“My Thanks, My Tears” – In Honor and Memory of Bill Schaefgen

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The late trombonist and composer Bill Schaefgen, attending a book reading of mine at Habeas Lounge Riverwest at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts / Riverwest Artists Association in August 2014. Photo by Linda Pollack

 The duende “pierced her with a dart … for having stolen his deepest secret, the subtle bridge that unites the five senses with the raw wound, that living cloud, a stormy ocean of Love freed from Time.” — Federico Garcia Lorca from “Play and the Theory of Duende.” (for Lee Brady)

This is my own personal eulogy for my longtime friend, the esteemed and remarkable musician and composer Bill Schaefgen, co-founder and principal composer of the remarkably courageous and forward-thinking Milwaukee jazz group What On Earth?

Bill died on Sunday, June 26, at 76, of cancer. The group thrived, at least artistically, from 1974 to the early 1980s, but they never released a recording. However, a reunion of the group — sadly without Bill, who could no longer play the trombone — has made a recording of his music. Schaefgen had been stricken a couple decades ago by a rare neuropathic disease, which cruelly disabled his arms and prevented him from holding up and playing a trombone. Longtime WOE? guitarist Jack Grassel hopes that reunion recording will be released soon. Check with this blog for information on that.

I meant to present this eulogy at Bill’s lovely memorial a few weeks ago at Hoyt Park’s Great Hall but, because of a hectic day, I witlessly left a copy of it at home. Sorely missing from the event was a segment devoted to listening to Bill’s music. A small boombox played What On Earth? in the far corner of the large hall was largely obliterated by all the socializing. (I neglected to mention when I first posted this, Jack Grassel provided complimentary CDs from a What On Earth? live concert from January 22, 1978 at the Water Street Arts Center. The CD, not commercially available, was a valuable memento for mourners. And most of the remembrances of Bill were warm, thoughtful and often humorous) So I offer some music here, for anyone who knew Bill and his music, and anyone who may be curious about it.

The eulogy starts out as a comment on Bill’s composition called “Cleansing” from a private WOE recording from 1974 that I helped Bill get transferred from tape to CD, with the assistance of the great Madison recording and production studio Audio for the Arts. Then my comment transitions into a more personal eulogy.

Fate often toys cruelly with art, as with life. Bandleader, principal composer and trombonist Bill Schaefgen’s ability to perform music was killed off some years ago by a terrible neuropathy, which has slayed the arms and hands that hoisted the eloquent trombone.

So What on Earth? has laid dormant for decades but now it’s music finally rises Phoenix-like from dust into a living cloud. This recording opens with Bill Schaefgen’s tune “Cleansing,” Here’s a sample of it:

 

 

“Cleansing” is one of the most moving and profound trombone performances I’ve ever heard. I hope the whole piece becomes available because, as fine a trombonist as he was in his prime, Schaefgen was a greater composer. And this piece is beautifully conceived as a ten-and-a-half-minute tone poem This music can provide a deep inlet to whatever one brings to this title’s meaning. Schaefgen’s life seems abjectly bared, his secrets and his soul. The performance unfold like a holy ritual. The melody, radiating unadorned beauty, is a fraught offering, rising deliberately to a quiet crest of open spirit, then it modulates to a higher plaintive register of sorrow.  Grassel underpins Schaefgen’s wounded horn with a high guitar drone. Schaefgen’s brief unaccompanied solo chills me, a man exposed with his deepest thoughts and feelings. Grassel joins in tender dialogue, and then Leigh Cowen showers his limpid, pearlescent Fender Rhodes piano over it. Mitar Mitch Covic’s bowed bass appears as a spectral, groaning ghost. The tonality and mood carry a deep Spanish tinge. Miles Davis’ magnificent “Saeta” from the classic album Sketches of Spain comes to mind.

And here is where I hear the Spanish poet Lorca’s sense of duende, “that mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain,” as the poet wrote. Lorca explains duende as profoundly melancholy awareness of the struggle between good and evil within each person, and how that plays out invariably as some sort of bloodletting, at least in the Spanish tradition. Thus, at some point, the need or desire for cleansing, literally or spiritually.

The whole recording carries comparable power and eloquence, even as a very early document of the band. It includes a disarming reading of Ornette Coleman’s classic “Peace” which, like many of the originals here, shows how beautifully a so-called avant-garde band could play. The group (which then also included drummer Andy LoDuca) recalls at times the pioneering fusion band The Fourth Way. The music is as good as anything you’ll hear, ever. God, I miss this band.

The tremendous poignancy of “Cleansing” is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The group produced nearly 60 original tunes. Schaefgen also produced a major work for quintet and the orchestra, called “Three Seemingly Inscrutable Pieces for Wacko Band and Orchestra,” premiered in 1979 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Here you also sense the humor that frequently pervaded group’s music and irreverent attitude. But Schaefgen’s inability to play the trombone today is no laughing matter.

At a personal level, Bill sometimes postured as a cynic, especially back in the days when he had a few too many beers in him. But this reflected also the plaintive doubting of the modern artist. Yet, beneath the gruff and sometimes-profane German beer-hall carouser was an absolute sweetheart of a man, a big teddy bear with glasses and a dank mop of dark hair, who happened to be a quiet genius.

I think some of that comes out in the long profile I did on Bill in 1979, shortly before the big symphony gig, and I made some copies of it for you to take and read, if you care to.

And I know Bill appreciated the article. The next year, I foolishly attempted to interview all six of the group’s unpredictable and sometimes zany members at once, for a feature for The Milwaukee Journal. The interview grew multi-voiced and slightly chaotic, like a Robert Altman movie scene and, at one point, trumpeter Kaye Berigan dubiously asked how I was ever going make coherent sense out of this, a fair question. Bill Schaefgen, bless his heart, leapt to my defense: “Don’t worry about Kevin, he can write his ass off.” To this day, I cherish Bill’s spontaneous declaration as one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received.

Bill knew what he and the other excellent musicians of What On Earth? did was substantial, if sometimes challenging, art. And yet, like many genuine artists, I think he had a deep reservoir of insecurity, and the loss he suffered from illness in the late years didn’t help. But there is also redemption of sorts.

I hadn’t really thought this through, until now, his death. Lord, I wish I could say some of this to him now. Bill, could you come back, for five minutes? Damn. This is as close as I’ll get.

You see, to me it seems that he is one of the “voices in the river” that I write about in my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.  It is about jazz as a template for the democracy process and about how this is manifested in the music, and through many creative writers who understand this relationship. It’s also a partial memoir of my experience in Milwaukee in the 1980s, when I covered jazz for The Milwaukee Journal.

I don’t mean this to be a book pitch but I often think metaphorically. It’s rather a way to contextualize for myself, and to express how valuable, beautiful and important Bill’s music was. 1

As with the other musical artists I talk about in the book, he is a voice in the river because his music is submerged to some degree, his voice is not heard as it should be, under the mad rush of the humdrum everyday bustle-and-hustle, the struggle for power and mere survival and yes, the noise of hatred, truth be told. That all prevents most of us from taking the time to hear voices beneath the surface. The metaphor comes to mind to me, too, when I hear “Cleansing,” and feeling the man’s reservoir of insecurity.

Bill and I spent a lot of time in his basement, listening to old What On Earth? cassette and reel-to-reel tape recordings in an effort to assemble them into the eventual private CD recordings. I would frequently feel the need to comment and boost up his judgment, especially of his own playing. But only when I did this he would usually agree and acknowledge the quality of the music.

I also wanted very much to release at least one of the recordings to the public, but Bill consistently shied away from that, for reasons he never made clear. But it may have to do with his insecurity, or a sense that the music’s time had passed. I’m here to tell you the music is as vital, inventive and transporting as ever today.

I also recall a number of conversations when Bill would call on the phone because he wanted to talk, ostensibly about the music, but also about life. Last year he called several times and meekly left voice messages to apologize for missing my sister Maureen’s funeral. I thought Bill, thanks, but it’s OK. I think in the big picture, he wanted me, and anyone who cared to hear him, to know he was trying to make a human connection with the music — that it stood up on its own terms like a great, strange, beautiful, life-giving sculpture, even though the music’s presence exists only in the elusive realm of passing time, but as an extraordinary vibrational presence that you can feel in your body and soul.

So, despite the suffering and profound loss of his later years, I believe Bill found succor in his music in all the personal CDs. I believe the music helped “cleanse” his own failings, and the spiritual grime of the burdens, suffering and loss, and the duende he endured so long, But through it all and in much of his music, Bill always saw the humor and the absurdities of life, and his great ability to laugh also cleansed him. What else to make of tunes titled “Eat My Shorts” and “Funky Disco Honky Suckin’ Funk”?

And his own compositions allowed him to process his appreciation for musicians that provided musical gifts for him, such as “Song for Berk,” a lovely ballad written for the great Milwaukee saxophonist Berkeley Fudge, and “My Thanks, My Tears,” written to honor Milwaukee jazz musicians Sig Millonzi and George Pritchett.

So now I like to think of “Cleansing” as Bill’s deliverance, into the sunlight that comes down and reflects off the river’s dancing, refracted mirror. So, if you can envision that…the watery mirror, you see the river takes him back into its depths, even as he rises to the blue yonder and white light.

We’re with you, Bill, we’re with you. And for me, it feels like a blessing. The man wandered the earth like a slightly-crazed prophet prompting people to sometimes utter, “what on earth?” His essence produced great artistry, but his physical being also included something that grew into a horrible albatross. Ah, but now he has gone home.

Which brings to mind the closing verse of the old Negro spiritual, “Goin’ Home,” which I’d like to close by quoting:

Nothing’s lost, all is gain, no longing for the day
No more stumbling on the way
No more fret nor pain
Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a goin’ home
Quiet like, still some day, I’m a goin’ home

Here’s a performance of “Goin’ Home” in honor of Bill Schaefgen, a gorgeously rough-hewn performance by saxophonist Archie Shepp and pianist Horace Parlan. It seems a long lost brother to “Cleansing.”

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  1. Their influence of What On Earth? may be somewhat limited, because they predated easy self-recording and the Internet. Still, they showed the way for many Milwaukee musicians and groups in terms of how they could free their music from the constraints of conventional genres, while combining styles and retaining aspects that marked their identity as an individual group, and one coming from Milwaukee’s distinct musical and ethnic culture. One very well-known group that was influenced by What On Earth? is the internationally renowned Milwaukee folk-rock-jazz trio The Violent Femmes. The band’s bassist Brian Tairaku Ritchie and original drummer Victor DeLorenzo are big WOE? fans, and Bill Schaefgen played trombone on their album Blind Leading the Naked, produced by Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads.
  2. Special thanks to Lee Brady, Kaye Berigan, Mitar Covic, Jack Grassel, Chuck LaPaglia, Frank Stemper and Ed Valent.

2 thoughts on ““My Thanks, My Tears” – In Honor and Memory of Bill Schaefgen

  1. My Father spoke of you often, and absolutely loved your work. He remarked frequently in any conversation we had had about music, that you were a writer genius. This is a wonderful eulogy. And, as his daughter, appreciate it tremendously. I have always been so proud of him, but this came to light more as an adult. As a kid growing up, I had no idea of the contributions he had made in so many ways. Thank you for painting such a wonderful picture, Kevin. With appeciation

    • Dear Deanna,
      I’m sorry I got to your very kind comment so belatedly. Your father was a very literate man as musicians go, and he was bit of a poet besides being a great musician and composer. So I cherish his regard for my efforts to do justice to an art for which, by its nature, words so often fail. Bill holds a very special place in my heart, and always will. I think of him often and I have a voice mail message from him at the beginning of my message machine which I play back often, about the passing of my sister Maureen, and it exemplifies the man’s empathy and humanity.
      Sincerely,
      Kevin

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