Geoff Muldaur: The Next Big Idea

The musician has come a long way from his Jug Band days.

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“It all started with Garvin Bushell,” writes Geoff Muldaur in the introduction to his new two LP boxed set, His Last Letter. “One night, when I was a teenager, I made it down to Jimmy Ryan’s on 52nd Street to hear the De Paris Brothers. At the time, Ryan’s was the last club standing on that famous strip and it featured traditional, New Orleans-style jazz. Bushell was playing clarinet in the band. After a few tunes, Wilbur De Paris called for “St. James Infirmary.” Bushell reached back, and placed his clarinet on a stand … then picked up an odd-looking wooden tube with holes and shiny keys and strapped it on. It was a bassoon. Just to see this was a shock, but to hear it in this context, even more so … Bushell put the double reed to his mouth and out came the most beautiful tones … ancient, bucolic sounds like a shepherd calling in the fading light to his beloved stragglers. I was spellbound. It was the perfect choice for the mood of the song; nothing could have sounded better.

Those familiar with Geoff Muldaur may originally know him as part of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band — especially those on the Vineyard where he and the Jug Band played at the Moon-Cusser Coffee House on Circuit Ave. in the sixties. He would also live on the Island full-time during much of the seventies and the eighties.

It would be a mistake to pigeonhole Muldaur. His journey has taken him from old-timey jug band music to arranging Americana roots music using instruments like clarinet, French horn, and bassoon. He’s gone from playing at the Moon-Cusser to recording chamber music with key players from the Netherlands Philharmonic. To look at Geoff Muldaur’s career is to see a musician who continues to evolve. 

After the Jug Band broke up in 1969, Muldaur would continue to play and record with his former wife, Maria Muldaur, with Paul Butterfield’s Better Days Band, and as a solo artist. British musician Richard Thompson once said of him: “There are only three white blues singers, and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.” It’s been a long wild ride for Muldaur, so let’s start at the beginning.

Muldaur grew up in Pelham Manor, New York, and started coming to the Vineyard as a small child. “I have a clear recollection of the ‘54 hurricane, ‘Carol’,” he told me. “I was just a young lad at the time.” His family had built a house in Edgartown in 1952 and he continued to summer there into his teenage years. “Those were the reckless years when there were only two state police cops and if you passed one on the road going the other way, you knew you were pretty much in the clear.”

In 1961, after high school, Muldaur made a brief appearance at Boston University but soon left to follow his dream and go to New Orleans where he started his life as a musician. 

The next year, Muldaur says that New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison went about “cleaning up” the city with the unintended consequence (or perhaps it was intended) of driving the musicians out of the city, and Muldaur headed back to Boston and again spent about “a minute and a half” at B.U. and immersed himself in the Cambridge folk revival. 

It was a vibrant scene based around coffee houses like Club 47 in Cambridge and Cafe Yana in Boston and fueled by a never ending round of “pickin’ parties.” “It’s where we had time to interact, stay connected, and learn how to play.” 

In 1963, Jim Kweskin asked Muldaur to join the Jug Band and he accepted, which would have the effect on him of being shot out of a cannon. In a period of five years, the band pretty much owned the Newport Folk Festivals; they played at Carnegie Hall, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Town Hall in NYC, Fillmore East and West, and appeared on the Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and were featured in magazine articles in Life, Time, and Look.

But in 1968 the ride would come to a halt when Kweskin became involved with a commune known as the Fort Hill Community in Roxbury that was run by a former Jug Band musician, Mel Lyman. 

But fate is a funny old dog, and Muldaur and his wife Maria pursued new musical directions and recorded their first album, Pottery Pie, for Warner Brothers. The album contained a version of the song “Brazil” 

which became an inspiration to Terry Gilliam of the Monty Python show who used it to create a motion picture of the same name. “Gilliam told me,” Muldaur said, “that the Pythons used to come into the office, put the album on and pray to it.”

Fate also shone on Muldaur in the form of Albert Grossman, the legendary entrepreneur who managed Bob Dylan, The Band, and Janis Joplin. He encouraged Geoff and Maria to move to Woodstock, New York, where Grossman and Dylan and The Band lived among other rock illuminati. “When one of the most powerful managers in the world suggests something, you might as well stay close to him,” Muldaur said.

The Muldaurs made the move, living next door to Garth Hudson of The Band. Paul Butterfield, who Muldaur knew from his days in Cambridge and playing at the Moon-Cusser on the Vineyard, was also there. After Geoff and Maria recorded their album “Sweet Potatoes,” the couple separated, and Geoff joined Paul Butterfield’s Better Days band where he toured the country and, all things considered, had a little too much fun. “In 1974,” Muldaur said, “I was indulging in a certain type of behavior that I thought might kill me and I decided I’d move to the Vineyard.”

On one hand it was a good move. “I settled into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle,” Muldaur said. “I loved living on the Island; I’d go duck hunting with Danny Bryant, deer hunting with Phil Spalding, and fishing for bass with Whit Griswold or Albert Fischer. The problem was that I was still on the Warner Brothers label so I’d have to fly out to the West Coast, or even to London, to record so it just got tougher and tougher and I got crazier and crazier.” Ten years after moving to the Island, Muldaur was ready for a change of scenery and a change in behavior. 

Geoff became a teetotaler and for 14 years he gave up performing. To earn a living he moved to Princeton, New Jersey and ran a couple of record companies and later worked for a record distribution company in Mill Valley, California where he discovered he had a gift for technology. He developed a computerized invoicing system that caught the eye of a steel magnate from Detroit who hired him to come out and handle his information systems. 

Muldaur was enjoying himself, wearing suits to work and managing a group of analysts and programmers, and had it not been for his old friend Bob Neuwirth showing up, who knows how long it would have lasted. Neuwirth was a record producer and an old sidekick of Bob Dylan’s who was in Detroit to record Patty Smith. 

Neuwirth looked around Muldaur’s office and said to him, “Have you listened to the radio lately? And have you heard anyone who sounds like you?” 

“No,” Muldaur replied. 

Then Neuwirth said, “You should be playing music. I’m going to tour Italy; do you want to come?”

Even though Muldaur hadn’t played in 14 years, he took Newirth up on his offer. He played gigs around Italy for a few weeks and just like that, he was hooked.

Muldaur jumped back into the music business full time, started living in LA, and in 1998 released an album, The Secret Handshake that got great reviews. A lot of touring both here and abroad ensued. 

In early 2005 Muldaur toured Germany and played a little gig down by the border with Holland. “As is the case with Germans north of Bavaria,” Muldaur wrote, “regardless of how they felt, their applause was feeble. On this particular evening, however, one table in a dark corner in the back was going nuts … whistling and clapping wildly after every song. I met them at the break. Their names were Peter Steultjens and Jitta Miedema — they were Dutch!” 

Muldaur played Amsterdam several times after that and struck up a friendship with his Dutch friends and their relations and over time they became what Muldaur referred to as “My Dutch family.” He also grew very fond of Amsterdam and it would have a profound impact on his next big project, the recording of his soon to be released two LP boxed set, His Last Letter. 

The idea behind His Last Letter was to trace the musical influences of Muldaur’s life and whether it might be Bix Beiderbecke or Jelly Roll Morton, arrange their songs for chamber music, using instruments like violin, cello, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon.

The idea wasn’t totally out of left field. After the Jug Band broke up, Muldaur began experimenting with classical music, studying Mozart, Beethoven, even getting into Igor Stravinski. But finding top notch classical players here in the States who could commit to his project for a long period of time seemed daunting. “And then it came to me,” Muldaur wrote. “Amsterdam might work, and it was an easy place to be. Perhaps I could find musicians there, a producer, places to rehearse and record. It was worth a try.”

For the next ten years Muldaur traveled to Amsterdam two or three times a year to rehearse and record. He ended up using key players from the Netherlands Philharmonic, the Dutch Radio Orchestra, and the Metropole Jazz Orchestra. The magnum opus Muldaur had envisioned was taking shape. 

His Last Letter pays homage to the many musicians who influenced Muldaur’s life over the years — Duke Ellington, J.B. Lenoir, “Fats” Waller, Don Redman, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Eric von Schmidt, and more. He even provided musical settings for the poetry of Tennessee Williams. 

The LP set begins with Black Horse Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson and wends its way through the American musical song bag … ending with Muldaur’s original 20-minute “Octet in Three Movements (His Last Letter).”

The Octet is a touching tribute to Muldaur’s great-grandfather who served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy and was killed in 1870 when his ship was rammed and sank in Yokohama harbor. The song in the second movement is based on a love letter sent by Muldaur’s great-grandfather to his wife in New Jersey the day before the accident occurred. 

His Last Letter has yet to be released in the US but the word is beginning to trickle out. Conductor, composer, musician David Amram, who was selected by Leonard Bernstein to be the New York Philharmonic’s first composer-in-residence, had this to say about it: 

“Geoff Muldaur’s new recording, His Last Letter, is a joy to listen to … over and over. As with all original creative artists, Geoff’s music keeps evolving and we can be thankful that this new album defies categories and does what all real music of value does. It makes you feel happy to be alive and able to hear it!”

Where does it go from here? His Last Letter is about to be released in Europe, accompanied by a 35-page booklet in which Muldaur writes about the artists who influenced his music and relates personal stories about them that only he could tell. 

Muldaur currently has plans to perform these chamber works in Europe and Japan. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” Muldaur said, “I’ve learned a lot but I’m not finished; the blessing comes when you get your next big idea.” 

Geoff Currier is an editor at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, and a frequent contributor to Arts and Ideas, Edible Vineyard, and Bluedot Living Magazines. 

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