My first musical experiences were guided by my father, a music teacher and violinist. I was a child in the 60s, exposed at a young age to Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Judy Collins. My mother worked as a teacher in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn and had a lot of contact with African Americans and West Indians. I recall having my young ears directed towards the sounds of Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson early on.
My first guitar experiences were playing folksongs and blues at the hippied-out Johnny Appleseed summer camp. There were many electric guitar players amongst the male counselors and plenty of frizzy-haired woman counselors strumming guitars and singing in high sweet voices. It was all extremely attractive to me.
My father tried unsuccessfully to get me interested in the violin and then cello. My classical music-based instructors failed to create much enthusiasm, and as lessons were around 6:00pm, they were often invaded by unwelcome smells of boiled cabbage and brisket.
At 13 years of age, through the influence and guidance of a compassionate older friend who was quite a good musician, I started to play mandolin as well as some ragtime guitar. At one time I had memorized about 60 or 70 fiddle tunes, and even arranged some in drop D tuning for guitar. I wonder if this music is still there in the recesses of my brain?
With much trepidation of the long commute alone, I ventured out at 15 from my faraway neighborhood in the depths of Flatlands Brooklyn to the Eagle Tavern in the West West Village to go to the Monday night session they had. Beer was free which was a major attraction (don't know why they didn't proof a scraggly babyface teenager). It was during one session that a duo was played between a tin whistle and bodhran frame drum. The intensity of pure musical line catapulted by the sinewy almost human sounding vibrating skin of this frame drum deeply impressed and drove me to a most pleasurable epiphany. More than Larry Coryell, Django Reinhardt or the other jazz guitar I was exposed to at the time, the sound of this Irish duo most deeply inspired me.
While studying film at the Art Institute of Chicago, I received great exposure to jazz. Being on my own in the middle of a huge city, I took advantage of the access to fantastic shows of Bunky Green, Fred Anderson and other local greats. There were all forms of jazz, the sets were longer and you were less harassed to buy drinks than in New York. There were also fantastic cut-out record shops in the downtown area where I discovered all sorts of artists - Andrew Hill, Jackie Mclean, Lee Morgan, Frank Strozier etc. I became a hardcore listener and a more or less in-the-closet guitarist just transcribing solos, but without instruction or many playing partners. There was a free band that I was part of on first moving there which is most memorable (besides the exposure to AACM music and a few gigs) for hearing the harsh racism of these white Midwesterners who at the same time were idolizing and emulating African Americans.
Back in New York, going to SVA and working at the NY Highway Department at 20 years of age, I started going to the University of the Streets jam session in the East Village and became acquainted with bassist Hayward Peele, who became my friend and partner. I moved in with pianist Jon Raney, the son of Jimmy Raney, plus my great friend bassist Steve Schwab and decided to give up film school and become a jazz musician.
Music school was briefly attempted but instead I became a full time street musician. This was in partnership with Hayward and we played together regularly almost rain or shine about 2 1/2 years. Our regular band included Charles Davis Jr. on tenor sax, our saxophone hero, Vincent Herring on alto, at first Frank Bambara then Bruce Cox or Dick Weller on drums. Dave Douglas often played trumpet with us and Danny Sadownick on congas. It was very challenging to be surrounded by such heavy musicians. During this time I took about 8 lessons with Hal Galper, the jazz pianist who gave me great tools for practicing and developing musical lines.
Toward the end I grew frustrated by the daily grind and the band going to more and more funk and less straight ahead jazz. The exposure to funk was a good thing for me but I was very hard headed. There was friction when I was told to get rid of my Gibson L5 and get a new amp.
Billy, Vince and Charlie
Consequently I fell out with these guys but then had the time to study more seriously. I actually saved a considerable amount of money from the streets, and lived on a shoestring (rent on the Lower Eastside was $100 per month), so I ended up taking some guitar lessons and still having enough money to leave the country.
It was a choice between Cuba and Brazil knowing there were intense musical scenes in both countries. I wished to learn another language as well. My plan was Brazil for 6 months after hearing one cassette of Hermeto Pascoal playing a live show.
A cool 3 day a week streetband with Danny Walsh on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet and Bruce Cox on drums, sometimes with Steve Schwab on bass or Reggie Washington, helped me move toward my objective of traveling. We had many wild experiences together through that year and were playing about 50% funk. Backbeat of course generated more money. Almost all these guys were doing great things professionally when I returned from my trip.