GORDON: First off, congratulations on the publication of your new book, Ghost Farm, by Pleasure Boat Studio. Cynthia Hogue wrote, “These poems have
the crystalline elegance of folklore, yet Stewart also meticulously details the
dailiness of life on a farm.” That combination of celebrating the everlasting
amidst the ever-birthing-dying pours out on every page like the heart of a
joyous discovery. I thought of Gautama under the Bodhi Tree and Demeter at Eleusis reunited with Persephone.
(JODY) STEWART: Oh, thank you Kirpal. I was so happy to publish this book and
Pleasure Boat Studio is a press I greatly admire. Supremely eclectic! Being
naïve and ignorant and then suddenly caught up in raising animals has been
profound for me: joyous, painful and accountable for my mistakes in a whole new
way. If that soft red tube goes into a lung, I kill the lamb. If it doesn’t, I
shape a good chance for its survival. Daily. But for health reasons I can’t
really work in the barn anymore (pigeons, can you believe it?) and the farm is
winding down. I miss it and I sure was in better shape when I did more
chores.Yet it never leaves my
consciousness. And in August we had a miracle lamb which meant some Ram got out
or had a long reach last March. Mary-- a Karakul/Shetland cross whose birth
cheered up everyone.
GORDON: Taking care of animals is an ancient lifestyle and may lend a note to
what Hogue called your “crystalline elegance of folklore.” Here’s an example
that knocked me out:
PAGE BY PAGE
child’s tipped paperweight, snow drifts behind
village church into the dark green forest.
pews, a woman in her red
smock sweeps away pine needles, dust, hair-
pins and a
few scraps of paper. She’s humming O Holy
At the edge
of this picture book, a wolf paces his thicket.
to curl safely into warm sleep
need more than snow to drink so twice a day
presses the heavy door outward,
buckets of warm water to the noisy flock.
paperweight tilts on her dresser.
this child forks the worst of the stained bedding
bred ewe’s fold, tipping her basket
frozen pile out back. One day, caught in the straw:
spine, wrinkled nut of a head, four hooves
slathered red. Poor ewe bleating and turning.
cold or stuck in small enclosures:
a farm, its
fold, the paperweight and page. So the wolf
the white meadow beyond manure stream.
the lamb’s blood. You smell it too as your hand
the cold jug of vodka hidden behind the family Bible.
cohere cinematically while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Even the
title, “Page by Page,” had me hooked.
(JODY) STEWART: Oh titles are always a dilemma. I thought of it as an
illustration, but couldn’t use that (again) as a title and in truth the poem
was inspired by a full-page magazine ad for Vodka with lots of white sheep
faces and a single wolf face captured in the bottle behind glass. As though
being the bold and beautiful wolf made you the exception and yet how
threatening is the notion of a wolf-in-a bottle for the person who needs to
“un-friend” the booze.I liked the
picture’s ambiguity which has nothing to do with the sort of fairy-tale quality
which took over the coloration of the poem. As I’ve pondered these references
to folklore I realize how much I have been influenced by fairy tales and the
pictures they made in my mind. Also in many of my poems, for reasons I don’t
quite get, there is an undercurrent of threat to children which may arise from
these same stories as well as how my psyche is compelled to translate them.
GORDON: Undercurrents are everywhere, especially in what Hogue called “the
dailiness of life on a farm.” Here’s my favorite in the collection:
I have a farm
in Hawley, Massachusetts.
built and done is daily:
goats sheep chickens dogs
and always that
envelopes papers checkbook pens.
perches solid and cheerful
north side of HogMountain (though we are
pigless in paradise).
In cold seasons
and shed can be seen from the Mohawk Trail.
As I work I
feel the distinctly
nipple of my radiated breast beneath my short.
scars begin to fade, the skin
blushed and tender.
dragging chemo months
I did few
chores. There are still smells
sicken me: diesel, tea tree oil,
human shit, and scented dryer sheets.
ecstatic now to have an inch of hair!
were quite okay.
another kind of job.
Today I’m joyous in
or sorting fleeces. Daily
the funny numbness in my arm:
of the now I’m in ---
chocolate, dogs, for daily breath
extending hills beyond.
Jody, what a gutsy tale of recovery, joy and renewal.
(JODY) STEWART: Funny, the poem Daily came both easily and awkwardly. You can
never forget you are writing a “cancer poem” and for me I became self-conscious
because cancer and being part of that community is mighty powerful stuff.I had a truly fortunate experience always
knowing, it’s very, very often not like that for others. Still, I knock on wood
. . . .But getting hair back really can
make you laugh!My hair came in silver--
like a tv senator’s—and curly (not uncommon.) So I guess this poem is actually
true in its jauntiness.But I’m still
sensitive to smells and Ed says that after chemo, I became a more aggressive
GORDON: Tony Hoagland called the collection, “…deeply internal and intensely
lyrical, while at the same time stitched with the thread of myth, story-telling
and country lore.” What do you say to that?
(JODY) STEWART: To be honest? I say that sounds like a blurb (but, bless him,
one for which I was grateful.)And
again, I am not sure what is country lore. That sounds like a magazine, but the
details are not lore, not stories, they are things you touch and clean up and
smell. If the fleeces “skirt themselves” that’s fantasy and wishful thinking
because really skirting a fleece for hand spinners is tedious and time
consuming, though very nice to do because mohair and wool are so alive! I agree
that the poems are internal – at least for me—as each one has more within its
motive and need than I am usually able to say in the individual poem. Rarely do
I think a poem covers everything I meant to get done.
GORDON: In a recent local article on Ghost
Farm, you were asked whether you think of
yourself primarily as a poet or a farmer, and you laughed and said, “I know
other people for whom poetry is their all-consuming life. It’s not my all
consuming thing. It’s a part of me.” The distinction between being consumed by
poetry versus poetry being a part of you is made so much clearer by a poem
the rain-washed hillside the goats flow
in that famous, diamond-tough fiber
Solomon’s Song. Its blaze shines
as first love. I remember
my halo-ed sweater felt, how it held
those kisses of fright and need.
big buck watches from his pen.
waiting for longer, colder nights
his scent drifts downwind.
tattered doe, fleece torn by fever, also waits
that shortened day which stuns.
a cry from a distant forest.
apples call the goats to graze.
bright hair flows. These goats
in my charge --- sheltered, not quite safe.
it’s the combination of the goats being “in your charge” with the lyric you
make of their dilemma that makes a poem no one but you could write. I mean it’s
music while also being scary and utterly real!
(JODY) STEWART:I would like to celebrate angora
goats even more with words; they are lovely animals but are probably best
comprehended through sight and touch. We had a funny start with goats having
picked up 9 cull does from a university which was disbanding goats. They were
in god-awful shape, unshorn, no feet trimmed for a year easily, poorly fed and
they were all bred! The sense of their fragility, and for some a bitter
struggle to stay alive through a tough winter and birthing. A lot of their kids
were very frail and some died. I think that set me up for the powerful sense of
responsibility husbandry requires. When I am with the animals, or the memory of
our experiences, I feel farmer.When I muse or ponder or am stirred to even
a few words I feel – well not exactly poet, but possible poet: poem-writer.
It gets all
mixed up which is just how it goes.
GORDON: I think I last saw you in New York City when you gave a reading in midtown
in the early Eighties. I think you were en route to Cornwall, thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship,
and I know you lived in the UK for seven years. What caused you to
return to the States, to Hawley (near where you grew up) and to farming?
(JODY) STEWART: I had the glorious Guggenheim though no job and as usual felt
something of a misfit. When I traveled I met Ed—it was all very romantic,
though now it’s nearly 30 years and many stories later – so I went and lived in
Cornwall for 7 years.That was wonderful for me, though often
difficult. I thought I’d lean at a window watching the sea and write great
stuff! Be somebody! Instead I learned to make scones for Ying Chang who ran a
little English café while her husband ran the Chinese restaurant. Oddly, I
think Ying was the first Asian woman I ever really talked to. She was important
to me. Anyway, the Thatcher years had caused dismal economics and fishing
wasn’t much good where Ed worked so after returning for my Grandmother’s
memorial service Ed decided we should move, I wasn’t so sure as I’d finally
settled in.But we did come to western Massachusetts where my heart lives when it’s in America and eventually we found a place
with quite a bit of land and lots of privacy and that’s how Tregellys Farm
started. With no electricity, no phone, gravity feed water and no idea what the
bugger hell we were doing except that we would get a few llamas because they
were cool. Then we attended the Heath fair in 1994 and returned with two Tamworth pigs and a pair of old-style Merino
wethers. And it was active addiction from then on . . . . We had no idea where
this would lead and had lots of ideas none of which became money-makers, but
hey- “that’s farming.” However I am solidly aware that we were in the
“gentleman’s” category compared to the local dairy farmers in this area who
have kept their small farms going with a kind of grit and hard work I can’t
begin to fathom.
was attracted to Hawley because great potatoes have grown here.It’s also tiny, all edge, no center. However,
I’ve been an infrequent writer since life is very busy and mostly I’d just as
soon sit down and read quietly with no one bothering me. Around 2001-2 we got a
few yaks and through that met a number of Tibetans which is another story
entirely. What can I say – it started with Ed going yak shopping and returning
with two boys, Rupert and Horatio. Of course the little weekly newspaper took a
photo and the next week, while having a cup of tea we looked out our window and
saw a pair of monks striding past. They’d come to see yaks which they’d had not
seen since they escaped to India. It was like breathing a moment of
home for them.Before long we had a
family live with us temporarily and another friend, a brilliant stonemason, has
been living with us for about ten years now. While we are not real practicing
Buddhists, we have a beautiful stupa on the farm which stands as a 9/11
memorial among other things. Here and there are prayer flags which continually
get blown to pieces on windy HogMountain. Which is the whole idea.
GORDON: I recall you as a great creative writing teacher, open minded about form
and content as opposed to representing a theoretical stance. In the era of the
alleged “po wars,” such candor was especially courageous and skillful. Do you still
(JODY) STEWART: No I don’t teach. Sometimes I chat with friends about their
work where I hope I am of occasional use and also ask for suggestions from them.
I have no theoretical stances. I’m not sure if I even have ideas about poems or
literature. I am intrigued by much but think some of it is just a great big
bunch of publishing fussiness. Some of it can be interesting though. I believe
in “Art” sometimes, because that impulse matters –- caring beyond the self
matters. But not every worthy poem or poetic impulse is “Art”; why should it
be? –that doesn’t mean our endeavors can’t have a perfectly good life of their
own and earn our affection and respect.
GORDON: What do you make of American poetry these days?
(JODY) STEWART: American poetry?
lot of it! If it were ice-cream flavors we’d be flat on our backs. It’s varied,
a wilderness, so many voices that were once “marginal” are right out there--
you could read forever so I think we are lucky. But it’s also overwhelming so I
find it difficult to sense if one thing is more important than another –cliché
or not, I usually just like what I like.Then there are those blows from above like (non American) Fawsi Karim’s
The Plague Lands which reminds me why “Art” is real and noble so I am deeply,
GORDON: Since the mid-Seventies, you have published a number of chapbooks as
well as five full-length collections of poetry, the last of which was The Red Window, University of Georgia Press, in ’97. What projects are on your
horizon and how can Giant Steps readers stay in better touch with all of what
(JODY) STEWART: Well, I have been working sporadically on a New and Selected
sort of project at the urging of a few friends. It’s really hard because it’s
important to me to have poems genuinely mine and not much influenced or helped
by early teachers. Also I don’t have a big batch of “new” so I may never accomplish
this. I haven’t published in magazines much lately though I am willing to try
again this year. Also I am the literary executor of the poet Lee McCarthy and
there is a folder of really delightful letters between her and Guy Davenport
which I’d like to shape and offer somewhere. I just haven’t tackled it because
I haven’t any house elves to take up the slack.Also my elderly Mom lives with me, my husband’s not too well, and we
have 9 dogswho require letting in and
letting out continually and our resident boy, Tenzin, is
still in school.But I lead a most
fortunate life.Thank you for letting
me ramble on!
GORDON: You’re known as a pianist of great renown in New York jazz circles, but
the larger and less known fact is that you’ve been in the music game at just
about every level over the last fifty plus years: playing drums in your junior
high school band in Brooklyn, and upon high school graduation, the Concord
Hotel in the borscht belt where you drummed for every possible stage act;
studied under Mo Goldenberg at the Manhattan School of Music; joined the trio
of Pepe Morreale, Carol Channing’s musical director and pianist; toured with
the All American Big Brass Band in sixteen African countries in ’64 followed
by two years as drummer with cornetist Bobby Hackett, an incredible player,
before taking your first piano lessons with Lennie Tristano while earning a BS
from Hofstra in Musical Education in ’67 and an MA in Composition from Queens
College (CUNY) in ’71 where you wrote “Emily Dickinson Songs for Soprano and
Orchestra” based on ten of her poems and four years later you became Director of Jazz Studies with Frank Foster, the legendary composer-arranger-saxophonist for the
Count Basie band. Let me stop here and ask:
What was it
like touring Africa in the Sixties?
What was it
like being on the road with Hackett?
inspired the change from the drum kit to the piano?
What was it
like studying with the blind and one-of-a-kind Tristano?
What was it like
building the Queens program with Foster?
been your favorite learning experience?
been your favorite teaching experience?
ELMER: My three-month 1964 tour as one of three drummers (I was the jazz man)
with the All American Big Brass Band was spectacular.We played all kinds of music for all kinds of
people in all kinds of indoor and outdoor places.We saw modern cities and primitive
villages.We saw prosperity and
poverty.The people were friendly and
receptive and the human spirit was on display every step along the way.When I got home, however, I realized for the
first time in my life how lucky I was to live in the United States of America.
years I spent playing drums with Bobby Hackett were wonderful.He was a warm and lyrical player and a modest
and soft-spoken man who treated me with respect and kindness.I loved him and his music and I learned a lot
playing with him.The road is the road
and is always difficult.If the music is
good, then everything else is bearable.
from drums to piano came as a result of a number of different experiences.I loved playing the drums as a rhythm section
member and as a soloist.But the
relationship between the drums and me had always included playing music to make
a living.I started playing at age
thirteen and my first gig came a short time later.By the time I was twenty-five, I was tired of
the music business and the life of the business of music.So my goal was get a college degree, become a
music teacher so I could have a more stable life, study piano, and eventually
stay home and play Mozart sonatas.I
made that choice around 1965 and it turned out to be a much more complicated
decision than I could have ever imagined.
Lennie Tristano through a wonderful bass player named Sonny Dallas.Sonny was Lennie’s bass player at the time
(1964) and recommended me for a gig with Lennie’s quintet to play at the Half
Note.I went out to Lennie’s house with
my drums and played with Lennie, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Sonny.As it turned out, I couldn’t do the gig
because I was leaving for the Africa tour and it conflicted with the Half Note gig dates.
So in early
1965 I started studying jazz piano with Lennie Tristano. Lennie was
a brilliant man who developed a uniquely comprehensive method of teaching how
to play jazz.He was also the most
well-read person I had ever met.It was
he who introduced me to the poems of Emily Dickinson and a number of other
literary figures ranging from Sappho to James Joyce.My musical studies included learning scales
and chords, ear training, listening to and learning to absorb the music of the
great jazz masters, and discovering the meaning of commitment to one’s chosen
art.It was an extremely important
period in my musical development.After
six years of studying with Lennie I decided to go my own way, a decision I’ve
I wrote the
four-year Bachelor of Jazz Studies curriculum at QueensCollege in 1974 and asked Frank Foster to
join me as the second faculty member. Frank focused on arranging and
composition and I focused on improvisation and theory as well as my
responsibilities as the program’s director.Frank was a wonderful tenor and soprano sax player and a fine
composer.He was also a very lovely man,
soft spoken and sensitive. Beginning in September of 1975 we began teaching the
first B.A. in Jazz Studies majors at QueensCollege.During the spring and summer of 1976 there was a budget crisis in New
York City, all non-tenured faculty of the City University of the City of New
York were fired, and all new programs, including ours, were cancelled.That was that.We taught the program for one year and were
out of a job.
teaching and learning experience was when I taught music appreciation at KingsboroughCommunity College in Brooklyn in the evening division.I’ve always loved teaching, especially
general music or music appreciation, music for students who don’t know a lot
about music and are waiting to be introduced to the great pleasures of the
art.In this particular instance I used
one class session to play a video of Puccini’s La Boehme and asked the class to
give feedback on their impressions.One
student loved the opera and was particularly touched by the idea of the tragedy
of friendship’s being truly realized only after the death of the main
character.Another student argued that
La Boehme was simply a tragedy of life and that Madame Butterfly was a real
tragedy.The discussion lasted quite a
while and sides were formed.There was
no resolution but the interaction was priceless.Sometimes musicians forget what their
audiences are actually experiencing.
GORDON: In 1976 you took a break from playing professionally? What brought you
back to music in ’91?
ELMER: After I lost my job at QueensCollege I became the house drummer/piano
player at a loft jazz place called Jazzmania.It was a wonderful scene for quite a while, a sort of ongoing open jam
session for instrumentalists, singers, poets, dancers, and a variety of
aspiring artists from all over the world.But the scene’s dynamics began to change with the business side getting
more attention than the creative side, and I started looking for something else
to do.I heard about something called
“court reporting,” a profession where you could work only a few days a week and
earn a full-time salary with plenty of flexibility to pursue your more creative
needs.So in March of 1977 I entered
court reporting school and learned how to use the stenographic machine to take
down the spoken words of various speakers in a shorthand that I and some trained
typists could read.I ended up being a
free lance court reporter for ten years, taking down the words of people as
varied as Phoebe Snow, Bob Guccione, and Richard Nixon.I also became the chief contract negotiator
for the court reporter’s union and had many interesting experiences learning
many things that I never knew existed in the world.As it turned out, the idea that I could do
this job only when I wanted to work was a complete illusion.First of all, the work demanded skills on the
machine equal to those of playing the piano.I had to practice the machine to keep my speed up just so I could keep
working.I managed to keep playing the
piano but it was not on what you would call a professional level.I enjoyed the ten years, met many interesting
people, got to travel some, and made many court reporting friends.But in 1987 I started to look for another way
to make a living.
married to Olivia Stockard in 1986 (more about that later) and my life changed
dramatically again.Olivia had
originally played piano and violin, had a beautiful singing voice, and was a
first class musician.She too, however,
wanted a more stable life and had switched from being a violin major in college
to getting advanced degrees in English.Her ambition was to become a college professor but she ended up working
as a training specialist for a major bank in New York City, wrote a book about business
writing, and started her own training and communications consulting
practice.I began helping her with
sales, eventually learned how to do word processing and graphic design to some
extent and ended up becoming her partner in a training and communications
consulting firm called Stockard-Elmer & Company, Inc.The company offers training seminars in
business writing, presentation skills, and other workplace training subjects.
We incorporated in 1990 and have been in business ever since then. You can find
our company on the web at http://www.Stockard-Elmer.com.
these years I continued playing whenever I could but did not do many gigs.One exception, however, was that I played at
an annual fund raiser for The Brooklyn Heights Music Society and The Brooklyn
Heights Orchestra.I became involved
with them because Olivia was playing violin in the orchestra and I actually
took over the management of the organization for a while.So I was playing a solo piano spot at this
fund raiser and Myles Weinstein, a young drummer who liked my playing, asked me
if I’d be interested in getting together to jam.I agreed, we played, and that led to putting
together a group called The Jazz Mentality featuring a young Chris Potter on
saxes, Myles on drums, Ralph Hamperian on bass, and me.That was the first time I started playing
professionally after a long hiatus.
GORDON: What was it like playing and recording with The Jazz Mentality? A few
years later you made three incredible CDs with your own jazz trio which
featured Hide Tanaka on bass and Shingo Okudaira on drums playing your original
compositions. I’ve played those CDs, well reviewed and highly regarded, over
and over and I’ve seen you three play in all kinds of settings. If a jazz trio,
following the approach of Bill Evans, is at its best when all three work so
well they create a fourth “player” or element, then you, Hide and Shingo are
right up there. How long was your run together?
about Chris Potter, that he was a young saxophone player who had just come to New York and was clearly a special
player.I had known Ralph for a number
of years and always liked his playing.It was a great experience for me in a number of ways.First, I got to play with people I enjoyed
playing with, hard swinging improvising jazz musicians.Second, I had a working group to try out many
compositions I had written in the past and many new compositions I wrote
because I had a group to play them.We
played together for a few years and had a great time.Chris went on to gain the accolades he so richly
deserved.Ralph is a busy bass/tuba
player in New York and we play together every once in
a while.Myles became president of
Unlimited Myles, an International Jazz and Booking Agency, a business he
started on his own and built into a successful operation.The Jazz Mentality had a lot of fun and made
a lot of good music.It was a real treat
to be part of the group and the experience motivated me to continue playing and
Elmer Trio was formed in 2005 and we played our last gig together in July,
2010.The time between was a very
creative time for me.I’ve known and
played with Hide Tanaka for many years.He introduced me to Shingo Okudaira and after we played together as a
trio a few times, I knew I was musically happier than I had been in a long time
and I wanted to play with Hide and Shingo regularly.The triorecorded three CDs together, independent recordings, no label.Each CD features my compositions exclusively,
something I’mparticularly proud
of.The conventional wisdom is to record
albums that include standards with a few originals, if any.But I have written a lot of tunes, I like
them, Hide and Shingo liked playing them, and I decided to do what I’d be happy
“I Used To Be Anonymous” in 2006,“Fire
Down Below” in 2008, and “Jazz Life:Live at Cleopatra’s Needle” in 2012, a few days before Shingo moved back
to Japan with his family.You can hear samples of these three
recordings at http://www.cdbaby.com/artist/TheSteveElmerTrio.
I really enjoyed the five
years we played together.We made a lot
of creative music.But our three-week
tour of Japan in 2007 was a unique experience and
a special highlight for me.Wherever we
played we had a recently tuned grand piano, a first class sound system, and
audiences that were made up of true jazz lovers.We had a terrific time and were treated with
great respect and admiration.I still
play with Hide frequently and hope to play with Shingo again in the
future.It was a wonderful trio,
swinging and musical, and everyone got an opportunity to stretch out and
explore.I’ve never thought about the
‘”fourth player or element” before and really appreciate your comment.I certainly have felt that, playing in a live
setting, but have missed the thought when it comes to recordings.Thanks again for the insight.Hope other listeners will feel the same when
they get a chance to hear what we’ve done.
GORDON: Let’s talk for a minute about the intersection of jazz and classical.
In addition to all the works already cited, talk about your incredibly talented wife and life partner, Olivia Stockard. How
long have you two been together?
ELMER: Olivia and I met in August of 1985 at a chamber music camp for adults in
Bennington, Vermont.She was there as a registered student playing violin in a string
quartet.I was there as a paying
customer with no affiliation but trying out the idea of playing piano in a
classical setting.I was at breakfast
the first or second day when Olivia stopped by and casually demonstrated some
technical detail to the people I was sitting with.I was hooked and followed her movements for
the rest of the week waiting for an opportunity to speak to her.As it turned out, the last night of our week
at the camp there was a party and I was playing some solo jazz piano.She passed by, said “you play very well,” and
walked out of the room.I stopped
playing, ran after her, got her number, and we were married a year later.
Yes, we are
partners in every way -- marriage, music, and business.Olivia is a first class violinist and pianist
and she and I have played chamber music together and with other players from
time to time over the years.She has
always had a beautiful voice and in 2009 decided to seriously pursue that path
and began studying with a voice teacher in New York.I have become her “live-in accompanist” and my musical life once again
has been completely transformed.
liked classical vocal music but have never really paidmuch attention to it.Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Helen Humes,
Billy Eckstein, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, and jazz singers like that are the
ones I’ve heard the most.But
discovering the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss and the
poetry they’ve used as texts for their compositions (not to mention the operas
of Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi) has simply blown me away and given me a
very new musical outlook.
intersection of jazz and classical, as you put it, has become deeper and more
entwined between Olivia and me more than ever before.It is a blessing that I have a wife and
partner who I can be so completely compatible with on a day-to-day basis, one
who appreciates our differences and similarities and is able to ride the roller
coaster over and over again.
GORDON: I also know that for many years you’ve been playing locally in
restaurants around your home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, both as a solo pianist and with
bands. What’s that been like? You also play Dixieland music with the Creole
Cookin’ Jazz band at Arthur’s Tavern in the WestVillage regularly, yes?
ELMER: Well, I love to play, period.I’m
happiest when I’m making music.As most
musicians know, professional opportunities are hard to come by and the life of
a working music is not an easy one.There is always a big gap between the music business and the playing of
music.Unfortunately, if past history is
any indication, these two components of a musician’s life seem destined to be
linked together forever.So for most
professional players it’s simple:if
you’ve got a gig, life is good.If you
don’t have a gig, life is not so good.
played or was particularly interested in Dixieland.I listened to Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines,
James P. Johnson, and many, many others as part of my development as a jazz
piano player, but basically the two periods of jazz that formed my musical
foundation were swing and bebop.So when
I started playing with the Creole Cookin’ Jazz Band in March of 2001, I was
pretty ignorant of the repertoire.I did
my homework to some extent, learned a lot of tunes I didn’t know, and found
that I loved what I was learning and what I was playing.First of all, working with the same core
group of musicians once a week, year after year, allows you to develop and
grow, to try things out and discover and refine your own voice in a style that
is not initially yours.
I’ve come to discover about the music of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, which is really
what we play in this band, is that there is an incredible amount of variety
beyond “When The Saints Go Marching In.”Actually, we rarely play that tune.But we do play tunes by W.C. Handy, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Earl
Hines, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Hoagy Carmichael, to name a
few.So I’ve had this steady Sunday gig,
playing on a real piano from at Arthur’s Tavern most Sundays
since 2001.It continues to be a fun
place to play and an ongoing source of personal development and satisfaction.
GORDON: So what’s the biggest change you’ve witnessed over the years in
music---performing, training, cultural impact, quality of life, touring,
composing, arranging, recording, leading a band, being a sideman? In what
directions do you see the future of jazz going?
ELMER: The biggest change in jazz training that I have seen has been the growth
of degree-granting jazz programs at the college level.My impression is the students who come out of
those programs are knowledgeable of jazz history, highly skilled in
instrumental technique and harmony, and well aware of the business side of
music and its many challenges, and seem enthusiastically willing to take on the
reality of the marketplace.
As far as
changes in performance, I think knowledge is a good thing but experience is a
far more important element in artistic development.My concern, one I’ve had for a long time, is
that it’s hard to find a fresh voice or a lot of variety in the midst of all
these well-educated youngjazz players
and singers.Sometimes a lack of formal
knowledge can be an asset, forcing an artist to rely on instinct and what sounds
and feels good to him or her rather than something that can be explained with a
detailed analysis of the form and chord structure.Let me say simply that I believe in the old
fashioned approach to jazz which is basically play the melody, improvise, tell
a story, and make it swing.I also
believe that any great art comes from artists who have something to say.In my mind, there is a tradition in jazz
linking one era to another, each new era building on elements of the era that
preceded it.I don’t think we have an
era right now, just a lot of people trying a lot of different things and
calling it jazz.Hopefully, one of these
days someone will revisit what came before and discover something that inspires
them to create something new.
GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay in closer touch with all that you do?
ELMER: Thanks for this opportunity to let people know about me and my
music.I really appreciate it and hope
readers enjoyed the interview.
GORDON: You’re the trifecta in jazz: a composer of
renown, a dedicated educator at the NewSchool among other programs
and a dazzling pianist with incredible chops. How did you manage all three? How
did you get your start and how long did it take before you got to the Big Apple?
Diane leading her big band; photo credit, Chris Drukker
MOSER: Thanks, Kirpal, for those kind and enthusiastic words! For me, it all
started with my grandmother giving me her Baldwin Hamilton upright piano when I
was 5 years old, which my parents did not want in the living room, so they put
it in my room, which was so small that when I pulled the piano bench out there
was no room left in the room! However, because of that, I played the piano
every morning, and night. I didn’t know how to read music, so I invented
my own notation based on the hand movements of my kindergarten music teacher.
My first song was about birds, which funny enough I’m back to working on---this
time as a grown-up! I composed constantly, mostly about birds, weather, trees
and stories that I would make-up and compose the music to accompany. When they
finally sent me to a piano teacher, who showed me what notated music was about,
it was a lot like my system, but with staves, I was very relieved to find that
out. After that I did the usual route of piano lessons, clarinet and then later
bass clarinet in band, taught myself the guitar, flute, cornet, alto sax,
accompanied the choruses, played at church, played in all of the bands and
taught myself along with the help of the dad of one of my friends who was a
bass player how to read chord symbols, that was in the 6th grade. I got my
first solo Jazz piano gig when I was 14 for a private party, I was so thrilled
and so nervous. In high school I worked at a restaurant, and every night in the
bar they had Jazz groups, really great musicians. I was able to listen every
night, and talk with the musicians on my breaks. Finally, one night they let me
sit in, and they asked me what I wanted to play, I told them "Straight, No
Chaser" by Thelonious Monk...just like that...they looked at me with that
skeptical look in their eyes, and then I counted them off at break neck speed
(what was I thinkin’?!) and away we went. It was so thrilling for me to be able
to play with that caliber of musicians. After that, they let me sit in every
night at the end of my shift, I was 15 at the time. The group was comprised of
Sadie Stone, Dan Skultety, Richard Hale and Jay Alcorn, and they took me under
their wings and taught me so much, and introduced me to all of the great
musicians in Des Moines, Iowa (I grew up in Ankeny, just to the north of Des Moines). My high school Jazz band and
chorus teacher was a wonderful bass player who introduced me to the late, great
Jazz pianist Stu Calhoun, who I took a few lessons from, after which he would
send me out to sub for him, I was 16 at the time. After that, I followed what
everyone else did, playing gigs, practicing, transcribing, taking lessons,
worked in rock bands, funk bands, went on the road, went to college, basically
played as much music as possible.
It took me
a while to get to the Big Apple, I wanted to go to college in NYC, but my
parents said I had to stay in Iowa, which turned out to be great
because I met and played with really great musicians in Iowa City.
KIRPAL GORDON: You were in Iowa City in the mid-Seventies doing
undergrad work in music at the university. Those were wild years for the poets
in the writing programs. A lot of those folks loved jazz. I think Don Justice
played piano, too. You had a band named Satori in those years, yes? Had you
begun formal Buddhist meditation practice?
photo credit, Dennis Connors
MOSER: Our trumpet player, Mitch Manker named the band Satori. None of us
practiced Buddhism, and we didn’t think we were exactly enlightened, but we
wanted to be enlightened. I think we went with that name because it represented
going after the truth in music, with free improvisation, really listening to
each other and accepting each other, and creating a sound based on that.
was actually 2 bands in one. Satori, our free form/new forms/improvisatory band
and “Talk of the Town,” our Jazz/Funk/R&B band with the addition of the
great Jazz/R & B singer Ella Ruth Piggee. We worked as much as a Free Jazz
band as we did as a Jazz/Funk/R&B band. The other members were Duncan
Moore-drums, Randy Ward-bass and Bob Schleeter-guitar. We also worked with
poets in town, in both bands actually, but I think we had the most interaction
with poet Gerald Stevenson. Iowa City was a great place to be in the 70s
in terms of emerging new art forms on every level!
As far as
Buddhism is concerned, I meditate and read Tricycle
most everyday. I like the writings of several monks from different traditions,
Shunryu Suzuki…everyone should read Zen
Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron and Anagarika Sri
Munindra. I also read the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of Sufi Order
International. His book, which is really one book and a collection of essays, The Mysticism of Sound and Music, is
also a must read, especially for artists.
I know you moved to the West Coast for awhile and worked in every genre---film,
spoken word, dance, theater and wrote for and led your own bands. What brought
you to Brooklyn?
MOSER: Following a dream is probably the best answer. I knew someone who was
moving from San Diego to NYC, so I decided it was a good
time for me to move too, with my not-yet-2-year-old son in tow. I really loved
the scene in San Diego, but I also craved more music, more
art, more dance, more everything. I knew that being a single mother would mean
I probably wouldn’t be able to play as much, babysitters are very hard to come
by, so I decided that I wanted to be in a place where I would be surrounded by
incredible art, and I wanted to raise my son in that place.
Chad celebrating his mom's one year anniversary, cancer free; photo credit, Diane
GORDON: Your son Chad is a monster on
percussion. What’s it been like raising a son in jazz?
DIANE MOSER: Thanks, Kirpal, I think he’s pretty awesome myself! I took Chad everywhere…on the gig, to concerts,
to workshops and classes I taught. Eleven days after he was born, I put him in
a bulrush basket and went back into rehearsals with the A. Ludwig Dance
Company. A few days after that, I went back to work in a CETA program that was
being facilitated by the Musicians Union with a quartet called The Improvisational
Quartet, with Mark Dresser-bass, Dave Millard-guitar, flute, drums, and Trip
Sprague-saxophone and drums. We played at least one concert a day, sometimes
two, and I would put Chad in a wrap or snuggly and play the
piano. He grew up listening to Jazz and virtually every kind of music possible.
Needless to say, he has an incredible ear and serious skills as a composer as
well. Being a parent is not easy, being a single parent is even harder, and
then you combine that with a musician life style, and that takes some very
creative thinking. We had a lot of ups and downs, and we’re still here,
everything is good, and Chad is the shinning light in my life!
Chad at the turntable, Le Pere Pinard, NYC; photo credit, Diane
GORDON: How did the Composers Forum of Montclair happen? You have a piano
studio there? You’ve been composing, writing arrangements for and leading a big
band, yes, since ’97, and a quintet since ’99? What is Klezpoets? You have a CD
forthcoming of music and short stories?
MOSER: My son and I moved to Montclair in 1988 from Ft.Greene, Brooklyn. I wanted Chad to be able to go outside, ride his
bike, be in nature, but not too far from NYC. There were a lot of us from our
neighborhood who all had children around the same age, and we all moved to Montclair within a few years of each other.
the piano studio there within a few months, and it is still going. It’s moved
around and had additions of instruments, but I’m back to just teaching piano
and composition to people of all ages and all abilities. Many of my students
have gone on to win major awards, produce their own CDs, go on tour, write
music for The History Channel and The Discovery Channel, but many of them just
play music for the love of it. It doesn’t matter what the style, although I
encourage my students to play all styles of music, it matters that they are
learning, doing it and loving it!
months after starting the piano studio I met poet Marilyn Mohr. She was part of
the South Mountain Poets group, and I knew another poet in the group. They all
got together with me for a reading and I accompanied them. Marilyn suggested we
form a duo and named it “Klezpoets.” The poetry is mainly about Jewish life,
but not always, and the music is mainly Jewish music, but not always…occasionally
some Thelonious Monk tunes here and there. We did quite a bit of work together
throughout the 90s.
Composers Big Band started rehearsing in September of 1996 and then we began a
monthly residency at Tierney’s Tavern in January of 1997. In 2003 we moved over
to Trumpets Jazz Club. Most of the time there are 17 of us, but occasionally
we’ve had 19 or 20 sometimes adding French Horn and Tubas. There are 8 of us in
the band who compose, and we have one composer-at-large, who doesn’t play in
the band but writes for us. We’ve had over 100 guest composers and performers,
played Jazz Festivals, created special concerts with film, poets, rappers,
actors and my son on turntables. Our good friend and incredible photographer,
Dennis Connors, who has been documenting the band since the beginning, is working
on a feature documentary about the band.
I wanted to
do the same thing for composers of contemporary classical/new music that I did for
composers of big band music so I created the Composers Forum of Montclair, with
the help of Natascha Radke-Henke and the Central Presbyterian Church of
Montclair, shortly after the formation of the Composers Big Band, and ran them
simultaneously. CF of M only ran 3 years or so, but we produced an amazing
array of concerts, including a concert reading of the opera “Mary Shelley” by
composer Allan Jaffe and librettist Deborah Atherton with a volunteer 10 piece
chamber orchestra and 6 great vocalists.
the quintet with trombonist Ben Williams, also a member of the Composer Big
Band, for the same reason I started the big band and the forum, but for small
ensemble. Starting in 1999, we had a monthly residency at a brew pub in South Orange called the Gaslight Brewery which
lasted for a year, inviting composers to come down with their music and others
to come in and play. By the following year we had settled in as a regular
group, myself, Ben Williams, Bob Hanlon-tenor saxophone, Barbara Allen-drums, Andy
Eulau-bass. We played other venues and concerts, and in 2002 recorded a live CD
called Looking Forward, Looking Back for
Twin Rivers Records. After that, Bob retired and I developed different
versions/personnel of the quintet. In 2003 I was awarded Chamber Music America’s New Works: Creation and
Presentation grant, to write an extended suite for the quintet entitled “Music
for The Last Flower” based on the James Thurber book The Last Flower (1939). The personnel for that includes Ben
Williams-trombone, Mark Dresser-bass, Gerry Hemingway-drums and Marty
Ehrlich-alto sax/clarinet. In 2009, photographer/film maker Dennis Connors
asked me to create the score for his film Breaking
Boundaries: The Art of Alex Masket which you can see on Alex’s website at http://alexmasket.com/index.php?manuf=8.
The film is
about Alex who is a wonderful artist and is severely autistic. It has been
shown all over the world, won many awards including the CINE Golden Eagle Award
for Dennis Connors. The personnel for that soundtrack include Andy Eulau-bass,
Scott Neumann-drums, Rob Henke-trumpet, and Ben Williams-trombone.
The CD you
are referring to about short stories isn’t officially released yet, but it is
called Diane Moser WDMO. Jazz
journalist Elzy Kolb wrote about the stories for each tune in the liner notes,
and Chad did a remix of my poem “One Love.”
You can hear a few tracks of it on my ReverbNation page http://www.reverbnation.com/dianemoser
I did do a
Jazz Theater piece many years ago with Chad, the phenomenal vocalist Lisa
Sokolov and wonderful bassist Andy Eulau at the Luna Stage Theater, I called it
“A Day in the Life of a Jazz Mom.” Lisa and I wove stories and music about
being a Jazz Mom. It was very cool, some day I hope to revive that…especially
since our kids are older, and Lisa’s son Jake plays cello now, so we could
include him as well.
in concert at Klavier House, NYC, with Mark Dresser; photo credit Dennis Connors
GORDON: You’ve also won many awards as a composer and you’ve taught in so many
programs and places and you’ve seen so many changes in the business side of
music. What advice would you give a young musician or composer coming up?
MOSER: The music business is rapidly changing everyday, and I don’t think any
of us can keep up with it. For those who have already completed their bachelor
of arts degree, and or masters, teaching in a K-12 program, or privately, is a
good place to start. It’ll give you enough money to live, while you’re
developing your art. Another avenue is the film and TV business, as well as
advertising. That is constantly changing as well. Or, pick a field that you are
equally passionate about and do that as well. I think having a wide range of
talents and pursing them adds a lot to the music. There are lots of grants you
can apply for as a composer from organizations such as New Music USA, Chamber Music America as well as local arts
organizations. The really important thing is to play and compose music as much
as possible, say yes to as many opportunities as you can, explore and meet
artists of all the disciplines, and keep an eye on what new technologies are
coming out and cultural trends. All of that plays into the way the music
business is taking shape. Artist colonies are great places to get some serious
composing time in and to be inspired by other artists. I am a fellow of the
MacDowell Colony, VirginiaCenter for the Creative Arts and The
Millay Colony, and I highly recommend young artists to apply. Also, think
outside the box…who can you partner with...find non-traditional performance
venues...create collectives…start a series with all of your friends. I’m
fascinated with technology right now, the apps for phones are really great for
sharing live performances, or mixing music right on the spot. It doesn’t
replace a live performance, but it does keep people in the loop, which is so
important in our over-scheduled, busy, hectic lives!
in the recordong studio; photo credit Chris Drukker
GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay in closer contact with all of what you
do? You can find me and my music in lots of different places! I currently teach
at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, the Vermont College of Fine
Arts for their BFA Music Composition program, and in my piano studio in Montclair.
I have some
concerts coming up: tomorrow on Sept 6th at Cornelia Street Cafe at is the CD release performance of
Duetto with virtuoso bassist Mark Dresser, and at with my quintet, this time
featuring Ben Williams-trombone, Mark-Dresser-bass, Anton Denner-alto
sax/clarinet and Michael Sarin-drums. We will be playing “Music for the Last
Flower” and we will be recording it on Sunday the 9th at Tedesco
Studios with almost the original quintet that includes Marty Ehrlich and Gerry
Hemingway. The recording is made possible by a grant from New Music USA CAP Recording Grant and the Mary
Flagler Carey Trust. Here are some links for everyone: