Darrell DeVore, musician, composer, experimental instrument-maker and progenitor of “Universal Music,” died of lung cancer July 9 surrounded by family and friends in his rural Petaluma music bungalow dubbed “Studio Um.”
Although his house was not far away, DeVore, 66, chose to spend his final time at the converted chicken coop that was his studio and, in many ways, his home.
In his lifetime, DeVore mapped much musical terrain, beginning with a stretch as a jazz pianist in his native Missouri, a peek into San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene during the 1960s, and turns as a self-described “itinerant flute-maker” and respected creator of experimental music and the instruments upon which it was played.
Born July 11, 1939, in Saint Joseph, Mo., DeVore showed an aptitude with the piano as a youth despite little formal training. As he recalled in an interview several years ago: “One time, I went to see the Claude Rains version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ I loved the music in it. So I went home and played that sucker. Suddenly, I had my family around me going, ‘Yeah, that’s far out.’ ”
DeVore studied music privately with a tutor. As a pianist, he became a fixture in the Missouri jazz scene and buttressed his musical education gigging in nightclubs.
“Bass player Al Viserca took me to Chicago to introduce me to the jazz scene there and some real players,” DeVore reminisced to his son shortly before his death. “There I discovered both drugs and my musical limitations. I returned to Kansas City and checked myself into the Conservatory of Music, where the great George Salisbury taught me theory and chord structure.
“George wanted to hear where I was at as a player, so he asked me to play him something. I threw down some standard, and I played it well because I was already a respected player locally. But I played by ear.
“He said to me, ‘What do you want me to teach you, Darrell?’ And I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.’ ”
The maelstrom of musical innovation in 1960s San Francisco drew DeVore to the coast, where he clocked time at the keyboard with seminal psychedelic rock outfit the Charlatans (of which Dan Hicks was also a member), the lesser-known neo-primitive group Pygmy Unit and numerous other musical endeavors.
As a Charlatan, DeVore recorded for Mercury Records, but the band dissolved soon after. In the aftermath, DeVore was courted by a major recording label for a pop solo project but was put off by the industry’s marketing machine. He strolled out in the middle of a meeting with the label honchos.
“I walked out of there into a real nice sunny day in San Francisco. I said, ‘That’s it — no more commercial music,’ ” he said in a previous interview.
DeVore turned his attention to his own compositions as well as creating instruments, including his popular “wind wands” (twirled wooden devices that suggest the sound of a didgeridoo) and the bamboo xylophone.
Through much of the ’70s he was known in the Bay Area music community as “the Flute Man” for the hand-tooled bamboo flutes he created and peddled at arts fairs and music events. DeVore accrued several monikers during his career, among them Dr. Um, shorthand for “Doctor of Universal Music,” and “Mr. Sound Magic,” his preferred appellation with students in Petaluma public schools, where he frequently made appearances to introduce kids to sounds and musical notions not in the curriculum.
“Dad just had all the patience in the world for them,” says Los Angeles filmmaker Cain DeVore, the musician’s oldest son. “He’s like a preacher of sound magic, sharing the gospel of Um. That’s how I often saw my father.”
Many of DeVore’s musical instruments are being donated to North Bay schools.
“The music never stops. You just can’t always hear it,” DeVore remarked on more than one occasion. Cain DeVore is seeing to that notion by digitizing his father’s copious archive of original music to make it available online at Dr-Um.org, a Web site set to launch later this month. He is also organizing the writings and drawings generated by his father as well as photos and documentary footage of him. The family intends to make the collection available to scholars and fans.
“He wanted to give it away — that’s what universal music is,” said Cain DeVore of his father’s aesthetic philosophy, which the musician espoused upon in the liner notes for “De-Fusion,” his 2004 album:
“Anyone involved in making modern music is making fusion music. The fusing of primitive Aboriginal spirit with modern technology and synthesis derived from all the world music cultures, results in ‘Universal Music.’ ”
By that token, Universal Music is represented in hundreds of recordings (among them DeVore’s live solo piano performances on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station), appearances with various groups, including the Lingua Quartet with his second son, Trane DeVore, a poet and professor at Japan’s Osaka University.
It’s easier to identify Universal Music as a philosophy than as a sound. At times it shirks the conventions of Western music, edging toward avant-garde with a primitive aspect. In the past decade, DeVore had been exploring an improvisational style of composition, often in the company of several collaborators, among them Tom Waits, experimental instrument pioneers Bart Hopkin, Richard Waters and Tom Nunn, as well as musicians Mike Knowlton, Zeno and Steve Shane.
“I’m not into nostalgia. So I never play anything twice,” DeVore once said. It was an apt summation of his trajectory as an artist and one of the many koan-like aphorisms he was known to make.
Upon visiting DeVore shortly before his death at Studio Um, Marvin Kirkland, an ally from the mid-’60s Kansas City music scene, said, “Thanks for showing me the world, man.” DeVore replied, “I think we are all pointing out the world right here.”
In DeVore’s later years, it was nearly impossible for visitors to leave his studio without acquiring a book or a recording newly burned to CD of original tunes. This generosity also resonated throughout his music. As he said, “I gave up self-expression 30 years ago.”
Jam session pal Waits wrote in a recent e-mail: “There was a silence before Darrell DeVore came into this world and now there is a great silence left by his passing, and in the time between, Mr. DeVore made a strange and beautiful music. He was a teacher, composer and instrument builder — a curious and inventive eccentric and wizardly musician who touched all who had the pleasure of hearing him. From the ‘tank’ to the ‘wind wand’ to the ‘circular violin,’ Darrel could play anything and make music on it. He will be deeply missed by his family and loved ones and we who had the privilege to play along with him while he was here.”
George Brooks, a longtime friend and colleague, with whom DeVore created the recording “Brooks/DeVore,” observed: “I spent Friday up there in Petaluma, with him, but Darrell was struggling and I am not certain that he was aware of who was with him. However, holding his beautiful hands seemed to give him a great deal of comfort. I went back Saturday evening and had a late-night vigil with his body and his oldest son, Cain. It was a beautiful night with a big Milky Way, great blue herons and plenty of shooting stars to speed Darrell on his journey. He was a great beatnik, neo-primitive, shamanistic spirit and a sadhu who helped hold together the musical matrix. I miss him.”
DeVore is survived by his sons Cain, Trane and his daughter Oma DeVore, his sister Marjie Sansone and brother Glenn DeVore.
“My dad referred to Oma, Trane and me as his ancestors,” recalls son Cain. “And he would profess to want two things in life, other than making music, which was a constant. He wanted to ‘eventually become weightless, like a hummingbird’ and ‘to become an ancestor.’ He achieved both in his art and music in life. And he certainly has achieved both in death. He now plays with the ancients.”
Indeed, for many, DeVore was a model old soul and his passing suggests something of a coda to his spiritual and musical journey rather than an early departure. Or as DeVore was fond of saying, “Find out where you’re at — and be there on time.”
A memorial for Darrell DeVore will be held at 4 p.m., Aug. 27 at Studio Um, 602 Cleveland Lane in Petaluma. Friends and fans are welcome.