A Better St. Louis. Powered by Journalism.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Email

Van Dyke Parks: This major musician is starting to tour as he nears 70

In Performing Arts

11:50 am on Tue, 04.03.12

Thursday evening, April 5, the Luminary Center for the Arts will present a very special concert in its eclectic and always interesting Elevator Music series. This month’s featured artist is Van Dyke Parks, a songwriter-arranger-producer-author - and wearer of several additional artistic hats - who is unfortunately unknown to most casual music fans.

Roman Cho

But check out Parks’ resume and you’ll discover musical connections that include: playing keyboard for the Byrds and Judy Collins, working on lyrics and arrangements with head Beach Boy Brian Wilson on the legendary “Smile” album (including the song “Heroes and Villains”), arranging and producing with Ry Cooder and Little Feat, and releasing the astonishing, eclectic and jaw-dropping 1968 album “Song Cycle.”

Parks hales from Hattiesburg, Miss., but has lived in Los Angeles for 50 years, mostly working behind the scenes. Over the past couple of years, however, he’s been taking his music on tour and will be appearing for the first time in St. Louis.

As I found out during a phone interview earlier this week, Parks has plenty to say about his lengthy career, his decision to start his own record label – and a very interesting local connection he recently made that involves St. Louis native Tom McDermott, now one of the most noted pianists and composers on the New Orleans music scene.

“As my mother so artfully said about my music, I put the emphasis on my retirement before my career,” Parks says, talking about taking to the road on tour after spending most of his career in studios or at a piano.

"I led a hermetically sealed life in LA for many years, working in music and raising three inquiring academics with my wife," he says. "Now I’m experiencing a new chapter. I’m turning into an itinerant musician, touring and experiencing life on the road as I near the age of 70 and the end game. It’s actually been a lot of fun, and the aspect of hauling luggage around is athletic, really. And I haven’t had any contusions yet.”

Stripping down to a trio

Parks will play at the Luminary in a trio setting, a format that fits both his  thoughts about performing his music live and the financial limitations of putting together a small venue tour.

“I’m playing with a standup bassist and a percussionist with myself at the piano,” explains Parks. "It’s a triangulated reality, and for me the trio is the irreducible minimum that works well for me as I perform a confessional list of songs I haven’t hazarded in performance for many years.”

Parks' set list will include selections from "Song Cycle" as well an evolving list that will include songs from some of his other recordings such as "Discover America," "Clang of the Yankee Reaper," "Tokyo Rose," “Jump" and his most recent collaboration with Brian Wilson, "Orange Crate Art."

“When I look back at my songs, I’m both astonished and also challenged to attempt to pare them down and make them resonate for a live audience. For example, on my ‘Song Cycle’ album, I was taken to task with being obfuscatory.”

To get the dense, layered arrangements on “Song Cycle” compositions such as “The All Golden” Parks got a lucky combination of then state-of-the art equipment plus the freedom to explore the limits of that new technology.

At that time, he had access to what may now seem dated: an eight-track reel-to-reel recording system that Warner Bros. Records had just installed. And thanks to his successes before then with the label, he had free rein in the studio in terms of studio availability.

For Parks, re-listening to the music he created more than four decades ago and reworking it for live trio performances is exhilarating, challenging – and amusing.

Elevator Music Series

When: doors open 7 p.m.; concert 8 p.m., April 5

Where: Luminary Center for the Arts, 4900 Reber Pl. 63139.

How much: Advance general admission $22, day of show $25

Tickets: http://theluminaryarts.com/elevator-music-series/45-van-dyke-parks/

Information: www.bananastan.com

“You have to remember when I was making that record, I was also trying to learn about using the capabilities of studio equipment that was very new, and I likely made every possible mistake imaginable. Yet, the music still does have special resonance for me. But now I have to remake it, strip it, make it bleeding and bare and then recreate it in concert.”

That same commitment to a stripped-down approach and what Parks labels the “irreducible minimum” of the trio format is also reflected in his commitment to starting his own record label: Bananastan.

“Bananastan was the name of a flea market stand my wife ran in Paris for six years,” says Parks. I revived the name for my record label, since I saw a parallel there in keeping my music and music of other artists I admire recycled and available."

In addition to releasing a compilation of his arrangements for artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, the late Lowell George as well as his own recordings, Parks has released a set of six singles that feature original covers by noted artists like Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Holmes, Klaus Voorman and others. The commitment to vinyl also reflects Parks' preference for analog recording rather than the digital process that dominates the CD and online download environment.

“The single is ultimately the irreducible minimum in terms of recording – just as the trio is for me in performance. And it’s a medium that avoids what I like to refer to as the digital ditch of CDs.”

Meeting McDermott

The Bananstan label brings us to Parks’ St. Louis connection, Tom McDermott. A native St. Louisan, McDermott moved to new Orleans in 1984 – attracted by his love of Big Easy pianist such as James Booker, Professor Longhair and Doctor John.

McDermott’s musical path led him from membership in the Dukes of Dixieland for five years to founding the groundbreaking New Orleans Nightcrawlers, a group that provided a unique and refreshing take on the NOLA brass band tradition.

McDermott’s musical curiosity eventually led him to explore Caribbean and South American musical styles such as Brazilian Choro – as well as such early New Orleans composers as Louis Gottschalk, who is also one of Parks’ favorite composers.

Previous McDermott CDs


“I actually got a letter from Tom awhile ago,” Parks says. “He wrote to me and commented about my recordings of music by Louis Gottschalk, and let me know he had also recorded Gottschalk’s music.”

“Gottschalk embodies everything I love about music,” says Parks. “It’s folkloric in the sense that it brings the sounds of the street into the parlor, creating a music that is at the same time real and refined.”

Parks was tremendously impressed by McDermott’s recordings of Gottschalk, and made it a point to listen to all of the pianist’s recordings.

“I listened to Tom’s music and was astonished by his ability,” states Parks. “I asked him if it would be possible to release a compilation of his music on my Bananastan label, because I was very interested in stirring up the pot to get more awareness and public interest in his music."

McDermott agreed, and Parks is now finalizing that compilation recording with a release date in late spring. For Parks, this is an opportunity to help provide McDermott with an increased awareness for his musical talent.

“It also gave me the opportunity to prove that I’m more than just a diva,” adds Parks with a laugh. “I want to seek out artists such as Tom whose music deserves to be heard. And Tom certainly deserves to find a wider audience. His insight and ability to work in a variety of interesting musical genres – all within a New Orleans sensibility – is really extraordinary.”

The Gottschalk connection that brought Parks and McDermott together will also serve as the title for the compilation, "Bamboula" – one of Gottschalk’s compositions.

The naming decision, Parks says, is "designed to piss off any other pianists planning a recording that might include Gottschalk. A pre-emptive strike, if you will.”

No Comments

Join The Beacon

When you register with the Beacon, you can save your searches as news alerts, rsvp for events, manage your donations and receive news and updates from the Beacon team.

Register Now

Already a Member

Getting around the new site

Take a look at our tutorials to help you get the hang of the new site.

Most Discussed Articles By Beacon Members

Conference of American nuns will mull response to Vatican charges

In Nation

7:55 am on Fri, 08.03.12

Meeting in St. Louis next week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will have its first opportunity as an assembled group to consider what to do after the Vatican issued a mandate for change this spring. It calls on the conference to reorganize and more strictly observe church teachings.

The 'free' Zoo

In Commentary

7:51 am on Tue, 05.22.12

When a family of four goes to the St. Louis Zoo, they can be forgiven for not knowing it will cost them $60, $72 if they park. If they can't pay, the alternative is to tell the kids they can't do what kids do at the zoo.

Featured Articles

House sends Boeing incentive bill to Nixon

In Economy

12:55 pm on Fri, 12.06.13

The Missouri House easily passed legislation aimed at attracting production of the 777x, a move that wraps up a legislative special session that saw little suspense and few surprises. The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, who has strongly supported the legislation.

Gandhi inspired Mandela on South Africa's 'Long Road to Freedom'

In World

10:10 am on Fri, 12.06.13

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, was a towering moral figure of the 20th century -- along with Mahatma Gandhi. It was no coincidence that Gandhi and Mandela, whose paths never crossed directly, both embarked on their campaigns against discrimination in South Africa. It was when Mandela won election as South Africa’s first black president that Gandhi's influence became apparent.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Encore: Dead before death

In Performing Arts

12:58 am on Fri, 12.06.13

For years , the author was certain he would never come to appreciate The Grateful Dead, let alone be a Deadhead. But little by little, he's come around. He talks about his conversion and relates a real evolution: by a musician who went on to play with the Schwag, a Dead cover band.

Featured Articles

Schlichter honored with St. Louis Award

In Region

4:57 pm on Tue, 12.03.13

The attorney has founded Arch Grants, which brings together nonprofit philanthropy and commercially viable opportunitiesto fund new business startups, and Mentor St. Louis, which finds adult mentors for elementary students in the St. Louis Public School System. He was the driving force behind the state's historic tax credit program.

BioGenerator sets open house to celebrate new digs for entrepreneurs-in-residence

In InnovationSTL

12:29 pm on Tue, 11.12.13

BioSTL's BioGenerator organization is on the move as its entrepreneurs-in-residence find a new home in 4,300 square feet of office and conference space in an old automobile factory. The blossoming program, which helps BioGenerator's portfolio companies to get off the ground, continues to pay dividends within the growing biotech community.

Ambassadors aim to soften rough landing for St. Louis immigrants

In InnovationSTL

6:34 am on Fri, 11.08.13

The St. Louis Mosaic Project is set to hold an orientation for its new ambassadors -- dozens of foreign and native-born volunteers who aim to help make the community a more welcoming place for those from other nations. Participants will be expected to do everything from visiting local restaurants serving international cuisine to having dinner with an immigrant to the area.

Recent Articles

More Articles

Innovation and entrepreneurial activity are on the rise in St. Louis, especially in bioscience, technology and alternative energy. The Beacon's InnovationSTL section focuses on the people who are part of this wave, what they're doing and how this is shaping our future. To many St. Louisans, this wave is not yet visible. InnovationSTL aims to change that. We welcome you to share your knowledge, learn more about this vibrant trend and discuss its impact.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Featured Articles

Featured Events:

Upcoming Events

View Full Calendar

More About The Beacon Home