HARMOLODIC MONK, SOUND EXPLORATIONS, AND THE YEAR'S END IN RETROSPECT
Harmolodic Monk: Matt Lavelle and John Pietaro at the Firehouse Space, Oct 19, 2013. Photo by Laurie Towers
Sometimes life can be like a whirlwind. So much went on over the past 12 months that I can hardly believe we are near year's end. Between the rush of music, the passage of time and the ongoing stress of my day job, I guess I lost track of time. But here we are, now, deep into December. We have had a fairly mild weather in NYC, though this past week we saw snow and cold weather try to take a bite out of us. But New Yorkers are hard. And just now the weather man reported that it will be 57 degrees on Sunday, adding to the sense of uncertainty. Do I still have time to buy the pertinent Christmas cards to avoid being ostracized by family?? And talk about rush: a couple of months ago I actually self-published my book of short stories and poems, NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK, which had been in the works since about 2009. Life is just one fantasia after another, isn't it? Getting passed the newfound ulcer in my belly and moving beyond the effects of the insomnia that pops up when I think I am finally relaxing, its good t know that creativity has been the healing force. Ayler was damned right. And this year there was much to be healed by....
2013 has been a year of vibrant soundscapes, with a wide variety of performances in the company of very talented, powerful musicians. How can I complain? Most of my playing has been on the vibraphone---the instrument that I consider my true voice---but other percussives have happily been called for as well. And why not....I am happy to have a vast collection. This year my work with Ras Moshe, celebrated reeds monster, has increased tremendously and we played together in numerous formats ranging from duet (where I either played vibes or drumkit or hand drums) to trio (on vibes and percussion; with guitarist Dave Ross, or bassists Shayna Dulberger or Lisa Mezzacappa), to quartet (the incredible one which included guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer/percussionist Andrew Drury remains in heart! Here I am again playing vibes/percussion). We played a couple of gigs for Arts for Art in there too. There's also been our ensemble the Red Microphone which released a debut CD this year. And there's been a great assortment of Ras' larger bands. All that and there was the release of the Erika Dagnino Quartet's disc 'Signs' which included Erika's poetry, Ras' reeds and flute, Ken Filiano's bass and my vibes and percussion. The association with Ras is one which is ever-changing and intense. Its been said that we share a telepathic relationship, intertwining lines and improvising endlessly through streams of consciousness.
There's also been gigs with vocalist Maryanne DeProphetis (at the I-Beam playing twisted standards!) and Nora McCarthy (at the Cornelia St Café for my event 'An October Jazz Revolution') and the band SoSaLa (at NuBlu). And my own Dissident Arts Orchestra performed several times this year, offering jagged scores to silent film classics or backing poet Sana Shabazz. That was fun in a whole other way. And as I am so fond of backing poets, I am thrilled to have developed a rapport with Steve Dalachinsky, a serious contender for Beat poet of this era. I performed with him in duet at my own Dissident Arts Festival this summer and more recently at Shapeshifter Lab for the Memorial Concert for John Tchicai with a band that included Steve Swell, Will Connell and others. I really ate this one up. I was also part of the jam session that closed out the big '50th Anniversary Concert of ESP-Disk' at JACK in Brooklyn. And reeds player Rocco John Iacovone began his own series late this year, creating a mixed ensemble I have been happy to bring my vibes to, where he presents different composers each month. It occurs at Pianos in the East Village. My own piece is scheduled to be presented at the January gig! The Red Microphone had a busy year and we are closing it off on 12/22 at Theater 80 on St Mark's Place, performing the opening segment to a large-scale awareness-raiser for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
And my work with the legendary Karl Berger has continued of course---this was year two with his Improvisers Orchestra. The band is amazing and never fails to inspire. So many noted improvisers have been a part of this band that it would be almost impossible to recall each one. No matter how strong of an impact they have had on the whole. With this ensemble I play conga, bongos, orchestra bells, various metals, suspended cymbals and many small percussives too. Sitting next to Warren Smith's drumkit (or none-too-shabby subs like Lou Grassi or Joe Hertenstein!), my hands are on fire as I offer thunderous rhythms and stinging orchestra bells to accentuate the screaming horns section. Our final gig of the year was in mid-December and Karl is now reviewing tapes of the Orchestra's performances for release as a CD. The band was 32 strong at its largest but we have not slipped below 20 this year. Happily, I ushered many of my close musical associates into the Orchestra including Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone, Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic. And Matt Lavelle. Now there's a unique guy...
I met trumpet player/alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle at several different Ras Moshe gigs. Here's a very hip musician who regularly plays with Bern Nix and spent several years studying with Ornette Coleman. We spoke at a few of these gigs and he told me of this vision he had for a duet with vibes playing Monk composition by way of the Harmolodic theory of Mr Coleman. Wow. What a challenge, I thought, and what an amazing opportunity to engage in something truly new and inspirational. Has it been done before? Highly unlikely. When a reviewer asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of Ornette, this revolutionary founder of Be-Bop said, "That cat's crazy". But upon closer examination, one cannot help but see that had it not been for Monk, there couldn't be an Ornette as we know him. The modernist vision is apparent. But isn't there something else that somehow draws "Light Blue" or "Ruby, My Dear" to "Lonely Woman" or "Beauty is a Rare Thing"? The guitarist Jack DeSalvo said just the other night, after hearing our duet Harmolodic Monk, "The folk form that is at the core of both of them is the Blues". And he is right. It is the glue that keeps their musics imbedded in tradition, a place to boldly grow out of. Their rapprochement to blues cannot be mistaken, nor can it be avoided if one is to play either of their works. So when Matt and I first got together to attempt this exploration at Ayers Percussion studio in the theatre district, it somehow fell right into place from the start. There was no question that this experiment had a life of its own. Now that I think of it, how could it not?
We debuted at one of Ras Moshe's Music Now events at the Brecht Forum and locked in a modicum of performance practice in this unique repertoire. We took it then to ABC No Rio and the Firehouse Space. Damn, there was simply no turning back. Somewhere in there, Jack DeSalvo signed us to his Unseen Rain label and asked us to record a duo CD---even as we contemplated whether or not we needed a bassist. But no, Jack saw this as a natural duet. Our record date is slated for January 6. We rehearsed just last week for a gig the other day up in Beacon NY: part of James Keepnews' new jazz series which has been itself growing in leaps and bounds. During the rehearsal, Matt requested that I move to hand drums for a piece and that grew into a medley of "Green Chimneys" and "52nd St Theme". Wow, that worked. Well. We discussed stretching things further, the outer reaches of harmolodics perhaps. I brought out a large frame drum, a 22" bodhran and we crafted a brand new concept where "Monk's Mood" existed. That rehearsal and the wonderful performance which followed it gave us the chance to envision that lay-out of the album. Oh, its gonna be a killer.
Going forward, Harmolodic Monk is a major part of my 2014. We would love to have the album out early in the year----and who knows where else this music, this soundscape of the new, can take us. Hell, ulcers aside, casting out day-to-day stress and winter blues, its all about the Epistrophy.
Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, on the Left, ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Sunday, December 1, 2013
Book Review by John Pietaro-RADICAL JESUS: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor; Art by Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm and Nick Thorkelson
(2013, Herald Press, Virginia)
Although noted Left-wing historians such as Paul Buhle aren’t normally seen as devout in their religiosity, a read through of RADICAL JESUS could lead to the assumption that the revolutionary intellectuals in our midst have “seen the light”. But here, Buhle and a company of underground comic artists are instead offering a vision of Jesus Christ (and religion itself) that was clear all along to anyone who looked beyond their hymnal. What comes to life in the course of these 128 pages is what political radicals have always asserted: Biblical figures such as Jesus, John the Baptist and Martin Luther were not only revolutionary in their spirituality but in their actions.
The book opens with “Radical Gospel” and offers the ‘downtown’ art of Sabrina Jones to Biblical excerpts. But as one may expect, it wouldn’t be the stuff of underground comicdom without the proper irony, so Jones mixes contemporary imagery morphed into the Greatest Story Ever Told. Quotes such as “blessed are the poor” are paired with visuals of a union strike, and “blessed are those who mourn” with the parents of Trayvon Martin. These are in excellent company with frames that depict Occupy Wall Street, the homeless, peace demonstrators and Middle Eastern families faced with armed US troops. And as the Bible is filled with symbolic tales of faith, these sections RADICAL JESUS are fully engaged with expanding on the common symbols to denounce capitalist greed and high-priced televangelists. But what’s in store for the reader here is not necessarily what we may have guessed: in a discussion between Jesus and an apostle about the great power, wealth and towering temples around them, Jesus warns that “The day will come when there isn’t one stone left on top of one another that isn’t thrown down”, and Jones bravely recreated the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11.
“Radical History” is the next lengthy segment and it brings us through the Lollards journey (one of the early radical Christian organizations), the Catholic Church’s base of power, the burning of “heretics”, and the radical reformation founded by Martin Luther. These sections are not from the Bible at all, but history itself. Drawn by Gary Dumm (with vivid coloring by Laura Dumm) and often scripted by Buhle, Dave Wagner or Dumm himself, we are taken through some harsh and some revelatory scenes. Peace activists and members of AIM will recognize the roots of their struggles in chapters on the Quakers’ relationships with Native Americans and the Abolitionist movement. Without much difficulty one can of course see a connection to the struggle of the Palestinians and others of the First Nation.
The final segment, “Radical Resistance” was written and drawn by Nick Thorkelson. It explores faith-based movements in modern times and in doing so, ties together the struggle for human rights and equality throughout the ages. There is a special focus on slavery and African American freedom struggles and Sojourner Truth is heroically depicted as are multiple figures we recall from the Civil Rights years (yes, there’s Dr King tearing down the walls of Jericho). But it surely doesn’t stop there: check out the story of the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day’s quote: “…The class structure is of our making, not His….So we are urging revolutionary change”. Hey, this kind of dangerous talk can almost bring ME back to church! And Thorkelson shows how the line went from Haley House to the Catholic Worker to Plowshares. We also see Mennonites, various levels of peace protests around the world, Conscientious Objectors, Aboriginal movements, and the struggle for ecology and a sustainable world.
Taken literally, the messages of Jesus’ teachings should always reflect a visions of a shared planet and an economy not designed by and for the wealthy few. As a child at weekly Catechism classes I had to attend, we were constantly taught that “God is love” and that Jesus was “the Prince of Peace”. But this was during the climax of the Vietnam War and when we asked the nuns or lay-teachers why God has allowed this ongoing horrific violence that came home to us on the television news each night, they only answered that we must have faith, and that God works in mysterious ways. I am sure that none of these intended guides to my religiosity considered the figure of Jesus as a revolutionary nor the symbolism in the Bible to have more in common with Marx than Pope Paul, but then RADICAL JESUS had not yet been published at the time. After reading this book, however, I would argue that it surely had been written ---a millennia ago, with a message still urgent after King James had his way with the words and church corruption attempted to refigure it, sore afraid of a fully awakened populace.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL 2013...
a musical marathon in retrospect
by John Pietaro
The Dissident Arts Orchestra closed out the 2013 Festival by performing a live improvised score to Eisenstein's classic silent film 'BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN": John Pietaro (musical direction, vibes, percussion), Ras Moshe (reeds, flute), Rocco John Iacovone (reeds), Matt Lavelle (trumpet), Nora McCarthy (voice), Laurie Towers (electric bass), James Keepnews (electric guitar & effects), Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic (double bass). Photo by Denise Iacovone.
Several days after the close of it all, while looking back on this year's Dissident Arts Festival I can still feel the soreness and draining sensation that naturally grows out of curating this kind of thing. Though the event occurred on a Saturday (August 24) and it was hard to get back to my day job on the Monday after. I had spent Sunday in a sort of Twilight Zone state, the sounds not quite out of my head, the surge as well as the ensuing headache remnant still holding on. So on Monday morning the thought of moving back into 'normal life' was not very appetizing. You'd think it would all be cleared up by Tuesday, wouldn't you, but no, not really. I mean we got to make a living and in this nation, the belly of the capitalist beast, the avant garde has never paid much of anybody's rent. So we keep on keeping it all together, regardless. But what a nice grainy Twlight Zone set to get lost in.
I woke up early on the day of the Festival, too many racing thoughts about what had to be done. Though I had spent many months planning this and worked overtime doing outreach and publicity, I needed to get out one last push of PR to try to level off the effects of some heavy competition we were facing: the Charlie Parker Festival was going on across town in the East Village and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was being celebrated in DC. The expensive ad I had placed in 'the NYC Jazz Record' paper just couldn't counter that.
After I made a power breakfast for Laurie and I, and completed my last-minute foray into emails and social media, I spent a few minutes warming up on a practice pad and then ran a bunch of scales and arpeggios on my vibraphone. After this, I could concentrate some, so packed up the car and headed to the West Village and the Brecht Forum. I had gotten the key the day before from Ras Moshe who produced many cultural events at the space. He was in a rehearsal with Bill Cole's band so couldn't get downtown for a few hours. I opened up, dragged my instruments in and set up the chairs, moved around the tables that lined the perimeter, got the drumkit and amplifiers and microphones set up but, damn, I had no idea as to how to get the PA running. I had gotten to the space at 12:30 and now it was 2PM. A couple of people who were strolling down West Street (who in hell strolls down busy West Street?) wandered in, asking when the show would start; I told them no earlier than 3 and hoped they'd return (they did). Just then a man came in with his daughter asking about what I was setting up for. I looked up at him from amidst a twisted spaghetti jam of cables. He had a lean, friendly looking face with graying hair and a long pony tail. He surely fit into the Brecht Forum's purview.
"Looks like you have a concert going on here", he said. "I had donated the 2 mics you have there, I come here a lot, so I wondered what was going on today"
He said he donated mics! "Hey, man, do you know something about audio engineering?", I frantically asked.
"Yes, something", he said with a chuckle. "Let me help..."
Wow, even when you cannot imagine how the day will possibly proceed, there's always someone who comes along at the last second. Thank you Tim, whoever you are.
The day moved along rapidly and quite smoothly following this. Ras came in a little while later, we got the place lighted properly and then the performers began arriving. From there it was one set after the other, with just the briefest interludes between. As usual, the time slots indicated on my clipboard meant very little as segments ran a bit long and set-ups seemed to spill into the next hour. But this is all a part of the marathon gig. Everyone stayed in good cheer and the house, though never very crowded, remained a pretty active. Many of the musicians moved from the performance room to the Brecht Forum's bar or sitting area, laughing, debating, talking shop. Various friends showed up to check out certain acts but hung out afterward. As MC I could often be found running about seeking out this artist or that and at one point looked out and saw Bern Nix hanging out on the couch. Later I heard that Howard Mandel had come in for the latter part of the Festival. It was that kind of day. Too many wonderful things to break down, even now, in retrospect, but I must state that the highlight for me was playing a set with the celebrated poet Steve Dalachinsky. He read his works and I improvised around and behind and beside him. later on we agreed that something very special had happened up on that stage and we simply must do this again. Nice. I can dig that.
My own band the Red Microphone also had a terrific set, but then we tend to enjoy each other's company that much so our gigs are always on. And as it ended, Ras Moshe and I remained up there and brought up the fabulous jazz poet Raymond Nat Turner who read Langston Hughes 'Kids Who Die' in front of our accompaniment. This was deep. I also sat in with SoSaLa on a tune and got to check out so many other great performances. Roy Campbell's Trio was simply smoking. Unconspicuous Meeting offered an impeccable set. Sana Shabazz recited an epic poem for Trayvon Martin (whom the Festival was dedicated to) with my much better half Laurie Towers accompanying---this was another powerful point in the event, a very moving, compelling segment. Tesla Coils kicked it. Obi Kaye gave it propulsion. Randy Credico turned it on its head. And then my Dissident Arts Orchestra closed the day off with a live improvsed score to "Battleship Potemkin", an amazing experience in every case---leading a group of such talented artists as they responded to the fiolm of a genius director, one about the experience of a ship's crew during the first Russian Revolution. So much sound, so much motion, so much happening. Oh yeah. I can hardly wait for the next marathon. If getting wrung out afterward is the worst that happens, I can keep on going for another 51 years this way........JP
FOR THE RECORD:
New York, NY: The annual Dissident Arts Festival, a celebration of revolutionary Free Jazz, New Music, Poetry and Film, returns to Greenwich Village’s Brecht Forum for the fourth consecutive year. .
The Dissident Arts Festival serves as a conduit for progressive artists and other activists to gather and engage in an all-day concert commemorating the rich heritage of movement culture. The 2013 edition encompasses a tapestry of liberation jazz and new sounds including Festival headliner THE ROY CAMPBELL TRIO (ROY CAMPBELL, HILLIARD GREEN, ANDREW BARKER), STEVE DALACHINSKY, UNCONSPICUOUS MEETING (DANIEL CARTER, RAS MOSHE , JEFF PLATZ, JOHN MC LELLAN and leader NICOLAS LETMAN-BURTINOVIC), political satirist/activist RANDY CREDICO, TESLA COILS (BLAISE SIWULA, HARVEY VALDES, GIAN LUIGI DIANA, DAVE MILLER), THE RED MICROPHONE (JOHN PIETARO, RAS MOSHE, ROCCO JOHN IACOVONE, NICOLAS LETMAN-BURTINOVIC), “nu world trash” band SOSALA (led by SOHRAB SAADAT LADJEVARDI), African percussionist OBI KAYE, poet SANA SHABAZZ, and Festival house band, THE DISSIDENT ARTS ORCHESTRA, performing an improvised score to the Sergei Eisenstein silent classic film, “BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN”; the Orchestra will include many of the day’s performers plus vocalist NORA MCCARTHY, trumpet player MATT LAVELLE, cellist GIL SELLINGER, bassist LAURIE TOWERS, guitarist JAMES KEEPNEWS and others. There will also be a special reading of Langston Hughes “Kids Who Die” by poet RAYMOND NAT TURNER, accompanied by Ras Moshe and John Pietaro.
The Dissident Arts Festival 2013 is produced by Dissident Arts and the Brecht Forum, sponsored by the Rosenberg Fund for Children and endorsed by Local 802 AFM’s ‘Justice for Jazz Artists’ project and ‘DooBeeDooBeeDoo’ magazine. John Pietaro serves as host.
DATE: Saturday August 24, 3:00 – 9:30pm
SITE: The Brecht Forum 451 West Street, New York, NY 10014 (212) 242-4201
3-3:30: Obi Kaye – solo African percussion (Bongo, Udu Pots, Doumbek, Dundun)
335-3:50: Sana Shabazz: Sana Shabazz (poetry) with Laurie Towers (electric bass)
3:55-4:25: Tesla Coils: Blaise Siwula (reeds), Harvey Valdes (guitar), Gian Luigi Diana (electronics), Dave Miller (drumkit)
4:30-5:00: Steve Dalachinsky: Steve Dalachinsky (poetry) with
5:05-5:35: SoSaLa: Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi (tenor saxophone/voice), others TBA
5:40-6:10: Unconspicuous Meeting: Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic (bass), Daniel Carter (reeds), Ras Moshe (reeds), Jeff Platz (guitar), (drumkit)
6:10-6:25: Randy Credico: The celebrated political satirist/activist and current NYC mayoral candidate speaks!
6:25-6:55: The Red Microphone: John Pietaro (vibraphone/percussion), Ras Moshe (saxophones/flute), Rocco John Iacovone (saxophones/piano), Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic (bass)
6:55-7:00: Reading of Langston Hughes’ “Kids Who Die” (dedicated to Trayvon Martin) by Raymond Nat Turner with Ras Moshe (flute) and John Pietaro (vibraphone)
7:05-7:50: The Roy Campbell Trio: Roy Campbell (trumpet), Hilliard Green (bass) and Andrew Barker (drumkit)
7:50 – 8:00: intermission
8:00-9:30 The Dissident Arts Orchestra playing an improvised score to Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary silent film classic “Battleship Potemkin”: Nora McCarthy (voice), Rocco John Iacovone (soprano & alto saxophones), Ras Moshe (tenor & soprano saxophones, flute), Matt Lavelle (trumpet), Gil Selinger (cello), James Keepnews (electric guitar & effects), Laurie Towers (electric bass), Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic (double bass), John Pietaro (vibraphone/percussion/musical direction).
Monday, July 1, 2013
I Guess You Can Go Home Again.....AGING AND PLAYING WITH RAS MOSHE & CO UP IN BEACON NY
This past weekend, the one that closed off June, took me back through one of the many stops encountered on life's journey. Three and a half years after moving back to Brooklyn from the hip Hudson Valley town of Beacon NY, I had a gig up there and it was a memorable, welcome return. Wonderfully ironic though was that the gig was with Ras Moshe---the guy that probably more than anyone else is a testament to my activities since coming back to NYC. I was very pleased when Ras asked me to be a part of this performance as I had not been to back Beacon, the place my lovely wife and partner Laurie Towers and I called home from 2005 till 2010. Its a wonderful little city at the bottom of Dutchess County, overlooking the Hudson River. Beacon can count the arts among its primary tourist attractions and in the 5 years we lived up there, we performed in many settings but due to the preponderance of folk and new acoustic music, I rarely had the chance to play in the free jazz/new music genre I had engaged in during most of my adult life. We enjoyed ourselves up there playing in an expansive protest song duo, the Flames of Discontent, which offered up reconstructions of older songs of revolution, work, life and peace as played through Laurie's powerful, sinewy lead electric bass and I stood as front man. While I never saw myself as a lead singer, the situation brought out my best Pete Seeger/Phil Ochs vocal explorations, of course tainted with the shout of post-Punk and always inspired by the modernist harmonies and rhythmic liberation that has been my hallmark. The Flames, being a duet in this folkie town, saw me primarily playing banjo or electric banjo to accompany my singing, only getting to double on percussion at points. But the music---of Hanns Elser and Bertolt Brecht, of Phil Ochs, of Woody Guthrie, of Leadbelly, of the IWW, of the Spanish Civil War was inspiration enough to continue on. We recorded two CDs in that period, and performed our "novo protest" music in all of the cooler locales in the region. We played for several of the annual West Point Peace Rallies, played at festivals, performed "Joe Hill" and "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore", our 'hit "Viva La Quince Brigade" as well as originals live on the air on WDST-FM (Radio Woodstock), college stations and in a remote WBAI-FM broadcast from the Hudson River Revival fest. We shared the stage several times with Those were some good times.
In August 2009 I lost my day job and found out just how painful it is to be in a location like that with no prospects. Struggling for months, we decided to move back to Brooklyn just after ringing in 2010. I had missed NYC the entire time we were away, lovely as the Hudson Valley is, so this all seemed to be a part of the trip life takes us on. Very soon after I got back, I began to reach out to old contacts, get life back on track and then transferred my Dissident Arts Festival, which began in Beacon in '06, to the West Village's Brecht Forum. Playing jazz and new music came back naturally and my musical relationship and friendship with Ras Moshe developed soon after. We have played together in any number of Moshe-led trios, quartets and large ensembles and he is also a member of the Red Microphone. Working with Ras puts me at the very top of my game. Intensely challenging free improvisations guided by not only the path of the music but Ras' well planned vision of it. With hand cues and facial expressions, he shapes the sound, offering solo statements, points of duo and trio and allows the performers' natural abilities speak for themselves, while never losing sight of his arrangements. Truly, this seems to be the next logical step in new music.
ON FRIDAY JUNE 28, I TURNED 51 YEARS OLD. I always say that birthdays are bourgeois and insist on keeping it light, even when Laurie wants to make a big deal of it all. I spent most of the day preparing for the next day's gig. I found enough time in the day to take my father out for a long lunch though. As I crossed over into my second half-century, he had turned 84 (yes we share a birthday!), so I knew it was an important day for him, even more than I. I picked Dad up and we drove into his old neighborhood, what he used to call "south Brooklyn" but is actually in the northern end of the borough. He was raised on Present Street between 3rd and 4th aves. When I was a kid and we would go there to visit my paternal grands, most people thought of this section as no-man's-land. Filled with factories, empty lots, warehouses, a few stores and a collection of poor and working class people hanging on for dear life as the drug trade invaded the city. My father, a Great Depression baby, says that his block was always populated by the working poor, but I guess you can only use that description as long as there are jobs. Much of this area, for decades, was populated by poor who wished to be working. Odd that it is just off of the edge of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Park Slope. Well, somehow in the past few years, no-man's-land became "Gowanus" and the developers who re-named it created a hip community that wealthy New Yorkers are now fighting to buy condos in. The strip of 4th ave, once a dying stretch from Sunset Park to Downtown, is now filled with rows and rows of tall luxury buildings, with bistros and high-end food shops taking the place of rusted gates and tire shops. The skyscraper-like buildings seem to have been placed over the small apartment houses built up nearly a century ago over local stores....just encompassed them fully and wiped out any memory of what had been.
"My God----wow! When did this happen??". Dad asked incredulously as we drove from Bensonhurst to his old block. "SO much change; how could it be? Who could afford this?", he asked, though recognizing the changed demographic in the passersby strolling along the avenue. "Dad", I asked, "my question is: where do all the poor people go when a neighborhood becomes gentrified like this?". We sat quietly as we drove down, looking over the gleaming luxury buildings, Village-like green grocers, gourmet food shops and Euro-looking restaurants. We visited President Street. The family had sold the house in 1975 after my grandmother, by then a widow, could no longer live on her own. My father had rarely looked down his old street since then, so we were happy to see that his old house still stood there, and in very nice shape. Not replaced by a condo building--happily--but respectably kept up in view of the shining structures up on the avenue. We had lunch at a nice Americana restaurant a block over. "This used to be the college diner" he told me, "and all of the rackets guys hung out here. This was a tough neighborhood, so many of my friends got involved with them", he said, pushing his nose to the side, giving off an old silent symbol of the Mafia. "I almost had a job on the water front, a member of the Longshoreman's union. I never followed up.....", he said, looking outward, imagining earlier times and struggles.
SO ON SATURDAY THE 29TH, Laurie and I pointed the car north and took off for Beacon. Just outside of the Bronx I came to realize that I had literally replaced all of my knowledge of the Hudson Valley with NYC travel directions. Damn---I couldn't recall the route once we got closer, and I fumbled around, almost missing the entry to the Taconic, and then once out onto the more local roads, I grew foggier still. A sign of getting older or just too much info to contain....? We checked into a lovely hotel nearby (Laurie wanted it to be perfect so this room was really a duplex suite!) and then had to get over to the gig for set-up and sound check. The performance was at the Howland Cultural Center, an amazing space, "the jewel of Beacon", where I had played many times before; this was the birthplace of the Dissident Arts Fest. I saw the other guys there and we got my vibes and bells and percussives out of the car. Kibitzing about jazz, politics and life as we set up, Laurie had the chance to get out and catch up with another dear friend, Gwen Laster (a monstrously gifted violinist) as we launched into sound check. Ras entered just after me, waving and beaming, carrying his horn and flute and the collection of bells he likes to add to the mix. He walked in with drummer Andrew Drury, with several drum cases on his shoulders, long ponytail draped over them. At the piano already, recalling his piano bar days, was a smiling Chris Forbes. And guitarist James Keepnews, who'd set up the entire series this gig was a part of---Change of the Century---was adjusting his amp and offering up excited conversation. The Howland's main sound engineer, Thom Joyce, is also a musician and became the most enthusiastic person in the room as we dug into it. The room has amazing natural acoustics and add to that the skill of someone like Thom and you can imagine that the band sounded quite amazing. We were good to go. Laurie took me out to a birthday dinner and we had the chance to look over Beacon. Much had changed in three or so years---and there were new shops and galleries and best of all new performance spaces. Wow, we were so glad for the wonderful folks of this little city we still held near to our hearts. So glad to see that the town, after struggling through the financial downturn, had moved upward and taken its residents with it. The mix of peoples, faces, shades and hues, remained as always. A welcome return indeed.
THE GIG BEGAN at around 8PM, with no prior discussion on what we would be doing aside from the idea of two 45 minute sets. After being introduced to the appreciative Howland crowd, Ras turned to us and said "okay, just saxophone and drums to open up" and Andrew kicked out a roving, timeless rhythm which rolled over bar lines and time signatures, bouncing and dancing through Ras' wandering, melodious explorations. As it built up and cooked, the rest of us began to enter slowly, adding touches, sounds, chordal figures here or there, small accents, pepper, creating this piece from the ground up. Before long we were burning and the house vibrated with sound and excitement. The texture grew thick and just as the volume seemed to reach its apex, we took it down. As always, Ras offers up generous solo time for the members and also knows how to structure this in a way to feature that individual's sound. My own hands felt electrified and though I could feel my fingers getting sore at some points, I ignored the pain as the music took me well past it. I think we played two pieces in that first set,but its safe to say that this all felt like a symphonic exploration with multiple movements, even with a break in the middle.
For this performance, I focused on vibes as I usually do, tapping into the influence of Bobby Hutcherson with Dolphy whenever possible; there is a rich history of the vibraphone in new and exploratory jazz and it compels me every time. What an amazing legacy to be a part of. In addtion to my trusty Muuser vibe, I also also had orchestra bells, and two cymbal stands with additional attachments that allows me to incorporate wind chimes, Celtic bell, Alu-bell, various cymbals and metals to add shimmer as needed, as well as small percussives. The Moshe units require new and exciting uses of standard instruments and also a wide palette of sound. Ras' Coltrane-ish improvisation reach into the stratosphere when not tunefully lamenting or soaring to new heights, Chris' piano is a universe of sound and emotion (ranging from lush harmonious chording and melodic flows to absolute eruptions), James' electric guitar is often sound-painting with effects pedals that open up the spectrum, and Andrew is a one-of-a-kind drummer who has incorporated plumbing supplies, bevels, flower pots, tubes, and a large metal sheet into his kit. He uses a bow almost as skillfully as if he'd had violin training and has also discovered a technique to blow through some of the metal tubes right into the drum heads and down into the heart of the instrument. This mix brings howls and whale sounds to the various metals. But his drumming in and of itself is orchestral and driving in unique, fiery ways.
This was the first time this band had ever played together though each of us have worked together in different settings. On this night, the sonic journey was as exciting and new to us as I would hope anyone in the audience experienced it. I switched mallets several times as the volume and texture would change and moved around to the orch bells and other percussives as the music demanded it. It was cool in the house but, like the others, had worked up a major sweat that felt cleansing, as if I'd spent time contemplating life in a Native sweat lodge. The music can do that to you.
We packed up and entered into the dark Hudson Valley night, breathing deep.....
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Levure littéraire European arts magazine
INTERVIEW: JOHN PIETARO (USA)
by Erika Dagnino (Italia)
ED: John Pietaro is a New York activist musician. He plays vibraphone, xylophone, drumkit, frame drums, hand drums, percussion, voice. He has performed with artists including Alan Ginsberg, Karl Berger, Fred Ho, Arturo O’Farril, Salim Washington, John Zorn, Pete Seeger, Amina Baraka, Blaise Siwula, Ras Moshe, Cheryl Pyle, Elodie Lauten, Carsten Radke, Rudresh Mahanthapa, and many more. Pietaro directs the ensembles RADIO NOIR (http://www.reverbnation.com/radionoir) , THE DISSIDENT ARTS ORCHESTRA, and THE RED MICROPHONE, a quartet of revolutionary musicians. He also performs with KARL BERGERS IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA and free-lances in NYC. He is the founder of THE DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL and has spoken on arts activism at Left Forum and other venues. Pietaro writes for Z Magazine and many other progressive journals and wrote a chapter for the Harvey Pekar/Paul Buhle book SDS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY (2007 Hill and Wang). He is currently writing an extensive history of protest arts and a book about the No Wave movement, and completed a volume of contemporary proletarian fiction.
Here we talk with Pietaro about what the Dissident Arts Festival represents in a collective situation. We look at this in the current struggle for freedom of the individual even within the goal of building a network of progressive forces. There is the need to value one’s individual sensibility and reality and dreams ( that of course are part of reality) in a world that seems to be going downward – and wants to keep to the people in the lowest common denominator , where the individual seems to be nonexistent and sometimes the society seems to become a system to put each one at a standard level to make the characteristic of each person banal in the name of homologation.
JP: I first conceived of the idea for the Dissident Arts Festival in 2006, after enduring years of the Bush presidency and dealing with the fallout of his right-wing policies. By day I work as a labor organizer, so I saw the effects of this conservative, anti-worker administration close-up. The National Labor Relations Board had been decimated by this regime and he and other conservatives were doing their best to defame unions whenever possible. The wealthy were getting tax breaks as the middle- and working-class were being cast aside. Bush was an incompetent, a failed businessman who openly befriended the kings of corporate America—the very force that had been greedily built up by the right-wing and were especially supported in those Bush years. We were engaged in an unlawful war, citizens were being spied on, social service programs were being slashed, women’s rights were being threatened, the poor were vilified and there was a terrible divisiveness throughout the country. As an artist of conscience as well as a Leftist, I recognized the need to speak up through radical creativity. I reached out to a variety of musicians as well as poets and guest speakers to create that first Festival . At the time many topical singers were involved, invoking the great body of work of the folk-protest movement, but jazz musicians were also present as were rock balladeers. Over the years the scope of the Festival has gone increasingly avant garde and while there were still some sing-songwriters involved this year, most of the artists were those who hold a presence in the free jazz and new music world. The 2012 Festival was truly the best one yet and it occurred in two venues, one in Greenwich Village and one in Brooklyn. Our reach grows further and the goal is to unify more and more artists—as well as audience members—under a collective umbrella of radical music.
ED: Here it can be interesting to connect and recall one of the latest interviews, in 1975, of the Italian intellectual, writer and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini who talked about his film taken from the Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, but set during the Republic of Salò in 1944-1945.
In some points of the interview the Italian filmmaker declared that “today’s ideal is consumerism” – there he was talking about Italy in particular – “there is an enormous group extending from Milano to Bologna, it includes Rome and spreads to the South. It is an homologating civilization that make everything the same. So it is clear that the barriers fall that small group disband….a consumer ideology, you don’t…instead of having a flag, the clothes they wear are their flag. Some of the means and some of the external phenomenal have changed but in practice, it is a depauperation of individuality which is disguised through its valorization. […] ‘Permissive’ societies permit a few things, and only those things can be done.[..] Today 1975 it is a power that manipulates the bodies in a horrible way, it has nothing to envy to of Himmler’s or Hitler’s manipulation. It manipulates them , transforming their conscience, in the worst way, establishing new values which are alienating and false. The values of consumerism, which accomplish what Marx called genocide of the living, real, previous cultures. […] ‘I lower my head in the name of God’ is already a great phrase. While now, the consumer does not even know he lowers his head, to the contrary he stupidly believes he has not lowered it and that he has won his rights.[…]”.
Can you tell us some thoughts about these themes?
John Pietaro, frame drum, with Karl Berger’s Quartet: Karl Berger, piano, Ingrid Sertso, voice, Ken Filiano, bass. Dissident Arts Festival 2012, Brecht Forum NYC (Photo by Cheryl Pyle)
JP: Sadly, it is often the goal of any government to secure some kind of control over its citizenry. Sometimes this is done by brute, oppressive force as in fascism. Other times it is done via a bastardization of a unifying philosophy: Stalin manipulated Marxism for his own sense of glory and gain. In the USA we have seem a homogenization of the populace at various points and through various means. The dictates of the fashion industry are a seemingly benign arm of conformism but how the fashion mogul would love to have everyone in their clothing! Advertising pushes us, pulls us and can become a background drone that can be inescapable. Here in the very bowels of capitalism, it is easy to recognize the power of the wealthiest corporate leaders and their sway on the public. Sometimes we are unable to purchase products the industry machine has forcibly made unavailable, sometimes we are tricked into making the purchase the corporate powers guide us to. These factors can and do lead to a rather faceless population, one devoid of a real sense of self and a thorough course of development. But even here in a nation with an intact Bill of Rights we have seen points where the manipulation, the coercion of a power goes much further. Usually those times have been in the shadow of an outside threat that a government can opportunistically magnify in order to frighten people into a willing homogenization. The best example in the USA would have to be in the late 1940s – ‘50s Red Scare—which actually lasted into the 1970s and was actually reinvented by Ronald Reagan’s Administration in the 1980s. But in those high years of the Cold War, American citizens were investigated by agents of the government, blacklisted, terrorized and humiliated. It was an age of fear and conformity and false patriotism (which begat nationalism and xenophobia) under the guise of national security. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee and the Senate Sub-Committee on UnAmerican Activities (where McCarthy became the rising star) as well as smaller, local governmental committees, tried artists, intellectuals, teachers , municipal employees and union leaders in public hearings in order to break their organizations and means of communication. This was the boldest example of in American history one could think of and the tactics of these bodies was dangerously close to the methods of the Nazis.
ED: To keep here, for these thoughts we are talking about, the line of his declarations, “[..]I think that no artist in any society is free. Being crushed by the normality and by the mediocrity of any society in which he lives, the artist is a living contestation. He always represents the contrary of that idea that every man in every society has of himself. In my opinion, a minimum, perhaps immeasurable, margin of freedom is always there. I can’t say to what point this is , or is not freedom. But certainly , something that escapes the mathematical logic of mass culture, for the time being. [..]”.
JP: Well, Bertolt Brecht also said that the artist is the ultimate whore. We sell off pieces of ourselves in order to eat and we almost always compromise our values in doing so. And John Reed argued that without dissent, there can be no radical democratic movement. We as artists get to speak out in a manner that others cannot. Even musicians who dedicate their career to commercial music, poets who write greeting cards for a living, visual artists who spend their days painting still-lifes to be hung in hotel rooms, we cannot lose the inner artist, the force within us that has allowed us to create in the first place. Like many, I have a day job but the music is in my head at all times and every night I can go home and play music, perform for the public, compose, go to jam sessions. This is something bigger than the individual yet it is purely of the individual as a means of expression. How does the rest of the world do it? How can they go home from their jobs and watch the ball game on TV, drink a beer and go to bed? The freedom is within us and we must constantly embrace it so that our art can be whole, so that we can produce an inspired kind of creativity that can enlighten others.
ED: Recently Pietaro has been working on a new project with local professional musicians in NYC and also from other countries. Can you talk us about the name ‘Radical Arts Front’ and what a collective like ‘Radical Arts Front’ wants to be?
JP : Just to clarify, a front in Left politics is not really with reference to a war zone: think of the United Front, the gathering of Left activists in the early 30s all in opposition to fascism. This collective allowed them to tear down the walls that separated communists, socialists, Trotskyists. Later it expanded to the Popular Front which included social democrats and liberals too. My idea for the collective is just that—a gathering of experimental, free jazz, new music, avant garde musicians who have strong convictions about a people’s movement, about equality, peace, workers’ rights, ecology and other progressive issues. Yes, many of us will be socialists in general, some Marxists, some engaged in a variety of Left parties and organizations—but others will be more general activists who have varying degrees of progressive thinking. This is why we are standing as a united front, albeit one united as much by our drive toward an advanced art as advanced socio-political philosophy
The October Jazz Revolution (October 20, 2012), a concert featuring some of the most revolutionary musicians in New York now, will be the first official event under the banner of the collective. And then one week later, there is a performance of the Dissident Arts Orchestra, playing a live improvised score for the German Expressionist film ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’.
I am not building a collective that will necessarily engage in meetings or require dues of any kind, it will serve as a resource for each musician involved. A collective such as this would enable us to seek opportunities, to have a list of musicians from which to draw from for gigs, quick access to referrals for gigs that may come up (especially if they are directly tied into social justice movements), and more than anything else, a banner under which we might be able to work, a brand which will help with public relations and outreach. My plan, if we have enough interest, is to seek out not-for-profit status and use it to seek out grants for concerts under this banner—-because the goal for me has always been to be able to pay musicians for events I organize. This will not only inspire more participation but growth of the entire concept of an artist-driven organization which reaches into issues beyond art’s sake. The big difference between what I am seeking to build and earlier protest music organizations is that those (such as People’s Songs) were usually comprised of folksingers. This collective will focus only on experimental, free jazz, new music performers/improvisers/composers who hold Left philosophies and engage in activism of any degree. Some may seek only a more defined kind of revolutionary activism, others may not wish to be associated with any kind of radical organization and most will fit somewhere in between. Whichever path the collective’s members choose, it would be great to be able to engage in this together and of course in concert with existing Left artists organizations such as Scientific Soul Sessions, Occupy Music and the like. As musicians of conscience, we all have a lot to consider.
Ultimately I would love to see this collective become a means to make funding available for a series of events that seek to bridge progressive and radical politics to forward-looking music. If you see yourself as an activist in any way, particularly as it applies to your music, do you also see the strength in a unified action? Events such as my Dissident Arts Festival need to grow, but I would like this umbrella to expand and help to produce a wide variety of concerts. A familiar banner over many of our events can allow us to attract more attention and increase not only our audience as well as our radical message. The politics are not bound by a particular school or philosophy, but suffice to say that the outlook is Left: ranging from outright revolutionary to general progressive and in every case, an organization to celebrate individual expression as well as a collective sensibility. For more information please visit my website:http://www.DissidentArts.com
John Pietaro, drumkit, performing at the Shrine, NYC, August 2012 (photo by Barbara Siwula)
***For contact and further information
-CD: 'The Red Microphone Speaks!' by the Red Microphone (2013)
-The songs »L’Internationale Redux » and « Brecht Breakdown » by the Red Microphone (recorded in October 2012)
-The EP ‘The Lost Broadcast’ (2011) by Radio NOIR.
- His protest song ensemble the Flames of Discontent recorded two full CDs: ‘I Dreamed I Heard Joe Hill Last Night….A Century of IWW Songs’ (2005) and ‘Revenge of the Atom Spies’ (2007)
-Numerous cultural articles and reviews in Z Magazine, the People’s World, Political Affairs, and other Left periodicals including pieces in the Nation, the Industrial Worker and others (1999-present).
-STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY: A GRAPHIC HISTORY by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle (Hill & Wang, 2007): He wrote the chapter « I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore: Phil Ochs and SDS »
-NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER STORIES OF WORKING NEW YORK (2011, short stories of contemporary proletarian fiction, unpublished)
-Current unfinished projects include the book THE CULTURAL WORKERS: a history of protest arts in the USA, 1900-Today
-Numerous cultural articles and reviews in Z Magazine, the People’s World, Political Affairs, and other Left periodicals including pieces in the Nation, the Industrial Worker and others (1999-present).
-STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY: A GRAPHIC HISTORY by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle (Hill & Wang, 2007): He wrote the chapter « I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore: Phil Ochs and SDS »
-NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER STORIES OF WORKING NEW YORK (2011, short stories of contemporary proletarian fiction, unpublished)
-Current unfinished projects include the book THE CULTURAL WORKERS: a history of protest arts in the USA, 1900-Today
Reporter: ERIKA DAGNINO
Saturday, June 22, 2013
In the Midst of Motion, Per Chance to Inspire
Dedicated to Uncle Mike Contardo, 1948-2013
There was this house, this two-story, multi-generational house in Bensonhurst. It was one house that contained two households, two nuclear families, but inextricably interwoven, and it vibrated with the intense sights and sounds and scents of cliché working-class Italian American life. For the uninitiated amongst you that translates as LOUD.
The doors in this house were always open, between floors, among rooms, and the voices coming in and out, over and under, never ceased. Like merging traffic, they rumbled on, leaking through walls and levels, a Technicolor commentary at every dynamic level. Grandmotherly drama and grandfatherly cantankerousness, mother’s exasperation and father’s street humor; the ongoing shouts and stomps of us, the children in this house: me, my older brother James, and then a few years later, brother Joe --who was in training from the start to seek out still newer means to stretch the boundaries of volume. And somehow in the midst of all of this motion …there was Uncle Mike.
Without even really trying, in his own learned, welcoming manner, he made the noise go away. When I was little, when Mike was still living in this family home, I would visit with him in his room often. It was a treat, like a wonderland in there with countless model airplanes and ships, expertly put together and artistically painted, right down to the features on the miniature passengers aboard. A few of the model planes were suspended from the ceiling for realism and he also had metal planes with moveable parts that were absolutely cool to me. On the shelves where many of the models stood, he also had books---books that he actually read! There was also more than one baseball under glass, signed by teams’ members that seemed like they were a hundred years old to me. Next to the baseballs were model figures of some hero players: Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and more. I don’t think Mike was ever much for sports---he was the arts guy in our family and I felt a real connection to that. I am sure that the sporting paraphernalia were gifts, probably from my grandfather, but he had them out for all to see along with other keepsakes and novelties on display.
There were superhero comic books, Mad magazines and monster magazines hanging around; enjoyment of the fantastic, the suspenseful and the wildest of imaginations was something else we both always enjoyed, and something else that Mike welcomed me to become a part of---he always loved a good creature feature and so do I still.
On the walls of his room were portraits of JFK, who’d been a real hero to Mike as a young man. He also had ‘60s-ish posters, and a framed original sketch or two. And I can still remember his mirror, standing over the dresser, with stickers from Kingsborough Community College exhibited, keeping watching over his metal comb and brush set (the military kind), some rosary beads and a change cup. And of course my reflection, the one I was sure lingered in there even after I’d gone back upstairs. His room also contained a cabinet with Mike’s record collection secured inside, a most prized item, the majority of which he maintained through the decades, right up until today. And that brings us to music….
Due to a couple of years of compromised health in his own young life, Mike had engaged thoroughly in the arts: drawing, painting, writing, but none of these pursuits moved him more than music. He would tell me years later that when he turned 11 he’d found an old pair of bongos in the house and listened to the latest Chubby Checker records and drummed along on them with a pair of sticks, possibly something he’d liberated from a Chinese restaurant. Playing a simple Twist rhythm across these old bongos had moved him so, driven him beyond the shy kid who’d spent some summers indoors---and also got him singing. Ultimately he began tapping along to every song that came across his record player, the radio or the family hi-fi. Everyone who knew Mike over the years can tell you that he couldn’t sit still when a good song was on in the background. His fingers were dancing with his leftie lead in a rock-n-roll beat. But he could also get that enthusiastic when nothing was on in the background—he only needed to have a song going around his head…and he usually did. Mike would drum along on table tops with fingers, or an ankle crossed over his knee, or on his thigh with a pair of drumsticks or on any surface in arm’s reach, throw his head back and offer up a bit of the phantom verse in his best rock-n-roll tenor…
Drumming was so much a part of his inner pulse that, when he was 14, Mike got my grandparents to buy him a drumkit which he kept set up in the basement. In my earliest memories, he was proudly seated up high behind a gorgeous aquamarine sparkle set of Premier drums (English made!) with glowing Zildjian cymbals. Nothing could look more compelling to me, especially when he was down there rehearsing with his band---one that always included his dearest friend, Buddy, on bass. When the band was playing, you could feel it throughout the house and in warm weather when everyone’s windows were open, they serenaded the block. How majestic! As a child I watched and listened and decided immediately that I wanted to---needed to---become a musician. I can still recall the tightness in my abdomen and the slight breathlessness I got as he kicked out the rhythm. The community of people around him, both band-mates and friends was so welcoming. These folks were different than those in my immediate purview as a kid---they were artists, hippies, biker-types and other renegades, so many wonderful examples of that generation. Exposure to a few of these summer-of-love types fueled my own Left-wing philosophy and activism. But there was also so much laughter and fun and a real sense of commitment. Theresa was the heart of this wider group and I have fond memories of her limitless affection of us scruffy little kids running around during band practice.
After Mike and Theresa married and moved into an apartment of their own, his old room seemed far too empty and the house somehow too roomy. The music had stopped---at least for a few years. It was in my fourteenth year that I pushed MY parents to let me get a drumkit. Mike was there to advocate for this and then accompanied me on a trip to buy some second hand drums and helped me to set them up, taught me how to tune them and offered some basic tutelage as well. My own journey would ultimately take me to formal training and I became a jazz percussionist, but Mike always offered an enthusiastic response to whatever I was doing. We never stopped talking about drums and drumming and his knowledge of music history was vast. It mattered not that he was a self-taught player, he maintained an encyclopedic knowledge of all of the great studio musicians, both here and in the UK, which cuts they’d played on and how this band or that had splintered off to form this one and how one school of rock had progressed into another, and could site the best recorded examples too!
In more recent years he’d also taken to collecting guitars---and the basement of Mike and Theresa’s house came to be akin to a trip through the Gibson warehouse. You need a flashlight and tour-guide to find your way out of the guitar forest. When he got into something, he became an authority on it. He never missed a beat.
Mike’s hunger for knowledge never confined itself to music---he was a fountain of information about film, theatre, politics and of course the world’s history. I always gravitated to these subjects too and over the decades we had much to talk about. I am sorry I never got to see one of his lectures, but I think I get the idea. He could turn any basic description into a thesis and leapt into the role of orator at any given chance. My wife Laurie would be the first to tell you that this is not one of her favorite aspects of my personality…perhaps we can blame Mike for that too.
My uncle was the Family Intellectual and radical. He ushered in the roots of every artistic pursuit I ever had and my drive toward dissent. Even when we didn’t get to speak for stretches, we always caught up and shared. Life moves along quickly, far too quickly, but as an adult I began to realize that Mike and I were actually quite close in age and really interacted more the way cousins would, peers, rather than uncle and nephew. But of course even with all of the depth of conversation Mike’s acerbic humor, tendency toward satire and imitations, kept it light and enjoyable. He loved riffing with jokes flying back and forth----there is no real attempt at holding court without being entertaining. And that influence stays with me too.
These memories of Mike will carry me through these days of his immediate loss and allow me to reflect on him later, and as I move forward through my own life each time I set up my vibes or drums for a gig, every time I write an article or I doodle in the margins of a page, or attend a protest rally or tell a joke or spin a yarn, he will always be within reach.
Because Mike just cannot give up a good audience. Because I still need to know he is there.
-John Pietaro, June 20, 2013
John & Laurie with Mike and Theresa Contardo, Aug 2009, 'Heroes of Woodstock' concert, Bethel Woods, Bethel NY