Friday, September 28, 2012

"Elegance of Folklore, Dailiness of Farm Life": An interview with poet Pamela Stewart

KIRPAL 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.

PAMELA (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.

KIRPAL 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:


In the child’s tipped paperweight, snow drifts behind
the glowing village church into the dark green forest.
Between the pews, a woman in her red
housekeeping smock sweeps away pine needles, dust, hair-
pins and a few scraps of paper. She’s humming O Holy Night.

At the edge of this picture book, a wolf paces his thicket.
He’d like to curl safely into warm sleep
but hungers instead.

The geese need more than snow to drink so twice a day
the child presses the heavy door outward,
hauls buckets of warm water to the noisy flock.
The paperweight tilts on her dresser.
Most days this child forks the worst of the stained bedding
From the bred ewe’s fold, tipping her basket
onto the frozen pile out back. One day, caught in the straw:
a curbed spine, wrinkled nut of a head, four hooves
all slathered red. Poor ewe bleating and turning.

Everyone’s cold or stuck in small enclosures:
a farm, its fold, the paperweight and page. So the wolf
steps into the white meadow beyond manure stream.
He smells the lamb’s blood. You smell it too as your hand
reaches for the cold jug of vodka hidden behind the family Bible.

The details cohere cinematically while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Even the title, “Page by Page,” had me hooked.

PAMELA (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.

KIRPAL 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.
Everything built and done is daily:
feeding goats sheep chickens dogs
the buckets and shovels
                             and always that thin architecture
of envelopes papers checkbook pens.
The farm perches solid and cheerful
on the north side of Hog Mountain (though we are
this year pigless in paradise).
                             In cold seasons
its barns and shed can be seen from the Mohawk Trail.

As I work I feel the distinctly
different nipple of my radiated breast beneath my short.
Thought the scars begin to fade, the skin
stays blushed and tender.

For eight dragging chemo months
I did few chores. There are still smells
which sicken me: diesel, tea tree oil,
dog and human shit, and scented dryer sheets.

I’m ecstatic now to have an inch of hair!
Most days were quite okay.
Nausea just another kind of job.

                             Today I’m joyous in the barn,
mucking out or sorting fleeces. Daily
I salute the funny numbness in my arm:
its freedom of the now I’m in ---
glad for chocolate, dogs, for daily breath
and the extending hills beyond.

Yikes, Jody, what a gutsy tale of recovery, joy and renewal.

PAMELA (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 driver.

KIRPAL 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?

PAMELA (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.


KIRPAL 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 like:


On the rain-washed hillside the goats flow
draped in that famous, diamond-tough fiber
from Solomon’s Song. Its blaze shines

lustrous as first love. I remember
how my halo-ed sweater felt, how it held
against those kisses of fright and need.

A big buck watches from his pen.
He’s waiting for longer, colder nights
as his scent drifts downwind.

One tattered doe, fleece torn by fever, also waits
For that shortened day which stuns.
There’s a cry from a distant forest.

Windfall apples call the goats to graze.
Their bright hair flows. These goats
are in my charge --- sheltered, not quite safe.

Jody, 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!

PAMELA (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.

KIRPAL 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?

PAMELA (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.

I always 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 Hog Mountain. Which is the whole idea.

KIRPAL 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 teach?

PAMELA (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.

KIRPAL GORDON: What do you make of American poetry these days?

PAMELA (JODY) STEWART: American poetry?
There’s a 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, joyfully humbled.

KIRPAL 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 you do?

PAMELA (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 dogs  who 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!



Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"If You've Got a Gig, Life Is Good": An interview with pianist, composer, band leader Steve Elmer

KIRPAL 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?

What 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?

What has been your favorite learning experience?

What has been your favorite teaching experience?

STEVE 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.

The two 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.

The switch 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.

I met 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 never regretted.  

I wrote the four-year Bachelor of Jazz Studies curriculum at Queens College 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 Queens College.  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.

My favorite teaching and learning experience was when I taught music appreciation at Kingsborough Community 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. 

KIRPAL GORDON: In 1976 you took a break from playing professionally? What brought you back to music in ’91?

STEVE ELMER: After I lost my job at Queens College 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.

I got 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

All through 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.

KIRPAL 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?

STEVE ELMER: The Jazz Mentality was a wonderful quartet playing jazz standards and many of my original compositions.  We recorded two CDs, “Maxwell’s Torment” (VAI,1992, ) and “Show Business Is My Life” (Koch Jazz,1997,

Myles knew 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 composing.

The Steve 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 trio  recorded three CDs together, independent recordings, no label.  Each CD features my compositions exclusively, something I’m  particularly 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 with.

We recorded “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

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.


KIRPAL 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?

STEVE 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.

I’ve always liked classical vocal music but have never really paid  much 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.

So the 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.

KIRPAL 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 West Village regularly, yes?

STEVE 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.

I never 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.

The things 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 7:00-10:00 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.

KIRPAL 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?

STEVE 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 young  jazz 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.

KIRPAL GORDON: How can Giant Steps readers stay in closer touch with all that you do?

STEVE ELMER: Thanks for this opportunity to let people know about me and my music.  I really appreciate it and hope readers enjoyed the interview.

On YouTube you can find me at

And you can find my CDs and MP3s on CD Baby, iTunes, CD Universe and many other music outlets on the internet.

I’m also on Facebook and readers can find me there too.



Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Jazz Giant Among Us: An Interview with composer-educator-pianist Diane Moser

KIRPAL GORDON: You’re the trifecta in jazz: a composer of renown, a dedicated educator at the New School 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

DIANE 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, noon 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

DIANE 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.


That band 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.


KIRPAL GORDON: 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?


DIANE 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

KIRPAL 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

KIRPAL 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?


DIANE 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.


I started 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!


A few 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.


The 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.

You can see a short version of that by going to


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.


I started 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

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


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

KIRPAL 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?


DIANE 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, Virginia Center 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

KIRPAL 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 8:30 PM is the CD release performance of Duetto with virtuoso bassist Mark Dresser, and at 10:00PM 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:

“Duetto” recoding with Mark Dresser on CIMP records

Review from Robert Bush of the San Diego Record

Review from The New York City Jazz Record by Pat Spokony

New Music USA

Chamber Music America

Diane Moser’s Composers Big Band

Flipped Kitty in the City

The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music

The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Low Residency Music Composition Program