Kit Walker

Questions and Dancers

M5: You were born and raised in New England and initially trained in classical music. Can you describe the general mood in those days, the major influences you can remember, being 7 and starting to play the piano... what made you choose for an education in music...?

KW: I grew up in Amherst New Hampshire, which is in southern New Hampshire, right near the Massachusetts border, about an hour from Boston. In the 50's it was completely "the sticks", very rural. It was before dial phones, we had a "party line", which meant we shared our phone line with all of our neighbors. If someone was talking on there, you had to wait until they were done before you made a call! We had no TV until I was 9, so I always had to invent things to do. I spent a lot of time playing outdoors, building things, playing in the woods and fields. It was a dairy farm, an idyllic place, 125 acres with old growth elm trees, and a river. I spent a lot of time with cows, and really loved that place. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

Around age 7 I remember one day that the neighbors' boy, who was a little older than me, was over at our house and was playing on our piano, because he was taking piano lessons, and that's when I decided I wanted to start piano lessons. I remember he was playing the "3rd Man Theme". I also remember being at his house one day, and he played some 45's of some songs I had heard on the radio, and that was when I realized that you could actually buy recordings of songs on the radio. Before age 7 I used to listen a lot to music, though, in particular Beethoven's 6th Symphony was my favorite. It was in the movie "Fantasia", and after I saw that I was hooked on Beethoven. We had an old record player with 78's, and I used to watch the records spin, and I'd watch them drop one by one onto the turntable from the stack, because you had to pile on the whole batch of records on the spindle.
Anyway, my first piano teacher used to come to the house, and I remember he charged $1.75. What stands out the most in my memory was that I would get very excited whenever he would improvise something. I would always ask him to make up a song. But he never encouraged me to make up one of my own. So I grew up thinking that only big famous composers like Beethoven wrote music. It never even occurred to me that I could write music too, until I was well into my teens, and even so, I didn't really get into writing until my twenties.

When I was 13 I got sent away to a private boarding school near Boston, and continued my piano studies there. When I was 14 I realized that music was what I wanted to do with my life, and have never reconsidered since. It just became clear. I remember the day driving in the car with my Mom when she said "you know, Kit, you should consider being a musician. You could make a lot of money at it!" That makes me laugh now, because most parents are trying to talk their kids out of playing music, because it is such a financially unstable life! But that's what my Mom was like, she always encouraged and supported me in it. None of the rest of my family was musical really, I was the only one who stuck with it.

So at the school I continued my classical music studies on the piano, and after I decided that music was what I wanted to do, my music teacher encouraged me to work towards going to a conservatory when I graduated. His name is Brian Jones, he's a pipe organist and choir director, and later in his life he went on to be the organist and choir director at Trinity Church in Boston, and stayed there until just a year ago. He was a very supportive teacher, really my first mentor in music. He took me to a lot of classical and organ concerts. He had gone to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and he suggested that I apply there. When I was a sophomore in high school he encouraged me to switch to the pipe organ, because the competition on classical piano was so fierce, and besides. I could get a gig as a church musician. So I went for it.

But meanwhile, the psychedelic era was beginning, and I was totally taken by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Rolling Stones,The Yardbirds, Traffic, Procol Harum, and on and on. My mom bought me all the latest records and I devoured them. I listened to all those bands, and wanted to be a drummer. At about age 14 I got my first drumset, and started a band with some friends at school, called the Inmates. As I was playing in that band on drums at parties and the like, I was also learning blues piano, because I was totally into all the blues bands that were coming out as well, in particular, Paul Butterfield. I also became completely fascinated by the Hammond organ and Leslie speakers (the rotating speakers). Every weekend I used to go into Boston on the subway to places like The Boston Tea Party, Where It's At, and Club 47 in Cambridge, and listen to all those bands live. I was a complete fanatic for all that music, it was all I would think about.

Simultaneously, though, I was going after school every day to a church in the town and practicing on the pipe organ. I was completely into Bach especially. Somehow the whole atmosphere of being in the church every day by myself and playing Bach would transport me to some kind of spiritual realm that I treasured. When I was a senior I prepared and played an organ recital as my graduation project. It included pieces by Bach, Hindemith, and Messaien, all of whom are still among my favorite composers. I practiced my butt off for the concert and it went well. But the tape recorder broke, so I got no recording of it. Then the summer after graduation I stayed at the farm and worked for my father and didn't touch a piano or an organ. I had practiced too much, and needed a break. I spent the whole summer driving a tractor.

M5: You studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, later on the University of Michigan School of Music. How come you decided that classical music wasn't your path and what music influenced you so that you changed your direction...? In what directions did you major and study ultimately?

KW: In the fall when I got to Oberlin Conservatory, I just couldn't get myself back into the practicing routine. I tried valiantly, but the LSD and marijuana got the best of me, and after the first semester, much to my parent's dismay, I dropped out. I stayed living in the town of Oberlin, though, thanks to the generosity of my friend's mom, who took me into her house as if I was one of her own kids. My girlfriend was still in school, so she would bring me food from the cafeteria, and I just bummed around. I started a band with some friends, including a drummer from Liverpool who had moved there. He turned me on to the first King Crimson record, "Court of the Crimson King" which I loved, and our band modeled itself after those types of bands. By then I had gotten my first Hammond organ and Leslie speaker, and I also had begun writing songs. I didn't sing though, the sax player did the singing. It was organ, bass, drums, and sax, and we called ourselves "Fat". Traffic was another band that we emulated. I would sneak into the Conservatory practice rooms every day and practice piano and write songs.

After about a year of that lifestyle though, I realized I wanted to continue my education, and got serious about wanting to be a composer. I started studying books on my own, about composition and counterpoint, and made some progress, but finally decided I needed more guidance so I applied to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor Michigan, wanting to be a composition major. They told me I should come as a pipe organ major, and that after a year i might be able to switch to composition. So in the fall of 1972 I moved to Ann Arbor and started in on my classical studies again, this time with more determination to make it work.

I kept at it that whole year, taking composition lessons, but also practicing the pipe organ a lot. I wasn't in any bands, but still listening to all the rock music that was coming out, I remember one of my favorites at the time was Captain Beefheart, as well as the Band, and many others. Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" was in number one rotation at my house then, I had the whole thing memorized.

So I had this split kind of life. At the music school I always felt like a misfit, I was a long-haired hippie, sitting in class with a bunch of kids who felt to me like they were still in junior high, all the girls with their matching outfits, and the guys very neat and studious. I got bored with the music theory classes because it went so slow, and I was miles ahead of everyone, wondering about improvising and the like, which wasn't taught at all then. And then I would go home and rock out, with my hippie friends, listening to "Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish" and "Steal Softly through Sunshine" and all these other stoned-out Beefheart absurdities.

Still, though, I was serious about wanting to learn composition. But the composition lessons were very dry. I would be drawing pictures of the composition, and then filling in the notes, like some kind of intellectual exercise that had no soul to it. I wasn't really consciously registering that, I figured that this was how it was supposed to be done, but somehow it wasn't really clicking. But I thought that maybe when I got to be a composition major I would get into the good stuff, and then it would be cool.

The one class that I really loved, though, was the ethnomusicology course. I was fascinated learning about all the different instruments from other countries, and the scales they used, and so forth. One day during that time I was in the record store in Ann Arbor and I heard the most beautiful guitar music I had ever heard playing over the speakers. Every note was like a diamond, and the virtuosity was something I had never heard, because it had such purity of tone, and at the same time was all improvised. It turned out to be the solo album called "My Goal's Beyond" by John McLaughlin. I bought it and got immersed in it. On the cover he had pictures of himself with his guru, Sri Chinmoy. It was that album that sparked my spiritual search. I remember thinking that if having a guru could do that to his music, maybe that was something I should look into, although it didn't really manifest until a few years later. Also that was when Stevie Wonder's album "Music of my Mind" came out, and after I saw Stevie and his band play in Ann Arbor I became a complete Stevie Wonder devotee. To this day I think he is just about the funkiest and most soulful musician there ever was.

From John McLaughlin, I started to think that I should look into jazz more, so I started to buy jazz albums. John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Leon Thomas, and the early Keith Jarrett records with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian were among my favorites. I still didn't know much about playing jazz, and I remember one day I went to jam with an excellent jazz guitarist in Ann Arbor, named Gale Benson, (no relation to George) at his house. He proceeded to play complete rings around me, and sent me back to the drawing board. I realized that this was a whole other realm and that I had better get down to work.

But that fall came another disappointment. When I went back into the school I asked if I could switch my major to composition. They said no, because there weren't enough positions teaching composition in colleges, and that church musicians were more needed, so I would have to stay an organ major, but I could have private composition lessons with Leslie Bassett, the head of the department. So I lasted for a couple of weeks, had a couple of lessons with him, but my heart wasn't in it. I was disheartened, because it had nothing to do with what I wanted to do with my life, and my talents, it had to do with how i could be most useful to the system. So once again I dropped out.

I moved to Western Massachusetts, to Northampton, and got involved with the UMass jazz workshop. I wasn't a student at UMass, but they needed someone to play piano at the jazz workshop. The great drummer Max Roach was the teacher, as well as bassist Reggie Workman and saxophonist Archie Shepp. After my experience with Gale Benson I had begun practicing my scales and chords in earnest, and was teaching myself jazz. The workshop at UMass gave me a context to really develop as a jazz musician, and Max Roach was a wonderful mentor for me and a bunch of my friends at the time. He took a liking to me, and I got to hang out with him a lot, and play with him too, in the workshop from time to time. He would bring jazz masters up from New York City to do master classes and concerts. There was a big band at the school that I also played with. I also formed a band with some friends, called "Real Tears", and we did mostly our own material, which was inspired by the funky CTI style of jazz at the time, like George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, and Herbie Hancock, and Doug and Jean Carne. We had vocalists, so it was funky jazz with vocals. There was a pretty vibrant live music scene in western Massachusetts at the time, so we played every weekend at local clubs, and other clubs around New England. We had a nice following, people would always dance to us, and we made a living at it. Of course, my rent was $75, so that wasn't that hard to accomplish! That was a wonderful period for me, because I practiced a lot, and listened a lot to music. That was when the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report were hitting their stride, and that music was heaven for me! It was a style where all the influences I had could come together. Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, and then Keith Jarrett during his solo piano period on ECM, that was like complete musical nectar to me. It is still some of my favorite music. Continue

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