Celebrating the Life and the Music: in Contemplation and on Stage
by John Pietaro
On the heels of my last posting to the Cultural Worker, as news of the passing of Will Connell becomes more widespread, I am happy to report that Will's week at the Stone shall stand. Even through the blue reality, there is cause to celebrate.
His residency at this, one of the few Downtown spaces left downtown, set for December 23, 26, 27 and 28, was all Will spoke about for months. His daughter Safiya Martinez recently told me that the week of concerts at this space, "was simply his dream". He had planned on the concept for years and was working tirelessly to get all of the music together, arranged, copied out. It would not be hyperbole to say that Will was living for this event. This makes the strange and sudden loss that much more of an injustice. But, in classic Will style, the musicians already dedicated to this residency are making no fuss, no moan, and carrying on. In tribute.
I made plans to spend last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, in Will's apartment on East 9th Street with Safiya, Ras Moshe, Jason Hwang and Rocco John Iacovone. We represented a cross section of Will's time in NYC, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Our task was to examine boxes of music in a somewhat anxious attempt to find the score and parts for the epic two-part "World Peace, With or Without People", a work that includes segments of music and poetry from the Horace Tapscott years through these days. In many ways, it is Will's own story. As dissonant as it is dissident, rapturous as tumultuous, equal parts ballad and experimental adventure, boldly singing, frenetically swinging. All of that and yet nearly no one had seen the final product, let alone could identify exactly where he had it hidden. Even as we planned on the venture I worried that we may never find it the manuscript...
It was nearly noon and so I hurriedly moved east on 8th Street, into St Mark's Place after my ascent from the subway station on lower Broadway. It was a long walk but one I have always enjoyed: even with the gentrification, with NYU taking over the landscape, even with the well-heeled corporate-types pretending to slum it and the wannebe hipsters carrying plastic arts dogma close at hand, that part of Broadway melds wonderfully into the East Village. They cannot squeeze the bohemian spirit out, even when the bohemian is priced out. That's both the lure of New York and its shame.
Once inside Tompkins Square Park you can almost forget the gleaming glass towers within range---and that so many powerful musicians, writers, painters, actors and dancers have lived and worked here. Rarely thriving, almost certainly struggling, but ensuring that this downtown area would remain hallowed ground. Will was among them, maintaining the rigors of a day job just to pay the rent while living out his calling. And like most, he suffered the devious developers, vampire landlord archetypes, breathing down his throat. The artists that pave the road in the poorest 'hoods are eventually driven out, one way or another. Yeah, its New York's shame.
Emerging onto Charlie Parker Way I moved quickly over to 9th and found my way to Will's place. Safiya greeted me with a warm hello. Ras was there already. She asked that we three stand over Will's piano where she'd set a candle and some small remembrances of her father in modest reverie. She spoke across the spectrum to Will and asked him to help in our search for the charts we needed to carry out his vision. After a moment, we were into our task, soon joined in by her mother/Will's ex-wife Thea Martinez, Rocco and then Jason--who'd worked with Will for so many years and was invaluable in assessing the music we went through. .
I looked around the neat studio apartment with its white walls and basic furniture, and marveling over the books: on shelves, in stacks and sitting in most of the otherwise empty spots. The guy was a real intellectual and his choice in books, on Black Liberation, yoga, the horoscope, world history, art, literature and philosophy, and in no particular order, spoke volumes. Where would this man have stored the manuscript we so desperately needed?
Carefully rummaging the boxes, the stories of Will began and there was laughter. Gentle remembrances and bits of imitations of some of his catch-phrases--his raised eyebrow smirk, his tendency to lean in close when trying to get your attention. We saw scores for works dating back 40 years amidst clippings he'd saved, handwritten notes and a few photos. In no particular order. Folders filled with standards could include a flugelhorn part from "Intaka"; stacks of his copying work for David Murray might contain lists of his ideas; the backs of envelopes were as valuable as onion skin manuscript paper in this search. Realizing that parts of "World Peace" included Will's compositions performed in more recent times, we separated the pieces and made sure to compile the part we'd probably need.
After we found some important components, the group, now joined by yet another musician friend, came to the sad conclusion that perhaps we simply weren't going to find the Tapscott-era material--the main part of the first set slated for December 23. Or its important poetry, that which told the tale of "World Peace". This was troubling, to say the least. Where could this material be?? But something had me take a look in a box someone else had already gone through. "No, no, its not in there", I was told, "I already examined everything". But something had me continue on. I lifted up a pile of charts from the large box and looking downward could see, clipped together, a small stack of photocopied sheets. It stood out so I pulled it up and out. Here were the Tapscott-era charts! We scrambled back into the box and found another similarly clipped stack; yes, it was indeed the poetry! Will came through after all.
As I write this, we are awaiting a senior member of the group to take charge and decide how best to present theses charts of Will's and the ideas he conveyed but never got to write out. But its good to know that his dream will be shared with everyone on December 23, 26, 27 and 28. Will Connell made a real impact on the creative music scenes on both coasts, scenes that he not only performed in but actually helped forge.........
World Peace, With or Without People: Music from the Legacy of Horace Tapscott, performed by the Dark Tree Ensemble - New Music in New York.