Jon Damian  

Berklee Today Profile on Jon Damian

Soul of an Artist
By Mark Small

The goal of great performers is to reach their audience. Professor Jon Damian, a seasoned performer in his own right, has spent much of his 44-year career as an educator helping students reach themselves. In the late 1970s, he began offering his Creative Workshop Ensemble as a means for students to discover the artist inside.

“I wanted students who were having a tough time with the theoretical side of music to recognize that there would be difficulty at first,” Damian says. “But as with spoken language, where they had to learn word meanings and pronunciations, musical things that seem so academic could also become as natural as speaking, breathing, or dancing.” In 2015 he codified his ideas in his third book, the self-published volume Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop for Musicians, Artists, and Teachers.

Damian’s sharing of his free and uninhibited approach to performing, composing, and overall musical artistry has built lasting bonds with many former students. Some—Bill Frisell ’77, Kurt Rosenwinkel ’90, Wayne Krantz ’76, Joe Cohn ’90, Leni Stern ’80, and others—have developed celebrated careers.

Damian’s artistic leanings predate his interest in music. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, NY, he was interested in graphic arts. (He didn’t begin playing guitar until high school.) After he graduated, he pursued art at New York City Community College, earning an associate’s degree before being drafted by the U.S. Army.

“I spent 15 months stationed on Okinawa working as an artist for officer’s training battalions drawing leaflets,” Damian recalls. “Then I auditioned for a music gig with the USO and did that until my discharge in 1968. I was offered a nice position at a New York advertising company, but decided to go to Berklee instead to pursue my music dream.

“My musical inspiration came from watching Tony Mottola play guitar with the Tonight Show Orchestra. I liked what he was doing and that he was playing with a lot of celebrities. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Damian was a self-taught guitarist, and reading music was the first thing he taught himself. “I’d worked hard enough at it so that when I got to Berklee, my guitar teacher, Frank Turziano, began recommending me for top-of-the-line gigs. Being literate on the guitar opened doors for me.”

Damian began playing musicals at Boston theaters. Gigs with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Boston Opera Company, and Boston Ballet followed. Eventually, he was playing shows backing celebrity artists such as Carol Channing, Nancy Wilson, Linda Ronstadt, Doc Severinson, Trini Lopez, Jerry Lewis, and many others, just as he’d seen Mottola do.

As a composition major, Damian studied with Herb Pomeroy, Jeronimas Kacinskas, John Bavicchi, and John LaPorta. During his final year as a student, he joined the faculty and taught ensembles. The idea for his creativity ensemble grew out of experiences with drummer Billy Elgart ’63 and bassist John Voigt (then Berklee’s librarian). “They used to take me to play with their avant ensembles,” Damian states. “I remember trying to play really weird stuff to wow them, but this music wasn’t about that, it was about playing off things and building from there. Those experiences taught me to find myself and play in the moment. Voigt was open to inspiration from anything in the universe from alphabets to zodiacs. I was really gassed by that, and it spawned the creative workshop.”

A Damian trademark invention, the “Rubbertellie,” has been his vehicle for improvisations that often blend music, painting, and performance art. He uses a standard Fender Telecaster guitar, but calls it “rubber” because he stretches the guitar’s parameters in tuning and playing technique. “I play it in a nonstandard way,” he says. “Sometimes I hold it like a cello and other times it’s on my lap. For the Rubbertellie Murals, I produce paintings while sitting with the instrument’s neck upright, and on either side of it are tables with bowls of paint. There is a roll of paper that passes in between the strings and the fingerboard, pulled by stagehands. I dip my fingers in the paint and play percussively on the guitar neck. The paintings look like something from a seismograph.”

Damian has performed and lectured across the globe. At Australia’s Northern Melbourne Institute at Tafe, he gave a three-hour demonstration on the Rubertellie for the art department. “I created 15 murals on themes the people threw out to me,” he says. “I did one using the Olympic colors, one on birds, and another giving my take on a boring lecture from the night before. And the people got it!”

Damian has also promoted a service ethic among his students. Acting as the faculty adviser to the student club GARAGE (General Association of Really Astute Guitar Enthusiasts), he coordinated an annual “garage” sale with items donated by faculty and staff members. One year, funds went to Haitian earthquake victims and another year to a student needing a new guide dog. For years, his Performance Outreach Program (POP) brought students to audiences at hospitals and prisons. In 1993, Boston mayor Ray Flynn noted Damian’s efforts with the city’s Pro Arts Public Service in the Arts award.

Some of Damian’s recent creative projects have been quite personal. “In 2016, I was isolated in a room at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital for 38 days after a stem-cell transplant for leukemia,” he says. “To pass the time, I wrote and illustrated two children’s books for my grandchildren and wrote a piece called “Saints and Angels” dedicated to the medical staff there. Bill Frisell adapted it for his quartet with guitar, violin, viola, and cello and has been playing it around the world.”

Damian views writing and teaching as performance arts comparable to dance, musical performance, or acting. “It’s all show business,” he says. Perhaps, show biz from the soul of an artist.

 

My new book Fresh Music is a Bill Frisell’s favorite go to Billfrisell.com/favorites

Jon’s first cartoon!!

Hi Everyone,

Hope you enjoy my maiden voyage as a published cartoonist.  This cartoon was recently published in Berklee Today magazine centerfold page.


 

 

The Creative Workshop Ensemble Video in Italia!!

Here is a video of Jon in concert with one of his Creative Workshop Ensembles in Perugia, Italy. The comprovisation is titled The Coronation and is totally improvised from basic indications; no written music.  I hope you enjoy this inspired performance by this wonderful group. Thanks to my friend and translator Nicola Cordisco!

Here is the link on YouTube:

Creative Workshop in Italy

Rubbertellie Video at Bishop’s College School in Quebec

Here is a link for a Rubbertellie Video filmed at Bishop’s College School in Quebec. The performance includes a lecture about the origins and philosophy of the Rubbertellie, one of Jon’s inventions. The composition is Brother Sharpe composed by Jon for a dear friend D. Sharpe.

Telecaster modified to play “Brother Sharp”

I hope you like it!

Jon’s new book Fresh Music is now available!!

My new book  Fresh Music is now available. Fresh Music has really nice reviews already! The book chronicles the many years, since the 1970’s, of the Creative Workshop Ensemble(CreW) at Berklee College of music and internationally. Bill Frisell and Joe Cohn were in the very first CreW at Berklee in 1978. The book is for musicians, artists, and teachers. I wrote the book in the form of a play with characters, the CreW members, including myself, and regular dialog with the readers, virtual CreW members. The book invites the reader to join in with CreW activities, into the bubbling stew of CreW ideas inspired by everything in the universe, from alphabets to zodiacs! Real ‘getting out of the box’ ideas!!

Here are a few reviews:

“This is a brilliant book. Bursting with ideas about improvising and its teaching—in jazz, any music, dance, painting—life! You name it! Full of specifics, and full of a lively, collaborative, adventurous, humane approach to the making of almost anything.”

Eleanor Duckworth Professor of education, emerita, Harvard University; modern dancer; author of The Having of Wonderful Ideas: And Other Essays on Teaching and Learning

“I received the most valuable elements from Jon’s Creative Workshop, opening a door of endless creativity in me as a film composer and concert artist.”

Stephane Wrembel Composer of “Bistro Fada,” the theme for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

“I played in one of Jon Damian’s early Creative Workshop Ensembles. He showed me new ways of looking at what I already knew . . . turning them around and seeing them from a different angle. New possibilities. He opened the window and the door. He gave me the keys . . .  a rope to hang onto allowing larger leaps. To not be afraid of jumping off . . . to make mistakes . . . to learn. Jon has spent his life dedicated to finding truth, beauty, and expanding the imagination. His new book Fresh Music welcomes us all into this amazing world.”

Bill Frisell Grammy-winning guitarist

You can use your credit card or PayPal right here and ask for a signed copy!


You can also contact me directly if you would like a signed copy. Contact me at:

jdamian@berklee.edu

Thanks!!!

Jon Damian

The Creative Workshop Ensemble has a great semester!

The Creative Workshop Ensemble at Berklee College of Music was a lot of fun this semester. I had a great CreW to work with and the highlight was the production of an opera for my grand daughter Isabel Rose. Finger puppets in the guise of Louis Armstrong, Ms. Piggy, Marilyn Monroe, Puccini, and of course, myself, danced and sang their way through the opera. Thanks to the talents of creW members John, Colin, Tim and Bennett for helping to make the opera a magical event.

Jon in Australia

These are some shots made in Melbourne at NMIT of a concert and some lectures featuring Rubbertellie Murals in which I produce murals and sound art simultaneously.

Thanks for questions about my books!

Thank you so much for your questions concerning my books The Guitarists Guide to Composing and Improvising and The Chord Factory. Please keep those questions coming in. I especially love seeing and hearing any ideas you have inspired by the books. And I hope your chord dictionary grows big and fat with the help of the Chord Factory. My new book Fresh Music: Explorations with the Creative Workshop Ensemble for Musicians, Artists, and Teachers is presently on it’s way to the printer. Send me your e mail address so I can let you know when the book is available. My e mail address is:

jdamian@berklee.edu

Thanks!

 

 

CD: Dedications: Faces & Places with Bill Frisell

A fresh supply of the CD Dedications: Faces and Places is now available. The CD features Jon Damian along with Bill Frisell, Peter Kontrimas, Taylor Mclean, Bob Patton, Bob Nieske, John Voigt, Ralph Rosen, and Nat Mugavero. The album consists of Damian compositions penned for people and places in his life. The recording has Jon on both guitar and on his invention, the Rubbertellie. Contact Jon at jdamian@berklee.edu if you would like to get a copy of Dedications: Faces and Places.