recorded on a mechanical instrument and subsequently transcribed and replayed by another organist, Mr. Arthur Sims, at a recent recital. We seem to remember that years ago, before the gramophone records were the commonplace they are to-day, the phonographic record of some improvisations by Mr. E. H. Lemare, then organist at St. Margaret's, Westminster, caused a similar sensation.
Edwin H. Lemare (1865-1934)
We do not know whether M. Dupré has ever submitted his art to the same ordeal, but no doubt it will be demanded of him sooner or later. It may be that mechanical reproduction is going to attack the last stronghold of improvisation by making it permanent. One can well understand why an artist of this kind will be shy of the recording room. 
Composition is one thing, extemporization another. The one is a man's considered thought independent of the circumstances of any given moment; the other is his comment on circumstances, is influenced by his environment and by the sympathy of his hearers. If it is recorded for future use it runs the risk of becoming inapt. A good improvisation may or may not stand the test of reproduction for permanent use, and the artist who improvises with the knowledge that whatever he says will be expected to stand this test is acting under a restraint which may be fatal to the spirit of his work.

The Royal Albert Hall, London. Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum.

We remember once hearing a learned musical professor improvise in strict sonata form before a class of students. As he did so he analysed his own work, calling out in a high-pitched voice, "This is the second subject," "Now the development begins," "Now the reprise," and so on. The result was something exactly like a great many sonatas; it was fluent, expected, apparently foreseen from first to last. But the pleasure of real improvisation, like real conversation, is that it is not foreseen by the creator of it. It surprises him as much as the listen. It may develop in sonata form, or fugue, or any other strict style - that depends on how far the artist's mind has been disciplined by the externals of musical design. It will certainly have form of some sort, because form is the musician's means of communication with others. Listening to M. Dupré and watching him at the organ, one is convinced that at the beginning of an improvisation he is as unconscious as anyone else of where the thought may lead him. He is starting out on an adventure.
Samuel Wesley (1766-1837)

The same was the case with S. S. Wesley, greatest of English church musicians in the last century. Those who remember him in the organ loft say that Wesley would extemporise the most unheard-of-things, harmonic progressions which he would never have written, but through which he groped his way almost as though he were under the control of some hypnotic influence. Whatever it is, in such an instance improvisation clearly carried on by an altogether different mental process from that by which the same man acts when he sits down to his music-paper to compose, although the initial impulse towards musical invention may be the same.

When the art of music was in a comparatively primitive condition, there was much more room for the exercise of this faculty [extemporization] than there is to-day. Even after notation had made it possible for composers to express themselves with fair accuracy, and printing had secured a wide distribution for their ideas, they were still loath to forgo the fascination of yielding to the impulse of the moment. The scores of Corelli's violin sonatas, for example, merely contain as much of the music as will keep the solo player and the accompanist in touch with one another. Both are free to improvise the details.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Corelli and other artists of his generation were generally their own interpreters, but even after the point when the process of specialization had separated composer from performer is was felt that a solo work of any size would not be complete in expression unless the latter was given an opportunity of giving rise to his own imagination at some point or other. Hence the cadenza. Brahms was the last of the great composers to leave this open door, but Joachim shut it by writing his own cadenza to the violin concerto and by his own frequent performance associating it with the work. It would be a bold fiddler indeed who would stand up in Queen's Hall today and improvise a cadenza before the coda of Brahms's first movement, or, indeed, in any other classical concerto, but it is the refusal to attempt it which has made that point in the concerto the futile thing it is. It places all the great virtuosi of the concert-room in the absurd position of pretending to improvise something which they have really learnt by heart beforehand. Of course, there is no actual deception; every one knows that they have learnt it by heart; sometimes they have written it themselves, sometimes it has been composed and published by somebody else, but in any case it is an effect carefully arranged to suggest a counterfeit spontaneity.

So it comes about that improvisation has been forced out of the concert-room altogether, as at an earlier stage it was forced out of the opera-house when autocratic composers insisted that singers should confine themselves strictly to the notes written down for them. Composers have their rights, and the first of them is that what is performed as being by them should be what they have really written. Yet there was something generous about the old plan of the concerto in which the composer, having developed his theme to his heart's content, said in effect to his interpreter, "Now what do you think about it?" The practical position is that the only class of executant who has any opporunity of using his powers in this direction is the organist, and the example of M. Dupré and others of the French school shows that it is a power which thrives on opportunity. If it is strangled by the conventions of modern music, it will be so much the worse for the art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lennie Tristano - What's Right With The Beboppers

After two and a half years I have finally gotten my hands on the July 1947 issue of Metronome Magazine, which has the sequel to Tristano's What's Wrong With The Beboppers. It provides an interesting glimpse into the pianist's thought process. Tristano's characterization of "Dixieland" is unfair, but it gives us an idea of how sharply divided some members of the jazz community were over the new music of Parker, Gillespie, Davis, and Tristano. This is also of historical importance due to Tristano's foreshadowing of free improvisation: "Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plane because the individual lines will be more complex."

What's Right With The Beboppers
the provocative pianist concludes his evaluation of a provocative school of jazz

by Lennie Tristano

Tristano, mid 1950's. Source:
The music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker constitutes the first major break with Dixieland. While bebop is not an end in itself, it is unquestionably a great means.

Though Dixieland presents a single and crude form of counterpoint, its contrapuntal development ends in a blind alley. Each line is governed by the end result which is collective improvisation. Collective improvisation is limited by a small number of chords, perhaps six or seven. A good melodic line is sacrificed completely. The music strives to induce an aphrodisiac mood which for many years has been considered the essence of jazz. Anything that requires a degree of intelligent comprehension is ruled out. Therefore the means becomes the end. Artistic development is unnecessary - in fact, detrimental. This is precisely why Dixieland music is so appallingly stagnant. Like French Impressionism, it destroys itself.

The soloist emerging from this idiom plays with the same disregard for artistic development. Though his style is somewhat individualized, and his facility is increased, his music is merely an elaboration of the part he played in collective improvisation.

The boppers discarded collective improvisation and placed all emphasis on the single line. This is not unfortunate, since the highest development of both would probably not occur simultaneously. Perhaps the next step after bebop will be collective improvisation on a much higher plan because the individual lines will be more complex.
Charlie Parker, late 1940's

Bebop has made several contributions to the evolution of the single line. The arpeggio has ceased to be important; the line is primarily diatonic. The procedure is not up one chord and down another, nor it is up one scale and down another; the use of skips of more than a third precludes this seesaw motion. The skillful use of scales fosters the evolution of many more ideas than does the use of arpeggios, since an arpeggio merely restates the chord. Instead of a rhythm section pounding out each chord, four beats to a bar, so that three or four soloists can blow the same chord in arpeggio form in a blast of excremental vibrations, the bebop rhythm section uses a system of chordal punctuation. By this means, the soloist is able to hear the chord without having it shoved down his throat. He can think as he plays. A chorus of bebop may consist of any number of phrases which vary in length. A phrase may consist of two bars or twelve bars. It may contain one or several ideas. The music is thoughtful as opposed to the kind of music which is no more than an endless series of notes, sometimes bent.

The Dixieland idea of a ballad is a hot melody with the bends. The tempo ranges from just a little to slow to just a little too fast, generally skipping the happy medium. When Diz plays a ballad, he makes full use of altered chords and substitutions in a series of well-articulated phrases. This is not to be confused with a superficial use of altered tones which results in an embellishment rather than an integral part of the style. His complex melodic structure becomes more intense because of the intricate rhythm patterns which are its basis. The melody does not bog down under a vulgar load of sentiment, bravado, and vibrato.

Given a long series of eighth notes, the Fig would play them as dotted eighths and sixteenths, which effects an underlying shuffle beat. A bopper would accept every up-beat, producing a line which pulsates with a modern, a more exciting feeling. This type of accenting also prevents the soloist from stumbling into a boogie groove, a musical booby-trap.

Thelonious Monk, ca. 1947
Bebop is a valiant attempt to raise jazz to a thoughtful level, and to replace emotion with meaning. It is successfully combatting the putrefying effect of commercialism. It has been called mechanical, "over-cerebrative," sloppy, technical, and immoral. Beboppers have been accused of willfully promoting juvenile delinquency. These studied inanities of the pseudo-psychiatrist have created ill-feeling against musicians. All this prattle is due to a lack of understanding not only of the musicians who play bebop, but of the emotionally immature listeners.

It is true that the younger musicians have gone overboard in attempting to emulate their idols, the originators. They need re-direction and guidance. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the so-called giants of jazz have remained untouched. They have absolutely refused to be influenced. The feeling of security which comes from playing in a well-worn and worn-out groove, and an unwillingness to admit that jazz has advanced beyond their personally-generated auras suggest an imminent degeneration. The big names are important because they command large followings. If they persist in retrogressing, the inevitable result is the concomitant stagnation of the listeners.

The development of jazz must be the concern of every musician who attempts to play it. Jazz is not a form of popular entertainment; it is art for its own sake. Its popularity or unpopularity is coincidental. The man who plays to entertain is not as objectionable as the man who plays to entertain and at the same time protests that he is playing jazz. This overwhelming pleasure that some bandleaders experience in pleasing the people is a rather poor camouflage for their desire to increase their bank accounts. Perhaps if the people had more opportunity to hear good jazz, they might learn to like it.

And here society has a real obligation. It must foster the arts and encourage the artists even if understanding is not immediate. Bebop, one of the more mature levels of jazz, must be listened to, scrutinized, supported. That way it will assure progress and all the inevitable maturation of jazz will be one large step further along.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Interview with the Red Krayola - 1968

This article appeared in the 2nd issue of Mother: Houston's Rock Magazine, a short-lived periodical (three issues in all) put together by Larry Sepulvado. To my knowledge, this is the only published documentation of the Red Krayola's intentions, and it is extensive.

The Third Eye video was put together by Jeff Hill.

Thanks to Paul Drummond for providing me with the scans of the article.

Reprinted here with permission of Larry and Mayo.

(Once an audible circumstance occurs, that material which will have been registered in memory may yield to executive and stylistic concerns; yet this static documentation of recalled impressions is necessarily subsequent to the continually changing instance of our music in relation to linear, sequential time. It is the case that we will make our music, period.)

The group as it is today was established in September, 1966. At that time most of the music (rock) was written by the group. By December, 1966, all of the group's material was original, including distinct sections of improvisation which in performances were begun freely by mutual assent. These "free pieces" were a definite part of any performance, and while at the beginning were rock derivative, they gradually became freer as the members began to question the concept of rhythmic structure as well as dependence on traditional rock instruments. By February, 1967, these "free pieces" were the staple of the group and had been extended by inviting all interested parties to participate in performance. A minimum of control was exercised over this now companion group (The Familiar Ugly), and all unrehearsed activity was encouraged and accepted. While working with this performance-group structure, the group was approached by International Artists Producing Corporation and contracted to produce their first LP. In March 1967, with the Familiar Ugly, the group recorded a three-hour "free piece" and this forms the base of the album, PARABLE OF ARABLE LAND. Currently, the Krayola has returned to using three pieces (the original group). The present preoccupation is with sound as structural element and system simultaneously.

N O T E S 

Rhythm deals with intervals which are set by duration of individual sounds. Indeterminate sounds, yielding to no directives in respect to length of the sounds themselves, are not concerned with honoring any correspondence with a recurring, designated beat. If a performance is actually a forward progression, correspondence is viewed only in retrospect. This has been true of all music and, in fact, of life itself. The distinction being that now the performer himself, aware solely of his presence, enjoys a disregard for any circumstance other than that which his presence addresses.

Rhythm deals with the arrangement of sounds, a regular or irregular "style" or "structure" which limits the number of possible products that may obtain. These limitations have occasioned the group's present disregard for a rhythmic base and have prompted a focus on the critical juncture that is proper. This focal change (accepting all products but not addressing them as determinate), leads to the recognition of all sound as unit, the integrity, all of which is preserved. The importance of this decision is that a new musical structure is implied, a structure based on sound in lieu of rhythm.

In the confrontation of one by a present circumstance, there is a de-emphasis on movement, a tendency toward immobility.

Music is that which is proposed as music.

We free the sounds and we free ourselves of responsibility to them or for them. Total irresponsibility (we possess nothing) allows music to be made in a measure of freedom.

What is not actual (physically current) is illusion. Illusion is born at the construction of a relationship between the present time and any other moment prior to the present time. It is reborn continually at each juncture of conscious necessity. Its food is literal sequence and asks only that is be questioned. Our concern is with that which is physically current.

Motion occurs as a mental process arrived at apart from the continuous now, which is the way the music occurs audibly. Audibility is then separate from motion. The music is heard now, and now, and now continually until it is heard no longer. Motion is an implication which is extra-audible, extra-musical.

Music is about itself. (We are not interested in portraying, conversing, filling, completing, interpreting, identifying, or conjuring.)

Music is made, sounds will continue, whether we perform or not. In this understanding, we produce that which we produce.

The music is made, desirous of a certain degree of attention. It can be dealt with an incidental sound, but the production derives from an intensity that the reception could emulate.

The primary characteristic of every production is its singularity and the attendant requirement to change, consistent with the intellectual-emotional process. The intensity of the process here is critical.

What follows is an interview conducted by Jack Villagomez and me on January 16, 1968. Below, left to right, Steve Cunningham, Mayo Thompson, and Rick Barthelme, who is at present absent. Tommy Smith is the new drummer.  -- Larry Sepulvado
L to R: Steve Cunningham, Mayo Thompson, Frederick Barthelme
MOTHER: Why was the chaos, the freak out, separated from the order, the structured music, on the album instead of being integrated?
MAYO THOMPSON: If you wish, the album tends to visually orient itself. It's like a continuous line where there are small blips like on a graph and these songs with simple structures appear in the more complex structures.
MOTHER: Who wrote the structured parts?
MAYO: Well, all three of us. Rick wrote the music and I wrote the words to "Pink Stainless Tail" and "Transparent Radiation". Steve wrote "Former Reflection Enduring Doubt", and we all worked on "Parable of Arable Land" while Rick and I wrote the words to "War Sucks" and we all wrote the music.
MOTHER: Will the Familiar Ugly and the free-form freak out be a part of your next album?
MAYO: Though they don't appear, we do have some good tapes which we might distribute if anyone is interested in hearing them. We have a new drummer, Tommy Smith, and he is good.
MOTHER: What is the name of your next album?
MAYO: One side will be called God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It and the other side will be called Coconut Hotel. It should be out in March.
MOTHER: What kind of effect will you be trying to create with the new album?
MAYO: We're not trying to create an effect. I personally am not trying to create visual effects. I'm trying to have sound exist by itself as sound which it does without my help.
MOTHER: Do you consider the first album a kind of evolutionary stage or is the second album completely different or just a natural progression from the first?
STEVE CUNNINGHAM: It is definitely a natural progression. We feel that we are now doing the right thing, having in the past done likewise.
MOTHER: How many songs will the next album have?
STEVE: So far we have twenty pieces to go on, plus several one second pieces. We have a lot of listening time planned for this album. As much as possible.
MOTHER: Why one second pieces?
STEVE: We came upon these pieces when we were trying the experiments in sound. They are compression of time with sound. They are just moments of different duration, all very short and of different composition than the longer pieces.
MOTHER: What idea are you trying to put on record?
STEVE: These pieces can be conceived of as part of another piece, part of the last thing you heard, or as the beginning of the next piece, or as an island in the middle of no sound. It'll come out with a position that could be changed and put into another position. It works from the outside in and its environment will depend upon where you want to put it.
MAYO: In the first album the songs appeared in the midst of more complex spontaneous pieces composed by over 60 players. This next album has more complex songs in barer structures.
MOTHER: How significant have John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Frank Zappa been in influencing your music?
MAYO: I've listened to them since we got into this thing. Steve buys some Cage, Feldman, Van Dyke Parks, and people like Stockhausen and Zappa. Rick is very familiar with Cage and knows him personally.
STEVE: So we are all aware of the work of these composers and we are therefore aware of several unique classical ways of thinking about music.
MAYO: As to how they have influenced us, I don't know. They serve as a reference point within the framework of music composition. We have been influenced by the sounds of modern day America as well as the sounds and music of other countries. But our music is a different thing because it is ours.
STEVE: We offer the term International Sound to be taken as a recognition of the way man makes a piece of music and sums up everything he is involved in.
MAYO: We are on a line with the intimacy with which jazz musicians play but without that manifested active consciousness of what the other is playing and those little improvisational things "that fit".
MOTHER: How much time was spent in the studio on the first album and how much will be spent on the second?
MAYO: About thirty hours on the first and as long as it takes for this one.
MOTHER: Where were some of the first places you played?
MAYO: The first place we played was the Living Eye and we got $75 for one hour and then we played at Mark Froman's club, Love. This was when we were playing rock music. Stuff like "Hey Joe" and "Eight Miles High". After the Familiar [Ugly] became a part of the act, we played the Catacombs and there were about ten people on stage with us and the Gentrys were there. We played "War Sucks" and a fight broke out on the dance floor...laughter...stuff like that.
MOTHER: What were the circumstances surrounding your invitation to play at the Berkeley Folk Festival this past summer?
MAYO: We got invited because we knew Kurt Von Meier from California. He heard these tapes we were doing for a second album then (still no plans to be released) which were very new. We had dropped the drums and were playing what he called classical music. Out there, we played a concert at the Venice Pavillion at the Angry Arts Festival. Then we went to Berkeley.
MOTHER: What happened after that?
MAYO: I was on this panel with Country Joe, Ralph Gleason, the leaders of the Kaleidoscope, and the Crome Syrcus... A dog wandered into the ball during one of our concerts and heard us. Some people covered its ears and walked it to this door where it collapsed, paralyzed and I heard they had to put it to sleep.
MOTHER: Any other anecdotes from the coast?
MAYO: One night we played with John Fahey at the New Orleans House, played twenty minutes and they asked us to leave.
MOTHER: Did they pay you?
MAYO: We got ten dollars to split three ways... laughter.
MOTHER: Generally what is the audience reaction?
MAYO: It's always mixed unless it's our friends or something. We've gone over best at art galleries. We played the Louisiana Gallery and the Dryer Gallery and at those places everybody was going like "that's good stuff". One night we played at the U of H and it was terrible. They didn't seem to like us.
MOTHER: Where did you play at the University of Houston?
MAYO: It was at the Jeffrey House; a dormitory dance for the girls there. We started playing our own material because we didn't want to play anybody else's. After a while they formed a half circle about fifty yards away and sort of looked at us for a long time. We kept playing and there was quite a bit of hostility exchanged and the girls kept pleading with us to play something they could dance to. We tried a bunch of stuff. We tried "Satisfaction"...laughter...and I didn't even know the chord progression. Later a lot of people showed up and we out numbered them and we had the dance to ourselves.  We played what we wanted to. When we left they were waiting for us outside and this police sergeant was staring at the clouds. Then the dormitory gave us our $100 and we said no. But we had amplifier payments and we took it. Someday when we can afford it, I intend to pay the Jeffrey House back their $100.
STEVE: Those were the days when we thought we could guarantee satisfaction.
Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine.
Photo: 1960's Texas Music.
MOTHER: What were the circumstances surrounding your opening Love Street (Love Street Light Circus and Feel Good Machine - Houston's first psychedelic night club at Allen's Landing.)
MAYO: We knew David Addicks, the owner, and he knew Rick because he was in the art thing. We used to crash his openings and drink wine and stand around. He got us one time to play this happening. He did a little light show and impromptu number and told us he was opening this club and we hinted about being the house band. So the last time he saw us we were doing semi-rock music. The next time he saw us, we had dropped the drums and the Familiar Ugly. We were doing this three piece thing with clarinets, trumpets, guitars, razors on cymbals, phonograph turntables, and tapes etc. But he had already asked us to play this press opening for Love Street and we played our music. He hired another band.
MOTHER: Did you play opening night?
MAYO: We played opening night and he knelt down front, wanting us to get off stage. I'm not knocking him but I don't think he liked us too much. He has provided a certain class to Houston that it just didn't have before. Our first set that night was incredible.
MOTHER: Where else have you played?
MAYO: We've played at the Living Eye once, the Catacombs once, Love Street once...
MOTHER: You don't play anywhere twice?
MAYO: We rarely play anywhere twice. I can't think of anywhere we have played twice except Mark Froman's place, Love... laughter.
MOTHER: What happened at Gulfgate's "Battle of the Bands"? A friend of mine, Charles Isherwood, played Indian taxi horn with you that night. He also left for Vietnam that night.
MAYO: Yeah, I remember him. He was out there honking this thing and I asked him to come up on stage. He played next to Haden Larson who played the spoons. Our first night at Gulfgate someone in the audience pulled the plug because we were playing so loud and long. So we kept playing till they plugged us back in and we finished up. Lelan Rogers who is our excellent producer saw us that night.
MOTHER: In the finals in the tent, do you feel you fulfilled an obligation to the audience by playing "Hey Joe"?
MOTHER: I was going to ask you if you thought you had influenced the Fever Tree's ..laugh.. arrangement of "Hey Joe" that had everybody standing on their heads this summer.
Fever Tree, s/t 1968 UNI Records
MAYO: Well... we played it very fast ...laugh... when we first got started, we played Channelview High School and Smiley for K-NUZ. The Fever Tree were on the same show except they were called the Boswick Vine then. I think they are really an incredible group. They are very smooth professional people.
MOTHER: They are developing very well.
MAYO: I would like to hear them again. The last time I heard them was at the Jefferson Airplane show and they were very good then.
MOTHER: The group has really progressed to almost frightening proportions for a local band, especially their lead guitarist and the addition of the new guy who plays organ and flute.
MAYO: Yes, Rob Landis, he is one of my mother's former students.
MOTHER: As a performer, do you intend to entertain your audiences; because obviously more people are offended than pleased at your concerts.
MAYO: It so happens we are now doing material somewhat more suited to current tastes. As you know we have a new drummer, Tommy Smith. We like to play for people. We plan appearances for promotion of our new album.
MOTHER: Where will you be playing to promot it?
MAYO: We will play some places in Houston. We're with AMG, Artists Management, Mason Romans.
MOTHER: Where is the last time you performed as a group?
MAYO: Berkeley, this past summer.
MOTHER: What are your chances of getting booked now? Do you have to audition or does the agency set the bookings and then you show up and the people find out what you are doing?
MAYO: We have Mason who does that now. Mason gets on the phone and says, "I got the Red Krayola... oh no, no they aren't doing the kind of music they were doing... yeah, they are sort of playing more like rock music..." and then he explains that we have gone straight or something... laugh... and tells the kids we play music they can dance to or listen to... those conversations are really weird sometimes. We hope to be able to perform all of our music; both structured songs and instrumentals, the experimental structures and random compositions, all of it.
MOTHER: How much do you charge to perform?
MAYO: ...Mason should know.

Rick Barthelme on the cover of
Mother: Houston's Rock Magazine, issue #2
Credit: Houstonia

Sepulvado, Larry. "Red Krayola." Mother: Houston's Rock Magazine 2 (1968): 22-26. Print.

All issues available (library use only) at the Briscoe CenterUT Austin.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Interview with Stan Lunetta

UPDATE (March 2016)

I was very sad to learn today of Stan's passing on March 3rd. In my interactions with him he was jovial and courteous, and his presence will be missed by many. The text below is my original post in 2014.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Stan Lunetta in July 2012 while I was researching the New Music Ensemble. Lunetta, who retired in 2008, had been an active performer, composer and teacher since the 1950's. He played percussion with Larry Austin in the New Music Ensemble in the 1960's, assisted in the publication of SOURCE magazine, experimented with homemade synthesizers in a distinctive style which is still imitated today, and was the principal tympanist for the Sacramento Opera for nearly thirty years.

In our conversation, we talk about his work with Larry Austin, his studies with John Cage, his performance at ICES 1972, his love of Thelonious Monk, and many other topics.

Stan Lunetta; image from Wikimedia.

Lunetta has granted permission for only this publication of the interview: share this blog post as a link, but please do not share the text without asking permission first.

Can you tell me about the Concert Jazz Quintet?

My participation in things like that started in the Concert Jazz Quintet and went on into the New Music Ensemble, and then went on into Amra/Arma: three different kinds of improvisation. The CJQ was myself (I played drums), Richard Maloof (who later went on to be Lawrence Welk's bass player), Robert Schilling (who has unfortunately passed on) played piano; he was a wonderful pianist. And the horn players were Wayne Johnson, who still lives here in Sacramento, and Brian Bredberg, who we've lost contact with; whether he's still alive or not, nobody knows.

The Black Hawk. Photo: SF BayView
At the time, in Sacramento, there was a lot of jazz playing. There were jazz clubs, actually: after-hours jazz places. Everybody in the group wrote songs that the group did. We gave concerts at a small theater here in town, and we'd do all these pieces, and the newspaper would come and review it; that sort of thing. We went through quite a lot of different things using some free improv, some very structured, some pieces that were just plain... old blues-type things. There was a lot of freedom. In those days you could go to San Francisco and go to the Blackhawk or the Jazz Workshop or various clubs like that, and see all of the major jazz players that existed. Somedays you could go to San Francisco and see Thelonious Monk at one club, Miles Davis at another club, and Charlie Mingus at another, all on the same night. Those days are gone. So that's sort of what that group did.

When was the group founded?

I'd say... late 50's. Because we were all working musicians, doing casuals, dances, shows, this and that. And the group didn't last a real long time. I've still got copies of the charts that we wrote.

The newspaper clippings on your website date mainly from 1962. Is that when things were taking off?

Yeah. I think we started in the late 50's and kept working at stuff until we got something happening. It never morphed into anything famous and wonderful.

Are there any recordings of the CJQ?

Yeah. I've got some on reel-to-reel that I'm afraid to touch. I don't have a reel-to-reel player either, but I'm afraid that the minute you tried to play them that the tape would disintegrate. Wayne Johnson, the saxophone player, may have some, because he was also a recording engineer.

What brought the CJQ together?

I guess, just on casuals. Someone would call you to play a gig, and you'd meet people, and find that you have things in common. At least Wayne and I, and Bob and Richard were attending the State college, so we knew each other from there too. We also grew up in the same neighborhood, sort of.

When did that group end?

Around the time that the New Music Ensemble thing started [summer of 1963]. From the time that the CJQ faded into nothing, we did various things that were involved with the people at UC Davis. Larry Austin and myself, Art Woodbury and his wife had a little jazz group. Art's wife is a really good jazz singer. Then Wayne would be in and out of that. Then when the NME began, those same people (Austin, myself, Art Woodbury, Wayne Johnson, Pat Woodbury [Billie Alexander]) and a couple other people from the University who came and went, like Jon Gibson. I'm sure Larry told you lots about what the New Music Ensemble did, but it was the next step up in improvisation, in that the group practiced improvising.

Stockhausen. Photo: The Guardian
One year at UC Davis, we had Stockhausen for a semester, and John Cage for a semester. During Stockhausen's semester, he couldn't believe that we were just improvising stuff. He said, “No, you must know what you're doing. You must have planned this out.” So we're doing this one concert, and either myself or Larry said “Okay Karlheinz. You pick who goes up next, and we'll go up and do a piece.” And so [Stockhausen] says, “Okay: you, you, you and you.” Those four people started to walk out on stage to do the piece, and he said “Wait, you come back... and you go up!” He did everything he could think of to make sure that we didn't know what we were gonna do. And then the group went up and did the piece. We came back down and Stockhausen said, “You're still lying to me.” He didn't believe that we were improvising. So the New Music Ensemble was really good at that. We would give concerts where we would just go there and say, “First piece; second piece; third piece; fourth piece, etc” and then whoever wanted to go up and play would do that. By then, we had such a group mind that we could do that without any problem.

Then after that group, the group Amra/Arma was yet another type of improv, because I played nothing but electronics in that group. I played electronic instruments that I designed and built. We had three drummers and a bass player, and we did these ritual pieces. And that group went to London in 1972 for the ICES festival. Our concerts were all-improvised, but it was improvised according to a ritual, sort of based on Robert E. Howard, the fantasy/science fiction writer, on things that he said in his books. So we would do this Hyborean ritual, so to speak.

It all had to do with the drummers interpreting what was coming out of the electronic things. We would always start the ritual with me going out on stage in this wizard costume, and slowly patch together the synths, so that they were playing something. We would set up four channels of sound so that it would surround the audience. Then the drummers would join in when they felt it was time to play. So when you go from the Concert Jazz Quintet at one end, which was doing jazz songs, and then you get to the New Music Ensemble in the middle, which was doing free improvisation with kind of a group mind, and you get the Amra/Arma group on the other end, which was doing these rituals based on all of these factors which, once set in motion, the piece is sort of self-determining... it's an interesting journey!

Can you talk about how you met Larry Austin?

Larry and I go back a long, long ways. I graduated from State college, then I thought I was going to be a school teacher, and I realized, “No I don't like that.” So I went back to playing bars and things like that. When the Concert Jazz Quintet was active, I was starting to write music. So I decided to study composition at UC Davis, where Larry taught. And that's where we met.

What did you learn from him?

Larry Austin.  Photo: Issue Project Room
Oh, a lot. Our families were very close together; we got fellowships at SUNY Buffalo, and Larry and his family and our family went there. We lived in Buffalo, and Larry's family lived on the other side of the river in Canada. All we had to do in the fellowship was write music and get it performed. So we worked together a lot. We would discover things together about composition and such. Like that piece of mine, Spider Song: I was into comic books at the time, hence the Spiderman aspect... the idea was, since Larry and I worked together so much, our communication was really good. So the idea of the piece was that on stage, we would write this piece, multi-track record it, and give a performance. That was the whole piece. Before we ever did it, I explained the piece to Jeff Karl, who was one of the Amra/Arma drummers, and he illustrated how it was supposed to work. So the part that's in SOURCE was actually the first realization of the piece: it was realized first as a comic book.

We did it at one of the small concert halls of Carnegie Hall, and Larry and I wrote a piece called Carnegie Hall, with real corny lyrics like “Carnegie Hall, we're havin' a ball,” and all that sort of stuff. While the piece was being written on stage, we had slide and movie projections of Larry and I writing the piece as well. So it was like a time-travel thing, because you saw us in various guises: we were really there, and were slides and movies of us doing the piece. And then we had Jan Williams, who was one of the fine percussionists in the Buffalo Philharmonic, and also taught at the school... he went out into the audience and get a row of ten people, bring them up on stage, and say “Okay, Stan's going to try to do the drum part, and Larry's going to do the bass part...” and he'd take everyone back and bring another row up and explain to them what was going on. So it took place in and out of time.

Larry was gone on sabbatical for a year. Did Stockhausen and Cage replace him?

No, he was there when Cage and Stockhausen were there. Larry went to Italy on a fellowship for a year. There are two records that the NME made; the second record was made at the time that Larry was in Italy. The NME at that point didn't have much of the craziness that it had when Larry was there. Then when Larry came back, it got crazy again.

What kind of musical influence was he to the group?

Well, Larry was the one who would try anything. He wasn't held back by convention. Not that anybody else was; but a lot of times you are and you don't realize it, and it takes someone like Larry to point it out. He was the one who would break the barrier. Whereas other people would be a little more careful.

What do you remember about Billie Alexander?

Well that's Art's wife: Pat Woodbury. She was a good jazz singer. Larry and I, Art and Pat had a band where I would play drums or vibes, Larry would play bass, Art would play piano, and Pat would sing.

Richard Swift. Photo: SF Gate
Can you talk about studying with Richard Swift?

Richard Swift was much more academic, but a really marvelous person. There was this group of performers who made up the New Music Ensemble who were all composers in one sense or another. Dick played piano, I played percussion, Larry played bass and trumpet, Art Woodbury and Wayne Johnson played various woodwinds, and Pat Woodbury sang, and Robert Bloch played violin. That was the basic group. Jon Gibson was in it for a time, as was John Mizelle. Both of them are pretty well-known as new music people. Dick was always the more academic person, but he was a wonderful improviser. He didn't play jazz, but he was a good improviser.

One time we went to San Francisco to go see Miles Davis' group. Cannonball Adderly was in it at the time. My wife and I, with Dick, we went into the club; Cannonball sees Dick, and we didn't know this, but he and Dick had been in the Army together. Cannonball is not, what you would call a quiet person, and he's a big dude. He puts his saxophone down, runs off the stage, picks Dick up and swings him around in circles. I guess he hadn't seen him in a long time! It was a completely different side of Dick than you would see in the University where he was “Professor Swift”.

Like I said, the New Music Ensemble was a real family.

How did the NME transition from an improvising group to a group that played new compositions?

Well, Larry and I and Pat were doing dance and combo gigs, and I'm not sure when the NME became what it was. John Mizelle and myself were both studying composition. We were the composition master's degree guys. So Jon and I got composition lessons from Larry, from Dick Swift, from Jerome Rosen, from Stockhausen, from John Cage. But I was also part-time faculty at the time. So we were working together at all sorts of things. We would get together practice improvising, like “Let's do a 30-second piece.” And we'd go back and listen to it and say “My god, it was a minute-and-a-half!” Or, “Let's do an avoidance piece” where you try to play when no one else was playing. Or, “Let's try and do a piece where we all play together at the same time, and then there's silences.” We had all sorts of exercises like that that we were doing. We all learned all sorts of things like that.

Could you talk about your studies with John Cage?

Well that year at UC Davis when we had Stockhausen for a semester and Cage for a semester, we had David Tudor for both semesters. I had a lot of time with David because he's such a marvelous person. Wonderful piano player. We did pieces by Stockhausen and pieces by Cage. When Karlheinz was teaching the composition classes, it was almost like a charicature of what people think Germans are like! Everything was really complicated, and he nailed down everything about everything, detailed notes, this and that... Cage's classes were just the opposite. We talked about a lot of things. He has this one piece called Water Music which is for piano. It's not hard to do the piano part. The art department (which was next to the music department) was going to flood this one room in the building and then have it be a water art display. So when John found out about this, he said “Ooh, Stan! Do you want to go do the Water Music piece? We can take one of the old uprights in the music building...” and I said “Yeah, let's do it!” And the music department said, “No no no, we don't want to damage the piano.” So we didn't get to do it.

A few days later, they were going to have a concert in Cage's honor at the music department. A noon concert, not a big deal. Before the concert, John and I were having a cup of coffee next to the creek, and I said, “Hey, shouldn't we be getting over to the concert in your honor?” Cage said, “They wouldn't let us do the piano piece, so I'm not going to go to their concert.” And then he laughed. He was a wonderful teacher; he had all sorts of ways of looking at things that other people didn't think of.

At that same time, we were doing SOURCE magazine, and we published the silence piece [4'33'']. I was in charge of that portion of the magazine, so I talked to him a lot about the silence piece. People don't really understand the silence piece; people always do versions of it that are really not what the piece was meant to be.

Performance instructions (left) and page 1 (right) of Cage's 4'33''.
Full score available at Hyperallergic.
To you, what is the silence piece about?

Well, he points out that in a Rachmaninoff concerto, near the end of the piece, when the pianist has this big ol' honking cadenza, and then when the cadenza finishes and he lifts his hands up in the air to bring the orchestra back in... there's this moment of silence there that's really tense, and it's part of the music. Then the orchestra comes back in and “bango!” The silence is essential to the music. What John wanted to do in the silence piece is to articulate silence, but not with sound. Everyplace else in music, sound articulates the silence. If there's silence in a piece of music, it's articulated by sound on either end. So the silence piece is 4'33'' of silence, and there are three specific-length silences in that four minutes and thirty-three seconds. They are separated by unmeasured lengths of silence. So between the first two silences, there's a silence that's unmeasured. So how do you articulate the end of the first silence, the beginning of the second, and the one in between? I think what John liked about things like that is, “Yeah, how do you do that?”

David Tudor used to perform the piece with two stopwatches: one for the total length and one to measure the individual silences. Then he would silently open and shut the keyboard cover of the piano, to articulate the silences. Then people got into hearing what was in the silences... but still, trying to find a way to articulate the silence without sound hasn't yet been solved.

The version of the score in SOURCE seems to be lesser-known.

Right: the one published in SOURCE is the original one. I may be mistaken, but what I've always remembered, he sent it to someone as a birthday greeting. That's exactly what it looked like. The original score was duplicated in SOURCE magazine.

Can you talk about the relationship between improvisation and composed elements in your work?

We all (at least Larry and I) tried to include improvisation into what we wrote. For instance, I wrote an orchestra piece that the Philharmonic here did, and it had all sorts of things in it that were improvisatory in nature, even though the overall piece was more-or-less through composed. But there would be things like, telling the trumpet player “If the flute player is playing something soft, try to drown it out.” Or, “Play a bunch of fast notes, but avoid Eb.” Or things like that, that would give people a task that was improvisatory in nature but would be controlled in certain ways. In Larry's piece for three jazz soloists and symphony orchestra, we had lots of stuff that was written, but also places where we could improvise.

When did you start building electronics?

Probably in the mid-60's. I couldn't afford a Moog or a Buchla, or things like that. Here in Sacramento, there was this nice old guy who had an electronics surplus store. Bud Kocher was his name. His store was in this shack on Franklin Blvd. He had all kinds of stuff: resistors, capacitors, transistors, and chips of all sorts. I don't know where he got them, but a lot of them were unidentifiable. He would sit there behind his counter and [classify them]: “Oh, this is an up-down counter. Oh, this is a ...” Things that he had figured out, you could get for a buck; things that he hadn't figured out, you could get a handful for a buck. So I would get stuff from him.
Lunetta with one of his synthesizers.
Photo: Time-Tested Books

I started out making an oscillator, then a ring modulator, then I got more into the digital stuff. If you Google “Lunetta Synths”, you find all sorts of people who have carried this thing on; now they know more about this stuff than I do. But they're all called “Lunettas”, which is... nice. People make all sorts of versions of the stuff that I did. I've still got all the stuff, although I don't really use it. And some of them, like the cube thing that I built, which was a really good synthesizer, but now I look at it and thing, “Hm, I wonder what that switch does.” Unless you keep up with it, you don't remember. And since nothing is labelled... I took it apart and tried to figure out what everything was, but it was pretty much a failure. But it still works! It still makes noises.

So for the Amra/Arma shows, would you have machines like that playing independently, and the group would improvise based on whatever these machines happened to do?

Sort of. What would happen is that I would have this big wall of boxes which all would make various sets of sounds, including this one obelisk that looks kind of like the Transamerica building in San Francisco (except I made this before that building, so I didn't copy the building.) I would start sounds going, and once certain things got underway, that would set the tone for what would go on after that. We would have segments where there would be fixed things: “Okay, when we get here, we're gonna do this kind of thing. When we get there, we're gonna do this kind of thing.” But not anything really specific. One section would be rhythmic, another arhythmic, things of that sort.

At the start, maybe I would get a little sequence of tones from the back-left speaker, and it would echo to the front-right speaker, then I would make something else come out of the others, until there was enough happening for one of the drummers to decide, “Okay that's enough, I can add to that.”

Who else played with Amra/Arma?

That was myself, Ken Horton, Kurt Bischoff, and his brother Karl. Kurt's son, Jerrich Bischoff, is making a name for himself. Then Jeff Karl, who has passed on; he was the cartoonist. It was a close-knit group. Both Kurt and Ken were students of mine, and Jeff was a student of mine. So it was three of my students, a bass player, and me. But at that point they had all progressed beyond being students, and were colleagues.

Poster for ICES. Thanks to HPSCHD.

Did Amra/Arma make any records?

No. On my website, there's a little recording. It sort of reached its peak when we did that trip to London in 1972 at the ICES festival, which just had its 40th anniversary. That festival was really crazy because it was put on by Harvey Matuso. Harvey testified before Congress and said “Yeah this guy's a commie, this guy's a commie...” and he called all these people commies back in the McCarthy era. Then after he caused all sorts of trouble, he put out a book that said, “Haha, I was lying all along.” So, not a real reputable character. He was married to Charlotte Moorman, an English composer, who was famous for burning pianos, or pushing pianos off the top of buildings, things like that. So they put on the ICES Festival, International Carnival of Experimental Sound. Just about everybody was at that. Stockhausen was there, Cage was there, all these people had their pieces played. Charlotte Moorman was there, she played a cello made out of ice while she was naked. There was an article in WIRED magazine about the ICES Festival anniversary. That was the last big thing that Amra/Arma did; I think after that, we stopped playing, went on to other things.

For us to play at ICES, I had to bring all of my electronic gear. I couldn't just go there and borrow some synths. Getting them back from England, we got off the plane in Toronto, got the equipment, put it in the car, and drove it to the United States through Detroit. The guy at the border said, “US citizens?” We said “Yeah.” “How long have you been in Canada?” We said, “Eh, a couple hours.” He said, “Okay, go on through.” Inside the car was all this bizarre electronic equipment. Nowadays it wouldn't get past any border!

Did you have contact with the San Francisco composers, like Pauline Oliveros, when you were at UC Davis?

Yeah. Pauline and Mort Subotnick, and Ramon Sender. Yeah, Ramon is famous for figuring out how to get certain music programs to work on the Mac in the early days. And Don Buchla was there; I think the original Buchla synthesizers are still at Mills College.

But yeah, the San Francisco Tape Music Center: we had a definite connection with them. At that time, it was called the Tape Music Center, because all the electronic music people were doing there was on tape: manipulating tape! In one room there were all these tape recorders, so you could go from the first one to the eighth one, and do time delay, looping stuff back on itself, splicing tape in different ways... Their stuff eventually moved on to Mills College.

I think Pauline is still kickin', her website is still up. I did hear something from Subotnick a long time ago. Where Ramon Sender went, I don't know.

Were the recordings of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry influential to you and the members of the Concert Jazz Quintet?

Yeah, definitely. People like that opened things up, like “Oh! You can do that!” Of all the jazz people that were happening then, the most influential to me was Thelonious Monk. He was so outside of everything else; he was the one that I really admired. Nowadays, if someone is interested in whatever's going on, you don't get to go see it. I used to play at nightclubs here in Sacramento, and we'd take a break and the cook left some food out that the musicians might get, and if you go to the Jazz Workshop, you see Thelonious do the same thing.

One time, Miles' group was playing. It was a slow night, Miles wasn't even playing, he was just sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of champaign. This was before he got into the next stage: he was still wearing a suit and tie, and being very elegant. Philly Joe Jones was playing drums. Miles decided, “Well nobody's gonna be here” so he left. Then Philly Joe said to me, “Okay well, Miles is gone. You wanna sit in?” So I got to sit in with JJ Johnson, and that time Wayne Shorter. When Miles was there, Wayne never got to solo, because he hadn't learned the ropes yet or whatever.

One of my favorite records from the period is Thelonious Monk Live at the Blackhawk, 1960.


Were you at that show?

Might have been. We saw him there then, yeah. It was interesting to watch Thelonious play, because there were lots of things that he did that were just so... I don't know whether he was a savant or not ... he sure did some neat things.

I wish I could have seen him play.

Yeah. That's why I say, maybe you could only see these people at a big-deal kind of concert. Although... the English group Gentle Giant... the guitar player and the bass player from that group were doing a van tour, playing up and down the West coast, stopping in various cities. Not necessarily big cities. They stopped in Sacramento, and played at this relatively small club. It cost ten bucks to get in, they did a whole set, they did all sorts of really neat stuff. And that doesn't happen enough anymore.

Lunetta in 2005; photo by Noisebridge

Lunetta's website contains a wealth of information about his past projects, including newspaper clippings and rare photographs. Drop by for a visit!