dennis palmer art
It’s easy to talk about Dennis Palmer—musician, artist, educator and, to me and others, a close friend—in terms of his accomplishments, among them co-founding the Shaking Ray Levis performing group with Bob Stagner and the 27-year-old nonprofit, the Shaking Ray Levi Society (full disclosure: I am its current president.) What isn’t so easy is articulating this complicated person who measurably made Chattanooga more vibrant, more benevolent, and yes, a little weirder.
Dennis often spoke of “living in the moment,” which ties in with his love of musical improvisation but has resonance far beyond the arts. “Living in the moment” is being open-minded, receptive, flexible and inventive. One of the most impressive improvisers I’ve experienced, his creativity overflowed, taking inspiration from everything from birdsongs—Dennis could recognize any bird native to this area—to satirical targets, with the conviction that humor had every right to exist in art. Dennis personified a quote from Col. Bruce Hampton—Dennis’s friend and collaborator—which paraphrased is, “Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” Although he could generate ideas quickly, he never, ever did anything half-heartedly. When painting, he would sweat over the tiniest detail; when working on a new recording, he ensured it was recorded and mixed to exacting standards. “Living in the moment” is not complacency, but it is doing the best with what you have.
Deep, meaningful connections were vitally important to Dennis; lengthy phone and face-to-face conversations over wine were staples in his life. He could find common ground with everyone and I remember being tickled when he mentioned that one of the reasons he watched current animated children’s movies was so he could connect with the kids he taught. That wasn’t the only reason, of course—he himself was a kid at heart.
I’ve witnessed Dennis in classrooms, and he had that rare combination of patience, empathy, awareness and insight that the best educators possess. He found ways to tear down communication barriers; he told me once that some of his most emotionally demanding work was at day camps for grieving children at Hospice of Chattanooga. Some of these children were too distressed to even want to speak, so Dennis would use music as a tool for children to open up. For these children, the simple act of hitting a drum was an expression and the first step toward communicating.
I have never understood the idea of getting closure when it comes to death. Closure signifies an end, but when losing someone close, there really should be no end. Relatedly, several people have recently asked me about the future of the Shaking Ray Levi Society, and my reply to everyone is, “Our mission remains.” Dennis co-founded the society with strong ideas, and ideas outlast human bodies.
The Ever-Loving Astral Etheric Weekend for Dennis Palmer will not be about living in the past—it will be about first understanding the past and then moving forward. Dennis was a sworn enemy of the status quo, after all. Like live improvisation, relationships can sometimes be messy, but more often than not they are rewarding. With collaborative improvisation, one first takes in what others create and then gives back.
There’s an exercise with which Dennis would often close his classes, involving asking the students to remember their last good feeling and give it to themselves, then to all in the room and finally to the whole universe. Our tribute to Dennis Palmer will not mark an end; it’s about channeling the kindness, generosity and creativity he embodied and sending it out to the cosmos, multiplied.
Ernie Paik reviews new music for The Pulse each week and is the president of the Shaking Ray Levi Society. By day he toils at TVA.