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RECORDINGS PRODUCED BY JOHN SNYDER (1975 2007)
* Grammy nominee
Thad Jones & Mel Lewis - SUITE FOR POPS
ARTISTS HOUSE (1977-1982)
Ornette Coleman - BODY META (Executive Producer)
* Mel Lewis - 20TH ANNIVERSARY (Executive Producer)
A&M RECORDS (1988-1990)
Don Cherry - ART DECO
M0SS MUSIC (1988)
NIPPON PHONOGRAM (1989)
REMARK RECORDS (1988)
FANTASY RECORDS (1991)
* Mel Lewis Orchestra - SOFT LIGHTS AND HOT MUSIC
Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron - HOT HOUSE
Frank Morgan - MOOD INDIGO
The Harper Brothers - YOU CAN HIDE INSIDE THE MUSIC
PRIVATE MUSIC (1993-2001)
** Etta James - MYSTERY LADY
* Bobby Short - LATE NIGHT AT THE CAFE CARLYLE
GRP RECORDS (1992)
Gerry Mulligan - RE-BIRTH OF THE COOL
GITANES BLUES/POLGRAM (1992-1998)
Lucky Peterson - I'M READY
Etta James - THE RIGHT TIME (Executive Producer)
ROUNDER RECORDS (1992)
Sun Ra - LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD
COLUMBIA (1994, 2002)
David Sanchez - SKETCHES OF DREAM
EVIDENCE RECORDS (1995 - 2001)
Ralph Peterson - THE FO'TET PLAYS MONK
HOUSE OF BLUES (1997 – 1999)
Various - BLUES TRIBUTE TO THE ROLLING STONES – PAINT IT BLUE
RCA VICTOR (1997- 2003)
Tom Harrell - THE ART OF RHYTHM
LANDSLIDE RECORDS (1997)
Derek Trucks - THE DEREK TRUCKS BAND
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – REVELATIONS
Nancy Harrow - MARBLE FAUN
SURROUNDED BY ENTERTAINMENT (2000 - 2002)
Bobby Short – PIANO (CD & DVD)
ARTISTS HOUSE (2002-2005)
THE TEMPLETON FOUNDATION PRESS (2004-2005)
Noble Purpose – WILLIAM DAMON (Audio Book CD)
JUSTIN TIME RECORDS (2003)
Susie Arioli/Jordan Officer – THAT’S FOR ME
HIGH NOTE RECORDS (2006)
McCoy Tyner – GUITARS
LOYOLA UNIVERSITY (2004-2005)
Jackrabbit Slim (student band – CD and DVD)
OTHER (1988- 2009)
Jake Banta – JAKE'S BLUES – LIVIN' AT THE CROSSROADS
See AHM content by John Snyder
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Classroom as Company, Company as Classroom
We are enthralled with the idea of classroom as company, company as classroom in the virtual environment. We believe think we can make this work as a model for making “industry” out of the creative enterprise. It’s simple: songwriter writes song, it’s recorded, both artist and song are monetized, artist gets career, song creates revenue streams, more music/visuals get made, more communities are created, and worker/stockholders share profit. The model is scalable and replicable.
This is virtual free enterprise built around the exploitation of various rights: copyrights, trademarks, contractual rights, and personal rights. The data resulting from the process and the activities themselves creates value and will reveal the roadmap for sustainability. If you pay attention to it, manage it, administer it, and if all functions are more or less done efficiently, you will have a virtual media company, created from a classroom. In fact, the classroom always attaches to the company.
The company is a product of education and it is a purveyor of it. Education is, in fact, one of its products. The name of the game is to LEARN how organizations work and how the functions of that organization mesh to produce specific, intended, innovative, and creative results as you engage in that very behavior. It’s not just a matter of learning by doing, it’s doing by learning.
The class is organized in groups, in departments: company management, creative services, production, A&R, marketing, distribution, sales, merchandise, special products, international, finance, legal/business affairs, aggregation/compilations, broadcast (audio, video, etc.), education, customer relations, HR, etc. The point is to start with the core functions, the core departments, have the students sign up for their choice. Ning functionality pertains to the groups, the groups do their job with respect to the creative work that comprises the company’s productions and services.
These departments can take on outside business as well. The marketing department should act entrepreneurially and seek business, growing as necessary, although not autonomously. We seek a corporate character that is entrepreneurial and creative in every respect. Combined with respect for those in company itself as well as respect for “customers”. But when customers are members of a community, that’s a different level.
Each group could have its official, employed members and that group could, in addition to doing the work of the enterprise as related to their field, and outside work as time and resources allow, they could also create other groups of “interns” or “volunteers” from the Internet at large. These “interns” wouldn’t share in the profits as the members would, but they are being trained to eventually join the community, so they receive value for their participation. In this way, the “classroom/company” is not closed, although it does have three levels of participation: administrative, members, guests.
Music creates fans, short for fanatics, and that is one inspired customer. The power of this community of fanatics is clearly unlimited. Suppose you were to be able to organize those people according to their individual talents. And suppose there was this three-dimensional quality to it. For example, the designer in the creative services department has her own business on the side as a photographer. Well, the community celebrates her photography by visiting the gallery of it on the site. The focus is on the company’s “products”, but since all participants have their own user page, they may engage in their own enterprise.
You learn it as you do it, like a machine assembling itself from the actions of the community, of the participants. In this way the business evolves organically, from essentially nothing. The only real requirement for this business to be created is for a songwriter to wake up and pick up her guitar. Do you see it? It’s all about the INDIVIDUAL power, and the business part comes with communities of individuals aligned by common purpose and shared values. This is just a fancy way of saying, “I like your music, dude.”
An industry pro oversees each “department”. The culture of the organization is built around music. The people in the company/ classroom will live with the music and the artists and give thought to their responsibilities to them. How do you think about this need that this product creates? I want the videos and the music to be omnipresent on the site. I want the virtual community to be a creative community.
The thin air is the creative act. And this makes business – it makes a beeline to business. It is instant business. No capital is required to make this business. It may cost a little money to engage in it, and a lot of money if the economy of scale warrants it, but there are no barriers to entry to this business.
In this virtual company will be individuals with their own user pages for their own stuff, including radio and tv broadcast, their own players, their own materials, their own blogs. In this social community, the members have roles and responsibilities, and share the acceptance and the allegiance to a common goal. Mission, values, goals align. “I may not make the music but I sure as hell love to market it. In fact, I am the John Lennon of marketing.”
I think we can get 50 dedicated people to populate this “company” and actually make something happen. It is far more efficient than every artist and would be artist trying to reach every other person through their MySpace page.
Right now it’s hard enough to convince artists/musicians that they are walking businesses. And the next challenge is to teach them to treat it this way. They are entrepreneurs, they are small businesses, in the very act of what they do. They have the essential trait of all entrepreneurs: they are completely convinced, and they have a way of improving their skills and approach and a way of measuring it. They understand method in the way that a child understands their native language: it is just natural, a neural wiring that will never go away. For the musician, it is called practice or rehearsal. Musicians can work on a problem for 6 hours straight and never lose concentration or the overwhelming desire to attain a certain, specific proficiency, one that is so refined that the uninitiated might not even be able to identify it. There is no ADD in the practice room.
But not all artists, as small businesses, need engage in the SAME activities to monetize their work. That is, rather than all artists being all things (creator, producer, manufacturer, distributor, marketer, PR, broadcasting, etc.), why not encourage the nonperformance entrepreneurs to provide those functions. These too are called businesses, and there are a LOT of them in the constellation of the entertainment industry. In the classroom as company there will be all functions and all aspects of the media business, a 360 degree approach. All sectors may be dealt with.
For every healthy artist there are ten jobs. And what is the fuel of this economic engine? Talent and the act of creation, it is as simple as that. In our model, talent is not just the songwriter or the artist, it is every person in the organization. Every individual will be prized for the same uniqueness and originality, the same dedication and passion, as the artist and the songwriter. The songwriter/artist creates the businesses but someone has to manage those businesses, and that can either be the artist or someone the artist has contracted with, the entrepreneur, the nonperforming business oriented person who loves music and share the values of the artist and the others in the enterprise. Our idea seeks to elevate these people as we elevate artists to embrace the reality of them being businesses.
Employment is created out of the either of creativity. What is music if it is not the ultimate act of innovation, of individuality, of uniqueness? And it’s not just music that makes enterprise. Ideas in all fields make enterprise. Engineers are revered for their creative leaps, not their drawings. Architects are known for their aesthetic sense, not the plumbing of the building. Surgeons are brilliant because of the elegance of their work, not their ability to sew.
Our philosophy is sound. What we’re working on is the implementation of it in a virtual environment, in a social community made up of people who share the same values, who are in the same “tribe” as it were – the tribe of music and creativity. It is a way of turning the business model on its head. It’s not about prizing structure and doctrine, its about prizing creativity and innovation. The structure and doctrine is there, and in my little classroom/co world it’s a sidebar world, a sort of reference library for the entrepreneur. Leaning the rules is something you do by doing something and bumping into the rules.
Like broadcasting music. We want to broadcast music. And we bump into the rule of paying ASCAP and Sound Exchange. Do we ignore these rules? No, we don’t, because they are founded in law and adherence to them makes the world go around. These are good rules, and they actually work for us. They provide us with economic advantage. We then learn about how to be in compliance and why.
And we do this a brick at a time. And the whole group is observing the work of its parts. And we are a community, a group of individuals participating in this virtual reality game. Only it’s not a game. It’s business built around the creative acts of all involved, from the musician to the business affairs person. One can be just as creative in the latter as in the former role.
This idea and structure is built on pre-existence and the future of what we know. Music, business, social networking, the advantages of the Internet, the workings of a virtual community, these are preexisting and existing conditions. The idea of a virtual enterprise uniting these “existences” is just a matter of aggregating resources and tools, not a matter of actually creating either one. The resources and tools already exist.
The glue that holds the enterprise together is the shared desire of the participants to be a part of it, to care about it, to find meaning in the philosophy and actions it reflects and engages in. It will only be possible to work in this company if you care and you elect to accept the responsibilities participation incurs.
The trick is to create a structure and a process template in which every position has a detailed job description and a specific function in the larger enterprise. The trick it so create the environment and the process check lists to make the gears mesh so that the machine works efficiently and in harmony. It’s company as symphony orchestra. Such a structure accommodates all levels of proficiency and expertise. But as is common in other areas, the beginners become intermediates and the intermediates become experts, with all gradations in between, depending on time, resources, and training.
In this model, since the work force is virtual, the choices are unlimited, and presumably the quality will be high on every level of the enterprise. We can use diagnostic tools to channel applicants (or students) to the appropriate positions.
We will engage a dozen industry “mentors” to monitor and interact with each “group” or department. And we should have a “teacher’s blog” or “instruction blog” for every department. Each group is charged with creating its own culture of communication and interaction, and the development of an approach to their responsibilities that not only meshes with the other departments but achieves unique and innovation methodology in respect of those responsibilities.
If you think of this as an academic “program”, the departments become courses, on going courses, and the mentor is the teacher, and the courses are taught simultaneously, concurrently, rather than consecutively and without direct reference to what precedes it and what succeeds it. In this new model, the connections are obvious and all part of the same enterprise, all part of singular, shared goals.
Classroom Inc. is a way of learning organically, of creating commerce organically, of using the power of social networking to create groups based on shared values as part of a large enterprise, a larger group. The idea is to find talent, not just musical talent, but all talents related to the enterprise of monetizing creative work. The idea is to “train” this talent to make it aware of its opportunities not only individually but in relation to the group.
There’s another component: the production training component that involves cameras in the production suites in the AECG facility in LA. AECG provides all sorts of post-production services, including licensing, audio/video post-production including new music, voice-overs, and preparation for all media broadcasting. From graphics, to music supervision, to audio recording and mixing, to film scoring and to all forms production music applications, almost all areas of AV post production are provided.
The learning is in the real environment and it is directly connected to the job market. We have access to the employers in a way that most people do not. This has value. There are sites that already teach every single program under the sun (http://www.lynda.com/) so we don’t need to recreate that wheel. What we will offer is the virtual participation in the real world as it is happening. This is the Virtual Apprentice sector of Artists House Classroom, Inc. (classroom as company, company as classroom).
In summary, the Classroom, Inc. approach to learning and doing provides the student with a way to enter the businesses of popular culture in a way that combines the instruction and the theory with the practice of it and its experiential exploration. Remember, this is an introductory course, one that touches on all of the elements of business (marketing, accounting, economics, management, marketing, planning, entrepreneurship), as well as the legal, copyright and contractual rights issues involved. Every topic in the Intro course has a course or courses in the curriculum.
The idea is to show the structure right up front to the students and cause them to participate in it. They will see it. They will work in it. They may even see some results. But more than anything they will see what is necessary, what is involved, and where everything fits going forward. But the system is more than an index of what’s to come. It’s a context for what’s to come as well. It allows the structure to emerge from the goals, from the “big picture”. It allows the student to understand where everything fits in relationship to everything else.
Simply put, the classroom as company, company as classroom idea is the horizontal reality and practice of the vertical “fields” or “courses” in a typical curriculum. Typically, subjects are taught in a train. In our concept, they are taught and learned concurrently, as they inter-relate, as they each affect the totally mechanism, the overall organization.
Further to this, we accomplish these results by using the social networking, group organizational technologies that young people currently employ on the Internet. Our course basically operates like Facebook plus Blackboard, like a social networking site and a course management system co-joined, creating an actual media company as a structure for these methodologies. The educational component is presented in the form of “topics”, and these topics are organized in the same way that things are organized in a course management system: subjects, objectives, assignments, props (PPT, etc.) texts, media, discussion boards, student posts, testing/grading mechanism.
If we can perfect this model, that is, be able to make each of the “groups” organized according to responsibility and product/services/administration flow; if we can connect them to one another; if we can perfect the organizational structure and the structure of responsibilities as they relate to the processes necessary for the organization to work, we will have a model that not only gets the job done but it encourages creative solutions. The challenge is to create a structure that is tight enough to cause a work flow to happen but loose enough to allow for creative solutions to achieve the ultimate purposes of that work flow.
The idea is a structure for virtual apprenticeship as a step to virtual entrepreneurship. The students would be learning as apprentices would learn but they have a teacher and a reference library in the back room, always on standby to help, to explain, to provide the context for the activity. And the student can roam free in these libraries, in these departments, in the entire enterprise, even as they have specific responsibilities – a job – in respect of it.
Topics are covered “in class”, which is 3 hours a week. The company is a 24/7 operation that happens asynchronously for the most part, although the groups could meet via video conferencing as they see fit. Students will be dealing with different “topics” at different times depending on their department and the work that they are doing. For example, the business affairs department will get to the topic “legal issues” before the marketing department, and the reverse is true.
In this way the class is learning more organically, less linearly, creating many more points of view and various ways of looking at the same issues. This is a much richer way to learn and much more individualistic as well. It causes the student to develop as an individual more quickly by playing to their own strengths and shaking their “interests” like a snow globe, so that they are all floating around them at once, making it easier to choose where they want to start, but always aware of where they are in the bigger picture, including the other elements/topics that they need to know about in order to fully understand the world they are in.
Classroom as enterprise and enterprise as classroom makes both better places to be, and they both improve as a result of the reflection of the other. Academic integrity is enhanced and respected and enterprise is elevated to be more thoughtful, fully integrated, and better organized. Theory is tethered to practice and practice is made perfect by the application of theory and accumulated knowledge. This makes for a humane and efficient world, where learning is prized and art and commerce co-exist to the betterment of the economy and the culture.
I invited a guest speaker to class the other night and he showed an old video about entrepreneurship. It was structured around the eight characteristics of an entrepreneur:
• Wants to work for themselves, doesn’t want to work for someone else
Sounds right. In academia this is called entrepreneurship. In the language of business and government, it’s called small business development.
Who do we know who possesses every one of these characteristics? How about every musician and every artist we know? You can’t be an artist or a musician without these characteristics.
1. Artist and musicians work for themselves even when somebody else is paying them. They can’t help it because they are inner driven, inner directed, self-inspired. We live in the DIY world because everyone CAN do it them selves. There are no barriers to entry in the music business. Any kid with a laptop and a guitar can be a record company and a publisher. There is a perfect match between these opportunities and the character of the musician and the artist. There is a perfect match between the tools of creation, marketing and distribution and the fact that the musician and artist can create “content”, songs, books, paintings, and all other types of intellectual property “product”, out of their imagination.
2. The whole point for the musician and the artist is communication. They are compelled to write something, to create something, to play gigs, to perform music, to display their work, to broadcast it, share it, post it, build it, dance it, and otherwise communicate it to other people. They CRAVE performance, the stage, and communication, and they can sure as hell can organize them selves to achieve it.
Musicians and artists are organized because they have to be organized in order to perfect their craft and their skills. The practice room is where the musician makes a beeline approach to achieving a specific goal. Musicians and artists understand method. They may not be organized in ways that their friends and family fully appreciate, but at what they do, they are naturally organized. If they weren’t they’d never make any progress. That’s why they make good lawyers – they understand method and orgainzation and they can define goals and quickly devise ways to achieve them, and they don’t stop until they do.
3. Risk? Musicians and artists take risks every time they walk on stage, perform a new work, write a new work, or display a new work. They are taking the ultimate, personal risk, and they do so with abandon and full-throated. If they make a mistake, they make it loud. And since they know what it is to prepare for a performance or a display or a book, they are not reckless so much as fearless.
4. Opportunities to musicians and artists are everyday occurrences because they create their own. And they are members of a community that they create and that offers them opportunities as individuals. The opportunities of community come from the very nature of the artists’ work. Artists create fans and followers. They create virtual communities and the communities of public performance. And these communities offer opportunities to the artist and the musician in terms of affecting and changing these communities in a cultural sense but also in the economic sense of selling them something. Seizing opportunity for artists and musicians comes naturally.
5. What is music and art if it isn’t innovation? Innovation is the whole point. Originality is an essential character trait for an artist and they all struggle and seek their own “voices”. And it is with that voice that they will create. And the drive to create is the drive to go deeper, understand more, and innovate on the most basic and resonant levels. Creativity is just another word for innovation. It is another word for life.
6. Artists and musicians live with adversity and often with opposition to what they do, without appropriate recognition or financial remuneration. They not only accept adversity, they are able to deal with it day in and day out. And they will not stop. You cannot prevent them from doing what they do or being who they are. You may as well tell a leopard to change its spots. Artists and musicians do not take no for an answer and they are generally just stubborn as hell. But they have the work ethic and creative output to back it up. The inability to take no for an answer defines the entrepreneur just as it defines the musician and the artist.
7. Artists and musicians are selling when they walk on the stage, sing a song, show a painting, publish a book, or design a building. They are keenly aware of their markets because often their markets are sitting right in front of them. And if those markets don’t like what they’re hearing or seeing they’ll let you know. And if they do, they will let you know that. They will clap, criticize, sell, buy, sing your praises, boo, carry you on their shoulders, throw crap, hate your guts, or buy everything you put out.
Artists and musicians walk that thin line of pleasing the market and leading the market. They are astute in this sense, whether they choose to abide by the market’s decision or not. And when they don’t, they apply for a grant, engaging a whole other market to please, and much easier to manipulate. In the long run it is much harder to talk people out of money than it is to earn money.
8. Artists fight the fight daily and although they might not be ruthless about it and fiercely competitive with one another, they are certainly ruthless and fiercely competitive with themselves. Artists fight the battle of self-improvement, of creating the new, of balancing their egos and psyches on the foundations of the timeless masters of the past. In that sense they are fighting history to make history. Artists are genetically driven to produce, reproduce, survive, create, and fight. Like a lioness to a her cub they are to their art. And if you’re not careful, they will bite your hand and your head off.
Need any further convincing? Can we agree that musicians and artists are natural born entrepreneurs? The word “entrepreneurs” describes the character of a person; it sums up their personality. “Oh, there goes Sally. She’s entrepreneurial.” An entrepreneur is a type of person. But entrepreneurship is also a business discipline, a structure that his rules and experientially derived formulas and doctrines. And that is the side of it that musicians and artists don’t get. Entrepreneurial acts (“look ma, I made my own CD!”) are one thing, but an entrepreneurial approach is another.
We must show artists and entrepreneurs how they can apply the doctrine and the discipline to their natural character. An entrepreneurial approach involves setting goals and making plans for achieving them, and to measure the progress of this process. An entrepreneurial approach involves defining what excellence is on every level of what you do and devising a way to achieve it.
An entrepreneurial approach involves constant improvement in not only your art but also your business. You’re always looking for ways of doing better, of improving and innovating in your business just as you do in your art. An artist or a musician can use their creativity to bear on the way and what they create and on the way and what they do in relation to that creation. It’s all the same. The artist and musician are not two people doing two different jobs, they are one person being who she or he is. The only thing that separates them from realizing their fullest potential is information. But once they have that, they are good to go.
Business is divided into disciplines: management, marketing, finance, economics, and international business, and there are many subheadings: strategic planning, statistics, human resources, decision-making, accounting, etc. When you think about the activities of a typical musician who plays gigs or artist who shows her work in a gallery or author who gives lectures and goes on promotional tours, you will see all of these elements present in some form. But the artist does not think that they possess the essential abilities of all business school students as well as all business men and women.
“You didn’t know till I told you, now I told you, now you know.”
There’s another side to this equation as well. As serendipity would have it, in addition to being a born entrepreneur, the musician and the artist can create an endless flow of intellectual property to which the exclusive rights of copyright attend. And these rights, the right to make copies, to distribute them, to publicly perform and display the work, and the right to make derivative copies, create businesses, almost all of the businesses of the entertainment world. They create record companies, publishing companies, performance rights organizations, and printing presses. They create radio stations and libraries, and they create YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc.
Interesting confluence of circumstance: entrepreneur creates own renewable product line out of thin air. That’s a license to print money, folks. You not only have the perfect character for the job, you can create your own intangible products that very tangible results, including profits and revenue on a massive level.
So what are you waiting for? Monetize those rights! Maybe you should start by making a list of them and the products they imply from the work you do. There’s a market for everything. “The Long Tail” tells us that. All you have to do is have as many products as you can reasonably handle and reach those people who might care about them. And all that is based on the shared values of those people with those who create the work.
It’s all about whom you know, it’s about connecting personally with people who care about what you do. It’s all about social networking, the virtual community, the live performance, and the detailed attention to all of the opportunities available to you as one who holds all of the cards. And that, my friends, is one long list of opportunities.
Make your list!
The following was written in response to a discussion by the Board of Governors of the New York Chapter of National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) regarding the position NARAS should take with respect to a new public relations campaign proposed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) condemning those who download music from the Internet.
The subject of digital rights, and the position NARAS should take with respect to it, is near and dear to me. I've read a great deal about it. If I may, I would like to offer a few thoughts:
Sour Notes: http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/07/30/file_trading/
See AHM content by John Snyder
June 15th, 2009
“MORE MONEY TO MAKE MORE MUSIC”: THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT OF JOHN SNYDER
I. The Producer
If you are a serious, or for that matter not so serious, fan of jazz, chances are very good that you own a recording that was produced by John Snyder. In a career that has spanned the past four decades, Snyder has produced more than 300 jazz albums on at least ten major labels, including A & M/Horizon, CTI, Atlantic, A & M Records, Musicmasters, Antilles, and Telarc. The list of leaders whose albums Snyder produced is as long as it is diverse. From working with such mainstream musicians as Jim Hall, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Freddie Hubbard, and Johnny Griffin, to the more experimental Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra, John Snyder has earned the respect and trust of musicians and record company executives alike. Recordings he has produced have been nominated for a Grammy award 34 times and five were Grammy winners.
In an interview on his website (http://www.artistshousemusic.org), Snyder strongly hints at his personal secret to success as a producer, a secret that can be said to have guided him in his many and varied professional endeavors that now extend into the academic career he has constructed at Loyola University in New Orleans. The word entrepreneurial falls from his lips easily these days, and he describes the entrepreneurial spirit as one of “determination, to survive, to do whatever needs to be done, to take care of the smallest detail.” Snyder also stresses the basic desire he has to collaborate, to create a musical community and realize a common human purpose. He takes on an almost religious fervor when he emphasizes certain cardinal virtues of a record producer: “Have a love, a respect for process, outcome, and a sense of history of the music—this is how to really listen. This involves patience and humility, awareness both of the musicians and of the audience.” But lest he seem a dreamy idealist, Snyder is quick to add, “But you have to balance art and commerce. It’s really very simple: you have to make money to make more music.” It is this simple proposition that has guided Snyder to devote his life and career to promoting the success and welfare of musicians.
Lively testimony of John Snyder’s success as a producer of jazz records comes from the singer, composer, and lyricist Nancy Harrow, the subject of another essay of mine in Belles Lettres (Vol. VIII, No. 2, 2008). While she has had a long and distinguished career as a jazz vocalist, her finest, most ambitious recordings have been her jazz adaptations of literary works, such as The Marble Faun: Jazz Variations on a Theme by Hawthorne and Winter Dreams: The Life and Passions of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Harrow teamed up with Snyder first in 1988, at the suggestion of the legendary trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer, a mutual friend, for the album Street of Dreams. Five Harrow albums produced by Snyder have followed, including most of her literary projects. Harrow credits Snyder’s encouragement and his eagerness to be part of cutting edge concepts for recordings for her achievement on these albums. She fondly recalls his tribute to her on the Hawthorne project: “Nobody else in jazz could have done this except Ornette Coleman.”
Harrow cites John Snyder’s “incredible organizational ability” on their sessions together, the prolixity of his ideas, and his uncanny sense of knowing exactly how to be ready to capture just the right moment or opportunity. She also acknowledges his ability to manage time on a session, as time is money, quite literally! Harrow recalled for me a particularly tense period on the Marble Faun sessions when a student musician’s transcription of orchestral parts had to be redone by pianist and music director Sir Roland Hanna at the last minute, with all the musicians standing around and waiting. Although he was as frazzled as anyone at the session, John Snyder remained calm and joked with the musicians. According to Harrow, “John has this great ability to get people relaxed. He’s funny and charming, and yet he is totally concentrated on the work at hand.” However, Harrow did admit to me that she was not always completely relaxed at her sessions with Snyder, especially when he was “multi-tasking,” taking calls, juggling other projects. Yet she added that when he was needed, he would re-enter the session and seemed never to have missed a beat.
II. Artists House
“Multi-tasking” hardly seems to encompass the range and vitality of John Snyder’s professional activities. Having grown up as a musician (trumpet), he worked his way through college by playing gigs. He pursued a “day job” vocation by also getting a law degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is a member of the New York Bar, but he has never practiced law in any conventional way. Speaking about his legal education in an interview with Fred Jung for the online journal All About Jazz in 2003, Snyder said, “It lets me know where the tricks are, and I can talk to lawyers, so it keeps me either out of trouble or into less trouble.”
In his long association with various record companies and some of the people who ran them, Snyder experienced more than his fair share of “trouble.” At the age of 29, he started his own company, Artists House, and he maintained very high production standards. I own several of the 22 LPs Snyder produced during a period of six years, and in sound quality and album packaging, they are among the most elegant in my collection (a particular favorite of mine is Charlie Haden and Hampton Hawes’ As Long As There’s Music). These albums clearly were labors of love, love of the music and love of the musicians. However, 1982-83 were very hard years, “years of cashing out,” Snyder told me. “I was dealing with independent distributors who were less than reputable people. Gangsters. But that was the world that you dealt with. You had five people who controlled it all, access to radio. I had the model that I didn’t want to own the art or the artist. I thought that was wrong.” Artists House was a recording company in which artists owned their work. Yet as he looks back on those years, just before the dawning of the CD era, Snyder has no regrets. “I wouldn’t say it was a mistake. It opened me up in a creative way that I’m still stuck with. I can’t stop. I can’t. That’s my thing, I can think of 50 ideas for any student interested in a career in music who comes my way now, any problem, any obstacle. Just tell me the parameters and I’m going to tell you the things you can do. Not just hypothetical, but specific. I can act quickly because I’m a problem-solver kind of person.” In comments made to me after I interviewed him, Snyder related his “problem-solving” skills very specifically to days as a record producer: “Problem solving and thinking of ideas to interest a very small, ingrown group of record company executives who could actually ‘buy’ a project—that was a daily occupation for me, and it was a matter of survival. I had to be able to solve problems quickly, at least at the same rate I could create them.”
I referred earlier to the Artists House web site. After Artists House was reincarnated in 2002, the website, launched in May, 2007, has become, and is constantly becoming a treasure trove of practical information for musicians about the music world. The Artists House motto which highlights the home page is, “Helping musicians and music entrepreneurs create sustainable careers.” Snyder, with funding provided by the Herb Alpert Foundation, created a non-profit musicians website to provide, according to its mission statement on the site, “informational support, guidance, and expert resources to musicians to help them navigate the challenges and maximize the opportunities available to them within the music industry.” As founder and president of Artists House, Snyder works with a staff of content producers, content editors and assistant editors, videographers and video editors, a designer, and a programmer. He states that currently the website has over 2600 daily users and around 2000 on its You Tube channel: “We have around 4600 users per day watching our videos about the business, the technology, the production, and the legalities of monetizing music and intellectual property. We are webcasting live 24/7 on the home page, and we broadcast live from clubs, in real time, several nights a week.” The goal is to double usage over the next two years, and applications for additional funding have been submitted.
A glance at the Artists House home page reveals ten major categories of topics or “Spotlights”: Musician’s Strategy, Marketing, Production, Music Business, Legal, Education, Careers in Music, Genre, Tags, and Video. Let’s be like the parents of many aspiring musicians and take a look at Careers in Music. The layout of this page fairly closely follows a pattern that appears on the other topic pages. On the left you will see four lists: Featured People, Essential Questions, Recently Viewed, and (the longest list) Additional Resources. In the center you will see a list of nine major sub-topics: Process, Team, Arts Administration, Music Companies, Concerts, Music Education, Markets, Music Production, and Recording. (As a parent, I might feel a little better already.) Snyder pointed out to me that from the “Get Widget” button at the top of the center column, under the banner, “you can easily create an embeddable, sharable playlist/widget of content that you can easily post in your Facebook account, blog, course management system, or website.” On the right side of the page, finally, you will find a list of videos and essays or lectures. My video choice today would be “Music Industry Profile: Producer and Engineer Jeff Powell.” My lecture choice today would be “Non-Performing Careers in Music,” by Keith Hatschek. All the Spotlight pages have a clean, balanced, colorful, inviting look, and your eye has room to breathe.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of the Artists House website for jazz fans is the icon “Buy DVD’s.” This site teaches and it also delights. The highlight of the DVD collection is The Jazz Master Class Series from NYU, which was co-produced by John Snyder and Dr. David Schroeder of New York University, and moderated by renowned jazz critic and historian Gary Giddins. There are eight programs in this series, each featuring a jazz legend in both performance and teaching situations. The legends are Jimmy and Percy Heath, Hank Jones, Clark Terry, Barry Harris, Cecil Taylor, Toots Thielemans, Benny Golson, and Phil Woods. The pupils are students in various jazz studies programs around New York City. The musicians perform their own sets and are interviewed by Gary Giddins. The students perform and receive critiques from the legends, and there are pre- and post-performance interviews with the students. As fans would expect, Hank Jones and Cecil Taylor, both pianists, offer broad contrasts in their programs. Jones is elegant and eloquent, modest and moderate. Taylor, on the other hand, is direct, if not blunt, and his teaching style is marked by answering questions by asking more difficult questions. Taylor’s performance includes his reading of his poetry, and you can sense immediately the symbiotic relationship of poetry and music in his work. In fact, a listener new to Taylor’s music should be encouraged to listen as well to his recitals of poetry for their sonic inscapes. The students are uniformly nervous, if not freaked out, about playing before the masters. But their playing is impressive, and after they have been mentored, they clearly sense that they have accomplished something—in the case of Taylor’s students, survival.
In addition to the DVD’s in the Jazz Master Class at NYU series, Artists House has produced several CD/DVD recordings, including two by Nancy Harrow and one by Bob Brookmeyer and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. When I asked Brookmeyer about his album Island, he praised John Snyder’s conception of releasing the music on CD and packaging it with a DVD of studio highlights and interviews. He told me how sad it was that people like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie never got treatment like this—and what great opportunities were missed in that era, the bebop era, how fans should have seen these musicians at work in the studio, how a recording came to be. A longtime friend, Brookmeyer also praised Snyder’s total commitment to music and musicians. “His contribution to jazz is absolutely valuable and absolutely necessary. His sense of ethics in the business is beyond reproach. I’d like to say he might be the only honest man in the record business. I’ve never met anybody in the business who had a bad thing to say about John.” Shortly after they became acquainted in the early ‘80s, John Snyder spent two days with Brookmeyer explaining music contract law to him. These days a trombonist young enough to be Bob’s grandson can get this kind of lesson on the Artists House web site.
In 2008, John Snyder applied his recent Artist House production techniques on a recording by pianist McCoy Tyner, Guitars, released on Tyner’s own label. The guitars are played by John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Derek Trucks, and (stretching the point a bit) Bela Fleck on banjo, players eclectically drawn from jazz, rock, and folk music traditions. The rhythm section is rounded out by the incomparable team of Ron Carter on bass and Jack DeJohnnette on drums. Each guitarist plays with Tyner, Carter, and DeJohnnette on a few tracks, and so a wide range of styles and tones is presented. Guitars resembles Artists House productions in that it is packaged as a CD/DVD set. The DVD takes us into the studio, and we are privileged to witness scraps of shorthand conversation in which the musicians work out details of arrangements of the tunes. Users are given the choice of multiple viewing angles of the individual artists and group performances. In his loquacious liner notes, John Snyder commented, “Pretty cool, huh? I like the 4-camera-at-once version. You can see the musicians as they aurally relate—so quick and subtle and the music flows so spontaneously. Quite amazing, really.” Snyder himself can be seen thoughtfully pacing in the studio and occasionally offering brief suggestions and nods of approval. The album was a bit of a comeback and triumph for Tyner, who had been sidelined with health problems. It is safe to say that the piano master sounds better than ever, fully inspired in playing with old and new colleagues alike and in being recorded in a state-of-the-art format.
III. The Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship, Loyola University, New Orleans
A. A New Jazz Scene?
It is fascinating to watch the musicians on McCoy Tyner’s Guitars album in conversation in the studio as the recording was made. In the three+ hours of video footage, you can watch the musicians exchange maybe 50 words. Their eye contact and body language speak for themselves and there is living proof, on the album, of intense communication. The musicians “teach” one another effortlessly. Yet I doubt if any of the musicians who play on the album went to “jazz school.” In part, this is a function of their age. Tyner, Carter, and DeJohnnette are all around 70 now, and in their youth, there were no such programs. But the guitarists, while younger, grew up learning on the job too, and perhaps also in the school of hard knocks.
Jazz could be said to be inherently anti-academic. Each time a band plays, something new happens. Whitney Balliett called jazz “the sound of surprise.” But jazz has been around long enough to have a history, and History of Jazz courses are popular electives on college campuses. As “America’s classical music,” it speaks directly to American college students in particular. The trend toward the teaching of jazz, if it can be taught, parallels the teaching of creative writing, if it can be taught. Many teachers of creative writing insist that it can’t be taught, that either a young writer is talented, or not, and either a young writer will write and publish, or not. The issue is debated in a recent book by Mark McGurl, Associate Professor of English at UCLA, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. For many, the best case scenario is that the “workshop” (probably something vastly different from jazz bassist Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop of the early ‘60s) can instill a sense of comradeship, community and common purpose and students can learn about the ins and outs of the publishing industry firsthand. The same is often said of jazz education and career preparation as well. For others, the worst case scenario is that college trained writers, or musicians, are derivative, cautious, “safe,” and are not likely to advance their art forms. In jazz, this kind of pessimism has provoked ambivalent books in the new millennium like Stuart Nicholson’s Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has It Moved to a New Address?). Slightly less pessimistic were Howard Mandel’s Future Jazz and The Future of Jazz, edited by Yuval Taylor, which at least seemed to maintain that jazz has a future. (I reviewed the Taylor book in Belles Lettres, Vol. III, No. 3, 2003).
In suggesting that jazz “has moved to a new address,” Nicholson seems to be positively acknowledging the internationalization of jazz, first in Europe and then in Asia, most notably Japan and India. On the day I am writing this, thousands of Iranians are violently protesting the disputed presidential election of a few days ago, and a partial recount of the vote has been ordered. Who would be surprised to see jazz take some role in future freedom marches in that country? Today one would be hard pressed to find an American college or university not committed in its mission statement to “global leadership,” and the presence of a diverse international student population in America’s jazz academies, such as Berklee College of Music or NYU, can only be regarded as a sign of good musical health.
One incontrovertible good thing about degree programs is that many writers and jazz musicians are paid to teach in universities, and they receive medical insurance and other benefits for their services. When we think of the lives of brilliant young jazz musicians, such as pianist Sonny Clark or bassist Paul Chambers, who died at 32 and 34 respectively, largely from drug abuse and other medical problems, we wonder what greater music they might have left behind. There were countless others, as James Baldwin imagined in his quintessential story of the jazz life, “Sonny’s Blues.” Perhaps he had Sonny Clark in mind. Sonny Clark died in 1963, and Sonny in Baldwin’s story, published in 1959, seems well on his way to an early grave.
The social, economic, and psychological parameters of higher education after World War II lie beyond the scope of this essay. One could learn a great deal about them in McGurl’s book, among many others. For better or worse, college students came, saw, and conquered, and their children were expected and expect to do the same—and to express themselves, to find themselves. College enrollments in the fall of 2009 are expected to soar, as they have for the past few years, and there will be more students interested in majoring in jazz than ever.
B. Jazz and New Orleans
Since John Snyder gigged around in his college years (his major was music education, so he seems to have come full circle at Loyola), and since he worked in the record business for so many years, he has had more than ample opportunity to observe the tough lives musicians lead and the physical toll it takes on them. A musician friend of his told me that when John heard that he had gotten sober, he sent the musician $1,000, with no strings attached. When the shocked musician asked why, John said that he’d heard that he had been through a hard time and just thought he could use the money. Another check for $500 was to follow. When the musician was able to, he repaid the money, and a longtime friendship has ensued. Since he came to New Orleans in 2004 as the Conrad N. Hilton Eminent Scholar in Music Industry Studies at Loyola, it can be said that John Snyder has been taking his love of music and musicians to the next level.
According to Jessica Dore, in an article in The Wolf, the student magazine of Loyola University in New Orleans, Music Industry Studies began as a minor program in the early ‘80s that branched off from the business school. Today it is a “cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted program” with a booming enrollment. The program offers two major tracks, one leading to a performance-intensive Bachelor of Music degree, and one leading to a Bachelor of Science degree which is geared more toward business. The program requires a 15-week internship, which, according to Jerry Goolsby, the Hilton/Baldridge Distinguished Chair of Music Industry Studies and professor of marketing, “offers students work in a wide range of important internships for smaller companies, rather than menial work for huge companies.” Goolsby adds that “the volume of students in the program has meant a growing need for full-time faculty, facilities, and offices.” So, enter John Snyder.
Quickly warming to the topic of his work at Loyola, Snyder told me, “I’m committed to the idea of training artists to think entrepreneurially. What music schools have been doing is producing people who have exactly no chance. What are they going to do? They’re great flute players, violin players. That is not enough. You have to be able to monetize your love of music.” He feels he brought not only his experience in the record business to Loyola, but his vision: “I have a chance for changing the philosophical point of view that underpins these companies that populate the entertainment world. I’ve created student companies, and I’ve written sample business plans and codes of ethics for every company too to show them how a business should organize itself. I came to Loyola to change the world.” Changing the world, or even New Orleans, is a tall order, and a near-million dollar grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helped to create the Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship, allowing a consortium of Loyola with three other colleges and universities in New Orleans (Delgado, Dillard, and the University of New Orleans) to be forged. The Center opened its doors in the fall of 2008, and its website explains that additional funding “was provided to produced audio visual content, of seminars, clinics, master classes, and performances, all aimed at improving the lives of local musicians and artists, arts entrepreneurs, music businesses, and cultural institutions of the area.” Most importantly, it is the student-run companies (which are called Enterprising Units, or EU’s) that create, produce, videotape, broadcast, distribute, and market the content. In this way, the campus community meets the city community and they join as one.
Not all of his colleagues at Loyola were ready to move ahead at quite the same rate John Snyder was, and he ran into several entanglements that are ho-hum, business as usual in academic life. But Snyder is a fighter and came battle-scarred from another kind of tough world, and he fights especially hard when he knows the artistic, educational, and civic stakes are as high as he envisions them to be.
Another major accomplishment came in his second year when he started a video program. He recalls, “I was going to train my own crew, create my own people.” To bolster his efforts, Snyder attracted Jim Gabour to the program. Gabour had been approached by Loyola before, but was reluctant to enter the academic sphere. But he had a chance conversation with John Snyder at a contemporary music conference. Gabour told me, “My ‘conversation’ with John consisted of listening to a solid, half-hour of energy-laced visions for the future of New Orleans music. I nodded my head a lot, as I recall. But what Snyder said was inspiring, and the way he said it even more so.” Although his reservations about academic life have been realized, Gabour is amazed at how “John has somehow managed to navigate the program around the world of bureaucratic ensnarements to continue the development of an educational process that is geared to provide both a career and a life vision.” He adds that nine of his digital filmmaking students in the 2008-09 academic year already had full-time jobs in the field before they graduated. “More than the diploma and the GPA, that is the index by which we measure our success.”
John Snyder is quick to applaud the efforts also of George A. Howard, Assistant Professor and Executive in Residence at Loyola, who has taught at Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts. Like Snyder, Howard comes from the record company world, having been the president and director of numerous music labels. His particular EU is called Humidity Media, a concept that shares the kind of visionary thinking of Snyder. Hunter Macdonald, in another article in The Wolf, states that these creative young men and women are not restricted to the sole purpose of generating more cash. This allows them to devote more time and services to the bands that they support. The typical record label would be taking a fair amount of the profits for themselves as well as rights to the made products.” The head of Humidity’s video services, Jack McClain, is quoted as saying, “The company does it free of charge for the band to create a marketable product.”
Another major relocation to New Orleans that John Snyder was seminally involved in is that of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance from the University of Southern California to Loyola. A story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune by John Pope stresses that the focal point of the Institute’s four-year initiative, “Commitment to New Orleans,” was “to reinforce the importance of music to the city’s post-Katrina comeback by collaborating on programs with other colleges, setting up school- and community-level programs, providing work for local musicians, and persuading musicians who have lived elsewhere since the storm to return home.” It can easily be seen that the community-oriented mission of the Commitment fits extremely well with the mission of the Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship at Loyola, and that the influence of John Snyder is strongly evident in the synergy. The popular trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the Institute’s artistic director, himself a native of New Orleans, has said of the city, “It’s the birthplace of the music. We can do a lot for the city; the city can do a lot for us. It’s a win-win situation.” John Snyder commented, in an e-mail message to me, “I can say without equivocation that the Monk Institute has made a significant impact on this community, this city, in a very short period of time. Their people help public school students all over the city, not to mention the college kids as well. This is a jazz organization that has community action and music education as its FIRST priorities. They walk the walk.”
IV. More Giant Steps
I interviewed John Snyder for this essay at Loyola in New Orleans in July, 2008, and he asked to do a follow-up on the phone in June, 2009. He wanted to talk about a new project of his, something he loosely referred to as an arts-athletics alliance. As I have indicated, Snyder has long been interested in the welfare of musicians; however, he seems to have emphasized financial well-being. Lately he has been thinking about physical well being, or “wellness” issues for musicians.
He had been put in touch with a representative of a sports medicine association scheduled to have a convention in New Orleans. The association was interested in hearing from New Orleans musicians, not only on their instruments, but in conversation about their health issues as well. Snyder contacted four musicians with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and they performed and spoke and were a big hit. Yet another creative idea struck Snyder, and he started to think about how he could take care of indigent, itinerant musicians by hooking them up with sports medicine professionals interested in the parallels between their maladies and those of athletes. The same association met in Seattle in 2009, and Snyder’s message to them connected young student musicians and young athletes, both groups being prone to certain kinds of injuries (wrist, elbow, neck).
Wellness is a concern in the Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship at Loyola as well. The Center’s first official event was a seminar called “Health Care, Wellness, and the Artist” that focused on health care options and wellness issues for artists. Snyder invited Jim Brown, managing director of the Health Insurance Resource Center with the Artists’ Fund, and Randall Dick of the Health and Safety Sports Consultants and the American College of Sports Medicine, to speak to students in the program. He has also brought in professional musicians to talk about their health issues. As is typical for the Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship, this seminar was filmed by a crew in its video production company, which is comprised of students hired and under the supervision of a faculty member-mentor or industry professional.
Yet another new project is a new courseware system that Snyder is developing with Randy Funke, the website and multimedia programmer as well as the system administrator of Artists House. A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a series of essays by professors on the subject of online course programs, or distance learning, and the pedagogical plusses and minuses in this “brave new world.” Snyder and Funke embrace new technological challenges, and their philosophy of “move it or lose it” in the rapidly changing times of higher education has prompted them to move ahead boldly on this. I was able to view a sample of the new Snyder-Funke software, which includes a short video of John explaining the features of the system. Even though the video is only about three minutes long, the phrase “easy upload” is used several times, as are “live webcasting,” “You Tube,” “multimedia assignment capabilities,” and “database attached, with key word access.” Stay tuned, users of Blackboard, WebCT, etc.
V. Not Yet Famous Last Words
The final interview I did for this essay was with the magisterial bassist Ron Carter. Our conversation was easy and fun, and contained tones of warmth and humor in the long friendship Carter enjoys with John Snyder, right on down to the preferred microwave plastic bag for cooking vegetables Carter sends to him so that he eats better. Carter goes back to the early days in the ‘70s of Snyder’s career as a record producer, to their days on the CTI label, on which Snyder apprenticed with Creed Taylor. Since he had appeared on McCoy Tyner’s Guitars album in 2008, which I discussed earlier, Carter could look back and measure John’s growth and development over a period of some 35 years. He marveled at Snyder’s level of comfort and confidence now and his ability to get as much done on the Tyner session over just three or four days, a particularly challenging session, he felt, because of the diverse personalities on the date. “People have no idea what is involved in the process of making a record,” he told me. “The process in incredibly detailed—hiring people, hiring the studio, the piano tuner, checking the artwork, the photography—and yet John allowed McCoy to make his own decisions, getting the optimum out of the musicians and helping them make their music.” I asked Carter if there were any plans for him to play on another session produced by Snyder and he responded, very quickly, “No, but I’m ready for him whenever he calls me.”
I mentioned to Ron Carter that when I visited John Snyder at his office on the Loyola campus, we were interrupted at least a dozen times over about three hours. He was not at all surprised and said, “Well, he’s a problem-solver, man. He is the person you can talk to, and people look to him for advice. He’s going to listen to you and he’s going to tell you what you need to know.”
Jazz critics and historians inveterately exceed Whitney Balliett’s aphoristic definition of jazz mentioned earlier in this essay. Most often entire volumes do not suffice. In his interview on the Artists House website, in answering why he believes that jazz is central to bringing back New Orleans, John Snyder provided one of the most eloquent definitions of jazz I have encountered. I get the feeling that John is used to getting the last word in on most things. And so he shall have it here.
Jazz is the music of democracy, of freedom, of personal choice. It is of the
June 15, 2009
Published in Belles Lettres, the journal of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University, St. Louis. MO.
Dear Mr. Snyder,
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer the following questions:
1. I know you bring a lot of accomplishment and richness and talent to NOLA, what do you think NOLA gives back to you?
Your question implies a quid pro quo that I do not feel. Giving of oneself, of one’s talent and “accomplishment”, as you put it, is the beneficence of obligation that flows downhill, and requires no payback, no “quo”. We all owe our community and our society our best efforts to be good citizens and to contribute to the greater good of that society. We love because we are loving people, we give because we are giving people, not because we expect something in return. Having said that, New Orleans does in fact give to me a beautiful city in which to live, populated by friendly and kind people with whom to engage.
New Orleans also provides me with the opportunity to come to the aid of a community needing the care, assistance, and the work of all those who inhabit it. In this way, I am humbled, as I realize that there is glaring and obvious need that is bigger than any of us individually. New Orleans provides us all with the gift and the necessity to help our fellow citizens.
I will not neglect to mention the food, the music, the architecture, the history, and the soul of a place for which so many have given so much. I wish only to be a contributing member of that society and do my part to assist those who want to return to it and those who have suffered as a result of the calamity that has befallen this gracious place.
2. Why did you choose Louisiana/Lafayette to record in for so many years before you moved here?
Habits, if not love, begin with the faintest fragrance, the smallest taste; from the glimpse comes the attachment. I signed Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to a recording contract in 1993 and his manager suggested we record the music in Louisiana, a suggestion I rejected out of hand, not even allowing it to rise to the level of temptation. But I talked to the owner of the recommended studio and, after telling me that he was surrounded by 300 year-old oak trees, he asked me what I liked. I said bicycling and he told me about grids of sugar cane fields stretching to the horizon with corners miles apart. I decided to accept the invitation.
I immediately fell in love with the insouciant beauty and languid indifference of the place. It felt old and mysterious to me. The colors of the ever-changing sky, the watery green vegetation, the bearded grey trees, the friendly people and unusual food, all combined to be a place of peace and simplicity, warmth and welcome. I felt at home.
Of course, these romantic notions became more complex as I learned of and experienced the racism and social rawness that also characterizes this place that I quickly came to love. But I have found that these antiquated social norms are being oh so gradually mitigated by the passage of time and the steady realization of people that things that need to be changed will be changed.
Then there are the musicians. Never in my travels had I come across a place where the depth of musical talent was so great, even characteristic. It seemed that talent was the greatest natural resource of the place. I must have made almost a hundred recordings in Maurice, Lafayette, and New Orleans over the past 13 years and all save one were positive and successful experiences, all with heart and the potential to affect people’s lives in a positive way.
3. Do you think music, specifically New Orleans jazz, is central to bringing back the city?
I think music is central to all societies - to the betterment of those who populate those societies. But it is the essence of New Orleans. Very few places can be called the birthplace of movements, of art forms that affect so many people in so many places in so many ways. Very few places can claim music and art as profoundly as New Orleans and Louisiana. From this cradle came most if not all what we call “American” music.
The historical, anthropological, social, cultural gumbo that is New Orleans and southern Louisiana is unique and instructive. Cultures can unite to become a totality that is greater than the sum of their parts. All of the people who were a part of this development added equally to it irrespective of their social or economic station. Blood was shed on this ground. The descendants of these disparate people have become a new people, a people who have the potential of building a unified community of individuals, a community of unlimited power and ability to care for itself and its citizens.
These people, these citizens of New Orleans, created a heritage of music that has inspired and influenced artists and others who’ve never been here, who may not even be aware of the source of the inspiration that informs their pursuits if not their lives. New Orleans without music is unfathomable just as the restoration of New Orleans without music is impossible. The world would be a very different place without the music of New Orleans.
Proclamations do not become action, action becomes action, and the action required here is our insistence that our schools glorify the creative and embrace arts education with the love and determination of a mother to a child. And we must each participate in these efforts as parents, benefactors, teachers, visitors, players, clinicians, tutors, and fellow students. Productive people are happy people, not the other way around.
Jazz is the music of democracy, of freedom, of personal choice. It is of the “new world”. It is the music that glorifies the individual over the group. It is the music of self-expression, of respect for one’s self and for others. The language of jazz is the sum total of all who express it, who use it to communicate the pain and passion of how we feel as individuals. It is the music of the Americas, our gift to the world, and by implication it says to all who hear it: you too are worthy as an individual. Jazz is the paradigmatic example of the power of one with its insistence on the uniqueness and value of every single person.
One of the most prestigious jazz organizations in this country, The Thelonious Monk Institute, presently headquartered at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has decided to relocate to New Orleans. In addition to accepting 6 to 10 post-graduate students into a masters degree program, the Monk Institute is active in all stages of music education through out the country and the world. It is truly an act of courage and integrity for them to come to our aid in this our time of greatest need. Through their efforts and those already underway, music, jazz, and arts education will again be a focus in our elementary, middle, and high schools. Such efforts are vital to the continued existence of our cultural heritage. I was proud to have played a small part in convincing the Monk Institute that this is the place where their mission could be most clearly realized and their presence could have the greatest impact.
4. Do you think the projects you are working on (like Artists House) benefit from your location here in NOLA? And in what ways does NOLA benefit from your projects?
New Orleans and her people cannot but influence and benefit our actions and undertakings. New Orleans has soul. Of what other city can this be said? We occupy the bits and pieces of 70% of the United States. I have heard it said that every atom in our bodies was once inside a star. In that sense, every step we take, every drop of water we drink, and every bite we eat was once somewhere else, higher up, along the river artery that feeds and surrounds us, that endangers us with its embrace. New Orleans isn’t just a melting pot of people of many cultures, it itself is literally from somewhere else, from what we can now describe as 34 “states”. Like the Mississippi delta, most of Louisiana was created from what we cannot see and from where we have not been. This makes this place different, even sacred.
My undertakings are attached to and reflect this place of struggle and determination. The laments of yesterday have opened our eyes to the opportunities and needs of today, giving us a chance to correct old wrongs, fix the broken and mend the torn. We must work to end the Diaspora of our citizens and use all of our talents, intellect and might to put matters right.
As for how my undertakings benefit New Orleans, that might be better left to others to comment, but I can say this: we each do our part. From this mosaic of effort and responsibility will emerge the new New Orleans. I care about public education. I care about the role art and music play in the education of young people. I believe that from music and art and respect for the “creative” will come solutions and progress in ALL areas. Intellect without heart, without music and art, is barren and easily malformed and unfocused.
The people of New Orleans have never had to insist on the presence of music – it sprouted, seemingly untended and unintended. Now we must be conscious of what makes us unique and important and we must fight for what was only yesterday, natural, even stubborn in its continued existence. We cannot rest and we will not leave to fate that which gives us character, authenticity, and individuality. We are all soldiers in this fight. There are many people and many organizations whom and which are marching in this army of change. I am but one.
5. Can you talk about the work you're doing at the university and how it is unique from other programs.
My work at Loyola University centers on teaching students the importance of an ethical and entrepreneurial approach to the music business and the business of art. I want my students to either be artists or to support artists. I want to instill a respect and love for the creative enterprise that supersedes the narrow demands of profit and self-interest. Music, like justice, is, in my opinion, a sacrament. Those human activities that have the potential of affecting people’s lives in a positive way must be glorified and championed. And the fact that we are located in the city of music and art, in the birthplace of that which so much characterizes us as a nation and a people, only serves to remind us of the seriousness and importance of our undertaking and our responsibilities.
Specifically, our music industry studies program is perhaps unique thanks to its holistic approach to the subject matter and the individual. We not only seek to teach our students the factual intricacies of, say, copyright law, we seek to teach a philosophical foundation on which to build the new world, the new approaches, the new music, the new culture. We seek to provide our students with a context for their knowledge, a context that glows with the responsibilities imposed by their presence: to rebuild our damaged and troubled city and to contribute to their community in every possible way.
On a more mundane level, our program and our approach are different from others in that they are the result of the cooperative effort of several colleges – the college of business and the college of music and fine arts leading the way. In universities just as in communities, there are groups and organizations with various goals and characteristics. Our program attempts to find the common ground, our program seeks to assist all others in the pursuit of their goals. We reach out to our neighbors and give before we are asked and we ask nothing in return. Our rewards are in the doing of what needs to be done, in achieving things we didn’t know we could do, in respecting all members of our community.
Our approach recognizes the practical and pragmatic demands and requirements of “business” and balances them with the aqua vitae of music and art; it seeks to balance the intellect with the heart, the creative with the intellectual. And we seek to instill the duties and responsibilities in our students that all people owe to their neighbors and fellow citizens.
The pragmatic is not lost to our altruism: we have 8 student-run media companies; we have advisory councils around the county to help our students with internships and jobs, and we encourage our students to start new enterprises, to produce things, to act. We see our students as the leaders of the future, in every respect, and we treat them accordingly.
Our students come to us with a love for music and leave us, as my friend George Howard puts it, with the tools, information and self-confidence to monetize their passion. We believe that we need more people in the arts, not less, and we know that the opportunities for careers and jobs are many. We want our students to contribute to the rebuilding of the business and service infrastructure of the music and arts community in New Orleans as well as other cities and places that they care about.
6. You wrote to me about overcoming adversity and the responsibility that comes with bringing back the city. Can you talk more about that?
Despite the fact that we face adversity, we are the lucky ones. We survived and we remain in our homes, temporary or not, in the city that we love. To whom much is given, much is asked. We have no other choice but to find hope and opportunity in the adversity and destruction of our community. We must do everything possible to end the suffering of our displaced citizens.
What are we to do when faced with the clearest of all human choices – to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? We should fall to our knees and thank our lucky stars, or the God to whom we pray, for we are truly chosen, chosen to do what needs to be done, chosen to help those who are in the most need; chosen to do right. And we rise to our feet and lift our voices in praise of the opportunities bestowed upon us. And we cannot fail because we must not fail.
There is too much at stake, for adversity gives us the opportunity to be men and women of courage, of history, of all that is good and right in people. It gives us the opportunity not just to believe, but to do, to act, to transcend our differences, to live ethically, morally, and lovingly. New Orleans did not yield to the rising tide of Katrina and it will not yield to the rising tide of indifference and cynicism. We will prevail because we have something worth fighting for, something we can all agree on: the soul of a great city and the restoration of her people. In this way we are all blessed and even in the darkest days and hardest times we must not forget this, and we must rejoice in our opportunities, however unwelcome their origin.
There is another side to this as well. If we act honorable and honestly, the twin evils of racism and intolerance will fall to our positive nature, to our understanding that solutions will not come from the old ways and their antecedents but from the new necessities, the new community, the new responsibilities. Seldom are a people required to look forward, to advance, to seek and find the promise land, and seldom have they failed when so called.
7. This article will be in the May issue of the magazine-Jazz Fest/May Day/Beltane time. Beltane is a holiday of purification and transition. Do you have any tips on how New Orleans can purify itself and transition into a livable place?
Purification and transition: these are words of metaphor and life, of belief and inevitability. We are already in transition, we are moving from something to something else, from one existence to another. Purification implies a new chance, a new beginning, a rebirth. We are in no need of ceremony to reach purification. It is not a choice for us; it has happened. Katrina has come, leaving us only to receive the benefits left in her wake. Transition implies choice, but in a sense, Katrina made that choice for us too. We are “transitioning” whether we like it or not, whether we sleep or not, whether we seize the opportunities it provides or not.
The question is, will we seek to invoke our own power, our own will, to affect the result, or do we just let it happen to us? The answer is, we will, individually and collectively, and with honor and courage, choose, plan, take action, act justly, and rebuild our city and our homes with our bare hands, if that’s what it takes. We control our destiny, not chance, not governments, not hurricanes, but us. Purification and transition embody a journey, change and choice. I believe that we can rebuild and renew our community to the same extent that it was defaced and destroyed and in so doing lay the foundation for our future.
For every action there is a reaction, and for every act of love and humility there is hope and achievement. Many in our community know this and are doing something about it. But many in our community are barely holding on, and many more are missing, waiting, straining to retain hope, wondering if we have forgotten them. Together we must shout “no”, we have not forgotten nor will we ever forget. We will not stop until we have restored our community, brought home our friends and families, and caused our beguiling and soulful city to once again reflect the good in all of her people.
You might ask, but what of the practicalities? I would answer that from this determination of the heart will flow the practical, the pragmatic, the plans and blueprints for schools and parks and civic life, and all of the manifestations of our hopes and dreams.
Thank you, Marci, for your questions. John Snyder
On 1/30/07 12:43 AM, "Marci Johnson" wrote:
Thank you again, Mr. Snyder, for doing this for me!
See AHM content by John Snyder
THE LUCK OF THE IRISH
I was sitting in the airport in Paris yesterday feeling sorry for myself and writing yet another love letter to Suzy that will go unmailed. Somehow I felt better after I’d written it. I'd just finished a recording session and I was on my way to Ireland for no particular reason except maybe to try to forget that woman.
I boarded my Aer Lingus flight to Cork for an hour and twenty minute trip in the company of two little bottles of Champagne and an Irish version of seafood shells o’marinara. I think I must have eaten a few things I’d never eaten before but after two bottles of Champagne it didn’t seem to matter.
There were no customs or even passport control in Cork. I collected my luggage, picked up my $200-a-day compact car from Avis and, very tentatively, hit the road, or highway as it was described to me by the nice Irish lady-girl at the car counter.
Some highway. More like an un-mapped country road in the U.S. and the right-hand-drive car on the left-hand-drive road was a bit confusing. You shift with your left hand instead of your right; you look to your left for the rear-view mirror, not the right. Weird. My brain is too old for this.
The drive to Skibbereen took me through a string of little towns – Ballinhassig, Halfway, Innishannon, Banden, Clonakilty, Roasscarbery, Leap. Tiny little streets. I’m lucky I didn’t scrape something with the left side of the car – I never really thought I left enough room to pass. I drove through alternating patches of sun and rain, each giving every indication of lasting forever. But it’s like Texas. You don’t like the weather? Wait a few minutes.
Nothing really prepared me for the spot I ended up in. After passing through Skibbereen I was in Castletownshend, lands end, then I arrived at Sea House, manor house of the apparently wealthy Mr. James Craighton. Jesus, you wouldn’t believe this place. It’s sheer beauty and country luxury. It’s on a slight hill overlooking one of the scores of bays that pock the coast of Ireland, bound by peninsulas, like hands laid into the sea. It’s the Irish Sea first and then the Atlantic Ocean but more like a lake, at least today. Just across this bay is another thin peninsula that has a bay on the other side of it.
The grass really is emerald green, the bay’s dotted with small fishing boats, the hills speckled with black and white cows, the day bright and sunny, the water still and glistening, the sky clear as a bell with white clouds floating slowly to the west. Absolutely unbelievably beautiful. Remember that time in the movies when Julie Andrews sang, “the hills are alive with the sound of music…”? It was like that.
When I knocked on the door I was greeted by a slight, fifty-ish, Irish-looking woman with short reddish hair and a straight bearing. She said, “You must be John. I’m Jim’s friend from New York, Phyllis”. I had, at first, thought she was the housekeeper.
Phyllis pulled the door behind her and walked me around the side of the house and it was then I saw the full view towards the bay and out into the dark green Irish Sea. It was a breathtaking sight. She walked me closer to the water, to a fisherman’s cottage converted so as to be perfect for afternoon tea and fixing furniture. The door opened as we approached and in it was a slight, bright-faced man, casual in every way, with his hand outstuck. "Welcome to Sea House. You must be John. I'm Jim Craighton. We've been looking forward to your arrival. Please come in." There was a table facing the window facing the water. I was an ideally picturesque sight. "Please, have a seat."
Stories were exchanged as we sipped Irish coffee and ate lemon cake. Jim said, “Tell me John, just what does a record producer do exactly?” I did twenty minutes on that. During this conversation there were a few words exchanged between Phyllis and Jim about “Robert”. I didn’t pay any particular attention and didn’t think to ask any questions. Robert was obviously someone they knew very well and I assumed he was some long-lost acquaintance, an old man.
Jim showed me around the estate and it was very beautiful. The manor house itself was completely impressive. The ceilings are thirty feet high, the hallway runs the length of the house, front to back, splitting it down the middle. It’s twenty feet wide, thirty feet high, and one hundred and twenty feet long. It’s huge. The dining room, at the end of the hall on the left, facing the bay, will seat thirty people or more. Three twenty-foot windows look out on the bay. The living room/drawing room is across the hall, facing the bay as well. The old farmhouse furniture and large fireplaces add to the warmth of these rooms, making them extremely comfortable.
The grounds of the estate are manicured and full of hugely-leafed tropical plants and exotic, flowering trees, souvenirs of sea captains past. Jim has this whole peninsula to himself so you can walk freely about gravel paths along the rocky shoreline where there are the most idyllic private spots. Serious old trees hang out over the water, creating playful, climbing, childlike opportunities; the vegetation is thick and rich.
Jim took me to my guest cottage and I asked him again what Phyllis’ name was. “Phyllis”, he said. He told me her last name but I didn’t see any reason to remember it. “Oh, yeah, Phyllis”, I said. “Phyllis”, I repeated to myself so I wouldn’t forget it.
The manor house has three guest cottages. Mine faces the bay, to the sunrise. What a wonderfully quaint place. The doorways are five feet high, the windowsills two feet deep. It’s two sloping floors with a kitchen and living room downstairs, two (one, tiny) bedrooms and a bath upstairs. The bed is a feather bed and is the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. I went to sleep later that night with a peat fire going in the bedroom fireplace. The heating stove downstairs burns peat too, cut out of the ground with a shovel. Amazing.
We ate dinner that night at Mary Ann’s, the local pub, and talked for hours about politics and economics. Jim revealed himself to be somewhat of a reactionary, or provocateur. He thinks that working mothers have artificially driven up real estate prices. I never did figure out how that worked or if it did, what made it artificial. “It’s Robert’s birthday tomorrow”, said Phyllis.
The next day, Friday, was the most perfect day of my life. A clear, warm but cool, bright sunny day spent driving and walking along the southwest Irish coastline. Rugged terrain that’s spectacular – I can’t possibly convey the fantastic beauty of this place. Sheer cliffs, cows right up to the shore, coves, caves, hidden beaches, rocky beaches, sandy beaches. This is a most special spot on this earth. It is deep. The green hills covered with purple heather and yellow grouse, spotted with orange/red mombreshia, fuchsia growing wild – red bells everywhere, blackberries lining the paths and roads, hills and cows and more cows, rock houses and slate walls, clear, cold, green water, the cleanest air you’ve ever breathed – it’s all here. We saw one-hundred-foot fir trees growing on a four hundred-foot cliff, a “sheer” forest, right in front of us.
We drove to a little seacoast tourist village, Baltimore, and hiked up to this navigational tower high above the town and out onto a narrow, short finger of land that was three hundred feet above the rocky shoals below. Picture this! Sheer drop-offs on three sides. Scared me to death. Jim told a story of how a nun fell off one of these cliffs backing up to take a picture. God can be cruel sometimes but in this case I think Jim’s fondness for romance got the best of him. He seemed to enjoy the story.
We took a ferry, more like the African Queen, to the island of Sherkin - Ireland like it was one hundred years ago except with telephone and electrical wires and the occasional tractor. We walked for three hours and found such lovely spots: cliffs and overhangs, beaches and caves, fields of long green grass, and more cows than you’ve ever seen in your life, big, healthy cows.
I spent the whole day talking and walking with Phyllis and all I was able to pick up was she was a nurse, a private nurse as well as an orthopedic nurse, having worked for Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein and old Joe Kennedy, among others. She seemed quiet and thoughtful and a little sad, although she was great company, and while we were picking blackberries along one of the paths I said, “It’s the best of all possible worlds, isn’t it, Phyllis?” She responded, “Oh yes, John, it is”.
After the boat trip to Sherkin, we drove back from Baltimore and I nodded out in the back seat as we bounced over the narrow bumpy roads, with no words being said. It had been a day of breathtaking beauty and good conversation and great fun and silence was what was required as the sun sank orange behind us on our slow trip home.
We stopped for tea in Skibbereen, too cute, too quaint, and too cobblestoned. I was talking about buying a sweater for my kids. Phyllis suggested a rugby shirt for Benjy. She then told a story about buying Robert some Clarke shoes for his birthday on one of her trips to England, which he wouldn’t wear because they weren’t his “style”. I understood this very well. I doubted if Sarah would wear an Irish wool sweater but I was determined to buy one anyway.
It wasn’t but an hour or less when we arrived back at Sea House. We set about doing our separate chores, mine being telephone calls and faxes. I had just enough time to dress for dinner before we hopped back into the car, this time my rented car, for the drive back to Baltimore for the good French restaurant with the fresh salmon.
What a hair-raising drive. I was driving, it was moonless dark; the roads very narrow and bordered on both sides by slate walls, so there’s not much room for error. Jim was in the front seat next to me and was holding on to the dash with both hands, occasionally issuing quite stern driving advice like, “You must watch the left corner of the front of the car to know how close you are to the wall you’re about to run into” and “That’s a stone wall on my side you know, not some bushy undergrowth.”
It was a nightmare. I thought it would never end. Irish headlights are hooded so they don’t project more than a car length or two, and given the twists and turns in the road, there were constant surprises to be endured. We finally got to Baltimore and the restaurant was perfect. It was my night to pay. Ninety-two Irish pounds of which it takes U.S. $1.76 to buy one. Chez Youen. C’est la vie. One of the things that made the experience a little more unusual was the music. The recording date that I had come from in England with George Shearing featured the great, legendary Irish guitar player, Louis Stewart. It was his music that was playing in that restaurant. I didn't pay much attention to the conversation going on around me, drawn as I was to the selfless sophistication of Louis' playing. Listening to Louis Stewart is like peeking in the window of Picasso's studio. It seems so private that you don't want him to know that you're there.
As we sipped our drinks Jim looked at Phyllis and said "Are you alright, Phyllis?" She did look a little sad, but then she'd looked that way all day.
"Yes, Jim. I was just thinking about Robert. Another birthday and he's alone in that terrible place."
I imagined a nursing home. My grandfather had been in one of those and we used to visit him every Sunday when we were children. He never spoke a word in that place. He became a complete mute. I hoped Robert was more comfortable than Papa Murray. I was trying to force the memory of his drooling in his wheelchair out of my mind when Jim reached over and clasped Phyllis' arm and said "I'm so sorry, Phyllis", and Phyllis wiped tears from her eyes.
I let Jim drive home. My nerves couldn’t take his nerves not being able to take my driving. It was a quick, quiet ride. Back at my cottage, Jim started the peat fire in the stove to heat the hot water for my morning bath. He seemed preoccupied. When he finished, I went outside and stared at the millions of stars in the clear night sky and thought about Phyllis and Jim and the secret they were keeping. I decided to return to my room and read.
One of the books Jim had in the cottage was Camus’ play “The Possessed”, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel of false accusations and tragic ends. I had nightmares that night
The next morning, Saturday, was cloudy and gray. This made the green hills more green, a deeper, more saturated green, green. We had coffee in the drawing room and talked about Sheila Grant Duff, whose books Jim also had in the cottage I was staying – which he had also not read. In my insomnia, I had read enough of the first volume to realize she was a very interesting woman.
She was born the year before the First World War and her memoirs of the 30’s concerned the total affect the two wars had on her life and the life of her country. The memory of war, the preparation for war, living through the war permeated all aspects of her life and the lives of her generation. She began her story with a discussion of her Grandfathers.
Her maternal Grandfather was Sir John Lubbock, first Lord of Avebury and a leading scholar of his day. Charles Darwin considered Lubbock to be his most important confidant and trusted his opinion above all others. Lubbock had a tamed wasp for twelve years and its death was reported in the national newspapers.
Well, as it turns out, Sheila Grant Duff lives in Castletownshend, just down the road from Jim’s place, with her Russian-born husband, who was accused of spying by the British in W.W. II, for no other reason than he lived near a Royal Air Force base in the north of England, where he had lived before the base became his neighbor. Imagine that, getting to meet someone who knew someone who knew Charles Darwin and had tamed a wasp. And married to a Russian spy to boot.
After breakfast, we hopped into Jim’s Deux Chevaux (“two horses”) for the quick trip to their house. A Deux Chevaux is a tiny French contraption with a two hundred cc engine (about the size of an average motorcycle). In France one hundred cc’s is considered one horsepower, so two hundred cc's is two horses, thus “deux chevaux”. The top rolls back and it’s the perfect get-around vehicle for sunny days and narrow roads. You shift by pulling a rod in and out below the dash. It rides very smoothly due to some ingenious front to back suspension. And it is the ugliest duckling you’ve ever seen.
Ten minutes later we turned into a long, rutted, dirt driveway that had a strip of tall grass down its middle, as if it were seldom used. As we approached the house, a dilapidated, one-story low building with one shutter hanging akimbo, Jim slowed the car almost to a stop and said, "This may not be such a good idea".
There were no lights on, but then it was day-time, and the house looked closed and unoccupied.
"What the hell, let's knock on the door", Jim proposed. I wanted to turn back right then and there but Jim pulled and turned the gear rod and we bumped along the last 100 feet, our eyes riveted on the uninviting house approaching us.
"John, would you like to jump out and see if anyone's home?" Jim asked, almost mischievously. I wanted to do that just about as much as I wanted to drink swamp water.
I made my way through the overgrown path to the tilted porch and stepped around the cracked planks and just as I was about to tap on the door it jerked open. Scared me to death. "What do you want?" came this thickly accented, Boris Godunof voice, but I could see no face. I involuntarily jumped back when this very large man with a thick, unkempt beard suddenly appeared before me. The first thing I noticed was his huge, hairy hands. Just before I fainted, Jim approached from behind and said cheerily, "Gregor, how the hell are you? Long time no see."
"How's Shelia?" continued our Good Humor Man.
I'm so sorry to hear that. Accidental?"
"What a shame. When did this happen?"
A man of few words, Gregor. I just wanted to get out of there before I wet my pants or he killed me with his dirty, hairy, huge, bare hands.
"Well, we won't trouble you any further then. We just dropped by to pay our respects."
Gregor slammed the door.
"Pity", said Jim. "Perhaps we should be going." I was half way to the car before he finished his sentence. I thought my heart was going to explode. Jim turned the car slowly around and as we headed back the way we came he said "Fascinating man". I couldn't say a word, content to be alive.
It was not even noon so we drove to a place to buy sweaters and I bought two – one for Sarah and one for Phyllis. I had asked Phyllis to try on a sweater for Sarah and she looked so good in it I had to buy it for her. Jim and I split it. I thought we should do something to cheer up Phyllis, and it seemed to work, if only for the afternoon.
We drove through the countryside, through the fields of rock – boulders, slabs, fences – acres of slate, populated by endless dairy cows. Ireland is shaped like a bowl. The outside rim is rocky and therefore not good for farmland but perfect for grazing dairy cows. The countryside is free of signs and commercialization. There are no airplanes to be heard or seen with the notable exception of a low boom, just loud enough to hear and big enough to rattle the windows slightly, at 10:30 and 4:30 each day, when the Concorde passes over. The occasional vapor trail can be seen in the sky, but no noise.
We drove through Ballydehob on our way to Schull to have lunch at a little bakery that specialized in Shepherd’s Pie, which I'd never had before (didn't even know what it was) and soup. We went to the butcher next door and asked if he knew where we could buy some fresh smoked Irish salmon. I wanted to bring some home to New York. He directed us to Goreen, the next town over. “Take a left at McMurphy’s pub and you’ll find it”.
Well, we found a house and they directed us to a dirt road next to a small lake, a lagoon, which we picked our way around, passing between some large ivy-covered ruin and floating debris, ending up at an old ramshackle one-story farmhouse with piles of gray wood and trash and bottles and tires and broken-down farm equipment strewn all around.
We knocked on the door of a true farm house kitchen with lots of jars for jellies and old pots and pans and an old refrigerator and dirt on the floor. The girl who answered the door responded to what I thought as our unlikely request for smoked salmon by saying, “What size?”, as she flung open the grimy refrigerator door revealing fifty slabs of vacuum-packed, silver-labeled, red salmon, just as pretty as you please. So I bought one and she gave me some blackberry jelly I’d admired and off we went, surprised to have found salmon in this unlikely setting.
From there we drove through various small towns, villages with one main street, with their five pubs and four groceries and rows of two-story pastel-colored houses each with two chimneys. (The Irish custom is that if the daughter-in-law's family owns a grocery store, the husband’s family patronizes it. This makes for many grocery stores. I guess the pubs speak for themselves.)
As we drove from one spectacular coastline view to another we discussed Irish history and the current situation in Ireland. Jim gave me, shall we say, an orientation, to wit: Ireland is a parliamentary democracy with a President and a Prime Minister. The President is Mary Robinson. The big issue is abortion. Since Ireland is mostly Catholic (except for the six British-controlled counties in the North that are mostly Protestant), abortion is a major issue. It is illegal. It may even be unconstitutional.
Recently, a fourteen-year-old girl wanted to travel to England for an abortion and was prevented from doing so by a Supreme Court judge. This is how abortion is handled here, by traveling to England. But this is specifically illegal. It’s usually tolerated, the traveling, but this time, due to the girl’s age, it wasn’t. Finally, they let her go but not before there was a big fight about it, which is still being fought. The judge was fired for enforcing the law. Independent judiciary, anyone?
Ireland is a country of 3.5 million people, about the population of South Carolina. It had a population of eight million at one time, but until recently the population has been in a steady decline. This works out to be an average of one hundred people per square mile. There are nine hundred people per square mile in England. The U.S., thanks to vast open areas in the West, has an average of fifty people per square mile. Connecticut has six hundred people per square mile.
Ireland is made up of thirty-two counties contained in four provinces. There are six counties in the north of Ireland that remain under British control, in the province of Ulster (Ulster also contains non-British controlled counties). The other provinces: Leinster, Connaught, and Munster.
Dublin recently celebrated its one-thousandth year birthday, its millennium. This is a very old place. The Irish have been fighting the British for hundreds of years. The IRA is two hundred years old. In the 1800’s England shipped the Presbyterians from Scotland to populate Ireland in an attempt to supplant the Irish. Speaking Irish (from the Gaelic) was
Our drive continued and took us to Mizzen Head. This is the southern most point of Ireland and is the sight of a navigational radar station that emits low-frequency waves that ships and planes use for guidance. We climbed up to a precipice over five hundred feet from sea level and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I found out that I will never be a mountain climber. It was spectacularly beautiful but very frightening as well. One slip and we would have disappeared into the jagged slabs of slate below.
This is the most awesome sight. Huge, glass-smooth, rock cliffs, like a mountain was sheared right down the middle. You could see the horizon – the sky meeting the sea – a full one hundred and eighty degrees from where we stood. From our extreme left to our extreme right, nothing but sky and sea. Our perch was so high above the sea, my eyes couldn’t grasp the hugeness of the setting.
It was breathtaking. I was breathing quick, shallow breaths, punctuated by the only words I could come up with: “Oh, wow”, over and over again. It was so terribly exciting. Words couldn’t capture the rush I felt. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but it wouldn’t have done any good, a camera could not have done this place justice. It was too immense, too full, too much! God, it was amazing.
Unprovoked and almost to herself, Phyllis said "Robert would have loved this. He was always so athletic".
"You must miss him very much, Phyllis." I didn't know what else to say.
"I do, John, I do. Everyday."
We drove back down the mountain and over to Crookhaven, a small village situated on the end of a long, bent little peninsula famous for two reasons, at least. One, it is across the lake from a site of granite cliffs where the granite for the bank of England was mined – because of its purity, and two, this was the place where Marconi broadcast radio for the first time.
We eventually arrived back at Sea House and fixed ourselves some fettuccini and salad and passed the time in a favorite Irish way, profound conversation. The food was great, the setting was spectacular – in the drawing room of this most wonderful of houses – and the conversation was literary and philosophical, from Voltaire to Mozart to G.B. Shaw to comparative linguistics. Jim is a widely read country-squire type, with a great sense of humor, new to money and gifted in the ways of its expenditure. He has great taste; the right linen, the right china, the right stove. I think that night that it finally hit me: Jim and Phyllis weren’t lovers, they were friends; Jim is gay. It rained all night.
Sunday, the last day of my stay, broke gray but by eleven or so had turned into another bright sunny day, hazier perhaps than the two preceding days. I walked the grounds and covered every inch of the manicured paths around the shoreline. It was so beautiful and peaceful and utterly quiet.
We soon left for the long drive to their more modest house. The Livingstones live on the western side of the peninsula with the perfect sunset view of a bay right out their front window. It’s a picture-perfect view – no houses, no people, just a panoramic view of the bay. This is the windy side of Ireland, to the west, so the windows were equipped with sturdy shutters to protect against the gales and storms. It’s so windy the trees have a permanent wind-blown lean.
The air and water are so clear and fresh because they have come across the Atlantic and have been washed clean during the trip. I’m telling you, the seawater is crystal clear, the shoreline is pristine, the air is sweet and so fresh you can’t get enough of it. You see better. Everything is more vivid. It’s an exhilarating feeling being here and experiencing such…clarity.
Wayne and Pat Livingstone are Americans, having moved to Ireland a half-dozen years ago when he retired as a pilot for Pan Am. They have a vintage MG (really a kit-car from the U.S.) and an affable old golden retriever named Clancy who was like a big, cumbersome, sloppy teddy bear (he drooled). The Livingstones were good hosts, possessed of Des Moines taste – in furniture, in art, in books – and the coffee was excellent. Wayne makes his own blackberry and orange wine and sloe gin. His great-grandfather fought on the blue side in the Civil War and he even had the photograph and memorabilia to prove it.
Pat told the story of the “station” in which they had recently participated. Neither a Catholic, both curious, they accepted an invitation from a neighbor to participate in the Catholic custom of “station”, which is an old one, dating from the time when people were so spread out and churches were so illegal (Cromwell wiped-out the churches in the 17th century) that the priest would come to someone’s house to hold mass and all the neighbors would come to be blessed, and to eat.
Well, it seems that this particular “station”, presided over by the bombastic Father Walsh, was more than an annoyance to Wayne. It was downright funny. Father Walsh is apparently somewhat senile. (Pat told the story that one Easter Mass Father Walsh was at the pulpit ranting and raving about Jesus and why he died and was shouting, “And you know why Christ died?! He died for…! He died for…!”. He forgot what Christ died for.) Anyway, back to the “station”. It seems that what amused and annoyed Wayne was the fact that Father Walsh blessed everything that moved, and didn’t move. He blessed the chairs, the table, the walls, the door, the plates, the silverware, eventually naming everything and everybody in sight.
At the conclusion of this “station”, Father Walsh took out his ledger and proceeded to engage in another Catholic custom, “collecting dues”. It seems that the rest of Ireland dispensed with this remnant from the Cromwell days (when priests had to be directly supported by the parishioners), but Father Walsh had apparently not gotten the word, for he proceeded to call out every name of every person in the room and said, “Now, Mrs.
All “dues” were duly entered into Father Walsh’s ledger, and after every name had been
Jim just howled at this story, he being a born-again atheist. “Ah, yet more proof”, he said. We laughed. If we’d had Father Walsh’s address I think we would have sent him some “dues” of our own, just for the laughs.
We disembarked the Livingstones’ and headed up to Tow Head, a point of land overlooking the sea with the ruin of an old castle-like lookout tower crowning the heather-covered hill. The sky was clear and bright.
As we stood there, surrounded by rocks and tall grass and the wind blowing our hair, Phyllis said to Jim "Did you notice how much that photograph of Wayne's great grandfather resembled Robert. It was eerie." Almost with impatient resignation, Jim let out a deep breath and said "Yes, Phyllis, it was a striking resemblance." I wandered out of the conversation, feeling as it I was eavesdropping.
We were to have a late lunch with the Vickery’s at two o’clock and so we headed home to Sea House to await the hour. We drove slowly through the rolling hills and I stood up in the back seat, holding on to the bar that would hold up the roll top, and looked straight up into the pale blue sky with its streaks of white clouds as we passed through a canopy of lichen, moss, and ivy-covered trees, lining the cool, shade-speckled road. The hills and fields were every conceivable color of green and it was the best of all possible worlds.
There were a few minutes after we returned to Sea House and before we went to the Vickerys - twenty or so - that I used to walk the grounds. The house is covered with Virginia creeper that had turned red with the oncoming fall and it was alive with the humming of bees. The butterflies fluttered about, the lone gull dived into the bay for fish, and there was the occasional cry of a hawk and the putt-putt-putt of a converted rowboat’s new motor. The grass of Jim’s lawn is as fine as baby’s hair and the yew tree magnificent on its perch on the high point of the sloping north lawn. It was an idyllic scene. For twenty minutes.
The Vickerys, Dick and Barb, live around the corner in almost as large a house as Jim’s, Bow House, that they have converted into the village’s number one Bed & Breakfast. In the summer Castletownshend attracts a goodly number of elderly tourists, despite the fact that it’s somewhat off the beaten path. Bow House has three guest bedrooms and is the place to be.
Both Richard and Barbara are over seventy years old. Expatriates from Minnesota by way of upstate New York, they have lived in Castletownshend for fifteen years. Their accents stayed in Minnesota. Their house has a huge back garden full of flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, shrubs of various kinds, and one palm tree, from one of the “colonies” as Jim pointed out.
The inside of the house is covered with photos of their five grown children and their dozen-plus grandchildren, and every conceivable what-not and doo-dad and
Every square inch of flat space was occupied. I felt like I was in a giant box of Cracker Jacks with too many prizes. Barbara has taken up painting, so still-lifes and cat pictures dot the walled landscape. This place is full.
Dick looks like a British colonel in a David Lean movie – tall, thin, trim mustache, big ears, floppy lips; Barbara like a character in “Lady and the Tramp”. Her hair makes her look like a cocker spaniel. But man can she cook. She served up a crab salad that was so good I’d still be eating it now if there were any left, with tomatoes from their green house that were the best I’ve ever had. Deep red, full-flavored fruit, I’m telling you, like I’ve never seen before. And I am a tomato expert.
This was followed by a plate of creamed crab over rice, with ginger-flavored carrots, home-grown eggplant in a tomato basil sauce. It was great! A wonderful meal topped off by Barb’s homemade triple chocolate pie and homemade ice cream that was better than Paris. It was a superb meal, 15,000 calories and 186 grams of saturated fat. Can’t say much for the instant coffee but I got the feeling that they didn’t drink much coffee.
Richard, as it turns out, likes jazz, “but not that modern stuff that is so disconcerting” (bebop and Dave Brubeck, I was to find out). What’d he like? What did he consider not modern? ‘30’s jazz: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw. I guess we all love the music of our youth. It makes me wonder what the music of his parent’s youth was. Gilbert and Sullivan?
After our stretched-out good-byes, we waltzed down the hill back to Sea House where I passed more time in the gardens, writing and thinking and hoping this would never end. Darkness settled over the town and us all, and I joined Jim and Phyllis in the drawing room for a pot of real coffee and our last round of conversation. The subject of Robert came up again. This time, when his name was mentioned, I must have looked quizzical because Phyllis said, without my saying a word, “I’ll tell you about it someday, John, it’s a long story”.
That was good enough for me. But after an awkward silence, Phyllis turned and looked at me with hard, unblinking eyes and said, “John, you say you have lived in New York for some time, have you ever heard the name Robert Chambers?”
I thought for a second and said, “Why, yes, I have”. This was the kid who had been sent to prison in 1986 or ’87 for killing one Jennifer Levin, in a yuppie sex scene in Central Park late one Sunday night. It had been tabloid headlines for months at the time.
“Well, I’m his mother.”
I didn’t ask any questions but the look on her face was so hard, I didn’t feel I should. All I could say was, “Gee, you’ve been through a lot then”. But from then on, when I was looking at Jim as he talked, I didn’t really hear him. I was thinking about what Phyllis had said. Finally, around 9:30, we said goodnight and I hugged Phyllis longer than I should have and Jim escorted me to my cottage. As we walked, he volunteered the following:
“I would normally not talk about this but since Phyllis brought it up, at what seems like such an awkward time, I think I should say something about Robert.”
“I know Robert. Robert wouldn’t hurt a flea. I have all of the trial transcripts, the medical testimony, the tape, the entire record. I have things not in the record. The jury voted eleven to one to acquit but the family had to plea bargain because they couldn’t afford another trial. They’d depleted their assets – $500,000 – in the first defense and simply couldn’t afford the expense of a re-trial. The prosecutor, Linda Lovelace, or whatever her name was, had a vendetta against Robert and pushed the case harder than she should have and for far more than it was worth.
“Jennifer Levin was no saint. Robert had been asleep in bed when he was called by Jennifer’s friends to come out to a bar to party. He declined but they insisted – one drink. She was at the bar and took him off to Central Park. He wasn’t particularly interested but went anyway. She was sitting on his stomach and grabbed him by his balls when he was less than responsive and he reached up and put his arm around her neck and jerked her off of him. Thus, the watch print on the side of her neck. And, of course, it doesn’t take much to cut off someone’s air supply, and bang, she was dead.
“The Daily News treated it as a drive-by dumping of the body and rape. It wasn’t rape. No, I haven’t talked to Robert about the details of the incident. There were certain tactical considerations you know. Why didn’t he report it, I don’t know. Maybe he was scared. I have a picture of Jennifer Levin holding a pair of fireplace tongs at some boy’s dick that never came out in the trial. And we have statements from her friends that if she didn’t curb her promiscuity ‘she was going to get killed someday’.
“The point being, Jennifer Levin wasn’t the innocent young woman she was made out to be by the press and the prosecution. And Phyllis wouldn’t get into a pissing contest with the Levins, so she didn’t talk to the press. Levin’s father said he could accept his daughter’s death but not that it was caused by someone ‘with no life’. Robert was crucified." All I could think was that the girl was dead and Robert killed her and there was no escaping that, especially for Phyllis, if not for Jim.
“Jim, the girl is dead.” He turned and walked away, taught with argument.
That explained Phyllis' sadness and mystery of Robert. In fact, it explained more than that. It explained Jim's edginess and the tenor of the last few days. Now it was to explain my sleepless night. I felt like a pinball machine headed for a high score. We had to get up early the next day, Monday, today, at five-thirty for our drives away, they to Cork to take the train for a museum day-trip to Dublin, me to Shannon (three and a half hours by car) to fly to New York.
Morning came quickly and we said our good-byes in the courtyard and hugged in the pre-dawn light and Jim said cottage number three was mine whenever I wanted it and off we went, bringing to a close the strangest and most strangely wonderful four days of my life, although it was probably a drag for Robert. And I didn't think about Suzy, not even once.
Postscript: Robert Chambers was released from the Auburn Correctional Facility at 7:15 a.m. on February 14, 2003 after serving his full 15-year sentence for manslaughter. In early 2008 he was arrested for selling cocaine and was returned to prison following his conviction. Phyllis died in 1996.
My mom called me the other night, in the middle of it when most people, even night people, are asleep, and said she'd mistakenly dropped Krazy Glue in her eyes rather than Visine. All I could think of was how such a thing could happen.
"I keep it in my medicine cabinet and it was dark".
I should have known - always go to the simplest explanation. "But mom, why would you keep Krazy glue in your medicine cabinet?"
"Well, it's the same size as the Visine and I just thought I could remember where it was that way."
"Mom, are you OK?"
"Well, I just can't do as much as I used to do. I've been after Beverly [my sister from another planet] to help me with the curtains in the bedroom - they haven't been cleaned in 10 years, since your daddy died and left me with all this mess...."
"Mom, I meant your eyes, are your eyes ok?"
"Well, they aren't glued shut, if that's what you mean. I didn't know if I should go to the emergency room or not. You know I can't see to drive at night. But I thought about the whole route; I know how to get there. I could probably do it blindfolded. But I put some boric acid in them and washed them out with water and it seemed to be ok. Do you think I should go the emergency room?"
"Mom, can you see?"
"Well, I've been reading this book by this eye doctor, Gladys says he's a quack, and he says that if you just do these exercises - look up, look down, look left, look right - you can avoid wearing glasses till you’re 80. [Mom’s 86] And I just don't think I can go through with that cataract surgery they want me to have. The doctor said just the other day, "Now, Miz Snyder, one of these days we may have to remove that cataract." I just don't know what to do, but the book seems to work. I'll send it to you and maybe you can tell me what you think."
"Mom, why don't we deal with all this in the morning. If you're ok now, I think we can solve all of these problems tomorrow."
"Johnny, that is so like you. Putting things off till tomorrow. You daddy was never like that, how did you get to be like that? I'm sorry I bothered you. I just thought, well, I don't know what I thought, but, well, maybe you can help me with all this clutter when you come. Little Sydney helped me clean out my closet last week and now I don't have anything to wear. She just took it off the hangars, folded it up, and carried it right down there to Good Will. I'm thinking about going by there and see if anything’s left. And all of my jackets. I don't have any jackets to wear anymore. But she's such a good girl. Although I'll never understand how she can get four years of college and then take a job taking care of invalids. I just don't understand that. You should have tried harder to get her into graduate school. I just don't know what to do."
"Mom, I think little Sydney will be fine. Besides her degree was in physical therapy. I'm going to get on back to Corinthians I, so I'll call you tomorrow, OK?"
"Well, why didn't you call last Sunday?"
"I tried Mom, the phone was busy, three times in a row."
"Well, I swanney, I knew that was the problem. I must have knocked the phone off the hook when I fell asleep on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. You could have kept trying."
"No problem, Mom. I'll call you this Sunday for sure. You take care now."
"OK bye". And she hung up as if I were trying to get rid of her, which, of course, I wasn't.
(Addendum: Mom left a message on my machine last night asking if I could get her the large print version of “Better Vision Without Eye Glasses”. To my surprise, there is one.)
"Inverted Janus faces facing a vase, that's what I see", I responded.
Pictures are like that sometimes: you look at the light and you see one thing, you look at the dark and you see another. It reveals something about your personality, at least that's what Dr. Miller would say, if I'd bother to ask him. But I'm not all that curious about what Dr. Miller thinks, although he seems to be fascinated by what I think.
"Go on", he said, matter-of-factly.
"And suppose I reach an understanding with myself, nail my Mother as the source of my anxiety, then what, I'm cured? Where's the connection? I can imagine the bridge, doc, I just can't seem to build it."
"Tell me more about this bridge.”
"Oh for godsakes, Doc. It’s a metaphor, but it's arched, it's made of stone - it's like that bridge in Central Park, Bow Bridge, the one that lets gravity do all the work, the one that's self-supporting."
"Isn't this fun, Doc? I know I'm enjoying it. I say the most innocent thing and you’re off to the races." He smiled. It was a very generous smile, one of bemusement rather than condescension. I liked bringing it about. For him it was like deep sea fishing: hook the fish, let him run, run with him, tire him out, reel him in, like fish can't fake tired. Never thought of that, huh Doc.
"The bridge could be important. It's actually the big problem for us Freudians. Understanding presupposes a positive result, only it doesn't seem to always work that way. There's a gap between awareness and change."
"Now you tell me. And you're telling me too much."
Bemused smile again. Pause. Wait. I said, "So it's up to me to build the bridge, I suppose", cynicism betraying my disinterest.
"You describe a beautiful bridge, in fact, you describe one of the most beautiful bridges. In that sense, it's already built. Why not imagine yourself crossing it?"
I hadn't thought of it that way. "Say Doc, you might have something there." He looked at me with the most friendly eyes I'd ever seen.
My time up, I left his building on West 78th and walked towards the park. I was headed to the bridge. I decided I didn't have to imagine crossing the bridge, I could actually cross it, like I'd done a hundred times before. Only this time I'll think of it differently. I'll think of it symbolically, ritualistically. On the west side of the bridge is understanding, on the east side is being. I'm lucky to have these two shores, I thought, instead of, say, the shores of survival and living. Or is that the same thing? It didn't really matter. What mattered was crossing the bridge.
When I got there I was a little disappointed that there were other people on my bridge. I felt proprietary all of a sudden and actually had to resist the impulse to show it, to ask those people to please get off my bridge. I guessed that this was not going to be as easy as I’d imagined.
I stood there a few minutes. What the hell, I thought, I'll just walk over the bridge and see how it feels. But I didn't want to be abrupt about it. I didn't want to be cynical, for a change. I wanted it to be important, to mean something.
"You give things meaning, John", I heard my father's voice saying in my ear. "Meaning is bestowed, not inherent.” I knew that already. And it was meaning that I was trying to bestow. Actually, I was trying to give a commonplace act a ritualistic quality. I needed the ritual.
So I stood there and I tried to calm myself. I closed my eyes and listened. It seemed like too much time was going by. I could feel people walking past me. Then it was as if all the sound became wind. Maybe because I could feel my hair blowing, and I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face, and I heard birds instead of people. And none of it was imagined. The birds and the sun and the wind were really there but it felt like I was imagining them.
Somehow the focus shifted from the visible and thinking to the invisible and feeling. It was exactly like those ink blots, those faces facing the vase - the totality of the opposites. My invisible world became the support for my visible world. What I didn't know became the foundation for what I did know. Crossing the bridge was going to allow me to experience the totality of being, the experience of being truly alive. That was to be the result of my ritual.
So I crossed it. I knew as I reached the other side that it would not be the last time I would cross that bridge. But it was my first time in the symbolic sense and it felt good, it felt right, it felt true, and I cried. And I would always have that feeling and the bridge would always be there to cross. All I had to do was to cross it.
I spent a good part of the rest of the day walking through the park, remembering some of the times I'd been there in the past. Like that time it snowed eight inches one afternoon and I went out to the park to play. Nobody else was there. I was the only one in this vast, white, supremely quiet space. The visual boundaries and distinctions of use were gone and the bare branches of the trees were bare no more. I remembered throwing snow balls at the tree limbs so the snow would rain down on me in soft clumps and how I would fall backwards to make snow angels and be surprised how little the snow cushioned the blow.
When I exited the park, and my memories, late that afternoon, the streets were full of newly released rush hour traffic. It was like leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral, a world of metaphor and transcendence, and reappearing on Fifth Avenue, a world of commerce and work. The idea is to take something with you from the inside world to the outside world, to bridge the two.
The inside world is the sacred place, the place of rebirth and transformation, the place where you can create who you are capable of being. The outside world is the place where you are, you do, that is. A scripture, a prayer, an epiphany; a mantra, a poem, a song, all become bridges to join these two worlds. The idea is to understand and to be, to live rather than to imagine living. Esse quam videri. It had stuck to the sole of my shoe: to be rather than to seem.
“We made it.” It was almost two o’clock – they were due at one. “We stopped for some fries.”
“I’ll be down in a minute,” me, in Room 666 of the Holiday Inn I hope explodes when I check out and am at a safe distance when it does.I saw that profile from clear across the lobby: Wayne Jackson, the Memphis of the Memphis Horns, five feet, six inches, and a belly like Alfred Hitchcock, only Alfred Hitchcock had longer legs. He was wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses and baseball cap. “Greetings, Colonel, I haven’t seen you since the big war,” I said. He laughed the laugh of care-free, fun-loving, good-ole-boy and we joined Andrew in a metallic green Pontiac hired to carry us to the farm of Leon Russell, some 40 minutes deeper into Tennessee. Leon had agreed to record with the horns.
I was navigating from the back seat, with my perfect view of Andrew’s ‘fro’, my knees pressed tight to the back of his seat – Andrew’s a tall dude. Directions to the country are written in tenths of a mile, with references to Krystal’s, yellow reflective caution signs, and “the downtown stoplight.” We thought we were lost the whole way, but we ended up in another world, in deep farm country in front of 20-foot white concrete block gates more befittin’ the son of an Arab sheik with no taste in L.A. The dirt road led us past a rusty double-wide on the right and a stone farmhouse on the left, oversized even for the son of an Arab sheik with no taste in L.A., to a tin backhouse – a covey of tin backhouses – next to which I parked the Pontiac.
“I’m following you,” said Memphis in his shades, as I marched forward to one of the doors in one of the windowless tin buildings, guessing as I went.
My knock was answered by the opening of the door and into my gaze wandered the ghostly countenance of Leon Russell, now old and pale, with completely white, long hair and beard, dressed in a long-sleeved, blue-striped shirt, black trousers with suspenders, and sensible shoes. It was Leon Russell alright, 50 pounds heavier than Woodstock.
I avoided his stare and said to the other three people standing close around him, “Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Memphis Horns.”
“How the hell did you find the back door,” said the icon.
“Leon Russell, how the hell are you,” said Memphis, still wearing his aviators, and there were greetings all around and the hugs of old friends glad to see one another again.
Leon led us into his tin cave, the likes of which I can hardly describe: a warehouse-sized windowless room, in the middle of which was a 25-foot-square of recording equipment. Along two sides were racks of audio gear, two mixing consoles and two sets of huge Urei PA speakers; along the other two sides were keyboards, computers, electronic drums, and more speakers. Various instruments were scattered around. It was a working laboratory of music in whose center was a shiny, green vinyl recliner, into which Leon soon sank. Wow.
There were three guys doing the master’s bidding, one of whom was his black son Teddy, who looked, in every other way, just like Leon. Leon’s eyes, Leon’s nose, Leon’s lips, Leon’s chin: a young, black Leon. “Teddy, play ‘em what we got, see if they like it,” Leon said, in a country drawl that bespeakes calmness, security, generosity, and control. It was a finished track, even the horn parts were there – synth horns, of course; it was a fully realized song. It was all recorded on or by computers and had a very mechanical sound – a wizard-like sound – unlike anything I‘ve heard. I asked him how he wrote the song.
“I just came in here one night and started playing the wildest shit I could think of on the bass [a keyboard bass], then I doubled the time and sped it up and went through it and took what I liked and called it a verse and took another part and called it a chorus. Then I played guitar all over it, pulled up some lyrics and called it a song.” What he did was – after he had the track – he went to his file of lyrics on the computer and sang 10 or 12 of them to the track until one of them fit. He made up the melodies as he went and his first time singing the lyrics became the melody forever and before you could say “Give Peace A Chance,” he had a song. At least that’s what the engineer told me.
Our job became learning the horn parts he’d already written – and played – on the track. The horns were placed behind a curtain outside the perimeter of equipment and computers – within hollerin’ distance – and as they rehearsed with the track, Leon would call out instructions: “bop ba” or “more anticipation” or “that’s it!” Occasionally he would flip the lever on the recliner which seemed to propel him from the chair – he’d hit the ground walking. He would make his way over to the horns, threading through the labyrinth of equipment to give further instructions. He walked with a limp, as though one leg were bent sideways at the knees – his knees seemed to be together but his feet were apart. It was an old man’s polio walk.
The horns were having difficulty playing the 32nd notes, having only recently mastered quarter notes (after 30 years). Leon suggested they play each note individually and the computer would turn them into 32nd notes. I suggested an alternative, sensing computer chaos: play a phrase in time but divide it in half so it became more manageable. This worked. The horns played the first half of the riff four times (it happened four times) and we chose the best one, then cloned it. We repeated this sequence for the second half of the phrase and before once around the clock, we had a completed horn part. They never actually played the same thing twice – the computer took care of that. They played it right once, we cut and pasted it into the other parts of the song where it recurred. In those days, this was the most advanced technology.
Leon then took us on a tour of the rest of the studio – most of which is unfinished and a little strange. There’s a huge room, not visible from the control room, with floor to ceiling murals along the side walls,40 feet long and that were 20 feet high. One depicted a jungle scene – lions, giraffes, snakes, apes, zebras – all sketched but unpainted save for a partial ape, a perfect lioness and the stripes of a zebra. Opposite – 60 or 70 feet the other end of the room – was another floor to ceiling mural, sketched only, of knights and horsers in armor: King Arthur come to Tennessee. Leon’s wife, his second, is an art student. I asked him if she were going to paint the ceiling next. He didn’t laugh.
In this room were a beautiful harpsichord with the keyboard dislodged and seemingly under repair, a 5-manual pipe organ without the pipes, and a white baby grand piano, dust covering them all – the apparently discarded wands of a Merlin moved on to greater magics. “I’m thinking about building a TV studio in here,” Leon said. “I want to do Fellini-esque Nashville music shows. You’ll be watching thinking it’s a country music show and all of a sudden all this weird shit’ll start happening.”
He then showed us his walls of posters, made by himself on his computer. He uses existing photos of singers, actors, musicians (Charlie Parker, Grandpa Jones, Michael Jackson, John Houston, Merle Haggard, the Big Bopper, Little Richard, Leon Russell, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Count Basie, Willie Nelson and scores of others) and adds type or color and makes his own custom-made posters, like those cheaply printed flats that used to advertise the Saturday night dance back in the day. These were one-by-two foot sheets behind plastic, in rows, from floor to ceiling. A very personal and impressive array of images.
Before we continued, Leon took a break to call some faraway micro chip supplier to arrange for shipment of some obscure piece of equipment, the details of which he had worried out loud about during our previous overdub attempts. While we waited, the horns and I threw some football amid the cowpies that littered the field around the three satellite dishes just outside the tin studio. The Memphis Horns can’t throw football for shit. And they’re scared to death of cowpies.
We returned to the inner sanctum after a decent interval and once again departed on the magic carpet of our guru host, this time to accompany him as he added a keyboard part to an otherwise finished song we’d brought with us. He listened to the tune once, played on it once and that was it. A quick study that Leon Russell. Next came a chocolate/sugar break. After Snicker’s bars and Pepsi’s all around we began the mix process. I asked Leon if we could take his 24-track tape with us so that we could mix it in a way more consistent with our previous recording. He demurred – and left the room, grumbling.
When he returned, resuming his reclining vinyl throne, I rolled my chair over to him and said, “Leon, I’ve changed my mind about the mix and wanting to make your tune consistent with what we’ve already got. I think it shouldn’t be consistent. I think it should be your view of the Memphis Horns. You are a conceptualist, an impressionist. I think what you do should be all you. I do not want to interfere with it.” From then on we were friends.
“Yeah, I wanna give them a new sound. They gotta change if they want a future. I’m trying to take that Stax thang, add a little Count Basie to it, and mix it up a little. They need a new concept.”
“That’s awful nice of you Leon.”
Wayne and Andrew decided to split since they had a three-hour drive back to Memphis. It was 8:30 and the mix was about to begin. Before Wayne and Andrew left, I asked Leon if I could take his picture with the guys and he said sure and he quickly left the room. When he left he looked like Santa on his day off – the slacks, the dress shirt, the suspenders. When he returned he was wearing a red-sequined jacket, a white hat, and green sunglasses: Santa from another planet. In response to our ooh’s and ah’s, he said “Well I do have a certain reputation to maintain, you understand.” He maintained it alright, and added to it a little bit, too. He posed with me, and I asked for a train set and a clock radio. That’s it! Leon does Christmas!
The mix. I didn’t say anything for as long as I could, trying to be true to my declaration of faith not long before espoused. Finally, I had to say, “less bass,” (the opposite of what I usually say). The engineer was very cordial and interested in what I had to say, and quick to agree with whatever I did say. I would defer to the stony-face demi-god who sat – reclined – immediately behind us. He would occasionally spring forth from his repose and seem to miraculously appear right next to the ear of the engineer, whispering some magic potion which was received as if it were divine.
We talked about the character of the mix, the various echoes, the balance of the “real” horns with the “unreal” horns (the synth horns) – although that may be a distinction without a difference. We told stories, we told jokes, we overdubbed a gourd part, we mixed. We then took a cassette of the mix outside into Leon’s car, which was, somehow, already running. We listened in the car. There was too much bass and too much high end (although there was no high end in the control room) and Leon said quickly, “I like it. It sounds like a radio to me.” Realizing that my objections could easily be remedied in the mastering process, I readily agreed. The engineer wanted to remix, of course, that being the genetic sway of all engineers, but he said this out of ear-shot of Leon. I assured him I understood his concerns (too much highs and too much lows) and would attend to them in the mastering. Earlier he had told me two things: Leon hated producers and Leon hated spending more than an hour or so on a mix. I was able to challenge the former by acquiescing to the latter. It worked. Leon kept on puttin’ up with me.
To the extent that he then started playing me tracks from his own three records, on which he was currently working – or concocting – in his test tube studio. After each one I told him without hesitation and with certainty how to make it better. “Add cowbell on the ‘and’ of 3 and on 4.” “Consider adding a baroque piccolo trumpet part to the turnarounds.” "That’s a perfect song for Willie Nelson.” He agreed to all these, except the latter, which he didn’t recognize to be the best advice of all.
We then started talking about other projects I was working on and I asked if he would like to give me some songs for them, especially for Junior Wells. “Does this company pay?” he asked. I said “Pay?” He said, “Yeah, pay. P-A-Y. Pay.” I said, “Oh, they pay, they p-a-y.” So he had his son Teddy play me more songs, some of which were really good, one of which was a hit song dyed-in-the-wool. I made the mistake of saying so, so he wouldn’t give me that one. It was 1 a.m. by now and I was tired and hungry but I wouldn’t dream of cutting short an audience with such an interesting fellow. I did mention food, though, and Leon said there were only two possibilities: Krystal’s and the Union 76 Truck Stop over in Lebanon (25 miles away).
As I said “Union 76” his eyes grew wide and he said, “This sounds like a fine idea. Let’s go.” We – the engineer and I – got in his pickup and Leon, after donning a cowboy hat, a Texas-inspired sports coat and sunglasses, slid into his beige Lexus next to Teddy and off we sped.
We got to the Union 76, after 30 minutes of Leon stories from the engineer, and Leon ordered corned beef hash, two poached eggs, hash browns, a stack of pancakes, wheat toast, and a large glass of milk. The rest of us got health food – me: bacon and eggs and grits; Teddy: chili-burger, fries and a shake; Mark: the sausage/bacon double yoke omelet. “You got to do me a favor,” said Leon. “I did two things for you tonight I never do for anybody. I personalized two autographs for you. Usually Teddy does the personalizing, but you caught me off guard when you asked me sign them and I felt kind of strange signing my name and then handing it to Teddy to personalize them. So I did it. But you gotta do something for me.”
“OK, Leon, what is it?”
“You gotta get me an autographed picture of Junior Wells for my wall.”
“OK, Leon. But you gotta give me a song for Junior.” I laughed as I said this.
“I’ll write you a couple songs for Junior, no problem. But I want that picture.”
I paid the check and we dragged ourselves out the door. Before joining Mark in the pickup, I shook Leon’s hand and said, “Mr. Russell, it’s been a great pleasure meeting you.” He shook my hand back and said, “I enjoyed it. I had fun,” and off we went – he back to the farm he calls “Paradise” and me back to planet Earth, and the Holiday Inn from Hell.
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