In the fall of 1975, 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.
Karl 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.
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