Part 1: Child's Play
When I was a kid, I played trumpet briefly and took a few piano lessons. But I quit both; I was too busy getting in trouble in the streets of Brooklyn with my cousins. I sang in the boys’ chorus in high school and later in several choirs.
My brother was a jazz DJ in New Jersey when I was in my teens, and it was on his late-night radio show that I first heard John Coltrane, Gerry Mulligan, Jim Hall, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans et al. I got to see the Modern Jazz Quartet live, the Thelonious Monk big band at Town Hall and The Dave Brubeck Quartet at the New York World's Fair. For me, Coltrane and the Beatles were on the same plane.
I started college in California as an architecture major, but dropped out to play with an acid-rock band called Mariah. I drove the truck and occasionally sat in on second rhythm guitar. After a while the band mostly played benefit concerts to raise money for radical political causes in the Bay Area.
Part 2: Awakening
Moving home to New York, I studied with legendary guitarist Chuck Wayne, but I also took up the vibraphone, which I’d been drawn to since I first heard Milt Jackson. I enrolled in an improvisation class at the New School. John Cage had just stepped down as the instructor and turned the class over to German piano and vibes player, Karl Berger, who had come to the US with Don Cherry’s all-star international group.
Karl and his wife, the singer Ingrid Sertso, invited me to stay with them in Germany. I spent some time on the European ‘free jazz’ scene and got to sit in with some notable European avant-garde groups, with Don Cherry and a whole community of way-out German players. I found myself at jazz festivals all over Germany, including Berlin, and in Belgium, Holland and Italy.
Returning to the States, I attended Berklee College of Music for a short time and studied briefly with vibraphone legends Gary Burton and David Samuels.
Part 3: Creative Music Studio
I then spent six years studying, teaching, and working as an administrator at the very influential Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. Hundreds of musicians from all over the world came together there in the 1970’s and 80’s, to study and perform with players and composers from the worlds of jazz, contemporary classical, Indian, African, Brazilian, electronic, and other musics. As a member of the CMS Music Universe Orchestra in its various incarnations over a period of 30 years, I performed under the direction of Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, Lee Konitz, Ed Blackwell, Oliver Lake, Don Cherry, Gunther Schuller, Karl Berger, and Frederic Rzewski. I experienced their approaches to performance, conducting, and notation. I performed with the Music Universe Orchestra at Carnegie Recital Hall, Naropa University, the Smithsonian Institution and NYC’s Riverside Church, and in Canada and Europe. By this time the vibraphone had become my instrument, and I sold my guitar in a parking lot to pay for kerosene to heat my cabin in Woodstock. I was trained by Anthony Braxton as a music copyist [in the days of paper and ink] and was part of a team that translated Anthony's his sketches for Music for Four Orchestras into orchestral parts.
Part 4: Self-taught Composer
In 1975 I was hired to play piano for dance classes and I began to write music. I co-founded the Woodstock Music and Dance Ensemble-- seven musicians and four dancers - which was the vehicle for my early compositions. Later, I wrote for the Laredo Dance Company of London, a multi-national ensemble.
In the 1980’s I focused on writing for my quintet, and through the 1990’s, my book of compositions expanded. I developed a contrapuntal style very much influenced by the work of Kenny Wheeler, and my band developed a signature sound. I still play with these same guys from time to time.
Don Davis, Tim Moran, me, Tony Vacca, Tom Schmidt, around 1986
In 1983-84 I made my first recording as a leader, the vinyl LP Gallery of Air. In recent years this record has caught fire with vinyl enthusiasts and record collectors around the world. It amazes me that music I wrote and recorded in 1984 is still finding enthusiastic listeners even now. Gallery of Air was reissued on the Incidental Music label in 2018, and sold out quickly.
Part 5: Not So Serious Any More
I developed a collaboration with Roger 'The Jester' Reed, a unique comic performer of the old school – a jester, a fool, in the traditional European sense. Our group (Jazz+Jest) combines my band with Roger’s juggling, mime, and spontaneous comic antics. He's also a talented musician who plays everything from tuba to kitchen utensils.
Part 6: Larger Ensemble
In 2004 I recorded a CD, October, with a much larger, all-acoustic chamber jazz ensemble, with oboe, bassoon, French horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, cello, violin, piano, vibes, bass and percussion. Out of this concept, the Miniature Orchestra was born, with more complex, extended compositions.
October won the award for “Best Made for Surround Title” at the third annual Surround Music Awards (beating the Rolling Stones!). This CD and the award would not have been possible without the expert assistance of producer/engineer Paul Antonell at Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck, NY, and surround sound guru Rich Tozzoli.
I spent 5+ years as the host of a mega-eclectic weekly radio program in Massachusetts called 'Beauty and the Beat', and did on-air interviews with Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy Cobb, Marvin Stamm, John Pizzarelli, Karl Berger, Tom Schmidt, Tony Vacca, Charles Neville, Michael Pillot, Jeremy Yudkin and many more.
Since the pandemic of 2020, I've been exploring new sounds and compositional techniques, and working on new music for an even more chamber-like ensemble of clarinet and bass clarinet, flugelhorn, recorders, cellos, piano. bass and vibes. I don't know when we'll ever have the opportunity to perform this music, but I'm sure that live concerts will eventually return.
Don Davis, Tom Moran, me, Tony Vacca and Tom Schmidt.