This year, Chicago is celebrating the Studs Terkel centenary — the life and work of the actor, radio host, author, historian and, in the words of the Chicago Historical Society, "ennobler of his fellow man." There will be a re-dedication of the Studs Terkel Bridge, a 100th birthday party at the Newberry Library, a museum exhibit, readings and a film and video festival.
Terkel's first book was Giants of Jazz in 1957. He loved the flexibility of the music, the creativity of each player. Musicians were among his heroes. You can listen to excerpts of his interviews with Mahalia Jackson and Marian and Jimmy McPartland on this page, and enjoy his art of conversation. Terkel always closed those radio programs with a common-sense call to action, to move from word to deed: "Take it easy, but take it!"
Josh Moshier is a 24-year-old pianist, composer and occasional political activist. Late in the 2008 presidential campaign, riding home to Chicago from Iowa, Moshier picked up a paper and read that Terkel had died. Moshier is too young to remember Terkel's radio shows on Chicago's WFMT between 1952 and 1997, and was not yet familiar with his oral histories such as Working, Hard Times and The Good War. But he decided to learn more about Terkel, and he liked what he read — especially Division Street USA.
"I think it's because, being in Chicago, [I'm] familiar with a lot of the landmarks and symbolism that he talks about," Moshier said, explaining that Terkel "posits that Division Street Chicago is symbolic of the divisions, socioeconomic and racial divisions, in America. I also read They All Sang, his interviews with musicians and performers. And then I read his two memoirs, Talking to Myself and Touch and Go."
Moshier found connections. As Terkel worked with stories, Moshier creates songs with melody as narrative. As Terkel sequenced his stories to create an arc, Moshier balances composition with improvisation, the individual with the group. He began to envision his own Touch and Go music that "touches the ground as in landing and immediately takes off again." Chamber Music America awarded him a composition grant, and the process began.
At Sunday rehearsals with the Moshier-Lebrun Collective, Moshier would introduce new music, then listen to the band's response. (Like Terkel, always listening.) Moshier and saxophonist Mike Lebrun had formed the group in 2007 as undergraduates at Northwestern University. When they had time back then, they hung out at Pete Miller's Steakhouse in Evanston for the music. They soaked up pianist Ron Perrillo's harmonic freedom and guitarist Bobby Broom's dynamic group interplay. Moshier laments that those long-running gigs have ended, but he champions those Chicago players and their influence.
I asked Moshier how authentic it is for him to create music inspired by Studs Terkel, whom he did not know, and he answered with conviction.
"I do think that it's terrifying when your music is associated with someone that is so beloved, but I think that as musicians we need those challenges," Moshier says. "We need our music to be about something. That's not to say that music can't just exist on its own terms. I firmly believe that hearing beautiful music is beautiful. [But] I think that as far as drawing in listeners, it's so important that there's a story. I am super-interested in telling great stories and doing that through instrumental music."
Our performance comes from Feb. 22, 2011, at Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase. It begins with a quiet piano prelude, then the sax begins to speak out. Dialogues develop. Guest John Moulder on guitar makes his presence known. Doors open, the energy ratchets up to boisterous and even joyful, and doors close. The bass and drums — John Tate and Jon Deitemyer — are equal contributors.
Recording by Timothy Powell, field producer Dayna Calderon, Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.
Touch and Go: The Studs Terkel Project was created with support from Chamber Music America's New Works: Creation & Presentation Program, funded generously through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.