Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pavel's perfect piano

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 12:36 PM

Pavel Polanco-Safadit, on piano - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • Pavel Polanco-Safadit, on piano
Pavel Polanco-Safadit is a whirlwind on the piano, unfurling mesmerizing lines of melody and rhythm with charismatic force. A native of the Dominican Republic, he's most known for playing salsa, Latin jazz and other genres associated with his Caribbean roots. But Pavel also possesses an advanced knowledge of Western classical music theory, which adds a significant power to the vocabulary of his unique musical language.

I spoke with Pavel in advance of his May 29 date at the Jazz Kitchen with his band Direct Contact

NUVO: You grew up in the Dominican Republic. Tell us about your childhood there and how you first became interested in playing music.

Polanco-Safadit: I remember growing up I had only one pair of shoes. I had to save them for school only! (laughs) But I had a very supportive family there.

When I was thirteen years old a missionary from the Episcopal church came along and my father took me to learn music from him. According to this teacher, who was named Tim Holt, I developed very quickly. By the time I was 14, I started teaching music at this school where I had been taking lessons. 

NUVO: The worlds of church music and party music aren't always compatible. Were you playing merengue and salsa music at that time?

Polanco-Safadit: I look at music like this: the highest quality of music in any genre is music of the highest quality music period. But at that point I was more interested in classical music. I was more interested in Chopin and Bach then.

I transferred to Latin and jazz music later when I started playing in the clubs to earn money, which happened at an early age. I realized that if I wanted to make money classical music wasn't going to be the way in the Dominican Republic. I was getting my academic lessons in classical music and developing my technique there and I would use that training in playing salsa, merengue and jazz. I played in the clubs all through my college years.

NUVO: So by age 14, you knew you wanted to devote your life to playing music?

Polanco-Safadit: Yes I did, but I had my doubts. I knew I couldn't pursue the music I wanted to play in the Dominican Republic. I finished high school early at age 16. I went to college to study computer systems. As soon as I got there I knew I didn't want to do it. Music was always my passion, so I transferred to Mexico to study music. After a year studying in Mexico I was offered a scholarship to study music in the United States at the University of Arkansas.

NUVO: You mentioned that you didn't think you'd be able to pursue the type of music you wanted in the D.R. Why?

Polanco-Safadit: The scene there didn't require an extended background of knowledge. If you played merengue or bachata you didn't need to learn music to the extent that I wanted to. I wanted to go all the way with my music studies.

NUVO: When did you come to Indianapolis?

Polanco-Safadit: About nine years ago. I'd been living in New York before. It took me two years to get used to living in Indianapolis. Now I love Indianapolis to the fullest. This is my home. But it took time to get used to, especially coming from New York where things don't close and you can get gigs forever. 

NUVO: There's been a huge growth in Indy's Latino population in the nine years since you arrived. How has the scene for the music you're playing changed in that time-span?

Polanco-Safadit: When I came there were not that many Latino businesses and clubs. Things have evolved for the music. There's more clubs and bands. The Indy Jazz Fest now has a full day devoted to Latin jazz. 

NUVO: I love hearing you play live. I've noticed when you take a solo your whole demeanor changes, you just come to life almost like you're overtaken by some sort of spirit. I'm curious what's going on your head when you're creating your extraordinary solos on the piano?

Polanco-Safadit: That's a hard question! [laughs] I hear things in my head and I'm using my hands and arms to duplicate them as fast as I can. I'm one with the piano at that moment. I don't see, hear or think about anything else during that moment. 

NUVO: You've played with many great musicians throughout your career. Can you look back and share a few highlights with us?

Polanco-Safadit: I'll give you three different scenarios.

There was one time in Chicago I payed with Sergio George and Marc Anthony's musicians. That was a night to remember, especially seeing Sergio George right next to me watching me play. He's one of the greatest producers in Latin music.

Another moment was playing with the [Conan O'Brien, Bruce Springsteen] drummer Max Weinberg. I was jumping around on the piano bench and he told the audience he'd never seen anybody else move around onstage more than Bruce Springsteen! [laughs]

And finally this last moment is a little sad. I backed up the great jazz musician Dave Valentin when he came to play in Indy. He had a stroke when he came here. He couldn't play a note during the rehearsal, and that's when he knew something was wrong. But he went on to play the show regardless - and he played! I was blown away, because earlier he couldn't even stand up. But he played the flute that night. It was an amazing moment. 

NUVO: You're part of a project being developed to help build a music school in a remote area of the Dominican Republic. How did this come about?

Polanco-Safadit: Last fall I met with Felipe Martinez and Barry Sumner from the Whitewater Valley Presbyterian Church. They told me they'd developed some programs in Mexico and they wanted to do something similar in the Dominican Republic. I agreed to help with the music side of it. Having come out of a similar system I immediately felt very connected to the project.

Now after months of speaking to leaders over the phone we're going to take an exploration trip to the D.R. We're going to one of the poorest parts of the country. The closest Wal-Mart is four hours away. There are dirt roads and dirt floors in the homes. We're going to go and see what their needs are.

I want to go there and start a music camp to train the youth and train the leaders on how to keep it going. Ultimately, we want to build a school of music and teach them how to maintain it.  

We need to show the youth the possibilities out in the world. When you grow up in a bubble as I did, it's hard to have a vision for your future. Music can be a tool to get somewhere else. 

Kyle Long's WFYI show A Cultural Manifesto debuts on 90.1 next Wednesday. We'll have much more info next week. 


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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bush Stadium's new look

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Jazz and Rock Fest poster - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • Jazz and Rock Fest poster

Spring is by far my favorite time to be in Indiana. The first warm, sunny days of the season feel indescribably good after months of shivering through snowstorms. During this time of year I often find myself reminiscing over childhood memories of warm spring evenings spent outdoors at the old Bush Stadium, watching Indianapolis Indians games with my mother.

While the Indians' current venue Victory Field is certainly great, for me it holds no comparison to the rich historical charm of Bush Stadium's ivy-cloaked brick walls and art deco facade. But these days when I drive past the old stadium's 16th Street home, I just feel sick to my stomach. After languishing abandoned in a state of disrepair for years, a decision was made in 2011 to convert Bush Stadium into a high-end apartment complex. While elements of Bush's original facade have been preserved, to me, the end result of the hybrid construction is an architectural eyesore that doesn't honor Bush's important historical legacy in Indianapolis. 

The stadium came to life in 1931 as Perry Stadium, named after then Indians' owner Norm Perry. The stadium was designed by the local architectural firm of Pierre & Wright who are responsible for a handful of fantastic Downtown constructions, from the Old Trails building on West Washington Street to the Indiana State Library on Ohio St.

In addition to serving as a home for the Indianapolis Indians from 1931 to 1996, Bush Stadium also provided a base of operations for the Indianapolis Clowns. The Clowns were one of Negro League's most significant franchises. The Clowns walked a fine line between slapstick entertainment and serious sport, earning a reputation as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. But the Clowns were no joke and the team's legacy can boast several important firsts, from providing hall of fame legend Hank Aaron with his first professional contract in 1952, to signing Toni Stone as the first professional female baseball player in 1953. 

This is only scratching the surface of Bush Stadium's exciting past, which happens to include a link to a long-forgotten slice of Indianapolis music history. 

Exactly 45 years ago this month, a group of local promoters staged what must be considered one of the most ambitious music festivals in Indianapolis history. Bush Stadium's three-day Jazz & Rock Festival assembled some of the greatest icons in music history during the height of their power as performers. 

B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack, and Sonny and Cher were headliners, with fantastic acts like Bobby "Blue" Bland, Ramsey Lewis, and South African musician Hugh Masekela rounding out the line-up. For a mere 15 dollars – adjusted for inflation, that price would probably be about 90 bucks today – music fans could purchase a pass to experience all three days of the festival's offerings.

The concert looked to be a surefire hit, and local media accounts from the period indicated there was a great sense of anticipation. In the May 16, 1970 edition of the Indianapolis Recorder, an uncredited writer previewed the Jazz & Rock Festival suggesting it was "by far one of the greatest attractions ever sponsored in Indianapolis" while speculating the event would "attract music buffs from all surrounding towns, and as far away as Louisville, Dayton and Cincinnati."

But somehow the festival flopped. A June 13, 1970 headline from the Indianapolis Recorder summed it up. "Million dollars worth of top talent goes begging for lack of buffs at jazz-rock show." The uncredited writer lamented the financial beating the promoters took, and postulated that Indianapolis wasn't ready for "big-time attractions."

Despite the festival's dismal fate, it makes for a fascinating footnote in Bush Stadium's history. It's just a shame the stadium's history hasn't been more diligently preserved. But isn't that frequently the case here in Indy? It seems that preserving our history always takes a backseat to making a fast buck. 

I guess those of us who care about preserving Indy's culture should be thankful that Bush Stadium wasn't completely leveled during construction of the new luxury lofts. But it would have been nice if the stadium had been left intact and preserved as an athletic venue, or perhaps even converted into a museum for Negro League or Minor League Baseball. But it's far too late to complain now. At least we don't have to add Bush Stadium to the long (and growing) list of Indianapolis architectural casualties that have been totally lost to wrecking balls and empty lots.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Chatting with sitar player Josh Feinberg before his Saturday show

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2015 at 2:17 PM

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Acclaimed North American sitar player Josh Feinberg will be performing in Indianapolis this Saturday, May 16. I spoke with Feinberg via phone and he explained how his adolescent interest in North Indian classical music developed into a serious career within the art-form.

NUVO: I read that your interest in Indian music was born from your childhood studies of Western classical and jazz. 

Josh Feinberg: I started classical piano instruction when I was four years old. From the very beginning I was more interested in creation and improvisation. I used to fight with my teachers about having to learn to read music. I actually didn't learn how to read music until I started playing bass when I was eight. So I had four years of classical music instruction playing by ear. They would play something and I would copy them.

At the same time I was improvising and making things up. Bass provided me an avenue to jazz which fulfilled my desire to improvise. I was also playing classical music on the bass, but I found that I became frustrated with the limitations of the instrument and the role of the instrument. I felt I had more to say than the instrument would allow in that incarnation.

I also was frustrated with the rough nature of some of the jazz I was playing. I longed for the refinement of classical music and the improvisation of jazz. That's why I felt I really found my music within North Indian music because it really combines those two approaches completely.

Just to trace the path, I was studying through the Center for Preparatory Studies at Queens College. I was in the program for about eight years. The drum teacher there was Dan Weiss, who is now a pretty famous jazz musician. At the time he was learning tabla with Pandit Samir Chatterjee in New York. He introduced me to Indian music and the music of sitarist Nikhil Banerjee. That's how I was introduced to Indian music. I was about 15 years old when I first developed an interest.

NUVO: So how did that interest in North Indian classical music lead to serious study?

Feinberg: I was learning a little about Indian music and listening to a lot of it. But bass was still my instrument until I was about nineteen. My frustration with the instrument and jazz in general reached a head in my first year studying at the New England Music Conservatory. At the conservatory there were a few Indian music teachers, one of whom was Peter Row who was one of the first Westerners to bring Indian music to a higher level here. He was primarily an ethnomusicologist, but he was also a performer. I began studying with him.

I'm the type of person that when I make up my mind to do something I pursue it with full force. I made up my mind to learn sitar. I would practice for a minimum of four hours a day and I took my study of the instrument to a fanatical place for about eight years.

NUVO: I recently interviewed tabla master Zakir Hussain. He talked about growing up learning the tabla while in his father Alla Rakha's lap - who was also a great master of the tabla. We often think of Indian classical music as a tradition one is born into. Was it a challenge for you entering the music as an outsider, and perhaps at a later age than than musicians who were born into a family tradition?

Feinberg: I'd say the perception of the challenge is more of a challenge than the reality. There are several musicians in Indian classical music who are considered masters at the highest level who didn't start taking lessons seriously until they were in their late teens or early twenties. I think people respond to the romantic nature of being trained from birth or the family lineages. When I examine my ability and career trajectory as a 31-year-old — regardless of my nationality or family lineage — I feel like my music is in the best place it could be for someone my age.

This is a tradition where being born into a musical family is a big leg up in a lot of ways because you don't have to prove yourself in the same way. Your guru gives you legitimacy in the eyes of the tradition and those who hold it dear. If you're born into a musical family your almost embraced naturally. Whereas someone else may have to prove themselves over a period of decades. It can be a challenge in that way for sure.

NUVO: You studied with the sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Can you share anything you learned about music from this great musician?

Feinberg: I studied with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan — or Khansahib as we called him — from 2004 until his death in 2009. My musical hero on the sitar is Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Khansahib and his father were Nikhil Banerjee's teachers. Ravi Shankar also studied with Khansahib's father. So I had always wanted to learn from him.

I remember him describing that this particular vibrato on a particular note should be played like "moonlight on the water." Not only did that explain what the music should sound like, but also why it was beautiful. He was a really special person, not only for his musical talent but also his devotion to teaching. It was one of the biggest blessings of my life to study with him.

NUVO: Can you tell us about your upcoming concert in Indy?

Feinberg: I'm playing with Manpreet Bedi who is a friend of mine. He has a really unique approach to tabla. He's a very jovial guy and we have a lot of fun playing together.

It's kind of traditional not to decide what will be played until the concert as we want to be in-tune with the moment and to see what the muse brings to us. But in general we play the main piece first which begins with a solo sitar introduction. Then two compositions with tabla that are fairly short fixed compositions which serve as a backbone for improvisation. As the concert goes on the pieces get lighter and there may be a few folk pieces.

Josh Feinberg will be performing with tabla player Manpreet Bedi this Saturday, May 16. The concert starts at 5pm and it's happening at the Clarion Hotel located at 2930 Waterfront Pkwy W Dr. You can call Mahesh Merchant at 317-733-9720 for tickets and more information.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

DJ Danger leaves Indianapolis

Posted By on Wed, May 13, 2015 at 2:33 PM

DJs Indiana Jones and Danger - SUBMITTED PHOTO
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  • DJs Indiana Jones and Danger
 For the last 18 years DJ Danger has hosted a tremendously popular Sunday night reggae party at the Casba in Broad Ripple. That comes to an end soon: Danger (legal: Charles Byfield) announced last month he was planning a move to Virginia.

Danger's weekly event has played a crucial role in establishing a presence for international music within the Indianapolis nightlife scene, as well as providing a sense of place and a source of communion for hundreds of Caribbean and African immigrants residing in Indy. 

I recently sat down with Danger to discuss his time in Indianapolis and his thoughts on leaving. We were joined by Danger's close friend and business partner DJ Indiana Jones (Ron Miner) who founded the Sunday night Casba reggae party in 1997.

Danger estimates that he's been involved with reggae music for 43 years. "I was grown up in the ghetto part of Jamaica, what them call Kingston,” he told me. “From there I was a little toddler and I moved to Patrick City where my grandmother buy a house. I started playing records when I was 10 years old. We had a sound system there called Jah Love Muzik: the sound that make you feel your heart shiver." 

Danger arrived in Indianapolis during the mid-'90s, after a stint in New York. The hot summer weather and laid-back Hoosier atmosphere reminded him of his Jamaican home, and he had a sense his music might take root here.

In a poetic stroke of timing, Danger's entry into the Indianapolis DJ scene coincided with the return of Indiana Jones, who'd spent a portion of the mid-'90s living in NYC. During his time in New York Jones became actively involved in the city's robust reggae DJ culture, and he was eager to bring the Caribbean sound back to his hometown.

It wasn't long before the two reggae DJs would meet in Indy.

"I was at the Casba spinning some proper music,” says Indiana Jones, of the first time they met. “I had the Selassie flag behind me. Danger comes down the stairs and over to my table and he says, 'You offend me.' I took that as a compliment. I said, 'If that offended you, listen to this.' And I put on another 45. We went back and forth like that until he finally he said, 'You need to come check me.' “

Jones agreed to meet with Danger.

"I went over to his house and I'll never forget this, it was filled with records," Jones says. "It was an amazing collection of every record you could ever want. I was like, 'All right you can start coming to the Casba.' And he would start showing up and give me a little thing here and there. Finally I was like, 'You just need to come in and do your thing.' "

What could've turned into a rivalry between Jones and Danger became a friendship instead. Jones' decision to add Danger to the Sunday night Casba roster was exactly what the party needed; Danger's skill behind the decks and knowledge of Jamaican music helped to build the party into an Indianapolis nightlife institution.



"When I started the night I thought it might last a month," Jones said. "When Danger got involved and I saw that this guy was really who he said he was, then I knew we would have a long-lasting legacy. But I didn't think it would be 18 years. Now I don't ever see it stopping unless they sell the place. It's packed down there every Sunday night. Even during a snowstorm, it's packed.”

How do they keep the vibe fresh after almost 20 years?

"I don't premeditate,” Danger said. “When I go to Casba, I don't select music before and say, 'This is what I'm going to play tonight.' I just go and whatever vibes come, they come."

Jones jumped in: "He's being real humble. You're looking at a man who has been DJing since the 1970s. He's not only been able to implement all the roots sounds of reggae, but also keep up with all the current trends whether it's Alkaline or Mavado or Gully Bop or Vybz Kartel or whatever new artist.

Danger is a one stop shop for all things Jamaican. Even though he's lived in Indianapolis for over 20 years, he has still maintained his Jamaican connection.”

“I look forward to it every Sunday. I call it church,” Danger said. “That is my church on a Sunday evening. I make my friends and foes come together to enjoy themselves." 

In an industry where most DJ nights are lucky to last 18 weeks, Danger's 18-year run at the Casba could be compared to Cal Ripken, Jr.'s record setting 2,632 consecutive game streak in baseball. I asked Danger how many nights he'd missed during his tenure at the Casba, he just grinned a humble smile and let out a slow laugh.

But Jones jumped in to answer for him: "Three weeks when he broke his ribs! He took a vacation once and the only other time he missed was when he broke his ribs. We said, 'Take six weeks off, and we'll pay you.' But three weeks, later he was back in there. It's such a beautiful thing.”

But that beautiful thing is coming to an end. Danger's last night at the Casba is Sunday, May 17.

I asked Danger if it hurt to leave his friends and the scene he helped to build. "Obviously it does," he said. "But it's like when you're on a bike and the bike drop you. You're bruk up, but you get up, wash yourself off and take a treatment. I got hurt, but my intention is to get back together and do more work."

And Jones? “I'm a little choked up," Jones answered after a long, silent pause. "I'm very sad. I'm as sad as I can get for a man leaving my life. But I'm also excited for him. There might be a bigger market for him there on the beach in Virginia. Danger brought an authenticity and a reggae knowledge that's unparalleled in Indianapolis. The bottom line is wherever he goes it's going to be good for reggae." 

But he also promises to keep the party going.

"Danger's legacy is big and we're going to preserve that legacy,” Jones says. “There's going to be no drop-off at the dance on Sunday night. I don't want want him to come back and it's whack.”

As the interview came to an end, I asked Danger if he had any final thoughts for Indianapolis. He shot back some Rastafarian wisdom.

"Be yourself and do the good you can to all the people you can. Never think you're better than nobody, because no one is better than no one. We're all the same and everything is love."

After I turned off my recorder, Jones told me he refuses to say goodbye to Danger. Instead he'll say "likkle more,” a phrase in Jamaican patois which roughly translates to "see you later." Jones promises he'll be bringing Danger back to spin in Indy as often as possible. Indy can join Jones in saying "likkle more" at  Danger's send-off party this Sunday at the Casba.
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Monday, May 4, 2015

"Jazz detective" Zev Feldman talks brand new Wes Montgomery release

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2015 at 1:30 PM

The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILIP KAHL. COURTESY OF THE BUDDY MONTGOMERY ESTATE.
  • Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.
  • The Turf Club, Indianapolis, circa mid-1950s.

Indianapolis music fans owe Resonance Records a hearty thanks. Before the Los Angeles-based label stepped onto the scene there'd been only one posthumous recording of unreleased Wes Montgomery music issued since the legendary jazz guitarist passed away in his Indianapolis home on June 15, 1968 at age 45. Resonance's 2012 release Echoes of Indiana Avenue collected previously unheard material dating from 1957-1958, providing a rare early snapshot of Wes Montgomery performing as a bandleader. The label's next release, an expansive 2CD/3LP package titled Wes Montgomery In The Beginning pulls out all the stops featuring previously unheard and impossibly rare Wes Montgomery recordings dating back to 1949.

This extraordinary collection debuts on May 12. The release party is happening right here in Indy on that same date at the Jazz Kitchen, and features a range of activities from a panel discussion to performances from local guitar maestros Bill Lancton, Steve Weakley and Frank Steans.

I spoke to Resonance Records' Executive Vice President and General Manager Zev Feldman about the upcoming release via phone from Paris, France.

Along with the interview, we're premiering a brand new track from this collection. Recorded for Spire Records in Fresno, California, "Smooth Evening" features Wes Montgomery (guitar), Roy Johnson (bass), Douglas Duke (piano), Gene Morris (tenor) Earl “Fox” Walker (drums) and Sonny Parker (vocals). Listen while you read about this amazing new release.



NUVO: Resonance Records' Echoes of Indiana Avenue was the first album of new music from Wes Montgomery since Verve Records' issued Willow Weep For Me in 1969. Now you have this incredible 26-track package culled from a variety of different sources spanning a period of nearly 10 years in Montgomery's career. How long have you been working on this project and how did you unearth this wealth of unreleased material?

Zev Feldman: We've been working on this project for the last three years and the music has come to us in a variety of different ways. A lot of it through due diligence and research. I've gotten a nickname as the "Jazz Detective." I travel the world researching this stuff. I'm in Paris right now looking for archival tapes. This is what I do.

This project started right before Echoes of Indiana Avenue came out. Robert Montgomery who is Wes' youngest son and the head of the estate introduced me to Buddy Montgomery's widow Ann. She approached me because she had tapes of Wes and his brothers playing in clubs from the late 1950s. I want to point out that this was not the Montgomery Brothers, that came later. At this point they were called the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet. It's really important to differentiate.
Bebop Society of Indianapolis, early 1950s. Malcolm Lewis, Buddy Parker, Bill Harris, Maceo Hampton, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery, and Dr. Willis Kirk (hidden).
  • Bebop Society of Indianapolis, early 1950s. Malcolm Lewis, Buddy Parker, Bill Harris, Maceo Hampton, Wes Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery, and Dr. Willis Kirk (hidden).

Anyway, Ann had copies of these tapes made by a 22-year-old college student from Butler University named Philip Kahl. Kahl followed the Montgomery brothers around Indianapolis. We have Kahl's tapes of Wes and his brothers playing at the Turf Club and Missile Lounge, which is the very famous club where Cannonball Adderley first saw the brothers perform and according to folklore he was so moved he immediately contacted his label president Orrin Keepnews, who within days made the trip to Indianapolis.

So we had all this material that would've made up a full CD of music. But some other interesting things started happening. Sometime around December 2012 I was in New York at a concert and I had a chance to chat with Kenny Washington the great jazz drummer and historian. He and I were joking around and he wanted to test me on how much I knew about Wes Montgomery. He said, "Have you ever heard of Wes Montgomery on Columbia Records?" I was like a deer in the headlights and I said no, because Wes never recorded for Columbia. He told me about this rarities compilation record called Almost Forgotten that Columbia put out around 1983. One of the tracks on this release was billed as the Montgomery Brothers, but it was actually the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet featuring Wes, Buddy, Monk, "Pookie" Johnson and Sonny Johnson.

I tracked down the record after talking to Kenny. After listening to that record my question was why was there only one track from a session like this? I'm good friends with Richard Seidel who was one of the former heads of A&R at Verve Records. I asked him who could get me into the vaults at Sony Music. Before I know it, we're in the vaults and we find the original Epic Records recording session of the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet recorded in 1955, and it also happened to be one of the earliest recording sessions Quincy Jones produced. We got permission to go in and pull out the reels and low and behold there's another four tracks. Oh my god, we listened to it and it was great!
Recording rehearsal. David Baker, David Young, Dr. Larry Ridley, Wes Montgomery. - PHOTOGRAPH BY DUNCAN SCHIEDT.
  • Photograph by Duncan Schiedt.
  • Recording rehearsal. David Baker, David Young, Dr. Larry Ridley, Wes Montgomery.

After that revelation, a couple other things happened. I came across a gentleman — and at his request I promised to never reveal his name — somebody who had a tape of a performance of Wes and "Pookie" Johnson playing at the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago in 1957. That tape is 12 minutes. I heard it and we bought it from the source.

At this point in addition to all the recordings I just mentioned we also had a tape of a jam session recorded at the house of Wes' sister Ervana. So the project started evolving into this anthology of early material that's mostly undocumented. I started thinking we've already gone back this far, we really need to look at what might be out there from the earliest period of Wes' career. It's no surprise that Wes made recordings while he was with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in the late '40s. But he doesn't solo on most of that stuff. There's a Hampton compilation out that you can track down, but you'll never hear Wes on those recordings because he doesn't solo.

But I did find some stuff that he does solo on and those were made for a label called Spire Records in 1949. These were done in Fresno, California with a band called Gene Morris and His Hamptones, which I presume was a spin-off from the Lionel Hampton Big Band. We found these 78s and included them. They were really hard to come by, not even the Library of Congress had copies. These are very important recordings as they contain Wes' earliest known published solos.
Wes Montgomery at a pinball machine. The Turf Club, circa mid-1950s. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILIP KAHL. COURTESY OF THE BUDDY MONTGOMERY ESTATE.
  • Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.
  • Wes Montgomery at a pinball machine. The Turf Club, circa mid-1950s.

This collection really shows Wes and his brothers honing their craft in a period a lot of people haven't heard before. It really speaks volumes in terms of what these guys were doing and their talent. It's extraordinary and when we were putting this together I felt we really had to go above and beyond in the packaging. We wanted to build one of the greatest packages ever for Wes.

NUVO: That "above and beyond" spirit is certainly reflected in the 55-page booklet of liner notes included with the CD. Tell us about some of the contributing writers.

Feldman: First of all we got Ashley Kahn, who won a Grammy last year writing the liner notes for our release of Coltrane's Offering. I got Bill Milkowksi, one of the leading guitar scholars in the world. And god bless him, I miss Duncan Schiedt a lot. He was a good friend of mine. When we started this project I thought I should interview him, and we did our last interview via phone just before he passed. I had him recount his story of being at the Missile Lounge the night Cannonball was there. Duncan was there and witnessed the whole thing, but famously the flash didn't work on his camera.

Also, before Buddy Montgomery passed away he'd been working on an autobiography that never came out. His widow Ann went back and carved out certain chapters and passages that really related to this period of the brother's lives. There's a lot that's shared in there. We also have an interview Monk Montgomery did in 1980 with Maggie Hawthorne. We carved some really interesting stuff out of that. I learned something I didn't know from that. The Turf Club in Indianapolis was a segregated club. There's one passage where he describes a night when the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet was playing the Turf and Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan showed up at the door and they were almost turned away from the club. The guys in the band stopped playing and said, "Let them in or we're not going to play." So they set up a table for them. This whole story is recounted in the liner notes.
The Turf Club ad for The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, circa mid-1950s. - PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILIP KAHL. COURTESY OF THE BUDDY MONTGOMERY ESTATE.
  • Photograph by Philip Kahl. Courtesy of the Buddy Montgomery estate.
  • The Turf Club ad for The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, circa mid-1950s.

We have all sorts of photographs that have never been published. In addition to recording the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, Philip Kahl also had a camera. There are some very candid shots of these guys. Listen, Wes passed away in 1968. If you look at guys like Miles, Mingus, Monk and these guys who recorded for so many years, there's been tons of unreleased materiel that's come out over the years. But that hasn't been the case for Wes. This is a really special document and it shouldn't be taken lightly. Working on this project has been one of the greatest experiences I've ever had and I'm so glad I'm getting to speak to NUVO about this because it's an Indiana-centric project. My old friend Chuck Workman used to work for you guys. He was a big conduit for all the work I was doing. He's terribly missed. I can't tell you enough how much I love that guy.

NUVO: In addition to the contributors you just mentioned, The Who's Pete Townshend also provided liner notes. How did you get Pete connected to this project?

Feldman: On the last record we did Echoes From Indiana Avenue, we got Pat Martino to contribute. And he's so great, and he knew Wes! But on this project I wanted to do something a little different. I thought, "Why not get someone outside of the typical jazz circles, but who has something to say?" I knew for a long time that Pete Townshend was a jazz fan. I thought Pete would be a remarkable music ambassador for us and have great things to say, and that indeed turned out to be the case. Pete is one of the greatest guitar players of all-time, and you better believe a guy like that has something to say. I'm really grateful to him.
Duncan Schiedt - PHOTO BY MARK SHELDON.
  • Photo by Mark Sheldon.
  • Duncan Schiedt

NUVO: Finally, you've mentioned your friendship with a couple local Indianapolis legends who have both sadly have passed away, Duncan Schiedt and NUVO's Chuck Workman. I'm curious what your connection to Indiana is. Did it come solely through your research into jazz history?

Feldman: When the Echoes of Indiana Avenue project came about we didn't know where this music was recorded or who was playing on it. So I had to come to Indianapolis and try to piece everything together. Chuck Workman was a guy who was so supportive right from the beginning. I really miss this guy. It chokes me up. If I ever had any trouble finding an answer this guy jumped in and helped me with the research. To an extent, Duncan Schiedt was the same. I had a chance to go to Duncan's home three or four times while we were doing research. Duncan was one of the greatest photo-journalists of all-time. They were my friends and this project is dedicated to their memory in addition to Wes. I gotta tell you Chuck would go out of his way to help, I loved the guy.

I hope everybody in Indianapolis comes out to celebrate with our dear friends at the Jazz Kitchen on May 12. We're going to be throwing down and celebrating Wes and the Montgomery family. We gotta celebrate Wes. This guy he was a master and he's Indiana's native son. He was a family man. He and his brothers were like the Three Musketeers. There's something really special about that. His legacy is very important and there's a lot to learn from this man.
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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

UPRSNG, part III

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Why the cloud on Danicia's face? She says, - "There are 2 key reasons. One, the theme of UPRSNG is to #rseup and dream big. Never be afraid to keep your head in the clouds. Secondly, I don't want people to solely accredit me with the spectacle. Many hands are involved. - The last reason is that as an artist I'm currently exploring my own identity. I've been doing this faceless campaign for 4 months and plan to host an exhibition displaying my series of multimedia self-portraits later this summer." - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Why the cloud on Danicia's face? She says, "There are 2 key reasons. One, the theme of UPRSNG is to #rseup and dream big. Never be afraid to keep your head in the clouds. Secondly, I don't want people to solely accredit me with the spectacle. Many hands are involved.The last reason is that as an artist I'm currently exploring my own identity. I've been doing this faceless campaign for 4 months and plan to host an exhibition displaying my series of multimedia self-portraits later this summer."
A few years ago, Danicia Monét was frustrated by the lack of opportunities and resources for emerging artists in Indianapolis. So she did something about it: developing music and arts festival UPRSNG to provide a platform for new voices in Indy's creative community. 

It's become one of my favorite events in the city. The carefully curated selection of musical performers spotlights some of the freshest sounds bubbling up here.

The next event is Friday, May 9 at The Hall. In addition to the tightly packed line-up of musicians, visual artists and vendors, this year's edition of UPRSNG also features the awarding of a grant.

Here's a bit from a recent conversation with Monét about the development of the event and this new grant opportunity. 

NUVO: You list your title with UPRSNG as creative director. What exactly does that entail?

Danicia Monét: All the coordination. Wrangling in the artists, the production crew, the vendors, all the creative geniuses that the public comes out to visit with. It's kind of like putting on a play, everything that goes into a play is being coordinated by the director. That's kind of what I do.

NUVO: I was at the first UPRSNG in 2013 and I really liked the format of the event. The performers aren't doing full sets, they're doing two or three of their best pieces and then it's on to the next act.

Danicia Monét: UPRSNG is meant to be a completely interactive event. When you go to a museum or a play you can't touch anything. We pride ourselves on making the event as interactive as possible. We want you to be able to touch and interact with everything, including the artists. 

We want to give the public a sampling of all these wonderful and talented artists who are either new on the scene or haven't had enough publicity on the scene. So were giving you a sampler platter with the vendors, merchants, and performers from a wide variety of mediums and backgrounds. 

NUVO: You just mentioned UPRSNG's emphasis on featuring only new, or lesser-heard artists. At the first event in 2013 I saw Sirius Blvck, Myah Evans and Ejaaz perform for the first time. At that point those artists hadn't developed a large following, but they've since gone on to establish themselves as important figures in the local music scene. Why did you feel it was important to make UPRSNG a platform for emerging artists and what do you look for in the artists you choose to feature?

Monét: We feature these artists because they exist. The richness of an artistic scene is built by including everyone in the process. There are some wonderful festivals and art fairs taking place in Indianapolis. But sometimes certain kinds of artists get left out. We're trying to fill that void.

We look for people who are serious about what they're doing. We look for for people who are working to improve their craft. UPRSNG is a platform to help you do that. You don't have to have anything recorded, you don't have to have Youtube videos, or thousands of followers on social media to perform with us.

NUVO: Was this sort of platform for emerging artists something you saw missing from the scene in Indy?

Monét: I did see it missing. I am an artist. I was a practicing artist when I moved back to Indianapolis after college and it was hard for me to get an exhibition, or to meet other artists and find my scene here. I think I went through that for about five to six years struggling to figure it out. UPRSNG was born out of a personal need. It was hard to meet people, it was hard to find a space, and it was hard to get funding.

This third edition of UPRSNG is really special because we are offering a grant. It's called the "UP UP & AWAY" grant, and it's a no strings attached grant. If you have an awesome idea, submit it and the committee will review it. If you're idea is selected we give you a portion of the proceeds from the night to help bring your idea to fruition. In accordance with the grant we also offer you help and support with your idea for the rest of the year. You can go to uprsng.co to find more information on the grant.

NUVO: Stylistically UPRSNG covers a lot of ground. In terms of genre what's your approach to curating the music?

Monét: We just hope to present wonderful stories. There's no one style that we're going after. If you perform with passion that's what we're looking for. Even if you mess up a few times the audience is very forgiving. This may be the perfect platform for you to stumble a little on the guitar, or do the wrong slap on your djembe drum. It's all about learning and continuing to try.

NUVO: What are you excited about on this year's UPRSNG line-up?

Monét: We have over forty different participants this year. We have everything from a merchant who creates Filipino jewelry to a health guru. As for performers there's Eli Crow who is a folk singer with a beautiful voice. Rehema and Tony Styxx are doing a very special collaboration at the beginning of the night, so make sure you arrive in time for that. There's a plethora of exciting things happening.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Revisiting women317

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2015 at 11:30 AM

Elle Roberts - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Elle Roberts

Issues regarding equality in Indiana have been making national headlines since Mike Pence signed RFRA into law last month. Among these concerns we must certainly consider the problem of gender inequity in the Hoosier state. According to recent statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau, women in Indiana earn 26 percent less money than their male counterparts. That figure places Indiana as the 44th worst state for gender pay equality in the U.S. 

Our local music scene has not been immune to disparities in gender equality as Hoosier women are underrepresented on concert bills. Fortunately there are several local individuals and organizations committed to confronting this issue, including the subject of this week's column, women317. 

Regular readers may recall I spoke with the group's cofounder Reese Maryam last year. As the group prepares for its fourth event installment, I caught up with the group's other cofounder (and NUVO contributor) Elle Roberts.

The group's May 1 event at Tin Comet Coffee features performers Rehema McNeil, Azieb Abraha, Sukie Conley and others. The diverse lineup covers everything from spoken word, and hip-hop to folk music, and while the event is primarily focused on women performers and women's issues, Roberts reminded me that women317 is "open to everybody."

NUVO: How did women317 develop?

Elle Roberts: My best friend Reese Maryam was working at the Boner Community Center on East 10th St. as part of Public Allies. She started coming to Tin Comet Coffee and found out the owner's were interested in starting a First Friday event there. So Reese and I decided to do an all women's show at Tin Comet in March of 2014 to celebrate Women's History Month. It was going to be a one and done kind of event, but it turned out to be so successful that we decided to keep it going. We did three women317 events last year.

I did most of the booking. I'm not a promoter, but I called up some of my favorite artists. All of them were women that I'd seen in performance at some point and their music really spoke to me. I wanted to create an opportunity to share that with others.

It was our first time doing anything of that magnitude in regard to organizing a show. We were frazzled running around trying to get everything ready from getting the P.A. set-up, to making sure we had snacks. But it was like the universe brought everything together and the show came together so perfectly.

NUVO: You mentioned that the initial women317 event was intended be a one-off. What kind of response did you get from the audience that inspired you to keep it going?

Roberts: The general consensus I got from the audience was that it's really a powerful thing when women are speaking their truths through their art. The event wasn't thematic or planned out at all. It was an eclectic narrative of women's stories and how the world affects us and how we fit in the world. There was an overabundance of emotion from the audience connecting to the spoken word, the music and the dancing. The event definitely impacted the audience.

NUVO: It sounds like the opportunity to create that first event came at you rather randomly. Had you considered developing an arts showcase for women prior to meeting the folks at Tin Comet?

Roberts: It's something that I'd been mulling over for awhile. The jobs I'd worked at had all been women-centered. It's very rewarding work. Some of the positions were more difficult than others. For example I worked for a domestic violence shelter for awhile. Seeing the gaps in service showed me there's a space for women that isn't being filled. But I wasn't sure how to go about trying to approach that. When the opportunity to do women317 came about it was the catalyst to do all the things I'd been thinking about.

I really wanted to fill that gap in space I'd observed. After doing some research I found that pretty much all programs for adult women had to do with careers and networking or very issue focused themes like domestic violence or health and wellness. There was really nothing for that eighteen to thirty-something group where you could just go and figure out what womanhood meant to you and to express that however you needed to. I figured that would be our lane so to speak and we used women317 to kick it off.

women317 is part of a larger organization I started called Shehive. Our mission with Shehive is to create safe spaces for people to confront, address and most importantly deconstruct gender inequity. That sounds really broad but we've narrowed it down to three initiatives that include performance art shows, workshops and intimate discussions geared specifically toward women. I see it as a place for women to rediscover what womanhood means and have a place to express those things.

NUVO: You're also a musician [Roberts' current project is called The MO]. How have your experiences as a performer shaped your thoughts on the role of women in the local music scene?

Roberts: In my experience I've found it's much easier to be a woman in the music scene when you're attached to a group of men. I say that as someone who hadn't branched out on a solo tip until recently.

It's heartbreaking to me to have seen all these different women perform and to have seen how wonderful they are and how well they interact with an audience - yet when I see bills for different shows around Indy, these are names I see missing all the time.

This issue is too big to talk through and unpack quickly and I think it's a conversation that needs to be had with promoters. Those are the folks who are plugging different artists into shows. What I'm hoping to see as a run-off from women317 is that more promoters will notice that there are incredible women here and that we're trying to cultivate more women in the arts. As we continue to cultivate that in girls and women there will be more women artists here that perform at a high caliber and can play bigger venues and draw bigger crowds. That's what I want to see happen.

NUVO: At the beginning of our conversation you specifically noted that you're not a promoter. I only know of a few women who consistently promote shows here. Is that a role you could see yourself stepping into?

Roberts: I could see women317 becoming that. The reason I say I'm not a promoter is that each of the artists we've worked with have donated their time and performances. If there was an exchange of money then I guess I would technically be a promoter.

A goal for me has been to find the funding to start paying the artists. When I go out and perform the highest thanks I can get is being able to share an exchange with an audience. But it's important to get paid. Paying artists shows that there is value in the arts, and that Indianapolis is a place where artists can make a career and feed themselves off their work.

NUVO: How would you like to see women317 develop in the future?

Roberts: A lot of our growth has happened organically and I think it will continue to expand in that way. We've enjoyed our first year at Tin Comet, but I could see it becoming bigger. It would be really cool to do a festival event. So far we've worked with around thirty women artists and we have eight more scheduled for this upcoming show on May 1. I can see us becoming a database for women artists in the same way the Arts Council is a resource for information on all sorts of artists in Indianapolis. That's already starting to happen where people come to me asking to be connected to an artist and I can go back and look though all the performers we've featured and I can personally vouch for all of them.

After the May 1 event we'll be able to say we've had 40 women perform for us. The proof is in the pudding and there are women here who are creators who really embody what it means to be an artist in Indianapolis. They deserve to be invested in.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars at ArtsFest

Posted By on Mon, Apr 13, 2015 at 4:23 PM

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
 

In 1997 the violent civil war in Sierra Leone forced musician Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace to flee their home for refuge in the neighboring country of Guinea. Feeling distraught with their life in the Kalia Refugee Camp, Ruben and his friends refused to be defeated by hopelessness. They turned to music for solace, forming an impromptu band that would evolve into Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

The group performed concerts at refugee camps around Guinea bringing joy and life into some of the darkest corners of the human experience. When a pair of American filmmakers crossed paths with the band at Sembakounya Refugee Camp they knew they had encountered something special and decided to document the band's story on film.

The 2005 documentary Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars brought the group's music and story international fame and acclaim. They've since released four highly praised LPs and have become one of West Africa's top touring bands. Indianapolis will have a rare chance to experience the group live on Wednesday, April 15 at Butler's Schrott Center for the Arts.

I spoke to vocalist, drummer and SLRA founding member Ruben Koroma via phone.

NUVO: Do you remember what first inspired you to play music?

Ruben Koroma: When I was a kid my father had a lot of drums in the house. I would watch him play a beat from Sierra Leone that we call baskeda. From the late '60s to the early '70s I was living with my father and learning about the drums. That's when I first started to think about playing music.

NUVO: Most of your fans are familiar with your story from the point where the documentary on the band begins in the refugee camp. Can you tell us about your life as a musician in Sierra Leone before the conflict forced you to leave for the refugee camps of Guinea?

Koroma: When I graduated from high school I decided to come to Freetown to continue my studies. I was staying with an older person who was fostering me and helping me out. He suggested that I take a course in construction at college. I was there for about one year when I started getting very involved in music.

I was able to sing many songs at that time and musicians really like to have me around. I could create many songs. That's how people started identifying me as a musician and inviting me to their rehearsals.

I played in many different bands. But the first group I joined in Sierra Leone was called the Sierra Wailers. We played for some time with that band. We were the first reggae group in Sierra Leone. After that I formed a group called The Creatives. Then I formed a band called The Emperors. That's the group I was with when the war broke out and I left for Guinea.

NUVO: When you escaped to Guinea you had to leave everything behind, including your instruments. How were you able to make music and assemble a band in the refugee camp?

Koroma: The most powerful instrument that we had during that time was our voices. We created percussion from the chairs we were sitting on, the tables and empty bottles. That's how we started. We only had one acoustic guitar. That's the only instrument we had. We first used only our voices and percussion.



NUVO: How did playing music affect you and the refugees living in the camps?

Koroma: It was like a therapy. A special kind of treatment that helped the body overcome the influence of the stress. It helped to make a human being realize that life has hope. No matter how discouraged or downcast you are, when you listen to music you are uplifted. You realize that life has meaning. A meaning to be happy. It helps you forget the stresses that are trying to beat you down.

NUVO: During this time when you were performing concerts in the camps did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that the band would continue on for so long and that you'd be performing your music around the world?

Koroma: I have to be sincere and say that I never would've imagined that the things we did in the refugee camp would take us this far. I was just doing it because I thought it would help the people around me. And I thought it would help me too because I was feeling discouraged being separated from my home, my family, my band — everything. All was lost. We played the music to reform our lives. The music helped us to overcome the obstacles we were going through.

NUVO: Can you tell us about some of the traditional Sierra Leonean rhythms and genres you perform with the band?

Koroma: I want to say something about Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is a multicultural place. Sierra Leone has a lot of West African rhythms and influences. This happened because during the abolition of the slave trade there was a code in Freetown that when a slave-master was caught they would free all the slaves that he was taking to America or Europe to sell. These people who had been previously captured in various African countries were released in Freetown, and they had a place to live there. So you had a lot of different African culture being compiled in Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars
We have a few major rhythms like gumbe music. Gumbe is a music we play for parties, marriages, funeral ceremonies, and masquerade processions. We have a beat that we call jolly which is a youthful music and young people exhibit their gymnastic style to this rhythm. They do back flips and other gymnastics to this beat. We use that beat to create many songs. And we play the baskeda beat which is very smiler to reggae.

We also play highlife which is a music that originated in Ghana. But highlife is being played by all West African countries. You find it in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and everywhere. It'a a very popular rhythm. Then we have palm wine music which is traditionally purely acoustic, with guitars, percussion and voices.

NUVO: Electronic music is huge in West Africa right now. Is there still an audience for traditional music in Sierra Leone?

Koroma: The musical scene in Sierra Leone is very divided right now because most of the youth really fancy electronic music. It's easier because you don't have to learn the instruments. You can just go to the studio and have a beat created for you. It's more simple and marketable. We have many musicians who embrace this kind of music.

But there are also many youths who understand that we have a history and a culture. They understand that the rhythms that come from our country should be respected and cherished. It's a divided thing in the country.

NUVO: Do you ever worry that the traditions will be lost? Do you think there are enough young people interested in traditional culture to continue carrying it forward?

Koroma: I worry a lot about that. The young people who are trying to maintain the cultural rhythms are few. I would say 60 percent of our youth are trying to imitate other cultures that come from different countries and they think of themselves as very global. But there are some who believe we can still market our own culture to other people.
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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Schelle, Stolen, Capone

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2015 at 10:20 AM

Michael Schelle - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Michael Schelle
 

The work of Indianapolis-based composer Michael Schelle are performed to great acclaim by orchestras and ensembles around the world. That fact alone might not suggest he'd be the most likely artist to be featured on a program billed under the title Outlaws & Outsiders, the theme of this year's Butler Artsfest. But Schelle is really the perfect choice. With his self-professed love for all things "experimental and off the beaten path" and self-described "schizophrenic" composition style, Schelle's music often has a dark edge. His latest piece The End of Al Capone was commissioned by Artsfest, and will premiere on Thursday, April 16 at Butler's Schrott Center for the Arts along with performances of Peter Maxwell Davies' Miss Donnithorne's Maggot and Eight Songs For A Mad King in a night of music titled Stark Raving. 

Here's a bit from my recent conversation with Schelle about his latest piece and the man that will take the role of infamous gangster Al Capone – Indy's very own Steven Stolen.

(Editor's note: This Q&A is significantly longer than the piece that ran in this week's print edition of NUVO, thanks to zero space constraints on the Almighty Internet.) 

NUVO: Your new work The End of Al Capone is premiering on the same bill with the famous Peter Maxwell Davies' piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Both works are mono-dramas around thirty minutes in length musically interpreting the deterioration of a historical figure's mind. Was the Maxwell Davies piece a direct influence on your composition?

Michael Schelle: The only conscious connection is that many years ago as a graduate student I was involved in a performance of Eight Songs For A Mad King and it really changed my whole perspective on what music is and what song cycles are and what vocalization is. It's really considered an iconic work and a masterpiece and when I found out I would be sharing space with that particular piece I was like, "oh damn it! Nobody can stand up to that piece." (laughs)

The directive for the commission was to have a small ensemble similar to the Maxwell Davies' pieces and to have one singer involved. They wanted a night of three mono-dramas basically. They wanted to do the two Maxwell Davies' pieces and then a new work by me. They told me to kind of keep it along the same lines. The theme for Artsfest 2015 is Outlaws & Outsiders.

NUVO: DId you know right away that you wanted to create a work about Al Capone?

Schelle: I didn't know what I wanted to do. My first instinct was to have something very abstract to contrast Eight Songs For A Mad King because it's dramatic, and so in your face in terms of experimental techniques and wild schizophrenic behavior. I wanted something that would contrast that. I immediately turned to one of my heroes Samuel Beckett. I reread excepts of his work that I'd always loved. I reread Waiting For Godot and the novel Watt. That novel is out of control in terms of confusion, it's surreal and abstract but it holds me every time I read it. I wanted the kind of feeling that in the middle of the piece the audience might be thinking "I don't really know what's going on, but I think it's really cool."

I walked into my office one day about a year ago, and I still wasn't sure what I was going to do with this project. And there were two Al Capone books staring at me. I have a couple books on him that I acquired when I was absorbing myself in film noir about 10 years ago. I love that whole gangster era and genre and Capone and all his cohorts. The spines were staring at me saying "Capone" and it just hit me. That's it. That's what the piece is about and there was no turning back. I never second-guessed it one bit.

But I thought the angle I needed had to have something to do with abstraction and surrealism. So I decided to research different periods of his life, early on when he got his scar and became known as Scarface. He was 17 or 18 years old and he was in a bar in New York before he moved to Chicago. He was there with a date and he saw another girl at another table and went over to her guy and said "I want your woman." They got into a big fight and the guy slashed a knife down the side of his face. That's how he got the scar. I thought that was pretty cool. But I decided it was too teenage and aggressive.
Al Capone, in an Alcatraz mugshot - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Al Capone, in an Alcatraz mugshot

So I jumped ahead past Alcatraz and I went toward the last year of his life. The more I read about it and researched I thought this is it. He was in the final throws of neurosyphilis, he'd had syphilis for about 25 years and it was untreated. So he was experiencing all the things that go along with that, the weird physical manifestations, the brain reverting to an almost 14-year-old state, and the neurotic and paranoid behavior. So I thought "yeah, this is right up my alley!"

The music is generally very schizophrenic. It goes back and forth just like he does. Sometime he parallels the music, and sometimes the music parallels him, and sometimes they're at different stages of bi-polar/manic-depressive. That's really been my style throughout my career, kind of schizophrenic and spinning on a dime. I've always loved that kind of music. So it fell right in place with what I do.

NUVO: Had you composed this sort of biographical sketch about a historical person prior to this piece?

Schelle: Yes, there have been a few. One of the very first pieces I did as a graduate student was a mixed chamber piece about the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. I was a theater major my first time around in school and I was a huge fan of Strindberg. There was something really special about his work for me. After I wrote that piece which was called Music for the Last Days of Strindberg, I discovered we shared birthdays 100 years apart. That creeped me out and I got the chills. I thought "whoa, there's something else at work here."

Along the way I've done some other pieces in reaction to people. The biggest was about 20 years ago. It was a commission from a consortium of orchestras in the state of Indiana. The group no longer exists but it was called the Indiana Orchestra Consortium. I'd only been living in Indiana a couple years and they called me and said we'd like to commission you to write a piece that all the orchestras in the state will play. The only caveat was they wanted the piece to have something to do with Indiana.

I'm from New Jersey, and as I said I was pretty new here. Indiana for me had up until then just been someplace between New York and L.A. I thought, "What am I going to do? There's cornfields and the racetrack, but I don't want to do that." And then I started thinking about famous Hoosiers. I ended up making a list of 30 famous Hoosiers and I whittled it down to a list of the six that most appealed to me. The piece opens with a movement called "Jonestown Echo." The Reverend Jim Jones was from Indiana, and he went to Butler University for a couple years. I thought it might totally ruin me, but I had to do it. That piece opened with Jim Jones, and there's a Knute Rockne movement, a John Dillinger movement, a James Dean movement and a couple others.

When I was working on the Al Capone piece, it kind of reminded me of working on Jim Jones and John Dillinger. Not that the music is the same, but it reminded me of how much fun I had painting musical portraits. This new piece is definitely not a portrait of Al Capone though.

NUVO: Steven Stolen is performing the part of Al Capone. Steven isn't someone most people would associate with experimental works. What was his first reaction when you approached him about the piece?

Schelle: I would say ninety percent of people in town know Steven as the guy who does torch songs. He also does traditional opera and he hosts his radio show playing everything from Billie Holiday to the Beatles. And I love that about him. But the Steven that is with me is somebody I've known for twenty-five years.
Steven Stolen - MARK A. LEE
  • Mark A. Lee
  • Steven Stolen

I received a grant from the National Endowment to do a song cycle based on a series of German poems from the middle of the 19th Century my mom used to read to me as a child. She read them to me in English and German. The collection is called Struwwelpeter. It was about these rotten kids, and the terrible things that would happen to them. The point of the stories was to teach children lessons. There's a story about a little girl who plays with matches and burns herself up. I always loved the poems and I knew when I became a professional composer that one day I would set some of them to music.

Fast forward to the early 90s I got a huge grant to write this piece. I had gotten to know Steven because of my opera. He was in my opera and I fell in love with him as a singer and a human being. We just clicked. We were sometimes on the some page about things experimental and off the beaten path. So I approached him and asked if I could write this cycle of seven or eight songs about rotten kids for him. He was like, "I'm so right there. I love your music and I love the idea." So we hit it off with that piece. It's a half hour piece for voice and piano. A couple years ago I was commissioned to orchestrate it, so it became like seven little operas for Steven and chamber ensemble. We've worked together on that piece for about twenty-five years in various manifestations in venues from California to New York.

So when Al Capone came around I said Steven it's going to be kind of like Struwwelpeter, but it won't have the humor. There are moments in Struwwelpeter where the audience really cracks up, there are other moments when they shake their head and think "this is awful." I told him we're not going to have the cracking up, but there will be a black humor with Al Capone. He looked at me with this look only Steven has and said "I'm right there. I know exactly where you're going." And he's doing it. 
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lula Washington's company comes to Butler ArtsFest

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2015 at 11:39 AM

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While Lula Washington's dynamic choreography has earned her dance company critical accolades and world tours, it's her commitment to interpreting the complexities of the African-American experience through dance that has made her such a singular force. Though Washington confronts a range of difficult social justice themes in her repertoire, her ultimate intent seems to be focused on uplifting humanity through her company's impassioned, high energy dance. It's that joyous energy that's led Hollywood to seek Washington out to choreograph movement in films like Disney's Little Mermaid.

We spoke via phone from her studio in Los Angeles in advance of her dance theatre's April 10 appearance at Butler's Schrott Center for ArtsFest. 

NUVO: I've read that at age 22 you saw a performance by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater that changed your life? What did you see onstage that day that was so inspirational to you?

Lula Washington: Seeing Alvin Ailey's Dance Theater was a life-changing moment for me. At that time I had never been to see a live dance performance. The only reason I was there at all is because my professor at my junior college wanted her students to see the performance so she loaded us in her car and took us there.

It was life-changing to see African-American dancers onstage performing with dancers of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I'd never seen that before. The work was so powerful and moving and it touched me emotionally and I knew that this was something I wanted to do. It gave my life a sense of purpose. That performance was inspirational and it was inspirational to meet Alvin Ailey later and have him become one of my mentors.

NUVO: You've made it a priority to offer low cost or free dance instruction to inner city youth in Los Angeles. Can you tell us what you believe the study of dance can offer young people, particularly those who might be at risk or going through some difficulty in their lives?

Washington: The arts in general to me are healing and dance is certainly an art that heals the soul and spirit. Dancing can be used to build self esteem, when you look in the mirror you have to accept yourself for who you are and whatever limitations you may have. In dance your dealing with the limitations of your body. Once you have a way of solving problems for yourself through the arts or dance you become a better person. You become a more empathetic person and you have more compassion for others. People who don't experience the arts in an emotional way lose out on something, they lose out on the ability to feel and care. All the arts bring that into play. Every human being should have the opportunity to experience the arts.

NUVO: You incorporate many styles of dance in your work. I was particularly interested in your use of West African dance traditions.

Washington: For me I'm interested in any cultural material that's reflective of my history as an African-American person. Africa is the closest thing that connects me to my past. There's a deep cultural connection to Africa that speaks to who my ancestors were and I how I connect to the world. I use different dance styles because I don't want to be locked into one particular way of moving, or one particular style.

NUVO: Your work addresses a broad range of subjects, but you've placed a strong emphasis on themes of social justice. You've created pieces about the Little Rock Nine and your work Turn the Page references the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Can you tell us how you've used dance to address these complex issues?

Washington: Those works are a personal response to very important situations that have happened in history and continue to happen on a day to day basis to the African-American community. Those works are my contribution to continue to bring awareness to the fact that these things are still happening, or to bring out discussion as to how we can change or prevent these things from happening.

NUVO: Whether they realize it or not, millions of people have seen your work as you choreographed movement for the films Avatar, and Disney's Little Mermaid. Is your approach to choreographing for animated characters different than creating movement for human beings?

Washington: Actually the choreography is done with live human beings. With Little Mermaid I created movement for the mermaid, and the animators filmed me. Then in some way they recreated it and transformed it to what was seen on the screen.

That was so different from Avatar. With Avatar we worked with a cast of people and computers captured the actual movements of the bodies. When you see the bodies of the characters in Avatar they were doing the actual movements the dancers performed. The dancers wore motion capturing suits with nodules all over their bodies.



NUVO: Tell us about the program you'll be performing in Indianapolis. 

Washington: For the Butler concert we have a very diverse program. We're doing a piece called "Humanism." It's a work in progress and it's a little more contemporary. It deals with social injustices and the continual shootings of African-American men.

We're also doing a piece called "We Wore the Mask" which is a tribute to Paul Lawrence Dunbar's famous poem "We Wear the Mask." That's performed to a live score form the percussionist Marcus Miller. It's a piece that deals with the different faces we wear as people, we as African-American people, women, people who have been discriminated against, who've faced hostility and have had horrific things happen to them because of who they are. So we find ourselves having to dress ourselves in certain situations just to get by. So it's about deciding that we should accept who we are and the world should accept who we are. There's a mask that one of the dancers wears and in the piece she takes off the mask and reveals herself in an uplifting way and says this is me and the world needs to accept me. This piece doesn't just speak to African-Americans, it speaks to our Latino people who are here dealing with immigration issues. It deals with women's issues. It deals with gay and lesbian issues, and all the other things that force people to change who they are just to exist.

Then we're doing piece called "Rain" that was choreographed by Rennie Harris, who is a very well-known contemporary hip-hop artist. And we'll also be doing a piece called "Venus and Serena" which is a tribute to the two famous African-American tennis players. That piece was choreographed by Tamika Washington-Miller and it will be performed to live music. It's a wonderful program.

NUVO: Finally I wanted to ask if you've been following the controversy surrounding Indiana's Religious Freedom Act. Any thoughts you'd like to share on that?

Washington: I'm so saddened by this. I'm disappointed in a system that would hate like that. To me that's a hate action. Every religion should have love in their heart for everybody. I'm extremely disappointed.

If this bill gives the power to discriminate then maybe next they'll stop artists from performing if there are gay people in the work. Where is it going to stop? Will they have the ability to stop meaningful programs because of their narrow-mindedness?
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NUVO at 25: Covering the new alternative

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 3:00 PM

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The fact that Indy's longest running and most successful alternative weekly was born in 1990 seems fitting to me. That's the year when the hazily defined genre known as alternative music began to bubble up into the mainstream consciousness. It was in 1990 that Nirvana signed to DGC records and began the process of writing songs for their breakthrough LP Nevermind. 1990 was also the year that R.E.M. recorded their classic Out of Time album. To the surprise of almost everyone in the music business, both of these records would reach the top spot on Billboard's album charts during 1991. These albums and the movement they helped to spawn changed the direction of American popular culture, and officially ushered in the era of alternative music.

The term alternative music was nearly inescapable during the early and mid-'90s and there was great debate about how the genre could be defined musically. Personally, I found the term obnoxious and took every chance I could to ridicule it. "What's alternative about a group of white men recording pop songs on a corporate-owned record label?" I'd complain to friends. If you would've asked me who I thought the truly alternative music acts of the early '90s were, I probably would've answered John Cage, Diamanda Galás, or Sun Ra. Definitely not Pearl Jam.

But I don't think the term alternative music ever really intended to address musical structures, it had more to do with an attitude, or a particular sort of world view. Whether or not I agreed with the term's application as a musical genre, I appreciated the fact that the best artists designated with the alternative tag promoted viewpoints that were in direct opposition with the prevailing conservative attitudes of the era. 

I think it's important to look back at what preceded the alternative movement for context. Popular American rock was dominated by hair metal in the '80s. While some great bands came out of the '80s American metal scene (e.g. Slayer, Metallica) metal culture itself was rife with overt expressions of misogyny along with strong undercurrents of homophobia and racism. It was a time when one of the most popular bands of the era Guns N' Roses felt confident to write and record the following lines.

"Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they'll do as they please
Like start some mini Iran,
Or spread some fuckin' disease"

These lyrics were penned by Hoosier-born Axl Rose for the song "One In A Million" off his band's hit 1988 EP G N' R Lies. While the lyrics roused some minor controversy at the time of the EP's release, I believe Rose's commentary accurately reflected values shared by many in America's dominant cultural group: straight white males. Accusations of racism/homophobia leveled against G N' R did nothing to diminish their popularity with that demographic. 

But in 1990, a new spirit was rising, and the cultural tides would soon make an abrupt turn. A generation raised during the greed, racism and moral conservatism of the Reagan era were eager to make their voices heard. 

As alternative music icons like Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe rose to pop stardom, they used their fame to promote cultural pluralism. Cobain went to great lengths to advocate artists working within the feminist branch of punk rock, riot grrrl. Cobain also became a great ally to the LGBTQ community, singing lines like "God is gay" and "everyone is gay" while commenting in interviews that gay men were the only white males he personally identified with while growing up.

Michael Stipe demonstrated an equal or greater influence in that capacity, consistently speaking in support of a variety of progressive issues. In the mid-'90s Stipe became the first major American rock star to openly address and embrace non-heterosexual lifestyles.

This is the cultural shift NUVO was born into, and for the last 25 years the publication has been dedicated to continuing the dialogue on alternative viewpoints within politics, race, social justice, environmentalism, and the arts. 

The paper's tagline is "Indy's Alternative Voice." When I first started writing, several years ago, I thought a lot about what exactly that meant, and I consider it every week when I sit down to write my weekly Cultural Manifesto columns. Our culture is constantly in flux, and by default then so too is the definition of what the alternative is.    

Shots from Lafayette Road's growing music scene - NUVO FILE PHOTOS
  • NUVO File Photos
  • Shots from Lafayette Road's growing music scene

As I look back on Indianapolis over the last 25 years, I think the biggest change has been the arrival and flowering of a large international immigrant population. Vast commercial areas that were once filled with boring chain stores and bad fast food joints, are now a base of operations for thriving immigrant entrepreneurs who've created amazing restaurants and exciting live music venues that have significantly enhanced the quality of life for all Indianapolis citizens.

For me, the immigrant community represents the most significant alternative culture in Indianapolis today. And that's why so much of my writing for NUVO has focused on music stemming from African, Asian and Latin American cultural traditions. It pleases me greatly to see my articles about Indy-based African music DJ Stephan Vohito, or local Mexican-American accordion player Amanda Reyna resting neatly alongside stories on the psychedelic hip-hop explorations of Oreo Jones and DMA, or a review of the latest Gloryhole Records' garage noise release.

I think NUVO's editorial staff sensed this shift in Indy's alternative cultural space before I signed on to the publication. And I think it's a big part of the reason they asked me to begin contributing in the first place. I'd already established a reputation for connecting with Indy's immigrant population as a DJ. Even if that's not the case, I appreciate NUVO for giving me free license to address issues of institutionalized racism and the marginalization of immigrants in the local arts community. I believe opening up honest dialogue on sensitive issues like these provides a crucial step toward correcting inequalities. 

Last summer, NUVO published a cover story I wrote about the massive Latin music scene on Lafayette Road. The piece focused largely on a concert by Los Tigres Del Norte and the rebellious political/social commentary found in the band's lyrics. For the first time in NUVO's history the story was published in both English and Spanish. I can't think of a better example of NUVO's commitment to fostering the growth of alternative culture within the arts. 

As one alternative subculture gets sucked into the mainstream vortex, another school of alternative thought is inevitably born to replace it. I can't wait to see what alternative cultural movements NUVO will be covering at age 50.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Leroy Carr's dark poetry

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 1:41 PM

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I take every opportunity I can in this column to praise the work of the legendary Indianapolis blues duo Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. So I couldn't miss a chance to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Leroy Carr's birthday this year on March 27. 

A strong case could be made that the catalog of recordings created by Carr and Blackwell represent the most influential and important artistic legacy in the history of Indianapolis music. The duo were a musical powerhouse. The combination of Blackwell's stinging single-string guitar leads and Carr's laid-back vocalizations created an unprecedented new blues sound imbued with urban cool. Carr and Blackwell are the key link between rural Southern Delta blues and the later electrified incarnation of the genre that would develop in Chicago. Before Muddy Waters left the Mississippi plantations for Chicago, he honed his craft playing along to the records of Carr and Blackwell.

Beyond the duo's musical innovations, one thing that keeps me coming back to their recordings is the poetic and often fatalistic lyrics of Leroy Carr. In the 130 plus songs Carr recorded during his career his fascinating lyrics documented the darker side of human existence. He consistently wrote and sang about subjects like guns, prison, murder, depression, poverty, loss, suicide, hustling, gambling, addiction, domestic violence and even during the height of the prohibition his favorite theme: booze.

I think Carr's difficult lyrics have been a factor in the continued marginalization of his work here in his conservative hometown of Indianapolis. But Carr wasn't writing for shock factor, his lyrics were often confessional and mirrored the troubling conditions of his own life. Carr's words capture the devastating psychological trauma of both being a Black man under Jim Crow law and the general struggle for survival in America during the Great Depression. In this week's column I want to remember some of the historical facts of Carr's life through the sharply written poetry of his songs.

Alcoholism was a defining factor in Carr's life. As I noted above Carr sang of alcohol frequently, even during Prohibition. In his reflective 1930 recording "Hard Times Done Drove Me To Drink" Carr suggests he turned to alcohol as a way of coping with depression. "Sometimes I get to thinking that I just keep on drinking, trying to drink my blues away," Carr sings. "My house fell down and I ain't got no place to stay. I just keep on drinking trying to drive my blues away… my mind keeps rolling. I got 3,000 things on my mind. But I just keep on drinking to pass away the time."



The A-side of Vocalion Records' 1930 release of "Hard Times Done Drove Me To Drink" is "Sloppy Drunk Blues," a tune that finds Carr contemplating the havoc hard-drinking caused in his life. "I'd rather be sloppy drunk doing time in the can than be out in the streets running from the man. Bring me another two-bit pint, because I got my habit on and I'm going to wreck this joint. My gal is trying to quit me for somebody else and now I'm sloppy drunk sleeping all by myself."

Carr's drinking habits brought the singer into conflict with the law. It's known that Carr served time as a young man for his involvement with an Indianapolis bootleg liquor operation. Carr would draw on his time in jail as a theme throughout his artistic career. One of the most poignant examples being his 1928 recording "Prison Bound Blues". Carr's words depict a world where crime is sometimes the only option for survival, and where the battle against poverty numbs you to the threat of death. "I'm on my way to the big house and I don't even care. I might get a lifetime, or I might get the electric chair," Carr sings. "I've had trouble so long, that trouble don't worry me. They got me accused of robbery, but I ain't done nothing wrong. I can't make no money and a job is hard to find. I've been out of work so long that I ain't got a lousy dime."

Complications from alcohol abuse would end Carr's life early at the age 30 as he succumbed to nephritis on April 29, 1935. Carr's lyrics turned even darker as he confronted his own mortality in song during the final days of his life. In December of 1934 just a few months before his death Carr recorded "Suicide Blues" perhaps his bleakest creation. "If somebody finds me when I'm dead and gone, say I did self‑murder and I died with my boots on," Carr sings in a noticeably weak voice. "I took me a Smith and Wesson and blew out my brains. I didn't take no poison, I couldn't stand the strain. I ain't no coward and I'll tell you why. I was just tired of living but wasn't afraid to die... In my farewell letter someone's sure to find 'goodbye old cruel world, I'm glad I left you behind."

Carr's final recording session on February 25 of 1935 yielded a chilling premonition of his imminent death titled "Six Cold Feet in the Ground." Recorded alone at the piano without the standard accompaniment from his longtime partner Scrapper, Carr delivered an austere and understated goodbye. "Just remember me baby when I'm in six feet of cold, cold ground. Always remember me baby and say a good man's gone down… Don't cry after I'm gone. Just lay my body in six cold feet of ground."

While music fans around the world continue to celebrate the remarkable artistic legacy of Leroy Carr, his last recorded wish remains largely unfulfilled in his hometown. "Just remember me…"


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