Sacked by the "downturn", an unemployed architect touring the country in a bus...

I used to live in New York City. I designed homes for the tycoons of Wall Street; Park Avenue, Scarsdale, Greenwich. It was great fun. And, after years of saving up for a down payment, I was just about to buy my own little place in Fleetwood, half an hour north of the city, when the economy fell apart. Architects are like canaries in a coal mine when the economy slows, and true to form, there were massive layoffs in firms all over the country. Devastation of the profession. So, I decided to try to find something else to do for a while. I bought a 23' school bus and I'm on the road to see if I can figure out what that might be.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How I made $17, fulfilled a dream, and other odds and ends... (part 1)

I play an instrument called the vibraphone, or colloquially, vibes.  When the master marimba and xylophone craftsman and bar tuner J.C. Deagan invented it in the late 20's, he called it the vibraharp, but a later competitor, Ludwig/Musser, won the name game with their equally excellent instrument.  I played a Musser vibraphone for many years.  The vibraphone is similar to the more widely familiar xylophone, except it's bars are much larger and it has a tuned pipe under each bar to amplify the sound in sympathetic vibration, much as a bathroom stall will amplify your voice if you hum the right note.

I have a good musical ear, and have learned to play a bit on a number of instruments; some guitar, some cello, some piano.  I had been a fan of the vibes since I was an early teen in the sixties, when I heard my brother's Milt Jackson records, so when I was in my 20's and opportunity presented itself in the form of a deposit for my first architectural commission, I naturally bought a marimba, which is very much like a vibraphone except the bars are made of wood instead of aluminum.  And a few years later, I bought a vibraphone.

I studied and practiced for 20 years and acquired some ability to improvise, but the layout of the instrument, the logic of the actual arrangement of the notes, remained a mystery to me.  The arrangement of the notes follows the same design as a piano, with certain notes colored white and put in one row, and other notes colored black and put in a second row in an irregular pattern.  When I was still a child, I had learned from my father, a brilliant and inventive man, that this arrangement was a convenience for some kinds of music, but an obfuscation of the uniformity of the field of twelve notes that we use in western music.  My father shared with me doodles of designs he had for keyboards in which the uniformity was restored.  Those conversations and his sketches stayed with me through all of my years of study, and I worked on the problem myself soon after college.  Over the years, I continued playing and studying the traditional vibraphone, but returned to the idea of a uniformly arrayed instrument time and again.  Perhaps about ten years ago, I finally convinced myself that I had a workable idea for how to mark such a keyboard in a way that helped you orient yourself, but still introduced no asymmetry whatsoever.  Three years after that, I commissioned the construction of a vibraphone according to my design.  Nico vanDerplace took two more years to build it in his workshop in Holland.  And so, in 2002, I put aside the instrument I had been struggling with for more than two decades, and began again on my new version, which I call the TriChromatic Keyboard.  You can see my YouTube video demonstration of my instrument if you click on the picture of it in the right hand column.

All aspiring jazz players are well versed in the legend and lore surrounding the birth of Jazz in New Orleans, and I am no exception.  And so, part of my motivation for coming here was to witness and perhaps even participate in the tradition; I dreamed of somehow getting to play in this town.  That's why I have my vibraphone with me and part of why I thought a bus was a good vehicle travel in.  Vibraphones are big and heavy and mine took up most of the space in the back of the Volvo wagon in which I started my trip.

Tuesday morning, I made my way back down to New Orleans for my second visit.  I parked my bus in an outdoor lot on Rampart street, which borders the north edge of the central part of the French Quarter and is just a few blocks from Royal street; street performer's Mecca.  I chose this parking spot knowing that, should I decide to wheel my vibes down the street in the fashion of a hospital gurney, I would have a short distance to go over relatively smooth streets.   Ron, the gruff 60ish attendant who spent entire days in a 4' x 6' guard booth, turned out to be perfectly willing to look up from his news paper and accommodate reasonable requests.  I maneuvered into what seemed the only out of the way spot long enough for my 23' bus, fully aware that I was going to be too close to the fence to allow me to use my wheel chair lift for the vibes, but I had not fully committed to playing out, so I accepted this compromise.

I wandered the streets the rest of the day, taking pictures of some of the French Quarter buildings, and some of the characters who live or perform or generally demand attention on the street.  Mr. Jaxx, with painted face, spangly beads, a floppy green jester's cap, and a smorgasbord of quasi renaissance costuming, is a tall and slightly queeny street tough, with a broken heart visible behind the defense.  He reclined in a low folding beach chair, near one of many psychics and fortunetellers, and enjoyed waving and interacting with kids, even ones before speaking age.  (I considered calling the other buskers "alleged psychics and alleged fortunetellers", but that seemed cumbersome... )  He sternly demanded of me $2 for permission to take photographs.  With the fee paid, he proudly posed and preened in the sun, obviously enjoying the attention and chance to be on display.  He was a pro.  I soon lost interest, as I preferred his candid demeanor.  I wish he'd tied his shoe or pulled up his belt.  Maybe I can still do something with those photos.

Silver Steve, covered head to toe in silver clothes and makeup, looking like Alice's mad hatter ready for oven baking, is one of the living statue performers who's talent on display is the ability to hold still for very long periods of time, which would be, from an engineering point of view, a way to earn a living with a ratio of dollars earned to energy spent that would seem near infinity, except that it is in fact difficult and strenuous and energy consuming to hold so still.  Steve engaged easily in conversation with me, gave directions, revealed that he had traveled the country and landed here, a familiar tale to me now, demanded a buck for photo opportunity and immediately struck pro-poses for my camera by cocking his head and slightly raising some of his extremities, an eyebrow, and selected finger tips, vaguely recalling gestures of magicians and Victorian portraits.  Ugh.  I told him of my plans to play vibes and he dropped back into person hood and happily offered advice.  I'd have photoed him then again, but I didn't want to break the tiny connection of the moment by raising my camera.  It's clear, shooting the underbelly of New Orleans will take patience.

Adorable waif urchin Elaina is a stunningly capable classical violinist who plays with courage, precision, and tender passions.  I drop the buck in her case and start shooting.  She breathes a sweet appreciative smile between crescendos, how could I not be a little smitten by this improbable creature.  The piece ends, I applaud and then tell her that I had heard of her.  Eli is my cousin and he said I should keep an eye out for a great violinist with pink hair.  She smiles again and says "Eli is your cousin?" confirming the link is genuine.  I smile.  She plays more and I photo more.  I change to a wide lens, hurrying so as not to loose the moment, and step in close for the close up exaggerating her tininess (above).  She flourishes with ease through Beethoven, filling the cavernous street space with sound for the few passersby.  Then suddenly, she packs and is off down the street.  I follow and give her a card, telling her to e-mail me so I can send her copies of the pictures.  She says she will.  A few more steps and I ask "I didn't scare you off, did I?"  "No, not at all," she laughs "I'm just late."  I hope to see her again. 

I don't know his story.

These guys played nice Dixieland stuff.  The clarinetist had fun ideas in his playing, and a presence that let him lead the group easily, while he watched the audience to pace his performance in accord with their attention.  I liked him.


I'm going for some luch..., back soon.


  1. After knowing you all this time, it is good to see your blog. Thanks for sharing. I feel like I know you a little better now :)

    1. Thanks for taking time to read some of my stories ;^)