May 10, 2012

Gig Story: Out There Orchestra at Stella Blue Tavern

The “Out There Orchestra” was a free-jazz group anchored by Cookie and Bob, who had a house in Belmont with a really nice music room/studio downstairs. The band members changed from time to time; I was part of the sessions for a few months. The musical ethic was, of course, “outness.”

“Out” meant unpredictable, intense, over the top. I don’t think that we ever had any specific tunes, as such, in the repertoire. The idea was to just improvise from the vibe. No groove lasted very long, because that would not have been out enough. We tried to go beyond any musical patterns as soon as they were set up. (See Cookie’s deeper description of the meaning of “out,” in the notes below this story.)

This was in about 1982. Cookie’s comments are in italics.

We’d meet in the evening. Bob would make some killer coffee, and then we’d head downstairs to play.
Beyond coffee, this was part of the ritual. Bob bought an $800 espresso machine from Italy, the equivalent of say a $5000 machine today. There was no Starbucks or Peet’s. One had to drive to North Beach to get a capuccino. From grinding the coffee to steamed half and half, Bob blasted out many well groomed cups for sessions. His technique included pouring the pulled espresso over the steamed half and half... an all important detail to note for historical purposes, of course.

Somehow, the Out There Orchestra got a gig at the Stella Blue Tavern, which was the kind of place that people today call a “dive bar,” down the hill in Belmont, by the tracks. I don’t know how we got the gig. I can’t imagine that anyone brought in a demo tape - although Cookie often did record our sessions. I’m sure that the management had no idea what kind of music we played. The place had a decent-size, raised stage.
I think I got the gig after walking in wondering "what is this place". I asked the owner if we could play here and he said "yes". No demo tape needed. He had no idea what was coming. :)

So we went over to Stella Blue on a Saturday night at 8:30, and set up our equipment. The musicians were: Cookie on keyboards, Bob on drums, Perry on bass, Terry on guitar, Ray on trumpet, and myself on tenor sax (and maybe bass clarinet). We also brought along Willie the Poet, who had made it to a few previous sessions, reading some of his truly “out” poetry, to which we would improvise an accompaniment. Willie’s poetry was dark, in a sort of neo-Bukowski style, with a little William Burroughs thrown in - not for the faint of heart, or for impressionable minors. Willie brought his own six-pack of beer (quarts). There were maybe 8 or 10 customers at the bar, plus the bartender and one other employee.

At 9:00 we started playing. By 9:30 we had driven out all the patrons, leaving only the bartender and employee.
One of the people in the audience was my oldest friend in the world, Amy Yamamoto. She hated the music and left. We had accomplished our job of emptying out the building of paying customers. 

We were just getting warmed up, reaching our first peak of outness. After another half hour or so, the bartender and employee for some reason felt driven to participate in the extreme creativity that they were witnessing. They began to bring objects onto the stage. First several broken chairs, then a mop, then a garbage can. Terry (the guitar player) got into the garbage can and continued to play, then tried to close the lid on himself. The bartender and his friend kept bringing stuff onto the stage. They emptied out a closet and put the stuff on the stage - a moose head, a toilet, a kitchen sink.

The band was unfazed, playing with nonstop outness, periodically bringing the volume down for Willie to read his poetry.
LOL.. are you sure we brought the volume down for Willie? Just joking.

The bartender had given up on doing any business that night. He pushed the pool table over in front of the stage, put a couple of chairs on it, and drank while sitting in the chairs on top of the pool table.

When the gig was over, he invited us back for the next week.
Like breaking up with your spouse, the bartender went through the “Sad, Mad, Glad” phases...well, more like Horrified, Angry, "Nobody's going to believe this so I'm going to give them another gig" phases.

The next Saturday we showed up again. The bartender, impressed by how out we were, had invited a bunch of his friends. Cookie had enlisted a couple of her students, high school girls, as roadies. While we were setting up, the bartender found out that the girls were 16 and said they had to leave. He wouldn't budge. Cookie was ticked off, so we packed up before the gig started and invited everyone to the studio for our performance. We set up again at the studio, bringing along a few bar patrons, and had another great session.
Good times had by all! The assistants in questions were Ritie and Linda, my students. Ritie called me a few years ago having not spoken to her for about 30 years. She wanted to let us know that she turned out well adjusted, happy, and that we changed her life. She's now retired and playing the flute.

If any Bay Area readers remember Friday Night Music, a free-jazz institution that ran in Palo Alto for many years, I can tell you that the Out There Orchestra was similar, but more intense, and with less structure.
Actually, I think we had more structure, just less recognizable, which was the intention.

The house has become the HQ of OTR Studios, a very well-regarded recording studio run by Cookie, who has become a record producer of renown. I play a lot more “normally” these days. Willie is still a poet, more seriously out than ever.
Ray is a senior exec at Intel, Perry works at Stanford, Bob works for Visa and Terry was last seen riding his bicycle in San Francisco with guitar strapped to his back. I enjoy periods of "outness" through an alternate persona called "Blu Cube". Blu Cube was created to protect my career as a music producer. Blu does live dub remixes with electronics in the studio and has more than a dozen credits. I have no idea why.
Update!!! Les, the manager/bartender, has been living in Germany since 1993. He found this story on the web, and checked in with some comments - see below.

More Notes From Cookie
I don't think I would call outness "random". I call our form of out music "reactive listening and improvisation". Like Picasso, OTO had various periods of how we dealt with music. It was musical evolution through revolution. We were pushing ourselves to extremes.

Prior to performing with you and Willie the Poet, OTO had passed the "Miles Davis Funk in D" period, where the music was structured around key centers and repeated patterns. Prior to the "Funk in D" period were more traditional compositions, usually in odd meters similar to Mahavishnu Orchestra where improvisation took place over structured chord changes and meters. Miles, McLaughlin, Cecil Taylor, and ECM were influences along with modern composers like Takamitsu, Cage and Penderecki.

The period with you and Willie I call the "Games" period. Bored with traditional forms and charts, we created "Games". The Game when Willie came to the sessions was to be the musical soundtrack to his poetry. We added "The Drama".

I believe one of the musical games we played at Stella Blue was a little number called, "Everybody in the band pick a tune without telling the others in the band what you are playing and the tempo is equivalent to 1 beat every 30 seconds." At the end of the tune, we'd try to figure out what the others were playing. This piece had two public performances, I believe one was the first fateful night at Stella Blue.

Another tune was called "21 notes in three movements". Band members were trusted to play 21 notes and stop. Movements were Fast, Slow, and He Who Plays the Last Note Wins.

This period of OTO Games ended with the last of my compositions called "One Note". (You may have been at this performance). All band members chose one note and only one note to play. You could repeat the note as many times as possible, play it long, interact to create music hockets with others, but you only had one note. The first performance lasted 45 minutes, was recorded and has kind of taken on a world of its own with radio airplay in the 90's-- still not sure why.

After the Game period, OTO evolved into SciFi, a band with no concept for pieces except musical trust and improvisational composition. After that, there was no place to go musically. The bands dissolved.

Whatever period we were in, OTO always had listening and trust as a key component. We trusted that what was played would be heard and the musicians’ own compositional sense would react and respond, whether it took the form of acknowledgement through repeating an idea audibly or consciously ignoring the musical thoughts of the musicians around you.

The name OTR Studios came from Out There Recording, a tribute to the band.

I became a recording engineer and producer with a career that includes 5 Grammy Noms and 2 Gold records. The degree of "outness" we shared positioned me to be fearless in the studio with form, composition and musicality. I'm forever grateful.

Cookie Marenco


  1. I opened Stella Blue Tavern and ran it until 1982. I remember your gig (especially the famous moosehead we had). I had about 1500 bands go through there and have always wondered if some when on to greatness.

    Les Brinkley

  2. Les, thanks so much for the comment. And 30 years later, thanks for the gig!!!!

    1. Just for the record, we loved the show. I remember thinking the only thing I had ever heard close to it was Sun Ra. It also started a tradition of "Get out the Moosehead" whenever we thought a band was great and "out."

    2. Les, thanks again. What a fine tradition. What are you doing these days? I'd like to add it to that "where are they now" paragraph!

    3. Les and Peter, thanks for this blog. The Stella Blue gig still lives on as one of the greatest gig stories I can tell. :) We should make a movie. :)

      And just to point out how time flies......

      Les, you invited us back for another gig the following week. I brought along 2 16 year old students to help with setup. You told them they had to leave (duh, you owned a bar... and they were underage). So, I pouted because they had to leave and we packed up the gear, invited everyone to the studio and did the concert at OTR. Ritie, one of the students, called me last month after 30 years, to say she's got a kid in college and is now retired. Damn, time flies!

      Great to know you were a fan of Sun Ra!
      ps.. I still have the studio.

    4. I've been living in Germany since 1993. I work in college administration.

      Peter, what motivated you to post this blog after an event from over 30 yrs ago?

      Cookie, where do live in Belmont? I grew up towards the top of the hill on Notre Dame Ave, moved to Winding Way in a 4 story hill house as a teenager, and then later to Willow Lane.

  3. Well, musicians all have gig stories, and this was one of my most memorable, amusing, and bizarre. Cookie is right, it would make a good movie.