IN CONVERSATION WITH FOUNDER, VERNA GILLIS
(Interviews Conducted by Tomas Pena, 2004, 2008)
“Verna was crucial; she came along at a time when all this music from around the world was becoming relevant to jazz and pop and new classical music. There wasn’t anyone else who could move between ethnomusicology and presenting. She was open to all sorts of music. She was a synthesis. She created a dialogue.” Samuel Freedman, New York Times, 1990
Verna Gillis is a freelance 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 five 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 to 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 were the inspired conception of Soundscape producer Verna Gillis. It took nearly thirteen years to see commercial release, but now we have the concert in its entirety, and as a tribute to Monk it is untouchable.”
The entire Soundscape library of nearly 500 audiotapes has been received and cataloged by WKCR, and many are available to listen to on the WKCR/SOUNDSCAPE website.
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 eight 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. Verna has published a book of one-liners titled I JUST WANT TO BE INVITED – I PROMISE NOT TO COME ().
“It’s a great thing. All those people, the personalities, and their music are still within me. When I think about those great Latin musicians what comes to mind is the fact that there are people who have a quality called greatness.” Verna Gillis
Tomas Peña: What do you recall about the New York music scene in 1979?
Verna Gillis: I remember Sam River’s Studio Rivbee on Bond Street, the Loft scene, and 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 called, “Soundscape, Music from Everywhere with Verna Gillis.”
Was it the next logical step in your evolution 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. Musicians began to know me during those years. I started producing concerts, and I realized it was an ability I had. Not just concerts 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.
Describe the space.
It’s a solid old building. I don’t know about you, but there is something about walking into an empty room, the very idea of filling it up with something. Understand, very little of those days in my life had to do with thinking. It was a very impulsive 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 obviously something that had been fermenting in me for quite some time. So there it was this beautiful space. I remember bringing Ornette Coleman to see the space 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 once located on 52nd Street.
“It was a funky New York City HPD (Department of Housing Preservation and Development) building, probably built around 1900. HPD occupied the third floor, and there was a garbage hauling business on the first and second floors. This area of the West Side was very desolate in those days. You know the phrase ‘location, location, location’? Well, Tenth Avenue and 52nd Street were like the other side of the moon. Today, it’s a neighborhood. It was not a neighborhood in 1979.” — Perfect Sound Forever magazine, February 2009.
It was two rooms, located on the fifth floor with near perfect acoustics and a freight elevator.
If you were lucky enough to have the elevator working, it didn’t always work.
“It was a primitive space but a great space, and it turned out that the larger of the two rooms had great acoustics. Brad built a plywood platform, which he painted black. I bought a hundred folding chairs on Canal Street, a hundred pieces of foam for people to sit on. We strung clip-on lights from the existing pipes …” Andy Schwartz
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 did not 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 brought 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 walls 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 it was 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 actually 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.
“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 by her parents at the age of 17.” New York Times, 1990
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 did he use the word, Soundscape?
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 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 decided to call 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. I was part of the 20th Century Music Department, and the subject matter was the 20th Century.
Was the multi-cultural concept a conscious decision?
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. Getting back to Soundscape, things got broken down, and 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 is, 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 is, the Cubans 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. 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 the Gonzalez brothers had discovered Daniel Ponce, and Orlando “Puntilla” Rios and Paquito D’ Rivera had arrived in New York.
”The New-Rican Village was the home of Afro-Caribbean music’s avant-garde. It was a virtual whos who of New York Latin jazz: Hilton Ruiz, Daniel Ponce, Mario Rivera, Dave Valentin, Michel Camilo, and Andy and Jerry Gonzalez all cut their teeth there. Many of these players were members or guests with Manny Oquendo’s Conjunto Libre, a group famous for a kind of jazz-influenced improvisational salsa.” Excerpt, from Places in the Puerto Rican Heart, Eddie Figueroa, and the Nuyorican Imaginary, by Ed Morales.
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 personal fantasy of myself. One of my own 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. I will never understand it because my background was classical. I majored in classical music at City College. So I don’t know. 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. 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.
So getting back to the drum, 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. He was a dominant 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 really bad feeling.
Daniel was known for being difficult. When Soundscape closed, he moved to Miami and shunned the limelight.
Yes, he burned out fast, but he made an incredible impact. I believe that if Daniel had not burned out, he would be a star player today because he is a great player.
In a piece by the late Robert Palmer of the New York Times, he quotes you as saying, “I didn’t realize that music business is ten percent music and 90 percent business. It took me a year to order toilet paper in bulk.”
Yeah, it’s business. You have to pay bills. On two separate occasions, the electricity was turned off. You have to pay rent; you have to pay people; you have to pay for toilet paper and paper towels, all 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. They always think you are holding back.
It’s crazy. 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, it just keeps evolving. You make “investments, ” and the return is not always money.
You booked lectures by Archie Shepp, Haitian voodoo rituals, historical collaborations between Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. In 1983, you booked a total 167 concerts!
Everything about my life was out of control. You can’t do 167 concerts and give each one equal attention. It was an out year! 1983 was also the first year I did the first African Pop concert in the U.S. with King Sunny Ade. Robert Palmer (of the NY Times) called it, “the pop event of the decade.” Later, that summer on the pier I did “El Reunion” concert, with Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, and Yomo Toro. That summer, I also did the first hip-hop show on the pier with New Edition; Africa Bambaata, and Kurtis Blow. So, ’83 was … whew! In ’84, I did Youssou N’ Dour, and I managed him for twelve years. I was the one that put him together with Neneh Cherry. I knew Neneh since she was a child because I was friendly with her father, Don Cherry and we had a big hit. “Seven Seconds” which sold almost two million copies. It was extraordinary! That’s when things started turning around for me monetarily, with Youssou.
Since I last saw you, I have taken my complete recorded archive and donated it to WKCR (89.9 FM New York), and they are going to digitalize everything and air a yearly, “Live from Soundscape Festival.”
It’s gratifying to know the archive is in good hands. What comes to mind when you think about the artists who passed 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 those great Latin musicians what comes to mind is the fact that there are people who have a quality called greatness. The important thing is to participate in that greatness.
When did you come to the realization that Soundscape had run its course?
By 1984, I had burned out on the space. It was over.
“I kept the (Soundscape) space and illegally sublet it to different tenants: a sound company, a sculptor, a painter. It was the first time I made any real money from it! Finally, one of these subtenants turned me into the City, got the space put in their name, and had me evicted. This was in I think 1991. I was pissed when it happened, of course, but I’d been subletting illegally, and it was good to be rid of it.” Andy Schwartz, 2009
I’ll close with this descriptive and humorous quote by Enrique Fernandez: “Soundscape was a coming together, a rite of passage for Latin culture in New York in the ‘80s. You saw and heard the music being born right in front of your eyes and ears. Remember this when you listen to these (Live From Soundscape) recordings. You are not listening to a finished musical product: for that, you can buy any of the extraordinary Latin jazz albums that come out every day. You are witnessing an experiment that worked. You are watching the mad scientists mix the glass tubes full of forbidden substances that will create life. You are in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory watching the creature rise.”
They broke new ground and created music that was uniquely New York. It had a New York vibe and energy.
Today, Soundscape is a production company, and our primary client is Roswell Rudd. The music just keeps coming.
- After Soundscape closed its doors it 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 the Beacon Theater among others.
- Gillis developed the careers of Youssu N’dour, Salif Keita, Carlinhos Brown, Daniel Ponce and Yomo Toro. To date, she has produced sixteen recordings, one of which was nominated for a Grammy in two categories.
- Brad Graves suffered a fatal heart attack on April 16, 1998.
- Today, Gillis resides in Manhattan and Accord, New York with her partner, the trombonist, composer Roswell Rudd.
New Club Award for Soundscape (New York City Jazz Reader’s Poll), Award of Merit; National Federation of Music Clubs, Solomon Pardes Foundation grant for field work in Surinam, Gulf & Western Grant for fieldwork in the Dominican Republic; Award of Merit, Arts and Business Council (1975, 1976); Award of Merit Outstanding Young Women of America.
LIVE FROM SOUNDSCAPE RECORDINGS (Disc Union Japan)
- Sun Ra Arkestra (1994)
- Interpretations of Monk (1994)
- Material (1994)
- Frank Lowe Quintet (1994)
- Hell’s Kitchen (1997)
- Latin New York 1980-1983 (1997)
- Latin Jazz (1997)
- Back on 52nd Street (1997)
- Fernandez, Enrique, Soundscape: A Musical Spirit That Lives Forever, 1996
- Freedman, Samuel – What Really Makes New York Work: Secret Powers; Verna Gillis: The Muse of the Melting Pot, New York Times, 1990
- Morales, Ed – Places in the Puerto Rican Heart, Eddie Figueroa, and the Nuyorican Imaginary, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, www.edmorales.net
- Peña, Tomas – Soundscape Questionnaire: Paquito D’ Rivera, Dita Sullivan, Aurora Flores, Michele Rosewoman, Adela Dalto, Bobby Sanabria, Willie Everich, others.
- Roseman, Marina – The New Rican Village: Artists in Control of the Image-Making Machinery (Thesis)
- Schwartz, Andy – Soundscape, 500 West 52nd Street (southwest corner of Tenth Avenue by Andy Schwartz, Perfect Sound Forever Online Magazine (February 5, 2009)
- 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)
- Jerry Gonzalez ()