When Plainsboro resident and jazz musician Gerry Hemingway looks at his basement studio, full of musical instruments, electronic equipment, and recordings of music from all over the world, he feels a sense of satisfaction that the evidence of a lifetime of playing, studying and teaching is right there for him to see, and to hear.
But then he feels a bit of panic. “What am I going to do with all this stuff?” he says.
Why the panic? Because come early fall, the jazz percussionist and composer will be moving to Lucerne, Switzerland, where he will become a professor of music at Hochschule Luzern. Hemingway says his wife, Nancy, and 16-year-old son, Jordan, will not move right away, and that all three are excited but at the same time very ambivalent. And he is worried because there is no way he will be able to ship all of that music to Europe. “I may have to get rid of some of this. And I don’t want to,” he says.
Hemingway will appear with his quartet on Saturday, March 7, as part of the Arts Council of Princeton’s Jazz at the Robeson Center series. In addition to Hemingway on drums, the quartet consists of Kermit Driscoll on bass, New Brunswick native Herb Robertson on trumpet, and Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax. On Friday, March 6, from 4 to 6 p.m., the quartet holds a jazz improvisation workshop for high school and college age musicians.
Hemingway’s imminent departure to Switzerland brings a slight bit of urgency to his preparation for this concert. “For me, this event is significant, because I have had very few chances to show my students, and the community in general, just what it is that I do,” he says.
Hemingway, born in 1955 in New Haven, is a trim, youthful 53. He comes from a prominent, musical family. And yes, he is one of the Hemingways. “I believe I am the fifth cousin, twice removed, of Ernest Hemingway,” he says. His father, Louis, was a Yale graduate who had studied composition with Paul Hindemith, was for years a member of the New Haven Symphony’s board of directors. Gerry enjoys telling stories of how his older brother found some of their father’s compositions in their home, transcribed and arranged them and surprised their then-ailing father with the opportunity for him to conduct his beloved orchestra playing his work. Gerry’s mother, Ruth, was a concert pianist, and his maternal grandfather, John Cochran, graduated from Princeton University.
The Hemingways live just off Plainsboro Park and near the Wicoff School. Son Jordan is a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. His wife, Nancy, is a movement therapist and manual therapist. After living in New York and its environs, the couple wanted to find a more child-friendly place to live after Jordan was born. “We set up shop in Hackettstown, which was OK, but rather isolated,” Hemingway says. Then his in-laws, who had moved to Jamesburg, suggested the couple look at West Windsor and Plainsboro, largely for the school district. “The school Jordan was in was not measuring up to its reputation, and money was getting cut from its arts programs,” he says. “So we decided to come here, and take a look. We liked the fact that Princeton University was here, and we thought this made sense. We had better access to New York via the train.”
Hemingway’s current quartet has more or less been together since 1998. As with many jazz musicians, Hemingway has the blessing, or curse, depending on your perspective, of performing as much or more abroad, primarily in Europe, than he does in his own country. He formed this group to try to concentrate on working and playing in America.
“In a kind of unconscious reduplication of something akin to the Sonny Rollins quartet, or maybe some of the Ornette (Coleman) vibe,” he says, “I went with this two-horn, bass, and drum setup, which is different from my quintet, which although pianoless, was more harmonically based. In essence I wanted to switch up my approach to a little bit more hard-hitting stuff.”
Hemingway is a prolific, peripatetic percussionist and composer. He operates in so many spheres and worlds that he can hardly keep up with all of them. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and has presented commissioned works in jazz and classical music. He is a veteran of the bands of Anthony Braxton, Reggie Workman, Anthony Davis, and Cecil Taylor and has appeared on 100 recordings as a leader and sideman. He has worked in so many different configurations (solo, duo, trio, several different quartets and quintets, larger ensembles) that categorizing his work is all but impossible. That can sometimes hurt Hemingway and others like him, because often music like his is not considered “accessible” or “commercial.” As a result, most of his discs have been released by small, independent labels, most often European ones.
“The way the machine works here is if you don’t go with some of the big guns, if you don’t manage to work out something with one of them, it is difficult to get the promotional push that puts you in a much more visible position,” says Hemingway. “In Europe, on the other hand, our music is very well-distributed, generally speaking, and does garner a larger amount of attention.” Many jazz artists, says Hemingway, who are traditional, creative, progressive, or avant-garde find themselves in a “high art” category, “where it’s more about the quality of the art than the commercial success of it. That is the kind of strata that I find myself circulating in, and I’m OK with that. I’m going to be in the art category from here to eternity, and that’s how it’s going to be.”
As his son Jordan (now establishing himself as a photographer) grew up, Hemingway and his wife became more active in the community and their circle of friends and acquaintances began realizing what he did for a living. They began asking him to teach music to their children. “I enjoyed teaching young guys. Sometimes they could barely play or hold a stick. Most people who teach kids like that find it so boring, almost an imposition — they just do it for the money. But I love it. I find kids who try to figure out how to use their brain in this way fascinating.
“I am a lone voice for a lot of these kids,” continues Hemingway, who explains that although the school-based music education in this area, especially in West Windsor-Plainsboro, is good, jazz isn’t often part of it. “They come down here and it’s not just about learning about how to play the instrument. I’m pulling down CDs and turning them on to stuff. ‘You ever hear Roy Haynes? Check out this Chick Corea record. Check out Rahsaan (Roland Kirk). Check out this. Check out that.’ Sometimes I blow their minds. And I love that.”
In addition to his private students Hemingway now teaches jazz history and world music history at the New School in Manhattan. “It’s not like a job to pay the bills for me, it’s a job I have a lot of feeling for. I enjoy it almost as much as performing, and I do love performing.”
While Hemingway loves teaching, he sees ironies in his being chosen for the position in Switzerland. He had never earned as much as a bachelor’s degree, though he had audited classes at Yale for years. It turns out Hemingway had applied for a position at another institution, he says, but had not made the cut. But a faculty member at Hochschule Luzern found out about it, and one day Hemingway received a letter in the mail offering him the position.
“I have put together a body of work and I have shown that I am an effective teacher, musician, and composer,” says Hemingway. “But I am totally self-taught. I have the knowledge. But I don’t have the paper.”
Gerry Hemingway Quartet, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Saturday, March 7, 8 p.m. Jazz concert presented by Gerry Hemingway, a composer and percussionist from Plainsboro who has performed throughout the world. Band members include Herb Robertson on trumpet, Ellery Eskelin on tenor saxophone, Mark Helias on electric bass, and Hemingway on drums. $15. 609-924-8777. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Also, Jazz Improvisation Workshop, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Friday, March 6, 4 to 6 p.m. Gerry Hemingway and members of his quartet. Open to high school and college age musicians with some fundamental experience playing in a group format and advanced players. Acoustic instruments are ideal, but electric guitarists and bassists may want to bring their amps. Also open to listeners curious about improvisation. Demonstration, discussion, and an opportunity for some participants to interact musically with members of the quartet. Register. Free. 609-924-8777. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.