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.........
Press Contact: NEW MASSES MEDIA RELATIONS John Pietaro (646) 599-0060 email@example.com
New York, NY: Memorial Concerts for Underground Legend of Avant Jazz Will Connell
As winter descends over Alphabet City, the homeland of radical arts mourns the loss of one of its own. Saxophonist/bass clarinetist/composer Will Connell Jr died on November 19; his music and life are to be celebrated in a Christmas-week event at the Stone. He came of age in the 1960s as an invaluable part of Horace Tapscott’s organization and the LA Black Arts Movement, and stood as an underground giant of NY’s Free Jazz and New Music circle since 1975. His sudden passing occurred just weeks before his planned residency at the Stone (Dec 23-28) and days shy of his 76th birthday. The musicians who were to be a part of Connell’s residency have vowed to keep his vision alive in this series of concerts which now stand in his honor and memory; all of the proceeds will serve as a fundraiser for Will’s family.
The music performed will be an amalgam of Connell’s more than half-century as a performing artist: compositions ranging from those associated with Tapscott to his latest works as well as the free improvisation he was so fond of. The variety of sounds embody Connell’s stage and studio life; his resume sported gigs with Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, David Murray, William Parker, Charles Gayle, Chico Hamilton, and Anthony Braxton. A core downtown figure, Connell also engaged James Chance, Minor Threat, Black Flag and Ryan Adams in creative endeavors—a performance pedigree ranging from hip Jazz to New Thing to No Wave. From basement clubs to the Newport and Moers festivals to nation-wide TV broadcasts. The musical fabric Connell brings to the Stone also includes his work as a music copyist, laying down the score for Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America”, the World Saxophone Quartet and many of Motown LA’s best. Known as an understated, quiet giant of the music, Will Connell’s voice is best heard through his alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute, drenched in the rich tapestry.
The program at the Stone will open on December 23 with words by Will’s daughter, poet and actress Safiya Martinez, and then move into two powerful sets by Will’s 13-piece band, the Dark Tree Ensemble. This collection of works, “World Peace, With or Without People: Music from the Legacy of Horace Tapscott”, is split between LA compositions and those from Will’s nearly 40 years in NYC. This world premiere, featuring Tapscott’s brilliant music in perspective and also as a reference for Connell’s own compositions, promises to be historic and serves as a statement for these years of ongoing global conflict.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the club is dark, but the residency continues from the 26th through the 28th. The focus will be on Connell’s collaborations with other artists over the years including Vincent Chancey, Connie Crothers, Jorge Sylvester, Rocco John Iacovone, Golda Solomon, Andrea Wolper, Michael TA Thompson and many more, in large assemblages and intimate combos. The sounds range from free to world music, new composition to latter-day Beat poetry to exploratory visions.
Event: WILL CONNELL MEMORIAL WEEK: Celebrating the Life & Music of the Heart & Soul of Downtown
When: December 23, 26, 27, 28, 2014
Place: The Stone
Ave C @ 2nd Street, New York, NY 10009 (212) 473-0043 www.thestonenyc.com
OPENING STATEMENT: Safiya Martinez, Will Connell’s daughter
World Peace, With or Without People: Music from the Legacy of Horace Tapscott, performed by the Dark Tree Ensemble - Music from the Los Angeles experience.
Will Connell (compositions), Fay Victor (voice), Andrea Wolper (voice), Rosi Hertlein (violin, voice), Ras Moshe (soprano sax), Hayes Greenfield (alto sax), Matt Lavelle (flugelhorn, alto clarinet), Vincent Chancey (French horn), Steve Swell (trombone), Jesse Dulman (tuba), Joe Daley (euphonium), John Pietaro (vibes, percussion), Larry Roland (bass), Jeremy Carlstedt (drumset, percussion)
OPENING STATEMENT (poetry by DH Lawrence): Safiya Martinez
World Peace, With or Without People: Music from the Legacy of Horace Tapscott, performed by the Dark Tree Ensemble - New Music in New York.
Will Connell (compositions), Fay Victor (voice), Andrea Wolper (voice), Rosi Hertlein (violin, voice), Ras Moshe (soprano sax), Hayes Greenfield (alto sax), Matt Lavelle (flugelhorn, alto clarinet), Vincent Chancey (French horn), Steve Swell (trombone), Joe Daley (euphonium), Jesse Dulman (tuba), John Pietaro (vibes, percussion), Larry Roland (bass), Jeremy Carlstedt (drumset, percussion)
I.C.E. : Improvisational Composers Ensemble
Rocco John Iacovone (alto & soprano saxophones, compositions), Ras Moshe (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute), Sana Nagano (violin), Michael Lytle (bass clarinet), Rich Rosenthal (guitar), Phil Sirois (bass), John Pietaro (hand drums & percussion), Dalius Naujo (drumset)
Vincent Chancey (French horn), Max Johnson (bass), Jeremy Carlstedt (drumset)
Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective
Golda Solomon (poetry), E.J.Antonio (poetry), Phylisha Villanueva (poetry), Rosi Hertlein (violin, voice, poetry), Larry Roland (bass, poetry) Michael T.A.Thompson (conductor & sound rhythm). Special guest: JD Parran (flutes)
Connie Crothers (piano), Andrea Wolper (voice, poetry), Ken Filiano (bass). Special Guest: Golda Solomon (poetry)
--8 and 10 pm
Jorge Sylvester's ACE (Afro-Caribbean Experimental) Collective
Jorge Sylvester (alto saxophone, compositions), Nora McCarthy (voice, poetry, compositions), Waldron Mahdi Ricks (trumpet), Donald Nicks (electric bass), Kenny Grohowski (drumset). Special Guests: Craig Harris (trombone), Jay Rodriguez (bass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Marvin Sewell (guitar)
BIO:The son of a violin prodigy deprived of the profession by racist politics, Will Connell Jr became aware of both music and the struggle for justice as a child of the ‘40s. Jazz served as a source of art and great pride for the African American community, and its impact on Connell was nothing short of visceral: “I heard Billie Holiday at 17. Tears ran down my face like Niagara Falls”. That same year, 1956, Connell joined the US Air Force, serving some nine years. In between tours he purchased an alto saxophone but didn’t dedicate himself to music until surviving a chemical blast that blinded him for several days. Lying in an Air Force hospital in darkness, Connell vowed that if he regained his eyesight, he’d formally study this art that had driven him so deeply. This and the gnawing outrage about the military’s treatment of Black servicemen led to his decision re-join civilian life. Studies at LA City College (Dolphy’s alma mater) led to years of close work with Horace Tapscott wherein Connell served as reeds player and music librarian and copyist. The Tapscott organization was LA’s paramount arm of the Black Arts Movement and its immersion into African American culture and liberation had a lasting impact on Connell. By 1975 Connell relocated to NYC’s Lower East Side where he resided for the rest of his life. Through the decades he performed or recorded with such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, William Parker, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chico Hamilton, Pharoah Sanders, Butch Morris, Roy Campbell, Sam Rivers, Steve Swell, Billy Bang, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Daniel Carter, Jason Hwang and many others. He also engaged in extensive projects as music copyist, most notably Ornette Coleman’s ‘Skies of America’ as well as for David Murray's Big Band, the World Saxophone Quartet and a bevy of R & B and pop artists ranging from Michael Jackson and Roberta Flack to Stevie Wonder and Simon & Garfunkel.
Will Connell was a deeply relevant part of this rather unclassifiable musical genre which prides itself on free improvisation as much as post-modern composition, global sounds and the bite of revolutionary politics. Usually preferring to be a member of a band as opposed to its leader, Connell may have been the last of the modest greats. Having served as guest curator at the Stone in 2012, which brought him some note, and featured earlier this year in the Arts for Art organization’s series, and as a member of the Veterans of Free on the Tribute to ‘New York Eye & Ear Control’ concert in June, this master of the New Jazz is now recalled at his rightful place at front and center.