General 1-15-2004

My Favorite (Walker) Things: Part 1: Beginnings

To mark the closing of the Walker for the next year, we're running a series of reminiscences by Richard Paske, jazz musician, radio host, and writer, about his experiences over decades with the Walker performing arts programs. Two more will follow.

The first time I walked into Walker Art Center’s auditorium I had to lug my Ampeg B-15 amp and Fender jazz bass down those long, gray-carpeted stairs to the stage below. The year was 1971, the month was May, and the occasion was related to the opening of the Walker’s new building.

Two days earlier Steve Kimmel, leader of the Whole Earth Rainbow Band, had called and said, “Hey man, Thursday and Friday afternoons we got two gigs at the Walker with some dancers.” I had tried to explain to Steve that I had never worked with dancers before, but he assured me that everything would be cool – all I had to do was play.

As it turned out, the dancers were Yvonne Rainer and Grand Union, a seminal ensemble that emerged from the legendary Judson Church movement in New York City. At the time the company included, in addition to Ms. Rainer, Steve Paxton, who later went on to found Contact Improvisation, and Barbara Dilley, former Merce Cunningham ballerina extraordinaire. Avant-garde luminaries David Gordon, Valda Setterfield, Douglas Dunn, Sara Rudner, and Trisha Brown rounded out the troupe. I’m pretty sure I’ve got all the names right, but confirmation might be possible through a rumored videotape of the event.

As I approached stage left I could see Max Swanson adjusting his flute, Dean Granros plugging his guitar into his amp, and Steve K. preparing his amplified coffee can for performance. To their right, Grand Union was spread out over the entire stage in their leg warmers, tights, t-shirts, and sweatpants, warming up the way dancers do – bending and stretching their supple bodies like cats after a nap.

I flipped the top of my trusty B-15, plugged my bass in and started to play, just like Steve said I should. What transpired over the next 60 or 90 minutes was some of the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever participated in or witnessed. The next day we did the same thing again, but this time audience members danced solos with us, improvising a free jazz sonic landscape.

That day my favorite dancer was the younger sister of a girl with whom I attended high school. She was a short, heavy-set blonde wearing a black eye-patch who prowled and pranced the stage like no one I have seen before or since. A close second was Binker Kimmel, Steve’s pre-school-aged son, who spread his wings and zoomed around the stage in vast interlocking circles. (BTW, Binker is now Chris and he’s a cop).

These are fond memories, but my memories of the Walker and its environs go back much further to lazy, idyllic Sunday afternoons in the mid-fifties. In the warmth of late spring or early summer my mom, dad, little brother, and my seven-year-old self would pile into our ’49 Chevy two-door, slope-back coupe and head from suburban comforts to extended family gatherings in Loring Park’s flower gardens. Back then, Hennepin and Lyndale avenues criss-crossed in a long, paved X right between the old Walker mansion and the glorious greenery of Loring Park. Successfully navigating the big X (called “the Bottleneck”) through converging traffic was part of the fun and required much owl-necking by the driver. Years later I was to experience thrills aplenty as my teenaged buddies and I flew through the same bottleneck on rented white Honda 50’s. Those were the days…

My relationship with the Walker entered its adult phase with my walk down those long gray steps in 1971. Since that time I have worn two hats when interfacing with the Walker – an artist’s hat and a media corps hat. As a musician I have performed at the Walker many times, mostly in the 70’s and 80’s. As host of KFAI’s Fresh Ears, I have previewed and promoted Walker events since 1979. I don’t think I’m stretching it when I say that I have seen more performing arts events at the Walker than any other person, alive or not. I have known (and sometimes loved) all of the performing arts curators from Sue Weil to Philip Bither. It’s been a long, great, wonderful ride, filled with some of the highest peaks of my aesthetic life. There have been a few rocky, uncomfortable bumps in the road as well, but more about all of that in the next two installments. I hope you’ll stay tuned and, as I always say when closing Fresh Ears, “keep listening.”