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On Friday and Saturday evening, Bruce Kaplan and the Shaking Ray Levis Society are hosting a party celebrating the late Dennis Palmer’s life and work with the Shaking Ray Levis. Palmer, who passed away on Feb. 19, left behind several unfinished projects. As well as celebrating the work he did with his partner Bob Stagner, and many other musicians from across the globe, the party will help raise some funds to complete the three CDs he left unfinished.
Among the performers playing on Friday night will be David Greenberger, an NPR commentator and creator of the celebrated Duplex Planet series of zines, comic books, CDs and spoken-word performances and radio plays, the guitarist Killick Erik Hinds from Athens, Ga., along with bassist Evan Lipson, percussionist Kofi Mawuko and The Reverend Terry Fugate from Chattanooga.
Greenberger will be back on Saturday night. With him will be a few of the hundreds of musicians Palmer worked with and befriended over the years, including saxophonist Jack Wright from Philadelphia, guitarist Davey Williams and violinist LaDonna Smith from Birmingham, and Atlanta’s 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra.
Kaplan first met Palmer in Philadelphia. Born in Miami, Kaplan was living in the city and had become friends with the saxophonist Wright. It was Wright who introduced him to Palmer and Stagner. The first time he heard them play in the mid-1980s, he was “blown away” and the three became close friends.
A few years later, having completed his training as a neurologist, Kaplan was looking for work when he came upon an ad for a partner in a practice in Chattanooga. “There’s no question in my mind that I would have jumped right over that one had I not known Bob and Dennis,” he said. “There’s no way that this little Jewish guy from Miami and later New York, would’ve ever thought of moving to Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
That he and his wife moved here in 1990 is a testament to the power of Palmer’s vision. In the mid-1980s, after several years of playing in a rock band called Bend Sinister, he and Stagner formed the Shaking Ray Levis to play and the Shaking Ray Levis Society to promote improvised music. Much misunderstood, then as now, improvised music is an attempt to create music in the moment.
The English guitarist Derek Bailey was one of their early heroes. They played many shows together including several here in Chattanooga. In an interview broadcast on WUTC-FM, Bailey said that before he stepped onto the stage he did everything he could to empty his mind of any preconceptions about what he was going to play. Palmer and Stagner approached music making the same way, playing with myriad like-minded musicians in venues all over the world for 25 years.
The music is very difficult to describe. Frequently dismissed by listeners, not entirely without justification, as cacophonous, incomprehensible noise, it “doesn’t allow the basic, simple pleasures most people look for when they listen to music,” Kaplan said. “It’s a challenging listen.”
For Kaplan, it signaled “a potentially vibrant arts community” in Chattanooga, and that was reason enough for him and his wife, Ann Law, to pack their trunks and move here.
Medicine is his profession, but music is his abiding passion. For Law, a dancer, a receptive audience was essential. Within a few years they opened Barking Legs on Dodds Avenue. Initially, as the name suggests, it was a dance workshop and performance space. But within a decade they’d begun inviting musicians of all stripes to play there.
A generation has come of age since the Shaking Ray Levis first began playing and their influence is palpable in Chattanooga’s thriving music community. A community “envied” by people in other bigger cities like Atlanta, who “wish they had something similar,” according to Kaplan. But size is often an impediment to developing a truly innovative creative community. The Beatles, REM and Nirvana all came from relatively small, cohesive communities like Chattanooga.
This weekend, musicians from all over the area will converge on Barking Legs to pay tribute to Palmer’s persistent pursuit of his idiosyncratic vision; kindred spirits from larger communities who were originally drawn to Chattanooga, like Kaplan and Law, by Palmer and Stagner. Musicians across the U.S. and as far away as England to Tibet are mourning his passing. Some within driving distance are coming to town to celebrate his life with the kind of cacophonous, sometimes incomprehensible noise Palmer would’ve enjoyed.
The Ever-Loving Astral Etheric Weekend for Dennis Palmer
$20 advance (both nights) • $10 advance, $15 door on Friday • $15 advance, $20 door on Saturday • 8 p.m. - Friday, March 29 • 7 p.m. - Saturday, March 30
Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave. • (423) 624-5347 • barkinglegs.org
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.