Thursday, June 27, 2019

He Did the Number: Cleve Pozar, 1941-2019

Cleve Pozar: "I Did the Number"

In July of 2008, Cleve Pozar was driving around his tiny hometown of Eveleth, Minnesota, smoking a cigarette and contemplating mortality. He wasn't sick at the time, just reflective, recounting the strange, improbable life's journey that had taken him far from this city of just under 4,000 — first, in the early '60s, to the contemporary-classical hotbed of Ann Arbor, Michigan, then home to future legends such as Robert Ashley; then to New York, where musicians like Bill Dixon were busy realizing new and unprecedented visions of what jazz could be; then to Boston, where he plotted and produced a personal masterwork, the private-press early-'70s LP known simply as Cleve Solo Percussion; and eventually back to NYC, where, for decades, he would align his consuming interest in Afro-Cuban percussion (specifically, late in life, the Batà tradition) with his expertise as a master builder and engineer, forging a sort of DIY musical laboratory that few who did not visit him at home would ever get to behold.

He concluded with this statement:

"When I'm lying there dying, I can say, well, what the hell, man… I did the number."

There was nothing morbid about the observation — on the contrary, Cleve seemed, as he pretty much always did, totally at peace, punctuating his mini monologue on the idea of doggedly pursuing one's personal life's mission to the fullest, from day to day, decade to decade, until the very end, with a quintessentially Cleve-ian conspiratorial grin. Having just heard the sad news of Cleve's recent passing from my friend Will Glass — a musicians' advocate at the Jazz Foundation of America, which aided Cleve greatly in his later years, as well as an accomplished percussionist himself, who studied extensively with Cleve — I can take a little solace in hoping, and having every reason to believe, that the above turned out to be true.

The video at the top of the post — drawn from many hours of footage that I and my former wife Laal Shams shot of Cleve around that time for a prospective documentary, and edited by my friend Dan Scofield — captures not just Cleve's "I did the number" speech, which starts around the 3:20 mark, but also, more importantly, his signature combination of childlike enthusiasm and dead-serious commitment ("If I have to go through a concrete wall, I don't care; I'm going there."). Please watch in full-screen for best results.

We see him putting the finishing touches on a wooden drum he built himself; demonstrating one of his ingenious electronic-percussion set-ups; improvising with saxophonist Darius Jones (a brilliant musician 30 years his junior); bantering good-naturedly with his extremely supportive mother, Fran (who was kind enough to invite a curious stranger in her home for a couple days so that he could get a sense of the environment that could have produced an individual as sui generis as Cleve); and sitting beside his longtime friend and collaborator Cooper-Moore, a kindred spirit who characterizes Cleve as "an improviser in life" who "understands tools and materials." (The video also features commentary from key early Pozar collaborators such as Bob James — with whom Cleve performed extensively in Ann Arbor, including once with Eric Dolphy, and with whom he made the fascinating, daringly abstract ESP album Explosions — David Horowitz and Ed Curran, as well as his son, Mingus, and cousin Janice.)

I first came to know Cleve's work via the record library at WKCR, where I came across two of his LPs, Cleve Solo Percussion and Good Golly Miss Nancy, an utterly remarkable Bill Dixon–produced Savoy set (released under Cleve's birth name of Robert F. Pozar and featuring none other than Jimmy Garrison on bass) that combined nimble, intensely interactive avant-chamber-jazz with cutting-edge electro-acoustics. Encouraged by my friend and mentor Ben Young, who provided me with a copy of Let's Try It Again, a CD of Batà-infused jazz that Cleve self-released in the late '90s, I continued to research and later write about Cleve, including in one fateful 2007 post on this very blog, where I inquired as to Pozar's current whereabouts.

Several months after posting that query, I received a brief e-mail:

>From: Cleve Pozar
>To: Hank Shteamer
>Subject: Cleve
>Date: Sat, 18 Aug 2007 17:31:11 -0700 (PDT)
>Cleve pozar is Bob pozar.I am Cleve.

It couldn't have been more than a week or two later that I was sitting in a coffee shop in Fort Greene with Cleve, listening with amazement as he recounted the entire tale of his extraordinary life and, to my delight, still very much ongoing work. He soon gave me a tour of his makeshift home studio, in the unfinished basement of a friend's nearby brownstone, where he kept not only his drum kit, but his ingenious electronic Batà set-up, which you can see him playing here, and in many other YouTube videos that he would later self-produce and post intermittently, as he subsequently moved all over the country to stay with family in his later years.

Cleve generously allowed me to trail him to and from gigs, shadow him as he practiced, and eventually follow him all the way to Eveleth, where he showed me around, pointing out the world's largest free-standing hockey stick (which you'll see in the first video above) and taking me to the mines where his father, an accomplished engineer, used to work. He even helped me salvage a couple of cracked cymbals, sawing thin holes in them to prevent further damage, a process that's also documented in the video up top.

Cleve would eventually leave New York for good. I believe the last time I saw him was in 2011, after he gave a stunning solo concert at Brooklyn's Firehouse Space, a new live interpretation of Cleve Solo Percussion — a suite of enveloping, evocative electroacoustic pieces realized via live looping, which he had ingeniously adapted to contemporary instruments. You can watch the full video the performance here, with huge gratitude again to Dan Scofield, who was on hand to document the night:

Cleve Pozar - Live @ The Firehouse Space - March 11, 2012

As with pretty much everything Cleve did, the Cleve Solo Percussion revival was a marvel not just of creativity but of will — as Cleve himself noted, no earthly barrier or limitation of practical reality was ever going to stop him from fulfilling his wildest sonic fantasies. If ever there was a man who, at that moment of reckoning, had earned the right to say he had accomplished everything he intended, forged his own path without compromise, explored his passions to the fullest — in short, "did the number" during his time on Earth — that man was Cleve Pozar. I am honored to have known him.


*Of all those who loved, assisted and collaborated with Cleve during the time that I knew him, none had his back more consistently than Adam Lore, the tirelessly devoted label owner and scholar behind 50 Miles of Elbow Room. Adam's interview with Cleve on the subject of Cleve Solo Percussion, complete with a bonus excerpt from a contemporaneous live performance by Cleve and Cooper-Moore (then known as Gene Ashton) is essential reading.

*As is my friend Clifford Allen's typically comprehensive 2009 Pozar piece for All About Jazz.

*You can download a couple excerpts of Cleve's work, including a track from the long-out-of-print, generally impossible-to-find Miss Nancy LP, here, via a post by WFMU's Scott McDowell.

*Finally, here, with gratitude to Jason Gross at Perfect Sound Forever, is a series of excerpts from my original conversations with Cleve, covering various aspects of his life and work.

As might be apparent from the above, I have much more on file, including hours of interview and performance video, as well as audio of an afternoon-long WKCR radio program that Cleve and I collaborated on in 2008. The documentary project itself has been on hold for some time, due to the mundane realities of time and budgetary constraints, but I hope to be able to share some of this material in the future. In the meantime, I hope that the videos above stand as a fitting memorial to this man's ebullient genius. I miss you already, Cleve — so long, and thank you for everything.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Lately (6/19/19)

*An interview with Anthony Braxton, with a bit of input from Nels Cline, on his new improv album with Cline, Taylor Ho Bynum and Deerhoof's Greg Saunier. This was my second time interviewing Anthony, with more than a decade in between, and he remains a joy to speak with.

*Also a joy, witnessing Andrew Cyrille play eight inspired sets on opening night of this year's Vision Fest.

*A recap of the new Blue Note doc, which I really enjoyed.

*An interview with current King Crimson singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, ahead of their ongoing 50th anniversary tour.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Heavy Metal Bebop Podcast #5: Vernon Reid

The fifth episode of the HMB Podcast — featuring an in-depth conversation with guitar virtuoso and Living Colour founder Vernon Reid — is now live! Go here to listen/subscribe via Apple Podcasts and here to listen/subscribe via Podbean, or check out the episode via the player below.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Goodbye, Roky

He was a visionary, and The Evil One in particular is a genre-transcendent treasure. David Fricke's in-depth tribute and Josh Homme's Instagram hat-tip are both spot-on.