Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com
A hot, sunny Saturday afternoon welcomed thousands to Edgewater, a small, eclectic neighborhood in the north end of Chicago, where artists of varying kinds had collected to show off their stuff. Potters, jewelers, mask makers and painters line the streets between Broadway and Sheridan, while stages at either end of the two block festival, along with a smaller central stage, open up to performers of various kinds from the community.
I slipped onto the front row to listen to the artist dubbed as a Grammy Nominee, and immediately began snapping photos. I’d grown up listening to my mother play the accordion, and witnessed my cat writhe in torture over it. But I’d never heard anything like this before. Don Stille. Wow.
Don’s music is a fusion of pop, classical, and traditional music into a style unique to him. His brilliant playing, speeding through the notes, or gracefully stroking the keys while expanding the bellows, transports his listeners to other times and worlds. In that other world, twilight sinks in while the water laps against the dock, and all is at peace in the business of the over-planned, overwhelmed lives that we lead. The key to all of this is his accordion, an instrument most people of my generation might consider “lame.”
As he packed up to head out to his next gig somewhere else that day, I grabbed his card and asked if I could call him for an interview. He gladly accepted, and we both went our ways, enjoying the day, more jazz and perhaps a little too much sunshine.
On Monday I called, and still intrigued by his work, I asked him to tell me about his life as a musician. How had all of this amazing talent on a less commonly explored jazz instrument begun?
“When I was just a little tyke…I had coordination issues. Using my knife and fork wasn’t great.” Door-to-door accordion salesmen frequented St. Louis, where Don Stille was born, and when one particular salesman dropped by one night when Don was only five years old, his dad bought the accordion and signed Don up for lessons. “My dad, in his infinite wisdom thought this was an idea: he thought maybe it would solve my coordination problem… Within a week [of starting lessons], my coordination issues had pretty much cleared up.”
Who could have predicted that such a simple solution to such a normal problem would lead into a lifetime of great music? “I was really digging the music and was improvising on the music they gave me to learn. It was a common sense thing, and it grew into a lot more.”
Don Stille has been playing ever since. And since he’s now 72, that’s been a while. He’s played locations like The Green Mill (Chicago), at the New Orleans International Jazz Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, Old Town School of Folk Music, Joe’s Pub and The Metropolitan Club in New York City, DePaul University, Yale University and various other venues across the country. He’s been playing with Bonnie Koloc for years, and in the past has played with famed entertainers and musicians like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and Ben Vereen, to name only a few.
“I am also a member of the Artist Ensemble in Residence at University of Chicago. And the ensemble New Budapest Orpheum Society or NBOS… [which] did a recording a couple of years back.” A lot of the music that they performed was specifically the Jewish Cabaret music found in Warsaw before and during the Hitler years. Most of it is extraordinarily heavy, but it’s telling the stories of the people in that time, in that place of great darkness in world history. “The album is beautiful…it was sent into a contest for a Grammy…We got a certificate and medal.”
While all of that is pretty awesome, what stands out to me in chatting with Don is the kindness and humility of his spirit. When I first met him at the early afternoon performance at the Edgewater Arts Festival in Chicago, I never would have guessed the acclaim he might grab onto and hold out as his banner. Instead, his energy and graciousness immediately drew me into his music and the conversation during our interview.
I had to ask what jazz means to him. Don responded, “That’s a very complicated question to answer. What it means to me… It is the music, the genre, that enables the performer to improvise, to spontaneously create…” Jazz, as he feels it, is a tremendous medium to express oneself. As to his own music, fusing different genres captures him because, “… It enhances and enlargers what I can express. I’m interested in many different styles of music, and I can call upon that in performance…[jazz uses] whatever genre or musical category to tell my story. I hope that [my audience] will feel that I took them on a musical turn.” Be it a melancholy tune like ‘Round Midnight or the ethereal Crepescule (Twilight), Don hopes to “get people to that place that helps them feel like they’ve had an experience worthwhile. It depends on them, and the way I’m telling the story to get [them there].”
I asked Don to continue. What is his favorite part of performing? “…Up until 15 years ago, it was about pyrotechnics with piano or accordion. It was so crucial to me—what the general populace thought. It was sort of an all-about-me mode. I’ve realized more recently that an instrument is like a [bridge] to connect to the audience—to connect them with [the] music. I enjoy connecting to a sentiment within me, and hope I can convey that to someone who is listening. It’s enabled me to perform on a different level. It’s more rewarding than the way I used to do it.”
“What is something you want our readers to know about you or your music?”
I could hear the smile in Don’s voice as he said, “I would want them to know that what I do comes from the heart. I always try to tell people to believe whatever you believe. I’m not big on religion, but I’m big on [the] spiritual. It’s something that directs us all. We should all try to connect to that spirituality. This music flows through me, and I am enjoying it as much as I hope they are. I’m happy to see what rolls through…and that is what I would want people to know about me.”
With a multitude of jazz greats of bygone years to listen to, emulate and learn from, folks like Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, I wondered which current artists Don most enjoys playing with or listening to. “…Here in Chicago I’ve always enjoyed playing with world class players, such as: Stewart Miller (Bass), Bob Rummage (Drums), Eric Schneider (Sax), Mark Olen and Art Davis (Trumpet and Flugelhorn), Daniela Bisenius (Violin and my musical soul-mate). There are many more but…too many to name here.”
“And if you could have shared a stage with anyone from jazz history, who would that have been?”
Don took a few moments to think this one through, but answered, “In terms of [a] great musician/trend-setter, and someone with tremendous impact and a good person? I would say Louis Armstrong. As far as I know, everything I’ve read about him, he’s a great human being. Took a lot of heat, got stereotyped by a lot of black musicians, especially the younger generations…he was a tremendous musician…[had] that power as a player and as a person.”
Our discussion of jazz past, naturally led me to ask what direction he sees jazz heading in.
“Since the very beginnings of this Art Form (and this is probably true for any form of artistic expression), each group of emerging young artists has focused on pushing and stretching the fundamental elements that define this music, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic. This is no less true today, which is the good and natural process of growth and evolution. That being said I think the important thing to remember is that amidst the quest for the more complex, thicker musical colors and textures, we must keep the human connection intact. What we express must have its roots planted somewhere in our life-journey experience. Quoting from the timeless classic American Songbook ballad, As Time Goes By, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”
As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Don what projects he’s currently working on. He said that he’s starting to explore the world of healing music. He’s also currently working on a project with Daniela Bisenius, a Romanian-born violinist. With a specific focus on Gypsy Jazz, aiming to educate, they’re booking their performances into libraries and the like. To learn more about Don and his music, please check out his website.