Creation Myth

Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago arts collective charted new territory in black music. Now, in a three-day retrospective, Minneapolis free-jazz explorers Douglas Ewart and Carei Thomas return to that land of possibilities.

"Carei always seems to be in awe of everything," laughs Dawn Renee Jones, local writer and theater director, and the artistic head of the Alchemy Theater in south Minneapolis. "Even before we were collaborating," she recalls, "He would call me at whatever hour just to share an idea. 'You should see this sunrise this morning. Are you awake?' and I'd grumble, 'No, Carei, it's six o'clock in the morning.'"

"I have what I want to do within me, like a fingerprint, and I gravitate toward people who'll give me affirmation of what I already am," explains Thomas. He admits to being a bit of a maverick professionally, and so his tenure in the AACM was more a peripheral one. "I was respectful and committed, but I wasn't much of an organization man. Early in my life, I said, 'I want to be a musician.' And then I set out to find out what 'a musician' is."


Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments
Tony Nelson
Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments

Thomas traces his aesthetic to growing up in the culturally diverse Hill District of Pittsburgh. "If the neighborhoods spread out from there like ripples of water, then I guess I was in the second ripple," he explains, then launches into an impressionistic recollection of his childhood home. "Paint stores, marketplaces, a lot of immigrants and black people who had migrated from the South and the West Indies. Slavic people, Serbs. Way before pita bread was a big thing, we'd get it from the Syrian bakery. Provolone hanging from Italian stores. Sanctified churches on Sunday. A lively, sensual culture, and hills where I could run off and explore, animals and flowers. And I was an only child, so I thought all of this was my family.

"On Sundays after church, my grandfather would have men over to the house to discuss current events. Japan is up to this, da da da da da, Haile Selassie is up to that, and so on. My juvenile ego would lead me to try and steal the show--to sit at the piano and play Cecil Taylor-esque rambles."

Thomas's family eventually migrated to Chicago. Here he fell in with the members of the AACM, before drifting up to the University of Minnesota to study music teaching and music therapy. Thomas, who admits to having issues with methods of structured education, soon wandered away from the academy, before severing ties completely. He set about composing, and found a decent chunk of grant money floating about in the Twin Cities, as well as opportunities to collaborate with talented artists in the region. Alchemy's Jones soon would become one of Thomas's many collaborators. Along with visual artist Seitu Jones, Thomas and Dawn Renee Jones embarked upon a performance piece called Skin, for which they received funding in 1993. "I told Carei and Seitu straight off that I did not want to write a script that they would decorate," Jones says. "We each ventured into areas that are not our discipline. [Thomas] was able to understand the mood it was coming from. We met once a month for three hours, then shared our thoughts, then worked individually."

This already leisurely artistic gestation was slowed even further when Thomas developed Guillain Barré Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves that affects his body to this day. "I turned against my own body, like lupus does," Thomas says of his disease. "The myelin sheath that covers the nerves was just eaten away. Unlike [with] MS, though, it regenerates. But at that time, I was like a puddle of water from Thanksgiving of 1993 to April of '94. I was on a respirator--all I could do was move my eyes."

"It was obvious he was going to be out of commission for a while," Jones recalls. But the writer and the designer refused to enlist a new pianist. "Waiting on the project was our way of confirming that Carei was going to get better," she elaborates. One year later, he was able to resume work.

But although Thomas's body was gradually rehabilitating itself, he wasn't regaining movement fast enough to satisfy him. "There was a time when Carei was still in a wheelchair," Jones recalls. "Douglas and Janice had just bought their house. They had a good old-fashioned Chicago house party. Chili, dancing, dancing, dancing--I mean, serious dancing. James Brown was on the box. The music was loud, but over the sound of the funk, you could hear Carei say, "Get me up! Get me up!" We were worried. So I asked, 'What's wrong?' And he told us, 'I want to dance.' So Douglas and a bunch of the guys pulled him up, and helped him dance as well as they could."

How Thomas would learn to take up his instrument again was a more long-term and solitary activity. To the extent that he has always considered himself a composer first and a player second, he was able to overcome his loss of dexterity by adjusting his style. Thomas reports that his ear was still drawn to the same offbeat chords and unusual tonal colors. In forcing him to approach his instrument differently, the illness in some sense behaved as just one more unexpected chord progression to solo over.

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