Back in the mid-eighties, when I was still a bit of a waif, I had a weekly improvised-music session in my little basement flat, with the much older, brilliant, and incomparably determined free-improvising saxophonist, Maury Coles. We were often joined by one other musical guest (two was pushing-it for space, though we did manage-it a few times) sometimes local luminaries, and some who weren’t in any way instrumentalists – but were beautifully game (wonderful results are freely available to the fool who is open enough).
Just across the street was a beautiful old house which was restored by-hand and then run as a bed and breakfast by Wendell and Arlene. Wendell and I might never have met, if I hadn’t got sick of doing my (very amateur) Kundalini exercises in the stuffy basement, and started doing them out on the sunny tree-shaded front porch sometimes instead (yoga needs air).
It was ages before I learned that he was himself an advanced yogi – but he saw me out there one day, gave me a big smile – said, “Your landlady tells me you play music,” and invited me to come to the Caribana party he was throwing on the weekend – and bring the clarinet. Sure enough, a positive and transformative new chapter of my life had opened, just as simply as that.
Wendell’s Caribana parties were the very best parties (of any sort) that anyone ever ran – because they weren’t designed to be perfect for just one type of person – but instead so that many very different types could all get together, feel tickled and delighted and have a genuinely great time. He even set up two different dance rooms with different sorts of disc-music, and that was on top of the epic annual live jam-session which happened in his garage out back, and entertained those who were enjoying the beautiful garden festooned with handcrafted artworks, lit by scattered clear christmas light, populated with cafe-table seating and kept watered by a literal bathtub full of beer, and a bar that was two full picnic-tables long (which had everything you’ve ever heard of, and quite a lot that you never had). Fresh cooked treats coming out of the oven and off the grill at a dazzling pace, too – baked brie, grilled shark – like I say, a huge range of grand!
The guests in attendance were no less fantastic – brilliant eccentric artists, hard working craftspeople, scientists and educators met line-cooks, scruffy basement urchins and office-cleaners with poor language skills – all on the same happy level – and often loved each other instantly, because they had such a lovely event (and ‘vibe’) to share – one very big smile-in-common really is a good start to any friendship.
Now for anyone who plays improvised music, a jam session like Wendell’s Caribana blowout – that started on a Friday night and kept going continuously until sometime on Sunday evening – with dozens of different players coming in and out the whole time to form an ever-shifting band, without ever letting the groove drop out, exploring anew then sleeping awhile then coming back for more, sometimes wearing pajamas, slippers and a saxophone-strap – is just about as much fun as fun can possibly get.
When he suggested that we should try merging his regular Friday night jazz jam with the avant-garde thing that Maury and I were doing, we did it right away, and we never looked back – jamming for the better part of a decade. Some stormy or snowy weeks it was just Wendell and I – sometimes there were 15 or 16 different players in those lovely wooden (lively-sounding) rooms – everything from spectacularly demented guest horn-sections or wonky bridge-shattering string players, to the occasional drop-in from an entire new-age drumming-circle!
Aside from Maury and I, Ron (on piano in this shot – though he usually played synth) Watson (playing bass) and Wendell (on drums) were the core-group for many years.
A truly classy guy in all regards, not only was Wendell generous enough to give this stupid white kid a lot of encouragement and a great confidence boost – he even treated people super-kindly when playing. Not one of those insistent irritable drummers who got cranky when you didn’t obey his metric instructions, he’d very happily follow the whole ensemble right into the chaos of rhythmic breakdown (mallet-riding his cymbals, high-toms and bells) and then come up again strong, just as soon as the beat re-emerged – somehow finding an embracing poly-rhythm which put everybody in the room into perfect syncopation with him – even if they were all working at total cross-purposes with each other. A precious skill beyond measure. Made you feel like a frickin’ genius, way more often than you deserved.
Dumb as I was, I was still smart enough to know it was rare fortunate bliss at the time (when a whole room full of improvisers click and pivot and soar all together, like just one amazing voice, it is a post-rational joy right up there with really great lovemaking).
But it still took years for me to fully appreciate the effort of genius and generosity which Wendell brought to bear, simply to create this special place which nurtured so much enduring magic. Thank you my friend. Unforgettable, and indeed – not forgotten.