Creative Music Studio, Collin Walcott

In the mid 70s, I saved just enough money to go to the Creative Music Studio in Mt. Tremper, New York, just out side of Woodstock. This was a school formed by Karl Berger that brought amazing creative musicians together to teach what became the world’s next group of amazing creative musicians. The list of those that taught and attended are a who’s who of contemporary Jazz and new music.

The school had just moved to a massive building with dorm rooms, a giant kitchen, a huge hall, and a number of smaller rooms good for classrooms. I had just enough money for food and didn’t know where I was going to live, so Karl said I could have free housing if I cleaned the whole building daily. This was a huge job, but he also gave me a small discount on my registration fee, so I agreed.

There were only just over 20 students in attendance, and literally 10 of them were kit drummers. One of our first lessons was either with Leroy Jenkins or Roscoe Mitchell (don’t remember which as they were both around). We did a group improv and the sax players went crazy screaming well over the 10 drummers. At the end of the improv the group was asked who had heard me. I was playing my acoustic mountain dulcimer, so of course no one heard me, including myself. We were told that listening was as important as playing and you always needed to hear everyone, including the quietest instrument. A great lesson, but this made me not very popular. The other students looked at me like I was crazy. Why was I at this school when I played a diatonic folk instrument? Even the guitar instructor treated me as an outsider and had nothing to do with me. Fortunately all the other teachers took me seriously. However, halfway through the course I went to New York City and bought a pickup and a couple of used pedals and soon was doing lightening speed duets with one of the guitarists, a la John McLaughlin. Attitudes towards me changed, and even the guitar instructor apologized.

walcottKarl asked me to play in his orchestra and gave me a chromatic score to play, which was a huge challenge for a diatonic fretted instrument. I spent the whole evening figuring out a tuning to play chromatically and to learn the part to play the next day. Everyone was pushed to go beyond all our biases, habits, and paradigms. But our instructors were amazing: Jack Dejohnette, Dave Holland, Fred Rzewski, members of the Chicago Art Ensemble, Stu Martin and a host of others. I spent a lot of time with Stu Martin, and got to know Jack Dejohnette and Dave Holland at a time when they were huge stars. But they were really personable and open; they would stop to talk and took an interest in who you were and what your music was.

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Ravi Shankar and Collin Walcott

This was common in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. This was an amazing time for music. There were a lot of folks breaking new ground musically. Artists like Oregon, Don Cherry, Glenn Velez, Nana Vasconcelos, Jon Hassell, and Steve Lacey came to town regularly, and were so approachable that many of the local musicians got to know all of them. Collin Walcott, the percussionist of Oregon, invited me to his studio in New York to look at instruments, and he barely knew me. We hung out and I got to play a bunch of his instrument including an amazing huge udu that was the size of an exercise ball and had the deepest sound I had ever heard. It had been made especially for him, but was far too big to take on tour, so I was one of the few folks that got to hear it, let alone play it. Collin was an amazing guy and it was a huge loss when he passed away on tour. Through Collin I got to know Ralph Towner also of Oregon, and we kept in touch for a few years.

As with Towner my friendships with these artists kept growing, and even though I was just beginning to perform at events they were headlining, they treated me as an equal. This was a time that artists were more concerned with moving music forward than they were about their careers. The feeling was that we were all in this together and all had something to contribute. I miss those days.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

John Fahey and Robbie Basho

Robbie BashoIn the mid 1970s I was a big fan of guitarist John Fahey and Robbie Basho. I had written to Basho and asked to visit him and we set a date. In those days hitchhiking down from Vancouver to Berkeley was pretty easy. He lived in a rather suburban part of Berkeley in a lovely old house full of Asian knick-knacks. We spent a day together talking about music and he sang and played for me. I can’t remember if I played for him, but probably did as I had my dulcimer with me. We had quite an intense deep conversation about music and the business of music. He was not happy that people didn’t accept his singing as much as he wanted. Yet, he was a delightful person, very warm and welcoming. The heart that is heard in his music was definitely a large part of him.

Both Fahey and Basho were leading proponents of the American guitar raga style, which later became to be known as American Primitivism. Leo Kottke and Sandy Bull were well known names of this style. Basho was perhaps the most influenced by Indian raga, whereas Fahey embraced more Old Timey and Bluegrass elements into his long rambling pieces.

Basho mentioned that Fahey was performing in a small theatre in a town close to San Francisco, so I decided to catch the show. I arrived at a funky theatre out in the middle of nowhere quite early and there was no one there, but a poster told me I was in the right place. I remember sitting in the sun eating a fresh avocado with fresh lemon on it, thinking how wonderful California was. I found a place to store my pack, but kept my dulcimer with me.

After awhile the audience started to arrive and the doors opened, I got my ticket in the front row and was pretty excited. The show was a bit delayed, and then a cartoon came on and then another and the crowd was getting a bit restless. I saw what I thought was the organizer in the wings in a panic. I went by the side of the stage and heard that Fahey had not arrived yet, that he had gone to the wrong airport and he wouldn’t arrive for another 50 minutes or so. So I went up to the organizer and asked if I could help as I had my instrument. He looked at me in surprise and said, “I don’t know who the hell you are or what the freak that instrument is, but get onstage now!”

So I opened for Fahey. I played for almost an hour and as my style on the dulcimer was not that different to what Fahey did on the guitar, the audience ate it up. I had a huge standing ovation. Coming off stage the organizer asked me what I wanted for saving his butt. I simply asked to meet Fahey. So after the show he took me up to the dressing room. Fahey was in the middle of a heated discussion with another guy, who was arguing that that Basho was playing American Indian modes. Fahey was saying that there were no such thing as proper modes in American Indian music, and asked me what I thought. Answering carefully, I told him that as far as I knew, American Indians didn’t play Greek Modes. Fahey interpreted that as confirmation of his argument, and we became instant friends. We talked for a while and he invited my down to stay at his house in Santa Monica a week later. I went down and we spent about three days mostly talking and eating.

John FaheyI kept in regular touch with Fahey and a few years later he came to Vancouver for a fundraiser, playing the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the largest theatre in town. I went to meet him first at his hotel room and then to dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Chinatown. The charity had provided a stretch limo for him, so we rode in style. Arriving at the restaurant, the owners looked at my long hair and Fahey’s ragged blue jeans and put us at a table away from the other customers. We ordered and they served us in the worst of the abrupt Chinese manner. But the food was good and we didn’t care. Because of the service we didn’t tip as we left and climbed back into our limo. As we were leaving I drew everyone’s attention to the window of the restaurant where the whole staff were lined up staring at us in obvious shock, probably horrified that they didn’t treat us well enough to get a big tip.

Arriving at the theatre, Fahey asked me to join him backstage, and watch the show from the wings. He pulled out his guitars and then cut the strings off with wire clippers, put new strings on and played for about an hour to warm up the strings. We talked very little, and I sat listening to the most amazing music I had ever heard him play. It was pure improvisation and he flew across the fretboard, just doing amazing things. I was in a state of bliss and awe by the time he was ready to walk on stage.. It was a good concert, but lacked to brilliance I had just heard, as he played all the pieces on his albums almost note for note.

After the show he complained about the audience, saying that they wouldn’t let him improvise, that all they wanted to hear were his hits. He said this was old music and he wanted to show them new material, but his audiences just weren’t open to that. In some shows he had started to curse and insult his audiences for shouting out names of old pieces, as he was deeply frustrated. Over the years he struggled with his audiences, his music, his relationship and with life in general. Yet, I knew a deeply passionate, warm-hearted man who bordered on genius and just wanted to be supported to fly.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

Bai Konte and John Jacob Niles

In the Mid 70s, I was finishing college in Toronto, and was wondering what to do with the approaching summer when I happened on an article in a 1968 National Geographic magazine on the American singer, composer and ballad collector John Jacob Niles. I had been playing Appalachian dulcimer for a number of years and when I saw a picture of Niles playing a dulcimer made from a cello body, I was fascinated. The article mentioned that he lived in Louisville Kentucky, not a far bus ride from Toronto. So I called Louisville directory assistance (for the young folks reading this, this was an operator that would find any number for you) and got his phone number. I promptly called him, and asked if I could come visit, as I was a dulcimer player. Surprisingly he said yes. Corresponding with his wife by mail we set up the date and time a few weeks after I finished my courses.

KonteAs school finished, I went to the Mariposa Folk Festival on Centre Island, which was featuring Pete Seeger, kora player Bai Konte, dulcimer legend Jean Ritchie, eclectic multi-instrumentalist Ken Bloom (whom I later played with on other festival stages). I spent most of one day just hanging out with Bai Konte. He played an early set and then simply walked off stage to a nice spot under the trees and continued to play his kora. I followed him and sat listening to him play and tell stories till dusk. Konte was the first kora player to tour the west and he already had a huge reputation, yet he was a very approachable man that had the time for anyone that had the time to sit with him.

The next day I quickly met Jean Ritchie and told her I was going to meet John Jacob and a young woman overheard our conversation and inquired when and how I was going to do that. It turned out she was a Doctor living in Louisville and had a big house and offered me a place to stay and a ride out to John Jacob’s farm as it was quite far out of town. A couple of weeks later I took a bus to Louisville and a cab to her house. I arrived a few days early and spent most of my time sitting on her beautiful covered porch playing my dulcimer and talking to people that stopped to listen. The weather was warm, the birds and insects sang with my music, and I could see myself sitting on this porch for the rest of my life without a care in the world.

I was glad for the ride on the day we went to see John Jacob, as his house was down a long twisted road past tobacco fields and stone fences. Life was slow there; we drove past an old man sitting on a fence on the way down and he was still there many hours later as we drove back.

NilesWe arrived at John Jacob’s and he welcomed us in and showed me his instruments, which were just astounding. You can see pictures of them here. He was very polite to me, but he clearly was more interested in my companion. He then spent about two hours singing song after song to her, and telling her stories of his life. I didn’t mind to be a fly on the wall, as his voice was beautiful and it was a magical moment. Unfortunately I found it somewhat tricky to play his dulcimers, as they were only fretted for the chords he played, and I was more of a melodic player. But to see and hold them was a great experience, as each was unique.

We left feeling pretty honoured to have a private concert. We decided to press our luck and also seek out Homer Ledford, a well-known dulcimer maker in the region, and after a bit of driving around found his farm, talked to him a bit and had him play for us, and I played for him. But John Jacob’s music was still in our ears.

Arriving back at my hosts home, she told me that as a modern professional woman she rejected the “Southern Gentleman’s” methods of treating women, which John Jacob embodied earlier that day, but as he was a senior and such a great singer, she suspended her judgment and enjoyed the experience.

I kept in touch with John Jacob by mail over the years, but was never able to return. I can hear him still.

A review of a book on Niles

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014

John Glenn – Astronaut

When I was about 8 both my mother and father were in the car business, but in different lots in Vancouver, Canada.  My mum worked mainly as a bookkeeper at an exclusive lot that specialized in the NSU Prinz and a couple of other rare cars.  The Prinz was a small German built car that had great gas mileage. They could float as well.

glennOne day an American came in to buy a car and all the salesmen were busy so my mum took care of him. He was interested in the Prinz, This was in 1959 or 60, my mother was perplexed why he wanted a small car when there were a lot of big cars on the market. She quickly found out that the man was Friendship 7 astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth (1962), so he was quite used to small spaces.

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Betty Reusch driving an NSU Prinz

Glenn loved his Prinz, but he received a lot of verbal jabs from the other American muscle car driving astronauts. He became a family friend, and I remember meeting him a couple of times.

© R. Raine-Reusch 2014