It’s a snowy day in mid-March and I’m thinking about my friends in the Bennington, VT area, and the annual pilgrimage I made up there for the better part of this century, almost always around this time of year.
It all started with an email I received in early 2004, from one Matthew Perry, head of an upstart arts center called The Vermont Arts Exchange. Matthew and his then-wife had just returned from attending a concert I’d given with my band at Mass MoCA in the Berkshires, and he wanted to know whether there was any way I might be convinced to bring them north, to help kick off the first season of what they were calling The Basement Music Series, at their home in The Sage Street Mill in North Bennington.
“You won’t get rich here, ” Matthew wrote. “We don’t have the sort of budget that Mass MoCA does.” While he could only offer a modest fee, he could promise a large experience, including a home-cooked meal, a cozy stay at the local B&B, and an audience that would be deeply engaged with what we did. Matthew was an artist himself, he explained. For him, it was about forging relationships, creating community, and supporting art that was outside of the mainstream. He also mentioned that, if we liked, he’d take us for a hike in the woods the next day.
Our show at the VAE was a blast, and I came back again and again, for ten consecutive years. The shows were always magical, the audiences eager, excited, and ready to embrace (and match) whatever enthusiasm I brought them. I presented new material, pulled together new ensembles, showcased work in progress. A level of trust was established that allowed for this sort of openness, year in and year out. I always felt that I was among friends, able to relax and dig in, which -- for me -- is the most conducive environment for performing there is. It felt like a home away from home.
Here's a clip of the cacophonous opening of one show there, complete with swinging lightbulb. Joining me here were Mazz Swift (violin), Kevin Louis (trumpet), Mark McLean (drums), and Ian Riggs (upright bass):
Sometimes, spring would arrive early, and I would hang out with Matthew's chickens in the backyard (the source of the eggs that he and his family served us for breakfast).
One year, our tuba player Ron Caswell payed a visit to their coop:
Those chickens would figure into another memory a few years later, on a day when were doing a matinee show for kids, following our evening performance from the night before. An adventurous 4-year old named Leah arrived early with her Mom, and went out to look at the birds. She chased one chicken and caught it, hoisting it up into her arms. An explosion of squawks and feathers ensued.
At the show, Leah was brave enough to join us onstage, helping us out with “Take Me Out To The Ballgame:”
A few weeks later, Leah’s Mother sent me blown-up photos, which have been on my wall ever since:
On the back is the letter Leah dictated to her Mom:
“Dear Howard Fishman,
I liked being up on stage with you. I liked playing with the chickens. I hope you play again soon somewhere else near us. What is your favorite song? I paint on my Buddha Board. Do you like to paint or make art? What is your favorite color? Who is your best friend?
Speaking of making art, one visit to the VAE featured an event at which the cost of admission included a pre-concert dinner, served in the homemade bowl of one’s choosing. Dozens of colorful ceramic bowls had been created and donated by VAE art students. I picked this beautiful blue one, and have used it for my breakfast just about every morning since then:
Natural, delicious, farm-fresh food has always been something I associate with my visits to Vermont. Dr. Bob Hemmer, VAE’s longstanding volunteer A/V set-up man, go-to-guy, and all around provider of good vibes, has been growing and harvesting vegetables at his home in neighboring Shaftsbury for years. On one occasion, Bob mentioned his varieties of heirloom garlic, and he saw my eyes light up. A few weeks later, a package arrived for me in Brooklyn -- a large paper satchel bursting with bulbs from four or five of his different strains, a gift that he would repeat in years to come.
Bob’s two daughters, Rachel and Katelyn (you can see them playing their recorders with us on stage in the photo with little Leah), presented me with these drawings when they were still quite young -- they hang on my wall too:
Mathew Perry always tried to make our visits special, and he really outdid himself one year when he made this hand-colored, poster-sized, original woodcut to promote the appearance of my brass band project, the Biting Fish. It now hangs on my wall, a priceless, one-of-a-kind gift he offered to me, another reminder of the depth and richness of my relationship to him and his audience at VAE:
Matthew has also sent me various artistic renderings over the years, which also adorn my walls in Brooklyn. Here’s a cartoon he send me one winter:
And a coaster he made in the VAE clay studio that sits on my coffeetable:
I’ve chosen to represent myself for most of my career. Not having an agent to serve as a buffer has engendered its fair share of challenges, but the freedom to entertain offers like the one Matthew Perry made to me way back in 2004 is something I cherish. A traditional music industry agent or manager might have passed on Matthew’s overtures. I accepted. I had a good feeling about him. Trusting my gut led me to connections and memories that continue to enrich my life to this day.
Here’s one last drawing of Matthew’s that accompanied a check for my appearance one season. That money is long gone, but this drawing I see every day -- along with the woodcut, photos, and letters from children on my wall, the coaster on my table, the bowl I use for my oatmeal, and Dr. Bob’s latest crop of garlic (which I just used this afternoon for my lunch). Matthew Perry was wrong. I did get rich performing at the Vermont Arts Exchange. It’s just a different sort of wealth -- one that can never be spent, can never be taken away, and that brings thoughts of joy and warmth that will never end.
Here's a little slideshow from my annual trips up to the VAE: