Reflections From the Deer Isle Jazz Festival

Reflections From the Deer Isle Jazz Festival
Fred Hersch at his piano
(Photo by Mark Niskanen )

DEER ISLE, Maine — Two rainbows — one bold, the other more a colorful shadow — curved across the whole of the Stonington waterfront, at the southern tip of Deer Isle, an island off the coast of Downeast Maine. Viewed from the proper angle, it looked as if that rainbow led directly to the Stonington Opera House, which towers above the foot of a working commercial fishing pier, one of the largest landings on the eastern seaboard.

Pianist Fred Hersch was about to take the opera house stage for the closing night of the 13th annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival, an event I’ve curated from its start. I told the story of how I came to this island and to my involvement in this festival in an earlier post. On Saturday night, the sky’s play of light reminded me of the very first conversation I had with Judith Jerome, one of the founders of Opera House Arts, the nonprofit organization formed in 1999 to restore this historic theater and to give it new life as a wide-ranging community cultural center. Back then, Jerome and I talked about spontaneous and unexpected moments of creativity, the kind that happen in the best improvised music, and the added impact such moments might have set against the inherent beauty of a place like Deer Isle. Nature had showed up for the gig this time around, and so did Hersch, whose trio set that was, for me, most captivating when it moved, gracefully and audaciously as that rainbow, from a meditative version of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein standard “The Song Is You” into a pointillistic take on Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice.”

From the start, the idea for this jazz festival was to bring some of my favorite musicians to this island to perform, and to connect with this community in all sorts of ways.

On Thursday, two nights before Hersch’s concert, the pianist sat on the opera house stage alongside his domestic partner, Scott Morgan. We’d just screened a DVD version of Hersch’s gripping and beautiful multimedia/music and theater piece, “My Coma Dreams,” which tells the story of a two-month coma Hersch endured in 2008, and is staked to eight specific dreams the experience left him with — some disturbing, others lovely, one focused on Monk’s music. (Hersch played the composition inspired by that last one, “Dream of Monk,” within Saturday night’s set.) Hersch’s surprising career resurgence is by now common knowledge. Just a month out of a rehabilitation clinic, in October 2008, he was playing piano, however tentatively, at Smalls club in Greenwich Village. By January 2009, he led a quintet with confidence at the Village Vanguard. His most recent recordings suggest something beyond recovery; he sounds agile as ever, and freer. (I’ve always been determined to be my own man at the piano,” he told me. “And now, I feel even more of a desire to just be Fred.”)

I’d seen “My Coma Dreams” performed in its 2011 premiere, but I hadn’t expected its impact to come across so clearly on DVD. Hersch and Morgan, who hadn’t yet seen this rough-cut DVD in its entirety, were visibly choked up onstage. I’d written about it for The Wall Street Journal. Yet at the opera house, the show’s insights seemed both more personal and harder hitting than I’d been able to relate. The audience members for Thursday’s screening were moved first and foremost by the sincerity and artistry with which Hersch told his story. Beyond those qualities, they found the account riveting from a variety of perspectives. It was a love story, one woman said, between two partners — one hidden behind a coma, the other left to manage the situation and hold onto hope as he massaged his partner’s hands and arms. It was a rare account of how a loved one can work as a patient’s advocate in a hospital setting, said another woman. It was a window into the grey zone that separates conscious and unconscious states — in a coma, for instance, and in the acts of creativity at the core of, say, Hersch’s music.

At one point, from his seat on stage, Hersch explained, “I wanted to tell this story using all the tools of my creative expression. And I was determined that this experience was not going to define me.” Hersch recalled performing the piece in Berlin, for the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine. “More than one doctor came up to me afterward to say, ‘This piece is going to change the way I practice medicine,’” he said. Hersch had invited the doctors who had cared for him in the Intensive Care Unit to the premiere of “My Coma Dreams.” He recalled that, after the show, “I asked them, ‘Did we get it right?’ They just nodded. They said, ‘Yes, you got it right.’” And Hersch discussed the challenges, conceptual and technical, involved in mounting such a project and in fostering its continued life. “We don’t know precisely what to call this,” he said. “My Coma Dreams” deserves a wider audience, and perhaps this conversation helped build some momentum toward that end.

Earlier on Thursday, I’d been out to the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts — a glorious waterfront center where glassblowers, painters, potters, sculptors, weavers, and others gather, and where each year one jazz festival musician serves as artist-in-residence. This year alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry filled that role. On Thursday, during one of his afternoon workshops, Terry had poet Stuart Kestenbaum, who is also Haystack’s director, lined up in a small auditorium alongside a half dozen artists. I joined in. He cued up old and recent recordings of music from his native country, Cuba. He instructed us to step gently back and forth to the beat. He had us clap out the clave, the five-beat pattern that is the essential building block of Afro-Cuban rhythms. He challenged us to sing the bass line. All at once. It was a feat of multitasking less dangerous yet more difficult than texting while driving in traffic.

When I’d interviewed Terry for a profile, he’d recalled his childhood in Cuba’s Camagüey province, where the rhythms and chants that infuse his current compositions were “in the air,” he said. “You participate in them before anyone sits you down to explain.” Here, he instructed us “to learn the language by feeling it,” the way he had. (His father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, is a violinist with charanga groups, and a master of the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion. Pancho would fill a plastic Coke bottle with beans and pull his three sons onstage to play their mock chekerés.)

At Haystack, Yosvany, his brother Yunior Terry (the bassist in Yosvany’s quintet), and I spent some time with Haystack’s glassblowers, who are essentially the rock stars of Haystack’s community. Beth Lipman, who was teaching this summer session, couldn’t have been gentler and more down to earth as she invited us to try our hands at making rudimentary glass objects — standing before a blazing furnace to gather molten glass on a “punty,” and then working the glass as it cooled. It was thrilling and, for me, whose end result was nothing more than a lopsided nugget, somewhat humbling, which is another way of saying that I began to appreciate the skills behind the craft. Lipman, the Terrys, and I ended up getting into a conversation about parallels between creating artful forms from glass and making music — specifically, the ways in which physical movements transmit complex ideas and long-held traditions, and how vibrations and resonances infuse a work’s form with integrity. As Lipman wrote to me later in an email:

We are exploring ideas of translation, interpretation, mimesis and mimetic behaviors in the class, so I have my ear to the ground so to speak for all the parallels between the glass process and other life and creative practices — the beginning, middle, and ending, the dependency on the group, the rhythm, the riffs off what is known to create something new every time. Yosvany’s workshops serve as a reminder how much skill is needed to become proficient in anything. The things I take for granted in my own practice seem insurmountable to the novice, and I find myself wondering about the gap between my enthusiasm for Afro-Cuban music and my inability to tap a beat.

Terry is one of a circle of musicians who inspired me to begin a recent post this way: “Want to hear the hippest jazz in New York? Follow a Cuban musician.” His music extends an inherent cross-cultural Afro-centric dimension evident with renewed vigor on New York's jazz scene since the late 1990s (he moved to New York City in 1999). On Friday night at the opera house, Terry’s quintet played a masterly concert, grounded in both distinct formal traditions and abstract ideas. Mysteries underscore Terry’s compositions: some are ancient and communal, like the rhythms he played on chekeré and the chants that he and Yunior sang to begin “Summer Relief,” drawn from the traditions of abakua, an Afro-Cuban male secret society; others new and personal, such as the numerology behind sometimes dissonant and overlapping melodies.

On Sunday evening, Opera House Arts screened a documentary, “Unfinished Spaces,” which told the curious story of Cuba’s National Art Schools project. (You can find a trailer for the film here.) In 1961, three young, visionary architects were commissioned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to create Cuba’s National Art Schools on the grounds of a former golf course in Havana. Construction of their radical designs began immediately and the school’s first classes soon followed. Dancers, musicians, and artists from all over the country reveled in the beauty of the schools, but as the dream of the revolution quickly became a reality, construction was abruptly halted and the architects and their designs were deemed irrelevant in the prevailing political climate. Forty years later, the schools are in use, but remain unfinished and decaying. Castro has invited the exiled architects back to finish their unrealized dream.

One of the talking heads in the film is drummer Dafnis Prieto, who was a classmate of Terry’s and his bandmate in the influential Cuban group Columna B. Terry chuckled at Prieto’s recollection of partying and having sex on the roof of the dance school. After the film, Terry recalled his days as a student in the late 1980s, attending classes within the beautiful but daunting decay of low-slung and winding music school, which students had dubbed “the worm.” “We were impressed and inspired by the architecture,” he said. “We couldn’t understand why they had been abandoned. They were a source of pride for us. These building were the first things I showed anyone who visited.”

Terry was joined in a post-concert discussion by Michael Connors, the author of several books on Caribbean architecture and arts, and whose connection to the film stems from his involvement with Fundación Amistad, a nonprofit whose stated mission is “fostering better mutual understanding and appreciation between the peoples of the United States and Cuba.” Connors, it turns out, is the person who sold the Stonington Opera House to the women who cleared out the dead raccoons, and renovated it more than a decade ago. He had wanted to protect the opera house — which was built in 1912 and served, at various points, a dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high-school basketball arena — from ill-suited development or outright demolition.

I’d first found the Stonington Opera House while on vacation, just driving around. It was dilapidated and bearing a “For Sale” sign. Back then, I let my mind wander with the idea of renovation and reinvigoration. I saw an arts center there. And then, through the hard work of Jerome, Linda Nelson (the center’s executive director), and others, it happened. It’s been restored. (If Fidel is to be believed, so will Havana’s National Art Schools return to their intended glory and purpose.)

For one weekend each summer, 13 years running, the opera house has drawn me back and reminded me in fresh ways why I do what I do for a living, and what music means. On the plane home, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my blob of glass. It no longer looked misshapen or slight. It had promise.