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BassDrumBone and the New Haven Jazz Renaissance

Daniel Barbiero By

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When they first began playing together in New Haven, Connecticut in 1977, the trio BassDrumBone—bassist Mark Helias, percussionist Gerry Hemingway and trombonist Ray Anderson—were called OAHSPE. The name, which Anderson recalls having heard in Seattle from a source he understood to be Native American, is supposed to mean "sky earth and spirit." It is coincidentally also the title of a "new bible" purporting to be the words of "Jehovih and his angel ambassadors" [sic] which had been channeled by New York City dentist John Newbrough in 1880-1881. (If for no other reason, this text is remarkable for having been one of the earliest examples of automatic writing created on a typewriter, the machine having only recently become commercially available.)

It seems appropriate that an ensemble with a metaphysically evocative name should have been formed in New Haven. The city had been founded by Puritan visionaries who laid it out as a grid of nine squares—an ideal city traced in right angles and traversed by "metaphysical streets," as Wallace Steven described them in An Ordinary Evening in New Haven. But by the 1970s the physical town was far removed from any metaphysical ideal, having been eroded by the combined effects of deindustrialization, the 1967 riots, the disruption and displacement of neighborhoods by the Oak Street Corridor and other urban renewal projects, and the move of second generation ethnics out of the city and into Hamden and other inner ring suburbs. Yale, originally founded to educate Puritan divines, was and still is a dominating presence in the city's economic and cultural life.

Culturally, there was more to New Haven than Yale, although one might have to look to find it. The city had been home to a thriving jazz culture in the 1950s and early 1960s. Uptown, Dixwell Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods had many clubs where local and national musicians played: The Monterey Café; The Play-Back on Winchester Avenue near the gun factory, run by bassist and Yale graduate Willie Ruff; The Musicians' Club; Lillian's Paradise on Hamilton Street; McTriff's and others. Downtown theaters like the Poli and the Bijou frequently featured jazz as well. As the 1960s wore on, though, jazz in New Haven—as in many other places—went into eclipse.

In the 1970s, New Haven's music scene experienced a renaissance. The city attracted a number of forward-thinking musicians, whether through Yale or through the creative activity that was growing up around and outside the university. George Lewis came to Yale from Chicago to study philosophy; before he obtained his degree in 1974, he had taken a year off to return to Chicago and play with the AACM. New Jersey native Anthony Davis, who met Lewis when both were freshmen at Yale in 1969, majored in music there and formed bands with Lewis, bassist Wes Brown and others; saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom arrived at Yale from Boston, graduating in 1977. In the early 1970s, Wadada Leo Smith came to the area and formed New Dalta Ahkri, a group that included Davis on piano and Brown on bass and Ghanian flute, and set up his Kabell Records label. Smith, along with Hemingway, Brown, reed player Dwight Andrews and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, also formed the Creative Musicians Improvisers Forum, a non-profit group modeled on the AACM. Mark Dresser arrived from San Diego in 1975 and stayed for a year or two; his neighborhood was home to Hemingway, Andrews, Pheeroan AkLaff, and Jay Hoggard. Anthony Braxton, whose archive is in New Haven and who now lives in a suburb of the city, came to New Haven to play with Smith in 1974 and eventually moved there, staying for several years.

Like Smith, Dresser, Lewis and Braxton, Anderson and Helias came to New Haven from elsewhere. Anderson was originally from Chicago, where he and Lewis had been classmates at the University of Chicago Lab School. He began playing trombone in the fourth grade—along with Lewis—and in his teens was exposed to the music of the AACM. He was introduced to the New Haven creative music community by Dresser after they'd played together in New York, where Anderson had been living since 1973. Helias in the mid-1970s was a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, having come there in 1974 after obtaining his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University. While a student at Yale, he began playing in bands with Smith and Davis.


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