When I was learning to play music while growing up in Corvallis in the 60s, the closest I could get to jazz was my music teacher, Harvey Brooks, who led a dance band at the Elks Club. He’d take my clarinet to demonstrate a passage, and when he handed it back, the mouthpiece would taste of whiskey and cigarettes.
Jazz seemed off-limits for a young teen then, another forbidden adult taste to be admired from afar but never practiced in the company of adults. Even as late as the 1980s, according to smooth jazz trumpet star and Corvallis native Chris Botti, it was necessary for him to move to Portland while still in high school to play regularly with practicing professionals.
Not since Dave Storrs began waging his cultural battle in the college town on the banks of the Willamette River about 10 years ago.
It’s a psychic battle for an individual’s potential to be creative, he says. People want to be creative, but the notions of big corporations are not healthy for their creativity. I feel like I’m on the front line fighting for our souls.
Storrs, 49, is the owner and producer of tiny Louie Records in Corvallis, where he’s fighting the music industry from the fringes.
He’s also a jazz drummer and composer who plays regularly with his group, The Tone Sharks, and in various combinations with other Willamette Valley musicians loosely associated with the record label. Their struggle is to build an audience for improvisational music, a few listeners at a time, in small venues for little money.
In addition, he’s a teacher who uses private lessons to carry on his crusade.
The message of Louie Records is we can all do this. He’s speaking from the kitchen of his modest bungalow on a back street near downtown and the railroad tracks. Conviction animates his voice. Freedom is the main thing. The technology is within reach of everyone. We’re playing in the sandbox, you can play in the sandbox we all have a chance to create.
Storrs had to move from Portland to Corvallis 10 years ago, though, to let go of expectations about success and discover that freedom for himself. The results will be on display when the Tone Sharks play next Saturday at the Elephant Bookstore and Coffeehouse.
It may look like he’s losing his cultural battle; the Sharks draw mostly small audiences, and most of the 10 titles in the Louie catalog have generated only miniscule sales. But a longer view reveals significant personal, professional and social gains: His small, local operation may be the best model for the future of creative music, and more importantly, he has opened up possibilities for young Willamette Valley musicians.
Even though jazz players have always lived and worked in the Corvallis area, since Storrs came to town, it has become a lot bigger place for students such as Misha Schurman, 16, who studied drums with Storrs and has now moved into the Califas Rhythm Ensemble with him (see Sidebar). Jazz skills are best transmitted on the bandstand, and such opportunities as Storrs provides are rare for young musicians in the Valley. But even in private lessons he can help develop the skills crucial for creative music.
I don’t teach them to read music, he explains. We’re learning how to listen. I don’t let them ask me any questions, he adds with a Zen twist. I play something and they have to play it right back to me. The whole deal is focus. You let go just let the drums play it.
That’s what I needed when I was 14 years old. I didn’t need somebody to put a book in front of me. I needed somebody like me to go, Yes!’ and rock back and forth if it was cooking that can save you years of work.
LEARNING TO LET GO
The son of prominent architect John Storrs (Salishan Lodge, the Western Forestry Center), the drummer was raised in Portland where he attended Catlin Gable School. He became a leader in the area avant garde with his first album, Ross Island, but even a second critically acclaimed album of invigorating compositions for large ensemble didn’t leave him satisfied.
In Portland I was confused, he explains. I wanted to explore some new templates and Corvallis allowed me the freedom of my dream.
That freedom is the key to his approach to business as well as playing and teaching.
It’s all about letting go, he says. It’s not worrying about what’s happening in the music industry. I’m not trying to keep up with the Jones’ or even identify who they are anymore.
So the abstract stuff doesn’t sell, he continues, that’s the way it goes. Really, the CD’s only set up the possibility that we can play some more. I want to be in the Now as much as possible. The only real Now is when you’re playing.
It’s always Now on Monday nights at the Bean Bag in Corvallis, a coffee shop across busy Monroe street from the campus where Storrs and the Sharks play weekly. He sits at the drum kit, loose and springy, at the heart of the group’s rhythm-centered improvisations and a new set of possibilities.
Only the bean bag chairs remain from the 60s, when a whiff of whiskey and cigarettes was the closest I could get to jazz and the word freedom was rarely applied to music in the Valley.