Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remembering Joe Maneri (1927 - 2009)

Joe Maneri passed away on Monday, August 24th. The news of Joe’s passing has prompted me to write a bit about what he meant to me.

Joe & Sonja Maneri attended the same church in Framingham, Massachusetts, that my family and I attended, so I had met them when I was fairly young. When I was 13, my parents had them over for Sunday dinner, and Joe gave me my first saxophone lesson. I had my grandfather’s old Buescher alto (from the ’30s or ’40s), and I had been playing around with it but I couldn’t figure out how to play a standard C major scale: Joe taught me that I had to put down the middle finger of my left hand to get the scale to end up on C rather than C#. (Trust me, it was very puzzling!)

Joe and Sonja once came and played at the churchy youth group that I attended during high school. They played some standards, a “dirty blues” (at my request), and Sonja played Debussy's prelude “La cathédrale engloutie”. I had been improvising with a friend from school, and Joe & Sonja’s playing left a big impression.

When I graduated from high school in June of 1977, my parents threw a big party at the house. Joe & Sonja came with Mat who was 8 years old at the time. I have a vivid memory of Mat throwing a tantrum and kicking Joe in the shins with his hard Sunday shoes. (I was very concerned with how that must have hurt.) Many years later, when Mat rehearsed with my group Debris for a show at the Middle East (on April 8, 1991), I told him this story. He probably didn't appreciate it.

In 1993, I had been playing with Joe Morris’ Racket Club sextet, and a year (or so?) later, Joe (Morris) put together a quartet to play one of the annual Mobius Artist Group ArtRages benefit parties with Joe Maneri on tenor, Mat Maneri on violin and me on baritone. This was the first time that Joe (Maneri) & I ever played together. I was suitably terrified, but have very fond memories of the show.

During Dave Gross’s first Autumn Uprising festival of 1997, Dave organized a panel discussion/press conference thing at Killian Hall at MIT just before the festival was to kick off, and he had Joe and me play a duet as part of the event. I remember that being really exciting and fun.

This past January, Stu & Sunny Vandermark threw a party at their house in Framingham when Ken & Ellen came to town for a visit. Joe & Sonja (who live less than a mile away) came, and I got to talk to them for the first time in a while. Joe didn’t seem all that well, but we managed to talk for some time. One thing he said hit home hard: “I haven’t played for a while because I just don’t feel like it.” That statement made me feel that something was truly not right. I feel terrible now that I can’t remember more of the conversation. I knew Joe wasn't doing well—why didn’t I write it all down as soon as I got home?

Joe was an amazing musician who had a huge influence on most of the musicians I’ve known here in Boston over the last couple of decades.

Requiescat in pace, my friend.


The Widipedia article about Joe is brief but full of things I never new. (Perhaps Stu Vandermark and others should augment it.)

From his personal archives, Bhob Rainey has posted some snippets of Joe speaking from the stage between performances; I have linked them below. Thanks, Bhob!

Get cuddly!

Beulah’s lovin.

Cool healing.

The official Maneri family obituary announcement is on the AllAboutJazz site, here. And there’s a nice, if short, overview of Joe’s career in the Chicago Reader on line, here: RIP Joe Maneri


After sending the text above out to a bunch of folk whom I thought knew Joe, people started sending replies, often with reminiscences of their own. With their permission, I’m including some of them below:

From Bhob Rainey:

I just want to add that I saw Joe in July. He’d had a pacemaker installed since January and was doing much better. He was very peaceful (not just “old” and “slow”—truly peaceful), but became quite animated as I played him some music from the Boston scene.

Those recorded snippets (above) of Joe talking are from full-length shows recorded by Ben Schwendener in 1992 at the (now defunkt) Willow (Somerville, MA) and 1993 at Ryles (Cambridge, MA). I did some mastering on them, and there are a couple more from that era still left to digitize. I hope that these will see release in the near future, because they come closer to capturing that incredible live energy than any of Joe’s other recordings. I played them for Joe, and he was very happy with them. I also played them for veteran producer John Snyder (Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, etc.) and he was really taken with them.

Rest in Peace, Papa Joe.

Best, Bhob


From Stu Vandermark:

Actually Joe was in one of his worst periods about the time of the party [in January ’09; see above] but who could keep him away?

After that, he got really bad before the pace-maker operation. Then it took him several weeks to get his bearings.

One evening in the middle of July I brought some beer to his house and we listened to recordings of the Second Viennese School and Ellington. He was animated and talkative. He spent a lot of time talking about the past, moreso than ususal. I took that as a bad sign. But mostly it was just like most of our evening meetings. He didn’t want me to leave (but I was tired). Then not long before the Newport Jazz Festival (Sunny and I were getting supplies for the Vandermark 5 guys visiting) we saw Joe and Sonja outside Trader Joe’s in Framingham. They were both upbeat and apparently full of energy. You know the rest.

Love to all, Stu


From Dave Gross:

Though I only hung out with Joe a few times, he had a profound effect on my life. I started the Autumn Uprising (a Boston-based festival of free & modern jazz, 1997 – 1990) as a result of being in his class and hearing him say “We need a festival.” I was not playing because of an injury and really needed to do something with music and that was what I did.

Once I started to play again, having some awareness of microtonality allowed me to play even though I remained unable to play in a conventional way. This has been an incredible gift for me, to have a way to make music without being able to play “properly.”

Also, I think it needs to be said that Joe’s genius was and is of the highest level, the same level as that of a Charlie Parker or an Ornette Coleman. And moreso than Mr. Coleman’s, Joe’s microtonal theory (indeed, not his alone but it might as well be) is actually a sound, communicable theory whereas Ornette’s harmolodic theory is basically a dialectic pastiche that cannot be communicated or understood in a way that has much real semantic substance.

Joe Maneri is and was a true American iconoclast in the most authentic sense and I’m really hoping there will be an obituary in the New York Times. He deserves it and so does the world.

Cheers, gdg

[Good news, Dave: the obit is here. -sen.]


From Jeff Hudgins:

Too many memories to put all down here, but this one just popped up: Joe was fond of asking everyone in his microtonal class if anyone had caught his gig the night before, and then adding, “I was great!” Definitely funny, but I always felt he had a unique ability to remove himself from himself enough to really believe his own statement, to be constantly surprised at himself.

Thanks, Joe, for showing me the way to countless doors to open, for being there for all of us, and bringing us all together (and continuing to do these things!).

Love, cheers, Jeff


And an obituary/bio from Stu Vandermark:

Hi folks,

Many of us are caught up in our emotions right now. Feeling the loss and feeling helpless. I guess writing is one way in which I try to cope.

Knowing Joe Maneri is a little bit like being the blind men encountering the elephant, even in terms of only his professional life. I don’t pretend to know his work thoroughly by any means. However, I thought the too-brief overview, below, of some of his accomplishments might be useful—to help us think of all the other things he’s done, if nothing else.

In sadness and with best wishes, Stu

Joseph Gabriel Esther “Joe” Maneri, reed-instrument and piano playing improvisor/composer, passed away on August 24, 2009 as a result of heart failure and related complications. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on February 9, 1927. He moved permanently to the Boston area in 1970 when he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he taught through 2007. He founded the Boston Microtonal Society in 1988 and was that organization’s president. He was both a microtonal composer out of the European tradition and an improvising microtonal musician who has taught and otherwise influenced countless students and performing artists such as Marty Ehrlich, James Bergin, Chris Brooks, Pandelis Karayorgis, and his own remarkable son, Mat Maneri. When Ornette Coleman refused to perform the tenor saxophone solos in a Carnegie Recital Hall performance of David Reck’s Number One for twelve performers (a work dedicated to Mr. Coleman), Joe Maneri accepted the challenge successfully. According to Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times, of the five works featured in the Twentieth Century Innovations presentation, Number One was “[the] most impressive piece.” Joe Maneri’s composed music ranges from mid-century Bach-like etudes to chromatic music influenced by the Second Viennese School during the late 1950s and 1960s to his later microtonal works based on a 72-pitch scale. Among the musicians who have performed his composed works are the Claremont String Quartet, Jennifer Ashe, Lalan Parrot, Rebecca la Brecque, the American Composers Orchestra, Christopher Oldfather, John McDonald, and NotaRiotous, the resident ensemble of the Boston Microtonal Society. He is the co-author of Preliminary Studies in the Virtual Pitch Continuum. A resident of Framingham, Massachusetts, Joe Maneri was an important jazz musician who worked out groundbreaking post-Ayler approaches to improvisation during the early and mid-1960s, the same time such innovators as Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were developing their unique jazz voices. His duo performance with Peter Dolger in 1963 or 1964 released as Peace Concert (Atavistic) probably is the earliest extant free jazz percussion/tenor saxophone duo recording. Several jazz critics—most notably Harvey Pekar and Steve Lake—have praised Joe Maneri’s performances. Jazz magazine’s Philippe Maziat claims, “Joe is one of the most important musicians in the history of free jazz.” The New England Conservatory awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Music degree on May 17, 2009. Recordings of Joe Maneri may be found on the ECM, Avant, Leo, Atavistic, and HatArt labels. Referring to Preliminary Studies, Boston Microtonal Society Artistic Director Julia Werntz said, “There is no other book of that sort, and the creation of that method—the book and the NEC course—was a major and completely unique contribution to the progression of contemporary music.”


Stu then added the following note, regarding an excellent interview with Joe:

Of interest regarding the Peace Concert recording, at Ken [Vandermark]’s web site is my transcription of the live interview with Joe that is on the CD. The CD interview is more fun because I did not do the interview with the understanding that it would end up on the CD as a sound document. But I’m happy it’s there. You can hear an interruption by Sonja (and Joe scolding her), the cuckoo clock marking the hour, and other real-world environmental things happening. In retrospect I enjoy it very much. The music is not super hi-fi or anything, but it really is historically significant. Here are these sounds in 1963 or 1964, and there is absolutely no question who the tenor player is. All his composed and improvised music of the last few decades is laid out quite blatantly in that church concert. Any Joe Maneri fan would know exactly to whom he is listening.

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