Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Science, jazz, and the “unknown” trombone player

I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in.”  - George Stell

And the rest was history.  Well, not exactly.  Pick up a copy of Albert Ayler's "Live in Greenwich Village" album or read a review of the February 25th, 1967 concert at the Village Theater and you will probably find “George Schnell" or "George Steele" credited as the trombone player.  Both are incorrect.  The trombonist was George Stell, now an emeritus professor of physics at Stony Brook University.  The errors appear to have originated in the initial reviews of the concert and have been repeated through the years; in fact, to my knowledge the misspelling has not been corrected on any release of the material.  However, Revenant did get the spelling correct in their "Sightings" section of the wonderfully researched book that was included in the Holy Ghost Box Set; so rest assured that the truth is slowly marching in....  

A few examples collected from reviews and comments on the Village Theater performance highlight the uncertainty that seems to have existed at the time regarding the mysterious trombone player:

  • “At the end was a piece involving all the afore-mentioned musicians plus an unannounced trombone player, whom I was not able to hear because of lack of amplification.” - Elisabeth van der Mei in Coda, May 1967, p. 28-30 (see entire review here)
  • “Two-thirds of the concert was actually performed by a septet. The harpsichord player, Call Cobbs, listed on the program, failed to appear. For the last three numbers, trombonist Steele joined the group.” - George Hoefer, Down Beat Vol. 34 No. 10, 1967 (see entire review here)
  • “The group, including a trombonist named either George Schnell or Steele (depending upon the source), Freedman sitting in for Sampson, and Alan Silva in for Grimes, also played the Village theater in February.” – Todd Jenkins, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, 2004.

George Stell contacted me last week.  He thanked me for getting his name correct in my review of the Greenwich Village album.  Admittedly, I unknowingly got his name correct because I used the credits listed at the superb discography over at  Patrick Regan, the studious caretaker of that comprehensive web site, noted the incorrect spelling of George’s last name back in 2002 (follow this link and scroll down to August).  Below is a brief excerpt from an interview that George did with Ben Young at WKCR back in 2002, where Ben explains the mistake and then George and Steve Tintweiss go on to discuss another mislabeling problem common to Ayler's music - the taxonomy (to use an appropriately scientific term) of his songs.

George and I corresponded a bit via email last week, and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about his life story, his experiences with Albert, and his life before and since those interesting times in 1966-67.  I am fascinated by his story, as his life is an interesting mix of passions – including both jazz and science.  He has had a highly successful career as a theoretical physicist, educating students and performing pioneering research on the molecular structure and mechanics of fluids; in fact, the photograph at the top of the post is from an issue of the Journal of Statistical Physics that was dedicated to him back in 2000 (Journal of Statistical Physics, Vol. 100, Nos. 1/2, 2000).  
With his permission, I summarize and reproduce some of his responses to my questions below:
How did you meet Albert?  Care to share some memories of your time with him?
I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in. Perhaps it was at the Judson Memorial Church?  Probably.  I played with him there a couple of times – can’t quite recall.  Albert said he had a show coming up at the Village Theater that he would like me to play.  We ‘rehearsed’ in a nightclub in Brooklyn the day before the 2/25/67 show after meeting at Mark Parks’ apartment – Albert, Don, Alan Silva, Beaver Harris, and me.  We just blew freely for a couple of hours.”
“I have strong memories of Al’s conversations at that rehearsal.  He remarked that despite the very positive reception he had gotten in Europe, he felt he had to return to NYC to be at the center of things.”
I played the 2/25/67 Village Theater show, at which Al played magnificently, as you can hear on the recording.  For me it was a mixed bag.  I got to meet and talk with Joel Freedman, and chat more with Don, but there was no microphone set-up that I could use, and I felt ill at ease, standing between Sampson with his microphone and an adjacent microphone that someone else was using—I can’t recall whom.  You can tell by listening to the few tunes on which I was recorded that I am part of a rather muddy-sounding background rather than one of the well-recorded instruments.”
By the way, Don was reserved but very friendly.  I learned years later that he was said to have deep emotional problems, and that Al worried about him, etc., but that wasn’t at all apparent during the times in 1967 that I saw him
How many shows did you play with him?
“Probably a total of only 4 or 5 times.  I was teaching and doing research full time as a faculty member of the Physics Department at Brooklyn Polytech, and I had started making preparations for a year’s leave-of-absence as a visiting professor at the University of Paris during the 1967-68 academic year.  Busy, busy, busy.”
What did you do before and after your work with Albert?
“I left Ohio after graduating from Antioch College in 1955 to spend an academic year in Chicago teaching at the Chicago division of the University of Illinois.  I did that because I wanted to play jazz with Marty Grosz and Frank Chace there. In the summer of 1965 I came to NYC to begin my Ph.D. work in mathematics at NYU, where I graduated in 1961.  I hung around NYU as a staff mathematician for a couple of years, and then, in 1965, joined the faculty in Physics at Brooklyn Polytech.  In 1969, I became a faculty member at the state University at Stony Brook, where I taught engineering and chemistry.  I still have that affiliation, although I retired from classroom teaching a few years ago.”
Are you still making music?
“Yes, both free jazz and mainstream, but have no steady gig.  I sit in with friends in NYC groups to keep my chops up, drop in at “ABC No Rio”, played with Gene Janas for while, etc…”
While doing the research for this post, I stumbled on a portion of the 2002 WKCR interview that I excerpted above.  Much more information related to George's time with Ayler is discussed in this fantastic interview; hopefully WKCR will eventually post their archives online so that this becomes widely available.  However, until then, below are a couple of excerpts of George talking about how he played his trombone in the context of Albert's music.    
(direct link to audio files if above players do not work: file 1, file 2)
Of course, George's comments in the above interview prompted me to listen to "Universal Thoughts," from "Live at Greenwich Village"  several times this week - the one track on the album where George Stell was recorded.  Although the trombone is clearly part of the "muddy-sounding background," it is audible and George's contribution is undeniable.  A close listen (headphones recommended) even reveals the "chattering" sound that George discusses in the first clip from the WKRC interview above.  I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to hear more of George's playing in the future - perhaps the annual Vision Festival in New York should extend an invitation to him?  
The note from George also prompted me to spend some time this week digging a bit more into the history of Ayler's music, and the additional knowledge of the human elements and interactions that led to such powerfully emotive art lends an additional richness to the way I experience the music.  Interestingly, it also has led me to some introspective thinking about music and science, and general thoughts regarding the balancing and intermingling of multiple passions in one's life.  Finally, it caused me to revisit some of Ayler's music with fresh ears and come away with something new.   I sure am glad that I accidently spelled George Stell's name correctly....
"Music has always fascinated me.  On the one hand it is devoid of information in a certain sense.....of objective information.  Yet it carries this powerful, powerful message that is quite mysterious and wonderful." - George Stell