Thursday, October 28, 2010


On the night it became known, my phone went nuts at around 9pm. "The Phoenix is reporting that Billy Ruane died...." The news moved through the system very fast. 

And I flashed to one of our last face to face moments. He stopped by the gallery to give everyone food and make arrangements to get a disc of the night's concert with Junko Simons. My mission was to get it to him. We talked about getting old and he gave me an excited description of his disagreement with his physician about the meaning of blood pressure data and what was more important, with him insisting the opposite of conventional medicine's outlook was true. I had a feeling this would be a problem, in the back of my mind, but also thought, maybe he's right. 

He wasn't and now he's gone. Billy loved his salt and his fatty stuff and had gained more weight than his short frame really wanted to handle. And he had three flights of stairs to traverse. I oughta know, I lived there myself. He also loved caffeine. Not coffee, no, his Eucharist was Vivarin and he was despondent when it was discontinued as No Doz would not do. One of my regular chores as his sidekick was to do vivarin runs to 7/11. I imagine whatever substitute he found..,red bull?? counter nostrums?, was the detonater in the ticking bomb of his poor old heart. I assumed he was sturdier.

He wasn't and now he's gone.

The 20 year old in the Untouchables outfit was Billy's beginning for me. I was in an early prototype used vinyl shop, 'Bojo's' holding the place down for the owner who was tanked and asleep somewhere. There were dozens of records with Billy's odd signature that was proto-graffiti. It looked eastern European like 'ruanej'. It was really Ruane Jr truncated and compressed by a hasty hand. We roamed around the merits of Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp and he extolled Mal Waldron. 

He had it figured out. Within a year or so he was inventing slam dancing, inadvertently. Billy was enthusiasm and saw getting carried away as an important job. He loved to bounce and jump around at punk rock shows. I remember one early version at a Decoders show at the Western Front. He was all over the place and in a packed bar that eventually means you crash into people. So he did and soon it became like hockey lite with people imitating and booze fueled crowd mania until... slam dancing.

Billy was here to point things out. He was the purest advocate ever seen. I worked the formal institutional side of advocacy for my philosophical reasons and he worked the free wheeling side for his. We respected each others methods. I worked to be the least visible as he easily became the most. 20th century art and music in all its daunting intricacy was for Billy to find and extol to the sky like some avid beach child roaming all over the strand to find tide carried things and rush back to the group to share the find. He was the best town crier and witness the avante garde ever had. 

He claimed to be descended from Chicago bootleggers and his dad served in World War Two, got a GI Bill education and obtained a seat on the Exchange at Wall St. His classmate was Warren Buffett, Billy's honorary uncle. His father became one of the legendary old guys, value investors of the highest quality. I learned less about his mom but sensed she was the one who imparted his depth. She left him with some guidelines for life but marital despair and whatever else led her to a walk into Long Island Sound when he was in his mid teens.

That set his compass. I imagine there were high paternal hopes that he'd join the firm but Billy would have none of it. His initial run of boarding schools ' tightened the screws too much', he said, and he was determined to loosen em. Billy became ever more inventive at finding ways to expel money. While he was a tireless gatherer of stuff, he was unusual in that he was also soon up to his ears in the social and they were some wired ears. Billy became the mayor for life of what passes for the Boston scene. Much of this is now being covered by many as it was an American Marvel.  

My Billy lore is another thing, my actual friend and the room he retired to. I helped him move into that room in 89 or so with a couple of band guys and a rental truck. He was bailing on some studio he had across the river on Beacon St. He had a lot of books and if you've ever been a furniture mover, you know a lot of books sucks. He had even more vinyl, even heavier. It was July. We had three flights of stairs. I did mention it sucked. His Middle East gig was hitting its peak and he soon had me covering video shifts and other club chores. He was flailing at a fairly high oscillation rate, maybe his highest.

His father decided it was time to tighten the screws with a regimen of high lithium salt doses and Depakote added to offset seizures.. yay. The quarrels over this landed him at McLean and at that point he trusted me to take over his Middle East duties as a caretaker..yay. You see, I never cared that much about the Boston Rock scene. My choice was to try and help jazz. That's why Billy felt comfortable about it. He knew I didn't give a shit and would happily hand it back to him any time. I was happy to be his stand in, he gave me his place, free, and handed it all over. The owners tossed me around 75 bucks a week, all the falafel sandwiches I could stand, free booze and lots of useless scene cred status with a bunch of people I hardly knew and wasn't psyched to know... yay.

Billy was still able to call a lot of the important shots from McLean and my first chore was low level Augean, to handle the mess of still unpacked stuff and make a home for him to return to. The place was swarming with roaches so their ouster was a first priority. I took care of all of his endless stuff and organized it in ways that would be easy for him to examine when he wanted to. I figured it would be a useful bridge to home coming. He paid unusually high fees for his favorite bands, usually the most disruptive and ridiculous ones out there and was often cheated and humiliated by an artist agent, some vile critter in Minnesota.

The rest of these very important people were decent enough. It was very competitive. Billy was ever looking over his shoulder at his counterparts who were more avid to be a business. They were trying to make money. Billy was trying to give it away. This made a difference and they were better at nailing the more toothsome crumbs that fell from the table of the arena promoter here who dominated anything that made real money.

Fear whiplashed him throughout. A part of him was always waiting for some ax to fall and he sought counsel from those among us who were less anxious. And I don't imagine many understood how lonely his existence was, when the last gin mill closed and sidewalks rolled up. His fervent wish for romance and intimacy was thwarted for most of his life. He had an archetype he yearned for, (always a problem). He wanted a lithe huggable woman near his stature, but most women really didn't quite know what to make of him and the whole calculus of attraction was complicated by his scene status.

He'd have aspirants he didn't quite know what to make of while longing for others who didn't quite know what to make of him. Everyone knows this experience. For some, it stops being important, you give up and move on to the remaining fat slice of life left you. This was not so for Billy. The cd delivery mission I had was to get the sound of Junko to a young cellist who became a focus of his yearning. He bought her a cello and it no doubt made the woman nervous. 

I never thought I'd be bringing Billy to his final home that July day of endless boxes. It was a crappy classic three decker indifferently banged together around the time Johnny Hodges was born nearby. The floor plan was from hell and what would now be generously called 'non conforming'. There is a tiny room in the front right where he slept with doors opening out to the hall and to the next larger room where he kept his music and audio gear focused, the hatchery for his many mix tapes. Heading back, it was like a shotgun line of various rooms all with too many doors.. I got the one way in back near the kitchen. 

The kitchen was circa 50s slum, a crappy gas stove readily encrusted, a wheezing fridge, bad outlet locations, a tired blue formica cabinet counter with some other wall cabinets. The sink was a massive porcelain 2 basin job. A back egress door opened out to a sagging three decker porch and the back stairs. The bathroom was wretched too. I tricked out shower curtains using wire coat hangers to cover the weird frame distance to normal curtain hang lengths. 

Okay, so you get the floor plan. Throw in archaic wiring and floor to ceiling stuff, stuff in every closet, a few bedraggled couches, a deskish thing and thrift store bureaus and you have a fairly low cost life style. For all the resources he had, he really didn't give himself some lap of luxury. No, he had the zeal of a monk pursuing art elements. He needed another huge storage space in an old brick castle simulacrum near MIT that was like Jack Benny's vault. He could have easily bailed and got a place custom fit, but no. He was too busy circulating and extolling and inhaling it all.  

It's important to me to bring this up. Billy didn't care about any old stuff. He had Sammy Davis Jr.s pants, a gift from Ted Widmer. Stuff had to answer his voracity for an eclectic universe of human creative strivings whether historic or from people down the street. We spent weeks hashing over inclusions for one Lee Morgan mix tape which he circulated to most of the people who ever played at Lallopalooza.

Another essential thing to understand about Billy. For all of his legendary public flamboyance and adventures, he really didn't like being a public focus. As he aged, he half hated to get credit for anything and really didn't like getting his mug in the paper. 

Ben Deily's song bugged him. 

And yet, it is one of the most compelling works by one of the most compelling songwriters ever born around here. It answers Billy like nothing else and it just became iconic.But Billy wanted to direct the attention beyond self, to his discoveries.

Fate gave Boston an overly generous dollop of grifters and Billy was their catnip. Boston is insular and stodgy so it viewed the like of him as an irritant. The Boston Rock scene was a ridiculous egocentric shark pit from hell in it's prime with Technicolor narcissism. Boston was soaked in heroin and blow with mobsters on the periphery. At least one club owner bullied Billy to a breaking point. Billy bullying was a sport. This was his working world for most of his life. It took lots of energy. No internet, endless mailings, hours on the phone and Billy would agonize about some band he supported to the point of zooming over to other crowded clubs on his scooter to hand out his small funny Helldorado Fliers cause he wasn't gonna let that band down, dammit. He might hit 5 dumps in a night. 

He was like that to the end. Here at the gallery alone, in the past two years, Billy covered transportation and lodging for Matthew Shipp, Darius Jones, and Bern Nix and was always ready to help. He owned a luxury condo in Central square that was worth more than the building where he lived but made a bed and breakfast of it and a job for an old rocker. Shipp et al stayed in better accommodations than Billy lived in for the last two decades of his life.  

I get the sense a lot of the scene lived vicariously through Billy. He was routinely exploited and called me, despondent, in Seattle about some junkie who was blackmailing and tormenting him. I wanted to get on a bus and find the guy. Billy had lots of fans but very few who went to bat for him through thick and thin. At some point, the magnificent Pat McGrath realized that Billy needed attentive and alert help and the worst of the trough point subsided and he began his years of puttering around. The music scene changed. It grew old and sclerotic. The kids don't give a shit about it, so it freed Billy up to just see the things he wanted to. His flier passing days were over.

Of course some will argue he was an adult and made his choices but I'd argue his choice was to run himself under the earth for the things he loved and for what he felt was his community, very loosly defined. You'd think the community would have done a bit more out of some reciprocal understanding of the mountain of effort he made. I like to think that a kindlier culture would have figured out what a treasure he was and it would have done a better job of rising to his occasions to the benefit of all. Those who did rise to his occasion may well be among our best, especially when there wasn't much status. I'm not about to include myself among them, cause in a way, I made out like a bandit. Free flops, phone and a job. In various situations, his home was mine for several memorable years. The best I can do is try and describe the now passed human and let others cover the thing he graced.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

RIP Jack Powers.

Jack Powers passed away recently. He made it to 73 although his last years were clouded by an increasingly debilitating series of strokes. Reading over his obituary, I was struck by how he was the role model I never knew.

He was born poor and died poor but spent his whole life more or less giving of himself to the things he cared about, particularly poetry. He became the local contact for a parade of legendary beats in a blue blood town inclined to despise them. He'd give you the coat off his back if you needed it. Personal philanthropy at the sidewalk level.

He was also helpful to musicians and had a scene when there was no other one. There beyond all that is grandiose, ostentatious and noxious would be Jack.

Sleep you well.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Chris Forbes Trajectory.

Photo Courtesy Chris Forbes.

Chris has become a helpful regular in the comment zone and actually likes to write so I badgered him to go through the profile question ordeal and ...voila.

1.What brought you to music?

I was interested in music pretty young according to my mother. She said I always seemed to gravitate towards the musical instrument toys at the expense of most of the others. My earliest musical memories revolve around the piano that we found in the parsonage at my Dad's third church posting. It was a South African made Steinway and I sat at it for hours playing clusters and the most dissonant things possible. I remember being really interested in the clash of overtones that low clusters made. I think that even then I had a real kinship with dissonant music. After about a year and a half my parents got me piano lessons. My teacher used a method that immediately encouraged improvisation and composition and those remained interests of mine all through my schooling. Back then actually I didn't see much difference between improv and composing and would often write pieces in my head through improv that I never committed to paper. Early on I was a fan of the twentieth century and luckily grew up in a small midwestern college town with good contemporary music being played all the time. Loved Stravinsky after hearing the Rite of Spring and continued exploring Schoenberg, Webern Ives and even Penderecki, who I met at the age of ten or so. When I was in seventh grade a hippie music teacher (technically he was a Dead Head)  turned me on to Boulez and Stockhausen....and jazz improv. From there it was a quick journey of discovery from Bop and Bird to Ornette, Cecil, Braxton and the like. By the time I was in high school my parents were wishing I was into heavy metal like all my other friends instead of the cacophony that exploded from my room every night. 

2.Describe your role models, muses and mentors.

I've always been a bit of an autodidact with jazz. My piano training was pretty classical up through college. I learned a bit about jazz harmony from a friend of my dad's who played a kind of jazz based church music. Much of the rest of what I know in jazz was from listening pretty carefully to the great bop pianists, Bill Evans and then McCoy, Paul Bley and of course Cecil. The defining role model for me musically is Cecil. I admire his tenacity and his insistence on being himself completely even when it has not been convenient for him. It's impossible to be a free jazz pianist without some debt to Cecil, even if you go in a totally different direction. His is a pretty amazing presence.

I ended up going to Berklee in Boston for college. There was a bit of a free music scene there at the time, mostly surrounding George Garzone and his avant-big band student ensemble. I was a regular for a while at Michael's Pub listening to the Fringe. But it was the early 80s and the avant-garde was really dying at the was pretty lean. My piano teacher encouraged me to move more into composition and I took a traditional composition major with a minor in classical piano. That allowed me to apply for the Master's program at Juilliard where I was accepted and studied with American Master David Diamond. Diamond was definitely a major influence on me. He taught me that every note mattered and how not to settle for my first musical thoughts. He felt the biggest danger for improvisers is that our facility for musical ideas can sometimes mean we don't examine them as much as we could. I've tried to keep that lesson even though I don't compose concert music much any more.

I also have to give props to two individuals on the NYC scene who really helped me early in my time here. I'd kind of given up on free jazz during a long time in Washington DC where the scene was pretty dismal. When I turned 40 and moved to Chicago I had a sort of midlife creative crisis and went back to free playing. I did a little work in Chicago, but when I moved to New York I decided I would really put myself in a learning posture. I met Daniel Carter and spent a lot of time playing with him early on. Daniel is one of the most generous musicians and someone who has the gift to help you build your confidence as an improviser, plus he has an interesting take on just about everything from music to philosophy to politics. The other big influence was Sabir Mateen. Sabir gives workshops sometimes and when I moved to NY I was lucky enough to get into one. I learned more about playing free in a group there than I had in any experience in my life before. Sabir has a real gift for conceptualizing group situations and has a strong idea about what every member of a group should do. He has turned my mind around several times about the role of the piano in free music and unlocked some real mysteries for at Sabir's workshops I met some of the closet collaborators, Ras Moshe and Matt Lavelle. I will always be grateful for that.

3. Describe your community of colleagues and audiences.

Mostly I hang around the younger elements of the downtown scene. Matt Lavelle is one of my closet collaborators and a good friend. Matt is always on a journey and he really wants to bring all of us with him. Currently I play with him in Morcilla, a group that started out as a Latin/Free concept but has morphed into much more than that.  I'm also working with him in a new group which will come out in a couple weeks at the Festival of New Trumpet and we're pretty excited about it...Matt is describing it as attacking Trane's concept, but in our own way. For my part I'm trying to imagine modal playing that doesn't involve either triads or's an interesting problem.

I also spend a lot of time playing in bands with Steve Swell. I'm involved with Steve's Nation of We band, which is pretty thrilling as it is a collection of really great known and lesser known players, many of whom have played with Cecil. Steve has a really interesting approach to composing for this band, which includes alot of conduction and I find our gigs to be real events...few and far between but really special.

I also am working in a new band with Steve, Rob Brown, Hill Greene and Michael Thompson. I'm excited about this group because the caliber of playing is really high and as a rhythm section we've reached an almost telepathic level fairly quickly. Steven is hoping to record and tour with this band soon. I hope it happens as it would be my first out of NYC touring.

The other major people I work with are people associated with Ras Moshe's Music Now. Ras is gifted with an uncanny ability to put people in musical situations and watch the sparks fly. His Music Now bands are almost always a rotating cast of characters...almost experiements in blending musical personalities. We've made some music I'm really proud of...alot of it is available on YouTube. And Ras is a deep cat...really uncompromising in his vision and very thoughtful.

4.What are the important elements you apply to your personal approach to performance, repertoire and composition?

I have an almost mystical relationship to harmony. Early in my life I read Schoenberg's Harmonielehre and I think I got infected with the old Austrian's note mysticism. Schoenberg felt the chord was actually the vertical expanding of the melodic tone. Though he never went far enough, I used him as a starting point for my conception, in which harmony is made out of the cellular structure of melodies and at least to my mind is just a thickening out of the melody and tone color. Various combinations of notes have deeply personal meanings to me. One six note chord I use obsessively came to me twenty years ago in a dream and has always represented the mysterious and numinous for me whenever I use it. Another might represent the earthy or the violent, or the erotic. I don't usually let anyone in on these personal meanings of chords...but it's more or less conscious on my I'm telling a very literal story in tones.

As far as repertoire and composition, most of my work lately has been as a sideman so I haven't performed my own tunes much. I'm hoping to change that. I'm really interested in the line between the composed and the improvised. When I last had a working trio, we did mostly freely improvised work, but in such a way that most audiences thought that the material was pre-composed. I liked that...and I like writing tunes that sound like improvisations. I'm also finding myself more interested in open form composition, game pieces and music inspired by fractals and chaos algorithms.

5.What role does teaching have in your work?

I made my living primarily as a music teacher. I taught piano early in my career but since 1994 I've taught music in schools in Maryland and New York. I'm currently working as a teaching artist in Brooklyn, in a program that combines in school interdisciplinary arts and an afterschool comprehensive arts program housed in the Sunset Park neighborhood. I work with children from kindergarten all the way through high school. This work keeps me creatively fresh and challenged. Through it I have developed in interest in hip hop and how hip hop can be developed in creative ways. I have also learned a lot about world percussion, through my work with our percussion ensemble. And last year we did a musical based on a book by Salman Rushdie. To match the fantasy of the book, we decided to design and build our own orchestra. I immersed myself in instrument making theory and we ended up with many unique mallet and stringed instruments for our orchestra. The music itself combined composed music and conduction and has given me a new outlet for my own creativity. I've continued to experiment with new instruments and tuning systems. My significant other says I can't go into a china shop now without trying to ring all the glasses.

6. How have changes in the economy impacted your work?

I've never really earned a living out of playing or composing music. Oddly, I'm having the best performing year ever in my career, with more gigs per month than ever and most of them actually bringing in some real money. But the teaching artist work, which pays the bills, has been a little shakey. I was laid off for a while this summer, but hired back in the fall. I feel like I've dodged a bullet for now, but the chances of needing new work are greater than they've been before. 

7. If you perform beyond your region or overseas, how has that changed over time?

I have yet to do the overseas thing. I am hoping for it, but also know that it's hard given my teaching schedule. The same is true for domestic touring in any extensive way. However there are some small things in the wings that I hope will pan out.

8.How has technology and changes in the way music circulates impacted your work?

Not really. I never recorded very much before 2004. In fact I had a 20 year hiatus in free jazz and in jazz in general. I've been a sideman in a handful of small label projects and put out my own CD back in 2005. I put out a small batch but I've still got about 100 of 'em left. I honestly love the freedom that the home recording boom has given us as musicians, and I think the internet can be a great marketing tool, but I also think that it's harder and harder to get noticed, even with this expanded market. There's so much out on the net and sooooo much of it is of questionable quality. It can be quite a job to get your small needle in the haystack noticed...quite as difficult as it was in the bad old days of record labels. So to me the answer, as it has always been for avant-garde musicians, is DIY. We need to take some pages from some of the punk bands or Dirty South hip hop. Too many of us are still thinking on a label model and that is almost totally dead, and I don't think it will be coming back for us. We have to create our own destiny.

9. Describe your current and potential future projects and collaborations along with things you would like to do.

Matt Lavelle has my whole career planned out for me! He says I should do a trio album, then a quartet or quintet, another trio album, and then maybe something with strings...the man's full of plans!

Actually I do want to start a working trio soon. I have a lot of ideas and even some people in mind for it, but I'm a really bad leader when it comes to shilling for gigs. I blame it some on my day job, which is really demanding on my time, but if I'm honest I can admit that I have a pretty big lazy streak. And also a bit of an easily bruised ego...rejection is hard and gigs where two people show up really get to me if it's my band.
I have two pieces I'm working on right now that I hope to one day play with's called The Infernal Machine and is based on a long series of melodies generated by a fractal algorithm, interrupted by free improvisations from the band. The other is called Major Arcana and is a series of notes, textures, scales, methods of improv, each based on a card from the Tarot. The performance while actually be ordered by dealing out a reading and then performing based on the spread of the cards...sort of like Zorn's game pieces but with a different twist I hope.

I've been lucky in the people I've worked with, especially people in Steve Swell's bands but there are a number of people I'd like to persue things with. I'd love to do something permanent with Will Connell, an amazing player who is underexposed in the community but played with Horace Tapscott and Cecil among others. I'd love to do a larger project that could shoot some work to people who've helped me like Matt, Ras, Sabir and Steve. And at some time I'd love to do something with a really large ensemble involving composition and conduction...and even some of my invented gamalan instruments. There's a lot in my mind...there's always a lot in my mind. The problem is bring it out.