IN CONVERSATION WITH VERNA GILLIS (2004, 2008)
Verna Gillis is a free-lance producer with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology.
She was Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College (1974-1980) and at Carnegie Mellon (1988-1990).
Between 1972 and 1978 she traveled to Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Iran, where she recorded traditional music. To date 27 of her recordings are available on Smithsonian Folkways and Lyrichord.
In 1971 she started a not-for-profit organization for public art projects called American International Sculptors Symposiums (AISS) which organized public art exhibitions including the first sculptures on the Vermont Interstate.
In 1974 she developed POETRY IN PUBLIC PLACES, as a special project of AISS which placed one poem per month in 1200 buses throughout the state of New York. This continued for 5ive years, won many awards and inspired similar projects around the country.
Gillis opened SOUNDSCAPE, the first multi-cultural music performance space in New York City, which she programmed and directed from 1979 – 1984.
SOUNDSCAPE presented the richness and variety of all forms of music from traditional to jazz and encouraged experimentation and collaboration among musicians.
She produced and developed the career of the great Cuban percussionist, Daniel Ponce who performed regularly at SOUNDSCAPE.
SOUNDSCAPE was the first US presenter of African Pop music in 1983 with the US premiere performance of King Sunny Ade from Nigeria, which was heralded by Robert Palmer of The New York Times as “the pop event of the decade.”
Nine LIVE FROM SOUNDSCAPE CD’s have been released on the DIW label and distributed worldwide. In 1994, Bob Blumenthal of CD Review wrote about the 1981 Interpretations of Monk concert: “This magnificent afternoon and evening of music was the inspired conception of SOUNDSCAPE producer Verna Gillis. It took nearly 13 years to see commercial release, but now we have the concert in its entirety, and as a tribute to Monk it is untouchable.”
When SOUNDSCAPE closed in 1984, Gillis became involved with career development and management of musicians who had not yet penetrated the consciousness and marketplace outside of their communities. These artists include Youssou Ndour from Senegal; Yomo Toro from Puerto Rico; Salif Keita from Mali; and Carlinhos Brown from Brazil.
Ms. Gillis was hired as a consultant to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1995 on the production of a CD, as the result of a trip to areas in Africa that had been ravaged by wars of ethnic cleansing: Angola, Liberia, Kenya and South Africa.
She has produced commercial CD’s for artists Daniel Ponce, Yomo Toro, Salif Keita, and Roswell Rudd, her present collaborator.
In early 2002, she produced a 24-track CD of world music selections for Holt Rinehart and Winston to accompany a geography text that was published in 2003.
She has been writing for the last 8 years and more recently started participating in performances based on telling personal stories. “Aging is my new niche.” She says!
Gillis is the “imaginator” of KICK BUTT BALL – Squeeze Me – Get a Grip! – a new stress release ball – She is featured in the senior version of the video on that website. Also, she has published a book of one-liners I JUST WANT TO BE INVITED – I PROMISE NOT TO COME available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble online.
Tomas Peña: What do you recall about the New York music scene, circa 1979?
Verna Gillis: I remember Sam River’s Studio Rivbee on Bond Street, the Loft scene, the Village Vanguard, which I couldn’t afford.
What led to the creation of Soundscape?
Thinking back, I realized that I had a talent for producing. At the time I was hosting a radio program for WBAI Pacifica (99.5 FM) called, “Soundscape, Music from Everywhere with Verna Gillis.”
Was the show an extension of your work as an ethnomusicologist?
Yes, and my love for the music, also being married to Brad Graves, one of the hippest guys around. Most of the records I played were from his record collection. During the Soundscape years, many of the ideas were his. I started meeting a lot of people, and they contacted me because they knew me through the radio program
How long were you with WBAI?
I started the program in 1972 or 1973, and the show ran until 1984. Musicians began to know me during those years. I began producing concerts, and I realized it was an ability I had. Not just shows but programming and putting various elements together. One day in 1978 Brad mentioned that there was a space available at 500 West 52nd Street, at the corner of 10th Avenue and we went to have a look at it.
What was your first impression of the space?
The address was 500 West 52nd Street on the corner of 10th Avenue. It’s a substantial old building. I don’t know about you, but there is something about walking into an empty room, the idea of filling it up with something. Very little of those days in my life had to do with thinking. It was a very impulsive kind of reacting, and your life just takes shape. You live your life forward, but you understand it backward. I was never quite sure of the elements involved, but it was apparently something that had been fermenting in me for quite some time.
I remember bringing Ornette Coleman to see it, and he said, “Whatever you do, make sure you videotape everything.” I didn’t! I also brought Don Cherry to see the space, and he suggested that I call it, “The Bird’s Nest,” because the original “Birdland” was located on 52nd Street.
Excerpt from the New York Times, 1990: “I opened Soundscape as a spontaneous, unthinking person. I didn’t realize the music business was 10 percent music and 90 percent business. I mean, it took me a year to learn you had to order toilet paper in bulk.”)
The venue was on the fifth floor. To reach it you had to take the stairs or the infamous freight elevator.
If it was working, it didn’t always work.
Quite a few people I spoke to described the space as “a museum.”
Brad made a xylophone out of limestone. As things turned out it had the tuning of an Indian raga. That wasn’t the way Brad originally planned it, but that’s how it turned out. When I say “we” I mean it was a joint venture. I was the presence, and Brad was the presence that was not seen. Anytime anything happened Brad was there. At first, we didn’t understand that Soundscape was a public space. For us, it was more like an extension of our living room. We used to have musicians over all the time, so we brought artwork to the space, and it disappeared.
Yes, so we began to understand that it was a public space. We bought some things from the Charlie Parker Museum in Kansas City, and it vanished. In any case, there was an artistic feel to the space. It was a performance space, but there were walls and they are not meant to be empty, so I featured continuing exhibitions that featured photographers who photographed musicians.
At the beginning it was getting the space cleaned out, getting chairs, buying foam for people to sit on, putting together a sound system. I was inventing as I went along. Everything moved so fast; nothing was thought out, it was all on impulse and complicated by the fact that I was married and it meant doing the marriage differently. There was a physical space, time crisis going on. It was a business. You have to pay bills, you have to pay rent, and you have to pay people. You have to pay for all of the hidden things that no one sees. You try to work out a percentage deal with the musicians, and it never seems to be enough. And I never really created an organization, but I don’t regret it because of where it led. There is no one moment in a career where you can evaluate whether you were right or wrong. You make investments, and the return is not always money. And we had the location against us. It was off the beaten path.
Excerpt from the New York Times (1990): “She purchased a hundred chairs by mail order, bought a couch and a score of foam pillows on Canal Street and donated the Steinway piano she had been given to her by her parents at the age of 17.”)
The word, “Soundscape,” comes from R. Murray Schafer’s, “The Tuning of the World” (Destiny Books, 1977).
Yes, Schafer is a Canadian musicologist. It’s a book that is as important to me today as it was then. Soundscape! I still get goosebumps whenever I say it.
In what context?
Well, you could talk about a soundscape or a landscape, or how soundscapes change over time. Hypothetically, if you were living in the 8th century and you were sitting outside, the sounds or soundscapes you might hear.
The sights and sounds of a particular time period.
Yes, the soundscapes of today would be very different from the soundscapes of the 19th century or the Industrial Revolution. Schafer talks about the sounds that have come in and out of existence. Also, he asks the question, “Where is the museum for the sounds that no longer exist?” So I was enamored with the word, and I still am. So much so, that I called the space, Soundscape. Incidentally, I learned how to teach music through Schafer’s book; it changed my life because it opened up so many things for me.
Where did you teach?
I taught music at Brooklyn College. I was very fortunate because I was not part of the music department per say. I was part of the 20th Century Music Department, and the subject matter was the 20th Century.
Was the multicultural concept a conscious choice?
It wasn’t a conscious concept, but it reflected my taste. I may have told you this before, but if it were possible to start a record label today, I would call it “Just Music,” because that’s all it is and if it’s good it doesn’t matter. Returning to Soundscape, Tuesday became Latin night.
The early part of the week is more flexible for the musicians. So I opened the door in the summer of 1979, but something I think about the fact that I was in Cuba in December and January of 1979. I celebrated the New Year there. A friend (Jane Wood) and I went on a trip that was sponsored by the Center for Cuban Studies. The reason I mention this at all is that I acquired the space when I returned from Cuba. Regarding the way, things went down the greatest scene of all was the Latin scene and the timing was just right.
There was all of this talent playing together at a time in their lives when it was possible to do so. And the reason I mention Cuba at all is that the Cubans that came over the following year were so pivotal in putting Soundscape on the map. They got all of the attention because they were Cuban and they were newsworthy even though there were other musicians who had been playing in New York forever. So the fact that I had the space right after I came back from Cuba and it was the first place they came to. I can’t take all the credit for bringing them to Soundscape. Many of them came from Eddie Figueroa’s New-Rican Village. He lost the space and asked if he could use my space.
Some of the musicians you inherited from the New-Rican village include Papo Vazquez, Steve Berrios, Mario Rivera, Brenda Feliciano, Jerry Gonzalez, Andy Gonzalez, Manny Oquendo, Nicky Marrero, Steve Berrios, Gene Golden, Olu Femi Mitchell, Steve Nestor Torres, Anthony Carillo, Mauricio Smith, Hilton Ruiz, Frankie Malabe, Steve Turre, Edgardo Miranda and Jorge Dalto among others.
It was the greatest gift that anyone could have given me. It was this ready-made music scene, and I had the place. That summer (1980) marked the arrival of the Cuban “Marielito’s.” By the time I re-opened, Daniel Ponce discovered the Gonzalez brothers (Jerry and Andy). Also, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios and Paquito D’ Rivera had arrived in New York.
When was the first Latin Tuesday?
October 28, 1980. It was the evening that changed everything for everyone.
All of these different alchemical things started happening, and all of those different configurations. In a certain way, everyone’s life changed because it was no longer the New-Rican Village scene. It went to the next musical evolution. You see, the thing with Daniel (Ponce) and a lot of the Cubans was that Soundscape was a natural space, it wasn’t a Latin club or a jazz club, so when the word got out about the Cuban musicians all of these people came to hear them it created a rivalry, jealousy and justifiable anger on the part of the guys who had been playing in the music for so long and never got a break. And then there was the enormous, complicated, psychological, emotional shit, personalities, and jealousies. I was as much a catalyst as anyone, but when I look back on it, no more or less than anybody else. Something about this has to do with my fantasy of myself. One of my fantasies was to play the congas. When I was seventeen, I moved out of my parent’s house and found an apartment in the West Village. It was then that I bought my first set of congas. Where that comes from I will never know. I will never understand it because my background was classical. I majored in classical music at City College. So I don’t know.
The drum chose you!
Where do you think it comes from? It seemed to come out of the blue. I went to Africa for the first time in 1976 and saw Vodou in Haiti in 1975.
You traveled there as an ethnomusicologist.
And all I remember saying was, “Far out, this is far out!” It was so powerful; it was the first time that I experienced something I couldn’t explain. I took conga lessons with Frankie Malabe and timbale lessons with Nicky Marrero. As weird as this may sound, Daniel Ponce was my fantasy of myself. Because if you are going to play the congas, that’s the way you do it. He played five conga drums, and they just sang. And I wasn’t the only one who was blown away, so was Jerry, Andy and the rest of the guys. There was another dynamic happening, and it was complicated. You had Daniel (Ponce), Paquito was not a regular, but he would come when he could. You had Jorge Dalto from Argentina, Michel Camilo from the Dominican Republic and Hilton Ruiz representing New York. Hilton was more of a “jazzer.” An enormous disagreement that Daniel and I had years later concerned Hilton and his lack of clave, there were these “clave wars,” because the Puerto Rican sense of clave is different from the Cuban sense of clave. Daniel was refined musically, but he was very course on a personal level.
Suffice it to say; Daniel’s reputation precedes him.
He was a major force, a contra-force, a pain in the ass; he was everything (laughs). You have to understand that he was at Soundscape in 1980 and by the following year he had been photographed and featured in the New York Times. When the article came out, it was the beginning of a bad feeling. The other thing is, it was the beginning of interest in what people call today, World Music. For some reason, Latin music never made it into the World Music category.
That’s a profound topic that merits further investigation. Any idea why?
Sometimes you don’t see what is closest at hand, what has always been there.
In 1983 you booked a total of 167 concerts. How do you book that many shows and have a life?
Everything about my life was out of control. 1983 was an “out” year. It was also the year I presented the first African Pop concert with King Sunny Ade in the U.S. Robert Palmer, of the New York Times, called it, “The Pop Event of the Decade.” Later that summer, I presented “El Reunion” concert with Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon and Yomo Toro and the first Hip-Hop show with Africa Bambaata and Kurtis Blow. In ’84 I did Youssou N’ Dour, and I managed him for twelve years. That’s when things started turning around for me monetarily, with Youssu.
In hindsight, was Soundscape a profitable venture or a labor of love?
I am Soundscape, so you want to talk about Soundscape, the venue I did Soundscape very well and terribly at the same time because I never go to organizations.
Maybe I wasn’t capable of it. Maybe I needed all of the control.
Did you ever entertain the idea of owning or managing a nightclub?
I would like to have access to a club, but I can’t get tied down to club situation. I am a producer, not a club-owner.
Looking back on the experience, what goes through your mind when you think about the artists that went through Soundscape’s doors?
It’s a great thing. All those people, the personalities, and their music are still within me. When I think about all those great Latin musicians what comes to mind is the fact that there are people who have a quality called greatness.
When did you come to the conclusion Soundscape ran its course?
By 1984 I had burned out on the space. It was over. One of the reasons I was able to move from Soundscape to working with artists like Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Carlinhos Brown and Roswell Rudd is because I know how to work with these artists.
And the rest is history. Thank you so much for your candidness and speaking with me.
- In 1984 Brad Graves suffered a heart attack. Shortly after, Gillis closed Soundscape’s doors to the public and illegally sub-leased the space to a variety of tenants, including one who reported her to the city and took over the space.
- For a time Soundscape operated out of various venues throughout New York City: The Purple Barge on the Hudson River, The Miller Pier, The Ritz, La Mama, The Village Gate, Irving Plaza, SOB’s, Symphony Space, Alice Tully Hall, Town Hall, the Hudson River Museum and the Beacon Theater.
- Gillis went on to develop the careers of Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita, Carlinhos Brown, Daniel Ponce and Yomo Toro. To date, she has produced 16 recordings, one of which was nominated for a Grammy in 2 categories.
- Brad Graves suffered a fatal heart attack in 1998. In 2010 Gillis opened the Bradford Graves Sculpture Park in Kerhonkson, New York in his honor.
- Verna Gillis is the Founder/Director/Producer of Soundscape – A non-profit multi-cultural concept in music programming, performance space, record production, management, consulting, fundraising, marketing and promotion and public relations. Her primary client was Roswell Rudd.
The impact of Soundscape is ongoing. Its legacy survives through the artists who have gone on to lead prolific careers as composers, arrangers, and leaders in their right, including Jerry Gonzalez, Andy Gonzalez, Papo Vazquez, Nestor Torres, Michele Rosewoman, Paquito D’ Rivera, Ignacio Berroa, Michel Camilo and Oscar Hernandez among others.
Bradford Graves (1939-1998)
Hilton Ruiz (1952-2006)
Mario Rivera (1939-2007)
Jorge Dalto (1948-1987)
Tito Puente (1923-2000)
Celia Cruz (1925-2003)
Daniel Ponce (1952-2013)
Frankie Malabe (1940-1994)
Carlos Patato Valdes (1926-2007)
Eugenio Totico Arango (1934-2011)
Orlando Puntilla Rios (1947-2008)
Manny Oquendo (1931-2009)
Yomo Toro (1933-2012)
Mauricio Smith (1931-2002)
Steve Berrios (1945-2013)
Roswell Rudd (1935-2017)