Homage Nation: The Life and Music of Dennis Gonzalez
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "THIS WAS A MAN."
- William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"
I've come to accept, and not be surprised by, the foibles and tragedies of humankind. Not to say that I'm insensitive to people and their plight, not at all. I just think I have decided to accept what is happening/not accept what is happening with a careful balance of mind/psyche/spirit.
- Dennis Gonzalez
When Dennis Gonzalez departed this plane of existence on the Ides of March, 2022, Dallas lost a longtime contributor and respected elder of its underground arts scene. A masterful musician of international stature, visual artist, poet, educator, and broadcaster, Dennis made his mark on the world from a house on Clinton Avenue, starting in 1976, when he and his wife Carol arrived to begin their careers in education and nursing, respectively. More than a “pillar of the community,” Dennis was like a big tree, with deep roots, casting a big shadow, sheltering and nourishing the generations of North Texas creatives who came after him through advocacy, encouragement, and mentorship.
The son of an educator and a visual artist/choir director, Dennis had progressed from being “a church musician to a rock musician to a jazz musician.” When out of the classroom, he formed Daagnim (Dallas Association for Avant-garde and Neo-Impressionistic Music), a performance collective and record label that explored the outer reaches of improvised music, attuned to parallel developments in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Europe.
The opening of Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth allowed him to connect with many of these like-minded musicians, and he began traveling around the United States and to Europe to perform and record. Over the next four decades, he built collaborative partnerships with musicians including reed players Rodrigo Amado, Faruk Z. Bey, Charles Brackeen, Elton Dean, Douglas Ewart, Tim Green, Kidd Jordan, Oliver Lake, Sabir Mateen, Akash Mittal, Marek Pospieszalski, and John Purcell; trumpeters Ahmed Abdullah, Hans Petter Molvaer, and Rob Blakeslee; pianists Curtis Clark, Chris Parker, Joao Paulo, Paul Plimley, and Keith Tippett; guitarists Nels Cline and Bill Pohl; bassists Malachi Favors, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, Henry Franklin, Henry Grimes, Wojchiech Mazolewski, Joe Morris, and Reggie Workman; and drummers Alex Cline, Alvin Fielder, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Don Moye, and Michael T.A. Thompson.
By the end of the 20th century, Dennis’s musical career had lapsed into dormancy for several years. During that time, he supported the early creative endeavors of his progeny, bassist Aaron Gonzalez and drummer Stefan Gonzalez -- who cut their musical teeth playing hardcore punk shows in their own Clinton Avenue home, where Carol and Dennis welcomed a new generation of adventurous listeners. In 1999, Aaron and Stefan invited their father to join them in a free jazz trio, and Yells At Eels was born – a band that would continue for two decades. (Aaron and Stefan have also performed together in Akkolyte and Unconscious Collective, and separately in myriad forms.)
For 21 years, Dennis’s show “Miles Out” on KERA 90.1 FM was a late-night lifeline for many listeners. Dallas Independent School District students at Spence Middle School, Woodrow Wilson and North Dallas High Schools benefited from his tutelage in French and later, mariachi. In 2010, Dennis organized the nonprofit La Rondalla, providing free music lessons to Dallas youth. Students from the program even had the opportunity to perform here at the Kessler.
To celebrate Dennis this Father’s Day, Aaron and Stefan have assembled a fiery galaxy of talent, whose members have deep connections with their father. Drummer Gerard Bendiks (Swirve, Tidbits) played with Dennis from the early ‘80s, appearing on some of Dennis’s earliest Daagnim recordings. Guitarist Gregg Prickett (Monks of Saturnalia) taught at La Rondalla as well as playing with Aaron and Stefan in Unconscious Collective. Trombonist Gaika James and Houston-based saxophonist Jason Jackson have both played with Yells At Eels. Gaika also leads his own eponymous quartet, while Jason is educational coordinator for the nonprofit Nameless Sound and plays with Stefan in The Young Mothers. Veteran Denton bassist Drew Phelps anchored Dennis’s last ensemble, the jazz/world music/electronica hybrid Ataraxia. Chris Curiel (Swirve, Trumpet Assassins) met the challenge of filling the trumpet chair when Ataraxia regrouped for an emotional performance in the wake of Dennis’s passing last year.
The repertoire for this performance is drawn from the full expanse of Dennis’s prolific and well-traveled career. It includes signature tunes like “Namesake,” “Document for Toshinori Kondo” and “Hymn for Julius Hemphill,” others (“Hymn for Mbizo,” “Battalion of Saints”) drawn from the ‘80s albums on the Swedish Silkheart label that established his international reputation, still more (“Wind Streaks in Syrtis Minor,” “Document for Walt Dickerson”) from the Yells At Eels era. “Kwela for Carol” was originally recorded in England with musicians from Soft Machine and King Crimson, “The Earth and the Heart” in LA with brothers Nels and Alex Cline, “Song for a Poet” in Oslo with Scandinavian musicians. Stefan said, “It was hard to just leave it at these tracks alone, but we have a big repertoire for future performances.