Photograph of Michael Mantler by Tod Papageorge, 1968
I’m luckier than most. My life’s been filled with a lot of folks who’ve shown me the way. Parents, teachers, friends, bosses. Most of them would be horrified to be identified as my “mentor,” but that’s just what they are. An advisor, a counselor, who helped shape my world view.
Composer Michael Mantler was one of them. He was first hand proof that talent, planning, vision, drive, hard work, and sheer force of will could combine to accomplish dreams beyond anyone’s expectations. He didn’t have any particular interest, I think, in showing me much of anything really, but he was an incredible role model, trying to keep his family’s heads above water, struggling against all odds to be viable fringe artists in a highly commercial world. It was a time in my life that would never be repeated, and one that made a huge difference to me.
Mike would probably recoil at the whole idea of mentorship –by now, we’re probably more like friends or something– but I don’t know what else to call it. He was already a young legend in avant-garde jazz when, as a naive 18 year old, I crashed my first professional recording session he was producing, his then wife Carla Bley’s “Escalator Over the Hill,” He patiently figured I was a friend of one of the superstar orchestra’s if he even noticed my presence. I went on to play their records on college radio, and then he and Carla trusted me right out of school to work at their innovative artist record distribution service (itself an outgrowth of their incredible, idealistic collective, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, JCOA). I wasn’t too impressed with the job I did, but a few years later Mike asked me to be the sound man and assistant roadie on Carla’s first big band tours. It was an unforgetable experience not only for the music, but for the pride with which Mike managed the unruly, artistic bunch they’d gathered. I repayed them after a year by ducking out days before our first European tour (a real loss on my part), but it didn’t stop us from staying friendly for the 30 years since.
Thanks Mike, you made a real difference in my struggle to become a professional adult.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Mike without mentioning some of his stunning work. His music isn’t for everyone (on his website he quotes one reviewer saying “‘Silence‘ is possibly the least listenable record I have ever heard”) and requires a dedicated listener, but the rewards are great. Aside from his playing and composing, Mike was no slouch as a producer either. He always knew to not only get the very best musicians, but that it didn’t hurt if they had name value for sales (check out Robert Wyatt, Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette, Pharoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Don Preston, among many others). A few of my favorites:
And here’s one of my favorite of Mike’s recordings, featuring a jazz avant-garde superstar orchestra, from the 1968 “The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra“:
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra > Preview
(Composed & conducted by Michael Mantler; Soloist: Pharoah Sanders)