Douglas Ewart’s Minneapolis home is a sprawl of musical history and handmade instruments.
The instruments reign in most rooms — flutes and tubes, bells and rattles, horns and drums, and all the hybrids in between. There’s an instrument combining railroad ties with billiard balls, another melding an orthopedic crutch with a hamster wheel.
“When I see another just-made thing, I want to scream,” laughs Ewart’s wife, Janis Lane-Ewart, a veteran arts administrator and fundraiser for public radio station Jazz88. “But I have to give him credit for his abundance of creativity and unabashed enthusiasm.”
Ewart, 71, also makes flutes from bamboo that he harvests himself. He collects bells, with nearly 500 arrayed on a set of shelves. And he plays each one, listening for its distinct sound.
A past chairman of Chicago’s influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Ewart also stuffed the house with photographs, posters and programs from the organization’s 20th-century heyday. In the kitchen, a Walk of Respect pays homage to musicians and artists Ewart regards as ancestors: the late saxophonists Fred Anderson and Johnny Griffin, pianist Amina Claudine Myers.
It’s fitting, then, that the concert Douglas Ewart has organized for the Walker Art Center this Saturday is titled Sonic Universe. Ewart has assembled a special sextet for the occasion, maestros in the art of improvisation.
Ewart calls the group “kindred spirits who have similar ideas about probing and trying to find new pathways.”
Ewart grew up in Jamaica surrounded by music. His father loved big-band tunes. His grandmother was partial to Bach and Liszt. There was a radio station that played Irish and English folk music. There was the “mystical” feel he got from Rastafarian liturgical music. Meanwhile, a wonderful mélange of calypso, jazz and ska music took hold on the island during Ewart’s youth.
Ewart came to Chicago just before his 18th birthday, immediately buying a saxophone after years spent drumming on tin cans. Eventually he fell under the aegis of the AACM, a nonprofit started in the 1960s that was influential for removing distinctions. AACM members played in conjunction with dance, theater and the visual arts. They broke down barriers between through-composed and improvised music, between so-called “world music” and American forms.
Ewart was elected AACM Chair in 1979. Two years earlier, he had met Lane-Ewart while hanging out with composer/saxophonist Henry Threadgill at a music venue called Ratso’s. She was studying political science at Northwestern University and planning for a law degree. After entering Ewart’s orbit, however, she put her organizational skills and grant-writing chops to work for AACM.
Ewart’s AACM term ended in 1986. In 1989, Janis landed a job in Minneapolis overseeing programming for Arts Midwest, a regional grant-making organization serving nine states.
Ewart was initially skeptical about moving to Minnesota. For many years, he kept commuting to his job at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even today, he still has a larger profile in the Windy City than in Minneapolis.
Living in Minnesota opened doors, though, to working with the St. Paul-based American Composers Forum, to teaching at the educational nonprofit ArtStart. Thanks to the state’s robust funding community, he was able to land fellowships and grants from the Minnesota-based Bush, McKnight and Jerome foundations. He no longer had to “play for the door,” the common practice of club owners paying musicians via cover fees.
“Been there, done that, too old to go steady with it,” Ewart said in a recent phone interview.
Today Ewart regards his Minnesota residency as “one of the best things I have done in my life, and for my efforts as an artist.”
Language of improvisation
Another thing Ewart treasures about living in Minnesota is working with the Walker Art Center. He curates a musical performance for the organization every few years, with Sonic Universe being his most ambitious so far.
Saturday’s concert will be especially delicious for an improviser like Ewart. “Many people don’t understand that improvisation is a language, much like I am speaking to you,” he said. “There is connotation, fluency and vocabulary … [and it] takes a lot of skills, scholarship and tactics to be good at it.”
Despite the kinship of the six musicians involved, the ensemble has never before played as a complete unit. They will meet the day before the concert — no sooner — to rehearse a framework (provided by Ewart) for the show’s spontaneous improvisations. There will be no set songs.
Among the players will be Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. An early mentor of Ewart’s, Mitchell was also an original member of both the AACM and the seminal band Art Ensemble of Chicago. Also on sax will be Oliver Lake, founder of the AACM-like Black Artists’ Group in St. Louis and a co-founder of the much-copied World Saxophone Quartet.
Then there’s trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, himself a member of the Rastafari faith, who shares Ewart’s passion for instrument-making. At 76, Smith is still peaking as a musician, having won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2012.
The sextet also includes Hamid Drake, a stalwart Chicago drummer who has accompanied Ewart to Santa Barbara, Calif., for bamboo hunts and to Jamaica for Rastafari liturgical ceremonies. The youngster in the group is 63-year-old bassist and cellist Anthony Cox, a Minneapolis native who hasn’t even seen Ewart play. Yet the two have admired each other’s recordings and frequently run into each other at airports and local art events.
Only Ewart — both a cheerful people-connector and renegade creative spirit — could have assembled this group.
“For as long as I can remember, Douglas has been kind-hearted and open-minded,” Drake observed. “To him, music is more than sound and notes, more than rhythmic, chordal, sonic structures. It is a fragrance that moves through you with a vibration and a resonance that extends before and after picking up any instrument.”
Drake let those words resonate for a beat before adding: “It should be a wonderful evening.”
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis writer covering music and sports for national and local media outlets.