Saturday, April 25, 2009


I heard today that a good friend of mine died unexpectedly yesterday. He collapsed suddenly and couldn't be revived. He was a math professor at Marquette U. in Milwaukee, but our circle all knew him as the Friday night jazz DJ on the community radio station, WORT-FM in Madison, WI, and as a great improvising bassist, and all-around good person.

And I knew him as a good friend and a great person. We were in a couple of bands, mostly in The Barbaric Yawps. We played a few other gigs together, in other bands, as hired guns. We meshed well as a bass-and-Stick rhythm section.

"Uncle" Larry Hancock was a great bass player, but he also had a real gift was making everybody laugh, sometimes really hard, during band practice and gigs. I loved trading solos with him. I'd take over the bass line in a piece while he soloed, then he'd drop back into the groove while I took my solos. I played Stick, he played fretless bass guitar. He could also play clarinet, while I played percussion. I suck at clarinet, bad. Unk had a really sly sense of humor, very sideways. The tone of his humor could be very cynical and pointed; but at the same time he was raising two adopted children, and doing other quiet acts of service to the human community. It was all nicely balanced. Sometimes Unk and I would get to trading puns during a break in rehearsal, making everyone else groan mightily. Trading solos got to be almost telepathic at times; he was a good listener, which all great musicians are.

For my own Sunday night radio show on WORT, Unk lent me some albums a couple of times from his huge library of vinyl. Some really bizarre stuff that he'd collected. My show was one of the Sunday night experimental music shows, one segment of my show was called The Difficult Listening Hour, and it was well-named. All of us Sunday night DJs played avant-garde and experimental music. One set of LPs Unk loaned me was a set of recordings of various kinds of calliopes, and home-made instruments like the car-horn organ, a home-made instrument consisting of 25 car horns played by a homemade keyboard, all built by Wendy Mae Chambers.

I was on the air for over 7 years. I programmed mostly experimental music, avant-garde jazz, and so forth. But I also did a lot of live radio-performance pieces. One annual show I did was a live performance of John Cage music on the evening closest to his birthday. It was a piece using Cage's methods applied to recordings of his own music, that I titled Collections and Re-Collections Re: and Not-Re: John Cage. It was usually a big audience hit. Once I played the Six Gallery recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem Howl while in the production room at the radio station I set up my Stick with my bass amp and speaker cabinet so that it continuously howled with feedback; which I mixed in behind Ginsberg's voice, reading.

Unk was on the radio much, much longer. His show was called Crazeology, and the thing he did was play jazz that had been recorded on today's date. So, if it was Friday, April 24th, all the music he played from 11pm till 5am was recorded on April 24th of various years. His knowledge of jazz was encyclopedic, but he always had a light touch on-air and in life. A very good soul, who never got too heavy. Something of an enlightened being, if I dare say.

I remember a few gigs we played in particular, in jazz clubs around Madison, and once or twice for the Madison Art Fair On The Square in summer. We also did a gig with the Yawps on the Madison community cable access channel, Channel 4. We had a lot of fun together. Lots of good memories. It's funny, I was just thinking about him earlier this week, thinking about calling up and saying hi.

I'm going to miss him a lot.

I'm starting to feel like this place I live now, this small town back in Wisconsin, is a place where I've come to watch everybody I know die. I feel like they're all going to go away, one by one, a few each year, till none are left, and I'm alone here. Maybe at that time, I'll move again. Or become truly nomadic, sell my house, and live out of a camper van. After a certain point in your life, the dominant themes being to change: one of the big narratives becomes death, when it used to be eternity each morning.

So be gentle with yourselves, and with each other. Anything can happen to anybody at anytime. The world has seemed to me a very fragile place, lately. Tonight even more so. Be good to each other. You never know what your last words to those you care about are going to be, or when. Make them good words.


I spent a couple of sleepless hours last night going through my archive CDs of the Yawps recordings we had made in the studio in 1997 and 1998. There may be some rehearsal tapes, in a box somewhere, that I might find another day. WORT-FM asked me to send them the Yawps music that I had, for part of their on-air memorial for Unk. I think I may have donated copies of our "official" Yawps CDs, From the Rooftops and Spiritcatcher, to the station's library years ago, but they may be missing; it doesn't matter.

Listening to that music again put me a really good mood. I remember how much fun it was to play it. There are other tunes I wish we'd recorded, I liked them so much; but I don't think we did. Much of the Yawps music was influenced by African or South American music, or other music from other cultures. Tom Lachmund would write out parts, fairly detailed, sometimes quite complex; but the mood was always raw, sometimes a little tribal, with a lot of energy and force behind it. The written music was really structured jumping-off points for a lot of free playing; at some point there was usually a groove section over which we would solo, sometimes appearing as a gap; for other pieces, we'd solo over the complex polyrhythmic structures. In jazz, you play the tune, called the head, then everybody takes solos over the repeating chord-pattern of the tune, called the changes. With Yawps pieces, we played the head, but it was not a traditional head, then soloed, then played the head again. Some few pieces were fully notated, with a section for this person to solo while the others played something notated; then there'd be another section for another soloist, with completely different supporting material. So it was both open and structures music. It certainly kept us on our toes as players. The group's strengths were thus both in complex notated music and in free blowing. It was a band that combined both, never letting go of a slight wildness; we rehearsed weekly, but even so we managed to preserve a rawness in performance—another kind of mix of structure and wildness. I listened through the recordings last night, including three tracks I'd forgotten that we'd recorded and mixed, but hadn't released on our "official" CDs, and the memories made me smile. A lot of great music in there.

For my own selfish part, I think that's what I'm going to miss most: playing music that was this much fun to play, with musicians that were this much fun to play with. It was a good period of my life, and I'm glad there's some record of it preserved in recordings.

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Blogger Christopher Brandon said...

Death, its crumbs even (the withering of strangers, those of friends of strangers),cease never to devour me. Thus, I embody an amalgam of empathy, of sympathy, for you, your friend, and whatever/whoever has survived him.

The penultimate paragraph houses such a truth, and it limns for me my life heretofore. For being twenty three years aged, has not been without its traumata(death and suffering in especial) though I am impotent to birth what you have. I await the reverse of these themes - as you've christened them - but such only furthers them. Peradventure I shall be entrenched ever within these recesses.

I apologize that I contorted your words to fit me, but I am within a mourning this hour also and I think writing of a poignancy, such as this, can only touch people in how it has me.

Thank you.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate them.

12:30 PM  
Blogger mand said...

Condolences. {hugz}

10:09 AM  
Blogger mand said...

It is striking that this kind of thing has happened so much in the last few months. I found out by chance, a few weeks ago, that an old friend had died. (If you want the password on that post, let me know in private.) And everyone i speak to seems to be coming out of a rough time, with either illness or some other difficulty. It's in the air.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, mand, very much.

I don't know know if the rough times are over; I'm afraid to hope for that, because the past few years it's always seemed that as soon as I collapse into some kind of belief that things might be getting better at last, something more happens. So, I don't hope, I just go with the flow. But you're absolutely right about the rest of it: it seems to have been rough times for everyone I know, too.

12:51 PM  
Blogger mand said...

There is beauty in the profound, even when it is profoundly sad.

That's not meant instead of comfort, but perhaps as well.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I took it that way: as alongside comfort. Sometimes there is no solace, but that doesn't mean the world has lost all its beauty.

9:55 PM  

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