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Last summer, on the Union Terrace, Big Apple sax player Michael Moss dropped a CD in my lap. Moss is married to modern dancer Judith Moss, who teaches a popular summer class through UW Continuing Studies. All three of us were undergrads here in the '60s. "This'll take you back," Moss said, eyeing the disc. The hand-done letters sprawled across the Memorex said "Fabulous Imitations, Great Hall '65."
The CD was remastered from a missing tape that surfaced under serendipitous circumstances. Last year, On Wisconsin, the UW-Madison alumni mag, ran an article about homegirl songstress Tracy Nelson. The author noted briefly that Nelson belted R&B tunes with the Imitations before she became a roots blues queen in San Francisco in the days of love and rage. Moss responded with a letter to the editor, which caught the eye of Imitations fan Josh Weinstein, class of '66. Weinstein Googled Moss, whom he'd lost touch with years before, and wound up sending him the tape.
Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech and John F. Kennedy was shot the year that band came on the scene - 1963. As we celebrate MLK day and Obama's inauguration next week, let's check in on the Imitations, Madison's musical vanguard in the culture wars of that watershed decade.
In '62, Moss and fellow Imitations founder guitarist Mel Nussbaum were undergrads from Chicago's north side. Both were heavy into post-bop and free jazz - Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy. The first time Moss walked into the Memorial Union Rathskeller he discovered the Friday jazz jams that were happening then; Ben Sidran was among the regulars.
"I ran home to get my sax," Moss says.
Those sessions loomed large in his student career. "I was the farthest-out cat, that's my claim to fame. I was looking for a whole new scalar concept. I got into a 13-note Persian scale. I'd go up one scale and down another."
New York jazz was breaking all the rules, but it wasn't the only hip sound in town. Nobody could ignore the sweet soul music pouring from the Rat's long-gone little jukeboxes and the windows of funky Miffland apartments. From those twin influences the original Imitations were born in Nussbaum's second-floor State Street living room. Bass player Kip Maercklien came from a suburban Milwaukee garage band. Drummer Myron Cohen - "a little Jewish kid from Fond du Lac," he says - hung out with Vic Pitts' Milwaukee soul band in high school. "They loved me 'cause I could hit."
Other players came and went. But on the Great Hall CD, besides the hard-core four, are Richard Drake (who later became Fat Richard, playing blues with Luther Allison) on tenor sax, Hart McNee on baritone, Gary Karp on the keys and three singers out front - Irma Routen, Chuck Matthews and Nelson.
There were other hot dance bands. Sidran has written about the pleasure of laying down party grooves with Steve Miller and the Ardells. Boz Scaggs was here, playing Chicago blues. But the Imitations pursued the cutting edge. "We were a ragtag army of free-jazz missionaries playing '60s dance music," says Nussbaum. "We'd get in the pocket and the horn players would go off into the stratosphere while the rock bass hung onto the party groove."
"What I remember are the chords," says Moss. "I recall how the bottom was taken care of by Hart and Drake, so I could lay in a couple of odd 6ths, 7ths and 9ths. I loved how fluid the horn riffs were. We changed riffs every couple of 16 bars."
Nelson was a folksinger when she met the Imitations. "I hung around for a while, and they let me join," she says. "It was the first time I sang with an electric band. I felt lame and white singing with Irma and Chuck. There was nothing they couldn't hit. But the tunes, the big horn section - people loved us. Hart and Gary Karp did this James Brown thing where they wiggled across the stage. Irma taught me the Temptation Walk we did when we were backing up Chuck. It was a blast."
Playing frat parties paid the rent, but battle lines were drawn. "The frats paid pretty good, but they were the enemy," recalls McNee. "Everybody in the band was basically left of socialist. We were playing 90% black music. We were playing for snotty rich kids and conservative football fans, but we were for civil rights and against the war."
Nelson remembers a drunk stumbling up to her and saying "that n-- sure can sing."
"I jumped off the stage and grabbed him by his shirt," she says. "Myron had these giant drumsticks he cut himself. He jumped over the drums with one stick in his teeth and another in his hand and everybody went after the creep. There was a big melee, and then we got back up and finished the gig, and they hired us again."
Gigs at Memorial Union venues - Great Hall and the Terrace - drew much more progressive crowds. And new scenes opened up with the fast-shifting times. In '65 the U.S. was bombing North Vietnam. The antiwar movement caught fire. "The peace movement, the riots? We were there," Nussbaum says. "There was this guy on State Street who used to dress up like Jesus Christ and raise his hand and say 'Peace.' One time he called and said, 'They're rioting down here. We need some music to calm 'em down.'"
The music was changing, too. Charles Lloyd's West Coast hippie crossover jazz, especially his seminal '66 album Forest Flower, played on every turntable in town. In '67, the Summer of Love, the nation's parks were filled with gatherings of the tribes. The Imitations, with license to pour more jazz into their party music, played Madison's first be-in at Picnic Point.
By this time Nelson was in San Francisco with her own band, Mother Earth. Routen was singing club gigs in Chicago. McNee dropped out and got drafted. Moss graduated and left for New York. Nussbaum, under a cryptic alias, Sebastian Moon, put together a new self-named incarnation of the band with Maercklien, Cohen and my homey from Chicago's South Side, ace conguero Plato Jones. Bobby Baker, a classically trained, Coltrane-inspired young reedman from the Windy City who'd been an undergrad here a few years earlier, was on alto sax.
"I remember the Pied Piper thing," Baker says. "The band was what was happening. People followed us."
But by 1970 it was all over. The Imitations had moved on. The UW merged with the state university system; out-of-state admissions were sharply curtailed to keep out urban radicals. Hard drugs invaded where pot once prevailed. Nixon's presidency, the birth of conservative campus newspaper The Badger Herald, the bombing at Sterling Hall and soul's move to the mainstream foreshadowed the future.
Forty years later, boomer bashing is big. Ex-National Review editor Christopher Buckley elicited vitriol with his canny satire Boomsday, about a Gen Y blogger who advocates giving retiring "resource hog" sexagenarians tax breaks to commit suicide. One real-life blogger calls my generation "self-indulgent slobs who traded tree hugging for money grubbing and unraveled the social welfare net."
Ignorance may be bliss, but it ain't right. Not everyone who lived on the front lines of the '60s sold out. The Imitations are a case in point. They broke down racial barriers with their bare hands and pitted their collective voice against the war in Vietnam. Some of them are dead now - Matthews, Drake and others who came and went. A few just disappeared. But the rest keep on keepin' on.
Tracy Nelson settled outside Nashville in the '70s. You can sing along with her Grammy-nominated '74 country-western duet with Willie Nelson, "After the Fire Is Gone." Her '98 hit blues album on Rounder Records, Sing It! with Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball, was nominated too. But the album she loves best, Ebony and Irony (2001), is no money maker. "It's absolutely eclectic - all the songs I'd been sitting on that didn't fit anywhere else. I paid to put it out myself."
Here's the scoop on the rest of the Imitations. Routen sang with Nelson on most of the Mother Earth albums. She led a jazz trio in Europe for years. She still does a gig now and then, though her passion is passing the torch - she's a driving force in elementary arts education in the Little Rock, Ark., school district.
Cohen and Maercklien went west with Chicago blues guitarist Elvin Bishop. Maercklien married barrelhouse jazz singer Geanie Stout; they spent years playing club gigs on the road. Today Maercklien runs a real estate appraisal company in San Antonio, but it's just a job. "Music doesn't pay the bills, but it's my life," he says. "I do Geanie's arrangements. And I always played a Fender. I just bought myself a beautiful upright bass that I'm learning to play."
Cohen quit playing. He started a successful business that designs cable TV systems. He became a philanthropist, sinking profits into kids' causes. "But then a decade ago I hooked up with a giant who liked my playing," he says. That was legendary jazz drummer Billy Higgins. Higgins died in 2001, but Cohen keeps the flame with the all-star San Francisco-based Higgins Legacy Band.
McNee landed in New Orleans' upper Ninth Ward. "I'm independently poor, so I can do what I want," he says. He paints, produces albums (including Geanie Stout's latest) and plays a fine Big Easy/global rumba mix. He's recorded three albums since his cancer diagnosis four years ago; two more are on the way. "I'm sure when my time comes I'll be a blubbering coward like everybody else," he says, "but till then I gotta get this stuff down on disc."
After Sebastian Moon broke up, Jones and Baker went with Chicago-based hippie soul outfit Baby Huey & the Babysitters. Jones later worked with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and spent a chunk of the '70s touring Europe with French pop diva Veronique Sanson. Since then he's settled in with Tucson reggae institution Neon Prophet. Baker got sick of the music scene, went to med school and became a psychiatrist. Sometimes he regrets stepping aside, he says, but the homemade CD he sent shows he's still got his chops.
Nussbaum ended up in New Jersey with an MBA and a computer technology business. "Music was never good to me in terms of money," he says. But he bought a piano to go with his guitar. He jams weekly with friends, including Moss. He's got three MP3 albums of his own quirky compositions, plus an adventure in Latin and blues, on his enigmatic website,