What’s gone returns as parable.

Banjoist J. P. Pickens was the first (and most constant) improvisation partner.

Another was Jim Gurley later lead-guitarist for Big Brother & The Holding Company.

Singer-songwriter Dino Valente aka Chet Powers was number three who once took me to a clunky motel off Van Ness Ave to meet Bob Dylan.

Clark Coolidge is the fourth, towering over his small drum-kit in the B-movie abandoned warehouse we rehearsed in.

At lunch, Jack Shoemaker tells me that guitarist Robbie Basho died, 44 years old, heart attack, in the midst of a comeback tour sponsored by Windham Hill Records. Basho would put his chair where the stage stopped to listen to our set. Sometimes yelping in pleasure. Always smiling, looking like a blissed-out teenage Santa Claus whose granny glasses galvanized whenever he bent down as if bobbing for apples in time with song we were performing. And how intensely he’d listen to my solos. That night in Berkeley at the Jabberwock on Telegraph. Now over forty years ago. David and Tina (sometimes Jim Moscoso on upright bass).

He heard it all and moved constantly to all of it. The sighs, abrupt laughter, his curious whippoorwill yodel, involuntary.

Whether or not it is the music that allows the trance, or the music one allows to liberate the trance. Trancers know only the during. The club’s young owners worried that Basho was crazy and hoped his “behavior” didn’t disrupt our set.

Basho stood ahead of me on the checkout line of a Berkeley grocery. The fingernails on his thumb, index and forefinger on his right picking hand were at least 1/4” long and clear lacquered as I remember seeing on Sabicas’s right hand. Basho was heavier, beardless, hair cut stock broker short, wearing a dark blue overcoat though it wasn’t a cold day.

Tina never forgave John Fahey for smashing her white record player she lent him when Ed Denson brought him over to our place. John played romantic Germanic (sometimes Sibelius-like) blues-cored Ivesian rags. They gave us his first LP, “Blind Joe Death,” that Denson produced on his Takoma label. If Fahey was a closed shop, Basho was an open book. John was an earnest student of philosophy and the blues at college. I heard that Basho did time as a disciple of Meher Baba. Fahey insisted on being heard while Basho loved listening. Both served music and the trance. Both made music clearly theirs alone as fingerprints are.

J. P. lives in my memory. We made music together on the spot, went with it wherever it took us. J. P. was the first to allow me to participate in this irresistible mystery.

The avant-garde British guitarist Derek Bailey wrote/compiled a book trying to define the territory at play when one or more musicians “improvise.” All the musicians interviewed knew what it was but can’t seem to say.

Nick Gravenites introduced me to Jim Gurley at the Coffee Gallery one night after Jim returned from a summer of stunt-car displays working with his father. His father at the wheel, Jim lay flat on the hood while pop off-ramped through flaming hoops. Bald, eyebrows erased, dressed in black: black pea jacket, black turtleneck, black Frisco jeans, black ankle-high pointy toed boots, black knit cap, Dacchau-thin, tall, wolfish narrow face talc white, pointy nose, nervous mynah bird cackles, holding a tiny hardshell guitar case, muttering incomplete word shards while Nick filled-in the details.

Jim played his tiny rare Martin with manic hummingbird energy. Vertical, cacophonous clusters of sounds like flak, sinewy hysterical ascents, clanking dissonant descents, unbelievable music, seismic uncoiled unsprung music. This on the small Coffee Gallery stage on Hootenanny night.

The stunned audience applauded wildly, more out of shock and relief—as I’d find out when he, J. P., and I would jam together.

Originally Published: April 24th, 2013

David Meltzer was born in Rochester, New York, and raised in Brooklyn. He began his literary career during the San Francisco Beat and Berkeley Renaissance period in North Beach, California, and his work was included in the anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. At the age of 20 he recorded...