Sadly, that future has been derailed by the untimely death of Palmer, 55, last Friday.
Palmer was a visual artist, musician and storyteller whose work was directly influenced by his Southern roots. As an artist and designer, Palmer exhibited in London and Los Angeles and received critical acclaim from both the European and American press.
Palmer also designed CD and record covers for Britain’s Incus Records in addition to many other U.S. labels. As the artistic director and co-founder of the SRLS, he fostered a coalition of performing artists formed with the goal of promoting improvisation and creativity in both thought and performance.
Additionally, he participated in the Allied Arts Artist-in-Residence program, sharing the ideas of improvisation with students of all ages.
A master improviser and Moog “syn-the-sist” with the Shaking Ray Levis duo, Palmer was a singular musician and vocalist. In 1986, he co-founded the Shaking Ray Levis with drummer Bob Stagner, an ongoing collaboration of musicians with a common interest in free improvisation.
Along the way, Palmer collaborated with a “Who’s Who” of improvisers, musicians and entertainers, including Derek Bailey, Col. Bruce Hampton, David Pajo (of Slint and Tortoise), NPR commentator David Greenberger and most notably the late folk artist Rev. Howard Finster.
Born and raised in Chattanooga Palmer’s many talents, passions and interests often called him away from his hometown, but he was always quick to return to share the fruits of his exploits.
“I have no interest in living anywhere else,” he told The Pulse in an April 2012 interview. “You can find any kind of music here, and that’s unusual for a lot of cities. But now, the whole musical gamut is covered in Chattanooga.”
Besides bringing an eclectic range of artists and performers to Chattanooga who might never have visited without their influence, the SLRS has had an indelible impact on the Chattanooga arts scene.
“He was my moral compass in art and life,” said Bob Stagner, his friend and musical partner of 50 years. “Dennis reminded me of a new lesson every day. He gave me 50 years of lessons and my homework is now unfolding in front of me. He was the purest spirit I’ve ever known and at the core of that was love.”
“Dennis was ahead of all of us. The high praise that is often lauded on ‘The Arts in Chattanooga’ is due in large part to what he so generously gave, for years and years, on behalf of the greater whole heart and his personal and professional integrity informed everything he did. Dennis’s passing leaves a void that will not be filled,” said Anne Willson, executive director of the Association of Visual Arts, of which Palmer was a member since its inception.
This small space is not enough to catalog Palmer’s many contributions, but we pause here to mark his passing and pay tribute to a remarkable life that benefitted Chattanooga in many ways. We are told the SLRS will go on, but it will be less fun—and far less interesting—without Palmer.