A Tribute To Dan Morris

Dan Morris

I first met Dan Morris at a concert by my brother Nels Cline and the late Eric von Essen at the old Comeback Inn in Venice, where Dan recognized me (being a fan of the Quartet Music recordings) and approached me about giving him drum lessons. He was nineteen years old at the time, although he seemed unusually mature. I told him that I wasn’t interested in being a drum teacher for a number of reasons, but that I would welcome his coming over and talking about music–where he had come from, what he was interested in–and listening to music if he would like. This was my standard response to such a request at the time. Dan was the only person who ever called me back and followed through by coming over to do this, even though he later admitted he thought it a bit odd. Who knew that this would lead to a close friendship of eighteen years?

While Dan never became my student, he came to countless of my performances, often insisting on helping me schlep my gear, bringing much of said gear out of its antiquated obsolescence and up to present standards in the process, and began pursuing a new musical direction for himself. This direction eventually led to his decision to study music at CalArts, a place that could provide the kind of diverse opportunities that Dan sought. He lived with me and my wife Karen at our house during the summer before he took up residence at CalArts, and during that time we all became even closer. At CalArts Dan became the only student of Carnatic music of India at the time, focusing on the mridangam and leading eventually to a summer studying in southern India with his teacher, Poovalur Srinivasan, while also studying with such influential teachers as Alfred Ladzekpo and Julie Spencer. At CalArts he also encountered a host of other young, talented individuals, all contributing to the beginning of a career in multifaceted, creative music performance. His work with pianist and fellow CalArts alum James Carney is some of Dan’s most exemplary, for example. Being essentially a jazz guy, I was happy to be able to at times assist in Dan’s musical development, introducing him, for example, to some of the drummers whom he added to his list of favorites (alongside such long-term honorees of his as Bill Bruford and Steve Jansen), such as Paul Motian, Jack DeJohnette, Shelley Manne, Tony Williams, Pete La Roca Sims, Fredy Studer, Han Bennink, and, pivotally, Peter Erskine, to whom I ultimately introduced him and who became his most influential drum set teacher. Dan served as editor on one of Peter’s instruction books and himself became a sought-after drum teacher in his own right.

I recommended Dan for gigs whenever I could; Steuart Liebig’s group Quartetto Stig is one example. Dan was supremely gifted, able to absorb, assimilate, and employ a variety of diverse and sophisticated musical elements in a distinctly personal way, far more so than I ever could when I was his age. His musical abilities transcended those of drum set playing, as he also became an adept player of a myriad of hand drums (some of which often found their way onto his ever-shifting setup of drums), could make his way around mallet percussion, and at times integrated electronics into his sonic vocabulary, being completely comfortable with all things electrical and digital. He also became a distinctive composer along the way, leading his band of ever-changing personnel, Top Skin Floor, in a number of local performances of his and others’ music, and ultimately recording and releasing a CD of his compositions, “The Soul the Crow Stole” (which also included a couple of drum set duos with yours truly). Among the many artists for whom Dan contributed his special musical voice were Noe Venable, Larry Karush, Brad Dutz’s Obliteration Quartet, Michael Jon Fink, Monc, David Witham, and Matt Piper. It always struck me how no matter what phase Dan was in at the moment, his playing, sound, and musical ideas always remained distinctively and identifiably his. I didn’t really think of Dan as a young, developing artist but more as a peer, as someone with a remarkable amount of talent and ability as well as deep personal integrity and heart.

He was a true friend, unfailingly loyal, uncommonly generous, and unconditionally supportive. Many people loved him. He was also very funny (if often darkly so), engaging, smart, and insightful. He loved animals (especially birds), nature, and was perpetually fascinated by the world and its creatures and conditions. Sadly, he suffered a lot in his all-too-brief life, some of it due to physical difficulties and some of it the result of his own sensitivity and integrity. His most visible gig, for example, that of touring the world as one of two adjunct percussionists (along with Steve Hodges) with the Smashing Pumpkins, also caused him the most stress and anguish. This sort of disharmony and distress over the music business caused him to eventually withdraw from actively pursuing his career in music in favor of working in the area of sound and music production for computer games in a corporate context, something which he clearly found challenging but which he stuck with because of his love for the medium. This interest reflects his childlike nature, the same nature which was demonstrated by his love of animation, toys, models, Disneyland, and all things silly. I, of course, lamented the withdrawing of so much musical quality from the world of music performance but celebrated a move toward the enhancement of appeared to be his own happiness, security, and well being. I now feel very fortunate to have worked on a recording project with Dan for our mutual friend, vocalist Takako Uemura, for a couple of years leading right up to what turned out to be Dan’s last days. Made in fits and starts in his own newly-configured studio during what turned out to be a brutally tumultuous time for Dan and his family, he served as recording and mixing engineer for the project (a CD of Japanese lullabies and traditional songs for which I produced and supplied arrangements) as well as performed on most of the tracks, mostly on various hand drums. He was brilliant in every capacity. This CD, “Reminiscence,” finally due to be released soon, undoubtedly documents Dan’s last recorded performances. This time spent working with Dan in the studio is now the source of many treasured memories.

I was in touch with Dan just over a week before his tragic, ultimately fatal episode (we were exchanging some audio-visual materials via cyberspace by one of our mutually beloved musical figures, David Sylvian). Despite enduring a lifetime of serious health challenges, his death was completely unexpected. Dan slipped into a coma while sleeping and died five days later on December 21, 2007. He was thirty-seven years old. Learning of his fate was deeply shocking to me. It’s hard to fully comprehend his departure from us in this historical dimension. I miss him a lot and will continue to do so. However, I will endeavor to be his continuation as much as I can, that his spirit, his unique manifestation, may in some way live on through my own life and work.

Earlier this year, when setting out to compose a piece of music in memory of Dan (“Fade to Green”) for an upcoming CD project of mine (“Continuation”), the depth of his presence in my life was monumentally and unavoidably evident. Not only was Dan the person who usually helped me generate musical charts via his familiarity and aptitude with computer software, a role I found myself now suddenly having to fill with someone else, the synthesizer on which I generally compose is an old one of his which he actually gave me years ago just for that purpose. Some of the instruments I employed on the piece when we recorded it were also items that Dan had at some point given me. It was almost overwhelming. I am still constantly reminded of him. In that way he is always with me. Dan made a major imprint on my life. For that I am blessed and deeply, eternally grateful.

Dan is survived by his wife Marie and many birds (mostly parrots) as well as by his parents and brother.

For those of you in Los Angeles who would like to attend a musical tribute to Dan Morris this Sunday, here is the information below.

Sunday, November 2 – Dan Morris Memorial Concert, 7:00 p.m
Open Gate Theater
Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock,
2225 Colorado Blvd.,
Eagle Rock (one block west of Eagle Rock Blvd.).
Admission is $10, students, seniors, and series performers half price.
Further information (626) 795-4989.