Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Wir sind alles Berliner(s)

This picture was taken by our tour manager Steve Left, on our spring of 1990 tour of Europe. That's us, standing in front of what was remaining of the Berlin Wall. (Left to right, it's Ken Frank, David McIntire, Colorblind James, Phillip Marshall, Joe "The Bone" Colombo and James McAvaney.) Students of history will remember that the wall came came down in November of '89. We were touring then, and had some shows booked in Germany, including one in Berlin. Most of them fell through, being cancelled as we were flying to London. In the meantime, we plodded onwards with the rest of that surreal and depressing tour. We were aware that world-shaking events were unfolding, but we were preoccupied with our daily routine of travel and performing. At some point, we realized that our cancelled gig in Berlin had been scheduled for the very night that the wall came down. We would have been there for that momentous event. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

The tour concluded with us deep in debt and severely depressed as we prepared to fly home. The debacle that was our journey home will need its own separate posting, but suffice it to say, we were feeling low. But soon to be brought even lower, when, on the same plane as us was another band (I have no idea who they were) who HAD played in Berlin on that fateful night. They were exultant about the experience, telling people on the plane what a fantastic experience it had all been, how excited the East Berliners had been to hear American bands for the first time, how the clubs were all packed with enthusiastic throngs. I had an intense feeling that some cosmic plan had gone horribly wrong, and the fun, successful tour that was rightfully ours had been given to this other band somehow. It wasn't fair.

A few months later, we finally played in Berlin. By then, the excitement was over, and the gig was routine. We still took time to go to the wall and pay our respects.

Addendum: The title of this posting was a rough attempt to approximate the phrase from JFK's speech at the Berlin Wall where he declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner." The audience knew what he was trying to say and roared approvingly, but his statement more or less translates to "I am a jam-filled doughnut." Which should tell politicians to try out those phrases on native speakers BEFORE they make the big speech. Anyway, the actual plural would be "Berlineren."

Monday, May 29, 2006

1984-1987: The Bop Shop (Dave's take)

Phil's previous posting on the Bop Shop caused me as well to ponder the store's contribution to Rochester's musical culture. Since I have my own extensive history with the place, I thought I'd throw in my two cents. As Phil pointed out, the store is one of the hippest record shops anywhere. The owner, Tom Kohn, is simply put, a visionary. He has wide-ranging, yet discriminating taste, and an incredible memory for record minutiae. The Bop Shop's main focus has always been on jazz, folk and blues, but with many other genres represented as well. What you won't find is current pop, or anything that Tom deems unworthy of his store. (Ages ago I remember the look of astonishment on a Japanese tourist customer's face when Tom informed him that he didn't carry the latest Michael Jackson release. Many of Kenny G's fans were likewise astonished to learn that Mr. G's highly popular recordings did not make the cut either.) Over the years, his store's presence has had an incalculable effect on the Rochester scene, providing exceptional selection for music enthusiasts, sponsoring dozens of free concerts and offering a forum for musicians learn and grow.

I met Tom in 1980 when we were both electronic technicians at MXR Innovations, Rochester's guitar effect and sound-reinforcement gear manufacturer. Tom and I were there during the company's golden age; it was a really fun place to work back when they were prosperous. By 1982-83 the Japanese corporations like Roland and Yamaha had made huge inroads into that market and MXR struggled to compete. This, combined with some terrible, cocaine-addled management decisions brought the company to its demise around '84. By mid-83 we all saw the writing on the wall, and Tom had taken his profit-sharing and started the Bop Shop at the Village Gate Square, 274 North Goodman Street in Rochester. Back then it was called Peddler's Village, and was more or less a glorified flea market. Even then, Tom was one of the most successful vendors there. At this point, twenty-some years later, his is probably the only business left from that era.

In 1983, I got married and started working on a music degree at Nazareth College. A few months later, I stopped by the Village Gate and poked around Tom's new little retail space. We hadn't spoken in a while, and he told me that things were busy and he was thinking about hiring an employee. I became the first one. At the time I thought little of it; today it seems like quite a big deal. The place expanded rapidly, quadrupling in size over the next few years. Today the store is rated one of the finest jazz record stores in the country and it serves customers all over the world. And the fact that it has simply survived through these tumultous years is remarkable. Few independent record stores have been able to do so, and fewer still on the terms that Tom demanded.

The store had an enormous impact on my own musical education. Whatever I have learned from my coursework and lessons over the years, I have learned far more about musical style, artists and repertoire from my years of working at the Bop Shop, and later managing its sister store, Recorded Classics. All of Tom's employees were (and remain) musicians and/or music lovers with tremendous knowledge. We all had different interests, but we tended to get along well and to learn from one another. A day at the store would involve listening to dozens of recordings while we went about our duties, all with vigorous discussion. The store was like a huge library, and we all absorbed its contents as much as we could. We were some of its best customers, as well as its employees. This influenced the way we played, the bands we played in, the way we thought about music altogether. After I started playing in CbJE, the Bop Shop was where I expanded my listening, to fill in the gaps of musical history I needed. Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, and Cannon's Jug Stompers became essential listening. I studied the sax solos of Herbert Hardesty, the great tenor man for Fats Domino, and the solos on Little Richard's early recordings. I tried to figure out a way to make my saxophone sound like Hubert Sumlin's guitar on Howlin' Wolf's records. (Still working on that one....) John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton became role models. Steve Lacy shaped my concept of how to play the soprano saxophone. And Sidney Bechet showed me sounds from the clarinet I'd never dreamed of...

I stopped working for Tom in 1992, when I went back to school for my master's degree, but I still shop at the Bop Shop whenever I'm in Rochester. Tom always pulls out a dozen discs to play me, ("Dave, y'gotta hear these guys, they're amazing!!!") and yes, they always are amazing. My credit card groans under the strain and I ponder how I'll get it all into my luggage, but I go forth happy that I have the best, most latest sounds that have been made. Stop by there yourself, if you don't believe me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

1985: the Bop Shop

The first time I saw the Colorblind James Experience after returning to Rochester, I believe they were going by the name Colorblind James and the Death Valley Boys. Eiter that or Chuck was letting it operate under the name "The Colorblind James Band".

Chuck had hooked up once again with White Caps guitarist G. Elwyn Meixner. He had also scored Personal Effects popular bassist Bernie Heveron who had just recently acquired an upright bass and a taste for "something different". Bernie was able to point Chuck in the direction of Jimmy MacAveney who had played with such local luminaries as The Dady Brothers and The Ken Hardley Playboys.

The quartet had already enjoyed a good response playing small Rochester bars like Snake Sisters at 666 South Avenue (now LUX), Schatzee's on Richmond St. (now RICHMOND's) and of course Jazzberry's at 713 Monroe Avenue (now a gift shop). On this day, however, they were playing on the upper level of the Village Gate Square right above the Bop Shop.

During a break, Chuck and the boys brought me down to the Bop Shop where I was introduced to the youthful proprietor Tom Kohn, who was already a big fan of Chuck's music and the band's sound. Working for him at the time was a young composer, clarinetist and ex-Zenith Effluvium member David McIntire. The Bop Shop was cooler than any record store I had haunted in San Francisco and I immediately had my heart set on working there.

It would take about six months and a stormy exit from the young men's department at Sibley's before that dream would be realized. It would take another 2 years before Dave McIntire would officially join the fold. That day, however, I was happy to acquire a vinyl copy of Muddy Waters: Down on Stovall's Plantation and to realize that however little money I was to make, most of it would go into Tom Kohn's cash register.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Dave's Clipping Archive (I)

The above review is from the British music weekly, New Musical Express, November 18th, 1989. (Click on this image for a larger, readable version.) The show was at a London venue called the Powerhaus. The first band, God's Little Monkeys, was a sort of punked-up folk band from York, I think. We played several shows with them on our first and second tours. Originally they were called Malcolm's Interview, a name which meant nothing to me, but I thought sounded better than GLM. Nice folks, though for me their songs had a sort of opportunistic quality, in a political sense. They had an anti-apartheid song, a song about religious repression, etc, covering the general scope of Britain's left-wing scene. Because some preacher had railed against their name in public, they worked this into the conclusion that they were somehow being persecuted. Right. They were a decent band, though. Veldt, I do not remember at all. Must have been backstage or something. And actually, I don't remember too much about our portion of the show, either. I do suspect that the booing the writer refers to was not actually directed at our second album, so much as Chuck's refusal to play some stuff from the first album. "The First Day of Spring" was often requested by beer-soaked punters, and was not in our repertoire at that time because it was Bernie Heveron's song, and he was no longer in the group. Chuck would try to explain this to audiences, but it did no good. They would get angry anyway.

This is a pretty typical example of Britain's pop music press reportage. While it's generally favorable, (except for that snip about the second album being booed), it doesn't really report on the event in any meaningful detail. It always annoys me when a writer resorts to obscure references to items in their own record collection to bolster their authority, rather than doing the hard work of writing in clear descriptive language. I have no idea what he's talking about in most cases, and I was at the show. (And that's a vibraphone, pal, NOT a xylophone.) These writers tended to take a faintly sarcastic, weary tone to their writing. I often wondered if some of them even liked music at all. I do enjoy the reference that perhaps suggests that my saxophone playing is "squirty," though it's too clever by half. And valuing cleverness over substance is what plagued nearly all of Britain's music writers.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Happy Buster Cornelius Day

"...and that is why, on the Third of May,
We all celebrate Buster Cornelius Day."

Ever since I started teaching in middle-school band in Florida back in '96, I've always tried to observe Buster Cornelius Day. I play the song to my students, I explain that Buster Cornelius Day is not a widely celebrated holiday, but that for those familiar with this person, it's an important day of the year. A few former of my former students and my daughters even send me BC greeting cards every year. This year, Buster Cornelius Day is celebrated across America and as far away as New Zealand. So, take a few hours off from work. Go to the parade. Buy some Buster Cornelius balloons for your kids. Watch the PBS special about his life. Spend a moment at his statue in the city square, and reflect on this great person. Or surf to eBay and buy a used copy of the Colorblind James Experience's second album, 'Why Should I Stand Up?,' and learn more about this great American.

The proprietor of the Blessed Thistle Bakery in Rochester NY even created a Buster Cornelius sandwich for the occasion, offered once a year. I had it once and it was pretty darn good, though I don't now recall what was in it. (In its place, I recommend smoked turkey on oat bread, with swiss cheese and slices of fresh tomato and avacado. And mayo. Sprouts are optional.)