Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Sound Gallery

In the fall of 1965, I was an aspiring 18 yr.old jazz drummer, who was also a fledgling painter and art student. Having come from a family where my mother, Ferne Cairns, was a concert soprano, who had sung with Nicholas Goldschmidt and John Avison, and my father, Douglas Simpson, a pioneering west coast Modernist architect, my fate was sealed to either choose between the two mediums of music and painting or somehow juggle both of them at the same time. To me this was something akin to choosing between breathing and eating so I decided to try to progress in both forms of expression.

The Al Neil Trio in Rehearsal (Al Neil-piano, Richard Anstey- bass, Gregg Simpson- drums) Photo: Michael deCourcy

Earlier in the year I had made the acquaintance of jazz pianist Al Neil who I had seen play live twice in Vancouver jazz venues and once on CBC television from the Cellar. The Cellar was a legendary club which among other claims to fame had been the place that gave the ground breaking Ornette Coleman Quartet their first concert outside of the U.S. in 1958. It had also featured through the 50's and 60's the groups of Charles Mingus, Art Pepper, Harold Land (with Elmo Hope, Scott LaFaro and Lennie McBrowne) and many more high caliber west coast hard bop bands of the day. Al Neil was often the house pianist for these visiting greats.

Significantly, it was also where future Intermedia Director, Barry Cramer, produced plays such as Krapp's Last Tape and other works by the writers of the Theatre of the Absurd. Vancouver, it seems, has always had a tendency to investigate a mixed media approach to the arts and this has been evident through several decades since Al Neil recorded with the beat poet, Kenneth Patchen, on the Folkways label producing a very well received album entitled Kenneth Patchen Reads Poetry In Canada (With the Alan Neil Quartet).

After an initial introduction to Neil and then wife Marguerite, in their small cottage wedged behind some high rise apartments in the West End, a lifelong relationship began. I was brought to meet Al Neil by one of Vancouver's other legendary figures of the beat era, Curt Lang, a poet and painter who had once been taken by fellow poet, the late Al Purdy to meet Malcolm Lowry at his Dollarton Beach house on the North Shore, not far from the spot where Neil himself landed a decade or more later.

There was an immediate current of excitement as I realized that after abandoning any regular career choices, I might indeed be on the threshold of a unique musical enterprise with Al, and bassist Richard Anstey, who I had been playing with in groups such as the New Dimension Jazz Trio and with pianist, Bob Buckley. Richard, who lived in Vienna until his passing in 2004, was also playing with Al's group at the Flat Five Jazz Club on West Broadway.

Our first musical strategy session was an eye opener. Al was pretty well into his cups the night he hauled out his little electric Wurlizter piano with its fragile reeds, half of which he managed to break while slipping from the piano stool to the floor at least three times. The 'score' for the music he was about to played me consisted of chopped up music paper collaged together with fragments from various popular magazines.

Al was playing a kind of tortured, mystical yet intensely lyrical music I could only describe as a cross between Bud Powell, Edgar Varese and Debussy. I know however that Al hadn’t yet heard the work of a musician he superficially resembles, the tumultuous New York pianist, Cecil Taylor whose music was just beginning to be known in 1965. But Al at this time and had come up with this lyrical, yet cataclysmic, style on his own.

Although an authentic hard bop musician, Neil worked in many other influences from pioneer dadaists like Kurt Schwitters, painters like Bradley Tomlin and Mark Tobey to the cut-up writings of William S. Burroughs, works on alchemy and mysticism, and the fevered visions of the French surrealist, Antonin Artaud. Obviously a multi-media kind of jazz was bound to occur from the collaboration we were embarking on..

For the first two rehearsals the Al Neil Trio was actually a quartet with the presence of alto sax player, Bob Buckley, who went on to fame and fortune with the rock band Spring and later as a producer. But it was the trio of Al on piano, Richard Anstey on bass and myself on drums that emerged.

By late fall of 1965 we were rehearsing regularly at the little store front which eventually opened as the Sound Gallery, a name I contrived to encompass both my two fields of endeavor, which also presaged the era of multi-media that followed.

The Sound Gallery as it is today. (Photo by Gregg Simpson)

Because I also needed somewhere better to paint than the family home, the studio at 4th and Bayswater became a multi-media operation from the beginning. First I drew from the model there and continued working on a series of abstract oil paintings which reflected the influence of late Modernist geometric painting. The place was unheated and several little electric space heaters were employed to keep things bearable as winter approached.

Paintings by Gregg Simpson from 1965, the first art installation in the Sound Gallery

As the little circle of friends who came to the studio expanded there was a movement started to have sessions and everyone chipped in on the rent to keep the place going. Fledgling poet Michael Coutts was a regular, although he like many others who participated in the period, didn't survive the 1960's. Richard Anstey, who lived in the area of the studio also brought in other neighborhood buddies like drummer Harley McConnell, who helped me put together a drum kit for the great drummer, Philly Joe Jones then playing, with mind shattering volume and relentless drive, over at the Flat Five. To this day I credit my contact with Philly Joe as the major influence which formed my playing style although with the Al Neil Trio waiting in the wings this
was one of the last times I played hard bop style jazz until a decade or so later.

Our first recording session was on December 15th, 1965 and the Al Neil Trio played several improvised pieces for a small audience. The music was nothing short of extraordinary, combing snippets of melodies like Summertime, which appeared through waves of arpeggios, polychromatic chord clusters, whirling dervish modal lines and atonal passages. We were still playing jazz we all thought. In Anstey and my case, we were both very recently influenced by the work of the John Coltrane Quartet and of Charles Mingus who we had seen live together at the Blue Horn as the Flat Five Club had been renamed.

Al came down to hear us play with his old band mates from the Cellar, a quintet with pianist Don Thompson, alto sax player, P.J. Perry, trumpeter Ron Probie and tenor player, Glenn MacDonald, but he didn't sit in. I think the other musicians knew we were up to something different though.

In fact a year or two later when Al played some of the trio recordings for bassist/ pianist Thompson, now a Canadian jazz icon, asked him,"Al, how do you get those guys to play that way ?"

This was no easy thing to explain. The Trio had a unique empathy for improvisation not unlike a group like the Bill Evans Trio. Although much more frenzied, it did have some of the interwoven, independent melodic lines of the Evans group. But that was when something like a tune or song form was involved.

What was unique to this group was the way it could move into non-verbal chanting, collaged textures utilizing toy instruments, tapes, records or radios and still keep the feel of a jazz trio. Noise music mixed with political protest was employed on one of a kind pieces like State of the Union where a radio speech by then President Johnson on Viet Nam was smothered in clattering textures and insane shrieking, all recorded in
a totally darkened Sound Gallery. It was a long way from bebop.

In later years, Al liked to perplex other musicians when they asked what all this stuff was and he would say," I like to think I'm still playing jazz”!

Al Neil playing zither and piano, Intermedia, 1968
(Photo: Michael de Courcy)

By the spring of 1966 after a month long hiatus from Al, when Richard Anstey and myself returned from playing an engagement at a Banff hotel. We were back at the old studio and ready to take things up a notch. During the winter I had hit on the name Sound Gallery for the space and as it seemed to be a hit with everyone, we designated it as such for a series of weekend concerts which began in March. Advertising was on a large piece of construction paper hung in the window with stenciled letters advertising: Al Neil and his Royal Canadians represented by some campy collage elements. Admission was by donation as we had been told we could avoid hassles with the authorities that way. The next concert the group became The Royal Rascals and around that time we started to invite others to perform the evening concerts.

The first new participant to arrive at the Sound Gallery was composer Gerry Walker, a new music composer who worked with tape and prepared piano in the era before synthesizers. He shared a studio a few blocks down 4th Ave.with film maker Sam Perry who was to become the guru for multi-media light shows in 1966, the last of his life. The atmosphere in their studio was a little like a laboratory in a 50's sci-fi movie. It was a perfect complement to our operation down the street and a collaboration seemed inevitable and natural.

Almost immediately the Saturday night concerts at the Sound Gallery became a place for poets, artists and dancers to collaborate. Among those who appeared were the Pop artist Gary Lee Nova who had just shown a remarkable set of hexagon paintings at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery and would go on to collaborate with Perry on the making of imagery for the light shows. Soon after we were joined by dancer/choreographer Helen Goodwin who had recently worked with New York-based Jean Erdman, a pioneer performance/ dance artist. The Sound Gallery cast was assembling and it included the Al Neil Trio's music, Sam Perry's films and projections, the Helen Goodwin dancers, Gerry Walker and often a poet.

Poetry was an important medium in the 1960's and readings were given regularly at the Sound Gallery. One notable performance was by Milton Acorn which was a raucous affair as always with the crusty writer. Also in attendance were bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert and Judith Copithorne, the latter also one of Goodwin's dancers. One memorable solo piece, involved Copithorne improvising a dance which evoked flying to one of the Trio's melancholic ballads, with Perry's projected film of an actual flying bird playing over her. It was one of the best pieces in the collective repetoire. Judith stayed with Goodwin for a number of years through the Intermedia period, but later preferred to work solely as a poet and has several books to her credit. Two others in Goodwin's company also became noted performers later, Karen Jameison, and Evelyn Roth, a multi-media pioneer who came to prominence in the 1970's. In addition she employed other modern dancers, notably Heather MacCallum, Rita Watson and Joan Payne.

The spawning ground for both Helen Goodwin, and most of the poets, was the University of British Columbia where the remarkable English professor, Warren Tallman, a friend of both Allen Ginsberg and Charles Mingus among others, taught during the 1960's and 1970's. The group of poets who published the periodical TISH including Jamie Reid, Peter Auxier, Maxine Gadd, and Dan MacLeod. Jim Brown, a poet, noveist and co-founder of Talon Books. Brown showed an early interest in multi-media and put out the 1968 anthology LP, See Hear and bill bissett's Awake in the Red Desert.

Poets like Gerry Gilbert participated in the earliest days of multi-media in Vancouver with films and multi-media readings. The poetry scene was the most advanced and communicative of any of the groups in Vancouver then. The University of British Columbia during the 1960s was a cauldron of contemporary poetry, left wing politics and ground-breaking art exhibitions and festivals. The Fine Arts Gallery, under the direction of Alvin Balkind, who formerly ran the New Design Gallery downtown, the first to show Claude Breeze, Audrey Capel Doray, Joy Long and the late Jack Wise to a wider audience. The dynamic survey exhibition, Joy and Celebration, shown at The Fine Arts Gallery in 1967 brought together several artists who would later work at Intermedia.

The 1965 Armory Show and the 1967 Festival of Contemporary Arts were two other important events which brought together artists, poets and musicians from B.C. and across Canada including such luminaries as Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood. The experimental media experimenter and puppeteer Dave Orcutt was one of the figures who emerged from this milieu and was to be an early instigator of the Intermedia Society.

The events at the Sound Gallery were getting increasingly popular and by June we realized that a larger space was going to be necessary. The crowds in the 30' by 60' store front were making it increasingly difficult to fit in the band, dancers and projectionists Perry, Lee Nova and another artist of the period Dallas Selman who, with audio/electronic genius Ken Ryan, worked at Sam Perry's 4th Avenue studio. The problem was solved when Helen Goodwin's husband, a local realtor, came up with a reasonably cheap old building at 1236 Seymour Street on the edge of Vancouver's downtown.

Next Blog will be on the Motion Studio and Trips Festival in 1966.

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