The kaleidoscopic talents of Douglas Ewart has expressed itself in so many forms-instruments that double as sculptures, music that combines the traditions of four continents with fresh inventions, masks and costumes fit for rituals ominous or joyous, death-defying improvisations combining master m usicianship and acting-that the whole might be mistaken for the work of a small culture rather than one man.
Ewart is known in some circles as a maker of brightly colored rain sticks , man-tall totem flutes , percussion instruments, and panpipes. Elsewhere he is known as a maker of leather goods and instrument harnesses, or as past Chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and instructor in the AACM School of Music-or yet again, as a performer or original music with Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Mwata Bowden, Vandy Harris , and others. Finally, Ewart is known for his work as a lecturer, teacher, and workshop director throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. Turning the kaleidoscope of his work over in one s mind, one sees how the various disciplines he practices interrelate, influence, and play off one another. The disciplines assemble on the stage of Ewart s mind much like the ensemlbes in which he works as sideman or leader.
Douglas Ewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1946. At age six, he became acutely aware of different materials and textures around him and wanted to manipulate them for his own use. He began to experiment w ith the automotive parts and lumber in his backyard, building first a wooden scooter with ball bearings for wheels and moving gradually moving on to large two-seater vehicles. He also built colorful fighter kites that he could manipulate to cut the stri ng of an opposing kite-flyer when challenged. At ten he started to experiment with sound and designed musical instruments-tin cans were altered to become hand drums and pieces of wood were fashioned into rattles. When his family bought a rug rolled aroun d a piece of bamboo, he seized on the bamboo as a potential flute. Thus began what has become today a high art practiced by Ewart alone-the construction of sonorous totem flutes , as colorful as bamboo rainbows, adorned with wood-burned designs and haunting paintings.
Ewart emigrated to the United States in June of 1963 and, until 1967, studied tailoring at Drake and Dunbar Vocational Schools. While developing the tailoring skills that stand him in good stead in his costume making, Ewart plunged back in to the musical world, studying theory, composition, saxophone, and clarinet at the AACM School of Music . His teachers, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, woodwindists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, inspired him with their creative drive and their view that music was a life and death matter .
For Ewart, this phrase means music as a bridge between cultural traditions and between activities ranging from instrument building to such entrepreneurial ventures as his own recording label, Arawak Records, which he founded in 1983 and on which he has released Red Hills and Bamboo Forest . His constantly evolving suite, Music from the Bamboo Forest , comprises six movements and employs a cornucopia of instruments, many of them hand-made, such as bass and alto flutes, shakuhachi, panpipe, and nay flutes, blocks, bells, gongs, and bamboon, which is a double-reed horn with a voice-like nasel sound. In line with Ewart s view that the audience should participate in some way in a musical performance, bamboo is passed from hand to hand during the playing of Music from the Bamboo Forest so that the audience can hold, touch and feel the source of the music. This suite evolves as Ewart travels, all the while playing his own music, and studying the music around him. In a ddition to performing and recording with master musicians such as Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and Mwata Bowden, Ewart has performed original compositions all over the world.
Having become a master himself, Ewart is now in demand as a teacher. The interest his AACM instructors showed in the creative development of their students and the inclusion of their students in their original works inspire Ewart, now in his own teaching. In his own workshops, Ewart often guides students in building and learing to play flutes, whistles, shakers, and other intruments. Of the students, most of whom had never been introduced to crafts, he says, It reaffirms their belief in themselves . His workshops, lectures and exhibitions have been attended by enthusiastic students a nd patrons at venues such as the Contemporary Art Center (New Orleans, LA), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, IL), the DuSable Museum of African-American Art (Chicago, IL), Urban Gateways (Chicago, IL ), the Creative Music Studio (Woodstock, NY), the Museum of Contemporary Craft (New York, NY), the Langston Hughes Center (New York, NY), the University of Illinois (Champaign, IL), Norfolk State University, the Riverside Museum (Baton Rouge, LA), the Wash ington Performing Arts Center, and the National Museum of American History (Washington, DC). He has served on advisory boards and panels for various cultural organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, and Arts Midwest. In 1987, Ewart was awarded the U.S.-Japan Creative Arts Fellowship by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission which enabled him to spend a year in Japan studying the art of making and playing the shakuhachi flute.
Mr. Ewart has initiated many musical ensembl es of note, including Douglas Ewart and Inventions, Clarinet Choir, Nyhabingi Drum Choir, Quadrasect, and Elements. As a performer, Ewart has performed with such notable muscians as Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, Robe rt Dick, Ameen Muhammad, Von Freeman, George Lewis, Leo Smith, Cecil Taylor, Alvin Curran, Kahil El Zabar, Joseph Jarman, Kalaparush, Roscoe Mitchell, Mwata Bowden, and many others.