I quickly turned to my friend, Jeff, a cat who had helped initiate me into the world of jazz and has been a trusted fellow traveler since. "Uh, yeah," he muttered blearily. He’d closed his two peepers and nodded while I was convinced my third eye had been opened there in the recital hall of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Which is to say 1) It’s in the ear of the hearer whether music is super or soporific, and 2) It’s a shame that Douglas Ewart hasn’t performed live in Detroit since to let more listeners decide.
Even on record, Ewart is an elusive presence. He plays Eastern and Western reeds and flutes, including bamboo instruments of his own invention. After emigrating as to America from his native Jamaica as a teen, he became an exponent of the Chicago’s self-determination avant-garde (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), first studying at the association’s music school and then recording with such AACM artists as Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.
His own releases range from the mystic trances that capped his long-ago DIA gig (the CD Bamboo Meditations At Banff) to the eclectic mix of things that built toward it (the cassette-only Bamboo Forest); they’re available on his own Aarawak label at http://indra.com/~jbarnett/ewart/index.html. And his music is featured on one brilliant cut on a new live recording, Vision, from bassist William Parker’s Vision Festival on the Thirsty Ear label.
Ewart recently spoke on his unique arts-in-the-parks projects and other subjects with Metro Times by phone from his home in Minneapolis.
On Crepuscules, his waterfront park events which involve as many as 200 performers grouped into smaller "pods" for the various art forms and disciplines.
I’ve been working on a project over the last several years called Crepuscule, and it involves at times 20 or more art forms going on simultaneously. I’ve done it twice in Philadelphia. This will be the 10th year in Minneapolis and the fourth year in Chicago. It involves capoeira, tai chi, dance, poetry, music, people learning maritime skills, painters, sculptors.
I will go into various communities and seek out, for example, a marching band. Or I will help to initiate something. Like we had some kids doing origami from the Chinese community, and then we had kids learning how to build puppets, which I coordinated through the art district in Chicago.
I either have artists going to particular community centers or schools or I go to someone who is already engaged in such a project working with young people or with not-so-young people. For example, there is a gentleman who is an ex-Coast Guard officer, and he has been training young men from the black community in maritime skills: they learn first rowboating and then they learn sailboating and then they learn motorboating.
The idea is that everyone in the community has something to offer the community. It’s also based on the idea of art. Everything can be taken to the level of art in terms of its inspirational possibilities, the spiritual possibilities, the pragmatic possibilities, in terms of young people developing skills that can facilitate their lives …
On the form of the Crepuscule.
We start out as a unit and then we break off into these pods for each activity, and each pod has a designated spot within the park. When they go that spot they perform for, let’s say, about 30 to 40 minutes. And let’s say for another portion of time, approximately another 30 minutes, the conch shell pod might go and interact with the spoken-word pod or with the tai chi pod. People are making these exchanges in art forms from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Then, after we’ve done the interactive aspect, we return to the circle for the culmination of the activity and we join the circle again and each group is highlighted in the center for a short period of time and then we have our coda.
The piece also brings together various communities because in America — although it’s a melting pot — everything melts but it doesn’t flow together so this is a way of people recognizing each other’s beauty.
On recycling as an oxymoron and making music with crutches.
There are new instruments which I’ve been building in the last several years which I call crepuscular sticks. The idea of Crepuscule — I first learned the word through Thelonious Monk’s "Crepuscule with Nellie," which means twilight or activity that takes place at twilight. And the crepuscular sticks are made from items which I consider in their twilight of function. They were once made for some other function. For example, I’m making string instruments out of skis percussion instruments, out of skis, out of oars, out of crutches.
The idea also is about cycling — recycling is really an oxymoron in the sense that cycling is cycling; it continues until there is nothing else. In our society, in America, we throw away so many valuable things, including young people.
I got into this making instruments first out of crutches because they are so well-constructed and most of the time they are only used once and then discarded. I went to a resale shop, and the gentleman said no one was buying them, and they were going to burn them. I got incensed and bought them not knowing what I was going to do with them. But after I got them home I began to make drums, stamping sticks, all kinds of instruments. I have at least 20 variations of instruments that come out of utilizing crutches and oars and skis — and then that notion is passed on to young people
On the inspiration of the Crepuscules.
Well, part of the genesis was thinking about my growing up in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, and how people, for example, were multiplex. Most people I knew had several skills that in order to survive they utilized.
I was involved in the Rastafarian movement and then I saw a lot of people using a lot of different skills. For example, Rastas would take old car tires and make sandals, make belts and other kinds of things I needed.
And then I was also involved one time in a peace by a composer Alvin Curran, and he had a piece that took place on the water with a choir.
Between those ideas and the idea of carnival this is what inspired Crepuscule. Sometimes it’s blurred as to who is performer and who is audience because another aspect of Crepuscule is people can come on that day and be admitted into a pod. I make extra instruments for them and so on. It’s a complex-but-simple idea.
On the musical influence of his grandmothers: After his mother came to the States to work when he was about 10, they took over his care.
One grandmother sang a lot of church hymns and things like that. She was Seventh Day Adventist, and every morning there were prayers before we went to school. Friday night was Sabbath, you couldn’t do anything but study some religious thing in her room. We did have to sing. My other grandmother, my father’s mother, loved her music, so she would be listening to all kinds of things. That’s how I heard Liszt and Bach, and she’d be talking about people like that. I had a good, open kind of attitude toward music and music from various places and people.
On the Rasta musical influences and the great Count Ossie, whose percussion-heavy Rasta ensembles are still relatively unknown outside of Jamaica.
Some of the most important stuff I heard was the Rasta music, this is pre-reggae or ska, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelations of Rastafari was one of my great inspirations. I saw them live when I was about 9 or 10, so you can imagine the effect of being right under the drum, right in the drum, and then knowing the people who were playing and skipping church and going there. If only my grandmother knew! …
On living with the Rastas in the hill country of Jamaica.
Growing up, I spent a couple of years there as a young man. I left home and went to live up there. It was a community largely of men, the camp I lived on. There were other camps in the area, maybe a Rasta man and his wife, or maybe a few other people. They built their own house and you’d have to carry water from down on the flat to the hills where we were squatting on government land. Count Ossie had a base or a camp and he wasn’t far away.
When I was coming up, 10 to 15 was a large grouping, and five was what you’d call a nuclear group. They fished, they threw dances. They’d rent a hall, cook a goat, buy the beer. The expenses would paid off and after that money divided up. You didn’t have to pay for housing. … We were frugal with our clothes, we’d get our own firewood, the biggest expense was food.
On coming to Chicago in the ’60s: His mother had left to work in the United States when he was about 10 and they were reunited in the Windy City when he was about 17. He fell into a very different musical scene. He’d always heard music in his head, but felt the price of a horn out of reach. Now he got one and became involved with musicians like Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
After high school I bought a saxophone that was Joseph Jarman’s saxophone that was sold to me by a friend of his who was in the AACM [the famed musical self-determination group, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. I bought the saxophone and tried to learn on my own and sought lessons eventually with Joseph. He was my first teacher, and then I studied with a number of other people: Roscoe [Mitchell also of the Art Ensemble], Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams [one of the AACM’s founders]. I bought the horn I think in July and was pretty much self-doing it until October when the AACM school opened its door formally for the first time …
It was like a dream in a way because of where I landed. I could have landed in a different spot and I think that would have changed everything … I always had an interest in music even as a kid growing up in Jamaica. I always wanted play in my head. W. Kim Heron is Metro Times' managing editor. Send comments to email@example.com.
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