Dennis Gonzalez Comes Full Circle After 25 Years at the DMA's Jazz in the Atrium

Yells at Eels
Yells at Eels
Carol Gonzalez

A quarter-century ago, Dallas Museum of Art debuted its weekly music series, Jazz in the Atrium. Local trumpet player Dennis Gonzalez was among the first to perform for the series on Sunday, January 17, 1990. He has not performed for the series since. Gonzalez had not even given the experience or the series much thought until he was recently contacted by the museum and asked to return. It was only then that he realized that performing for Jazz in the Atrium, which is now on Thursday evenings, would have him coming full circle.

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"The current staff doesn't remember that," Dennis says, with a smile. "Well they probably weren't there yet," says his son and bandmate, contrabassist Aaron Gonzalez. Jazz in the Atrium was one of Dennis' first major local gigs and it certainly gave him more visibility than any previous performance. "They were willing to go out on a limb," Dennis says of DMA, with gratitude. "You know the kind of music I play."

Indeed, Dennis has been playing free jazz with Yells at Eels for over 15 years with his two sons. "They took a chance on me," Dennis continues. "Like that ABBA song!" says Stefan Gonzalez, his younger son and the drummer for Yells at Eels, and they all laugh. Sitting in a Mexican restaurant having dinner, they are as warm and humble as anyone you will ever meet.

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Gonzalez is a chronic organizer of people. Through his lengthy career as a world-class trumpet player, he's collaborated with and helped bring together innumerable musicians. Outside of his own music, he runs the La Rondalla after-school music program in Oak Cliff, and has passed down his passion to Aaron and Stefan. Stefan has even taken on the same spirit for bringing people together through his weekly Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions at Crown & Harp.

Back in 1990, Dennis was working with an improvisation group. His record label, Daagnim Records, had been around for twelve years. Aaron was nine and Stefan was four. He was playing with Mark Hewins, a British jazz guitarist he met in London. Hewins eventually came to Dallas, started performing with Dennis, and released an album, The Electric Guitar, on Daagnim, which has now released 28 albums.

Hewins worked for Casio and played an unusual guitar, an experimental prototype that was also a synthesizer and sampler provided by his employer. The guitar looked like a toy, the strings were not so much strings as placeholders. The sound triggered depended on which part of the fretboard was touched. Dennis recalls Hewins visiting him at home and using the guitar to record lots of percussive sounds and says that some of these recordings were later used for early sounds for Casio's digital guitar.

These sounds can also be heard on the recording from the original performance at the museum. Using a sample made from a recording of a bottle being hit, Hewins' guitar actually sounds somewhat like wind chimes at times. You'd never guess it's a guitar. The group was called the Dallas-London 4tet and the other members were contrabassist Drew Phelps from Denton and drummer Alan Green from Dallas. The recording was made on Dennis' own four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, a heavy recording device to tow around.

Dallas-London 4tet playing "Jazz in the Atrium" back in 1990
Dallas-London 4tet playing "Jazz in the Atrium" back in 1990
Courtesy of Dennis Gonzalez Archives

It's a great recording, the quartet has a sound that starts off breezy and laidback, but slowly starts to stir into something more idiosyncratic. The music sounds like early jazz fusion from the late 60s or early 70s. Imagine Herbie Hancock's album, The Prisoner, with a bizarre guitar instead of a flute. The music had form, a steady groove, and it's kind of funky. "It sounded kind of futuristic for the time," says Aaron. "It sounded pretty fucking weird," says Stefan.

After participating in the launch of "Jazz in the Atrium," Dennis did not play at DMA again until last year, when Yells at Eels were asked to perform for "Jazz Under the Stars," another series that takes place in the atrium. When Betsy Glickman, Manager of Adult Programming at DMA, asked Yells at Eels to return for "Jazz in the Atrium" she was not aware that they had played it before. Eventually it was Dennis who recalled performing for the series when it started and realized that he had been asked to return almost exactly 25 years later.

For this performance, Yells at Eels will be joined by percussionist Jagath Lakpriya, who will be playing a tabla. The instrument consists of a pair of hand drums, but Lakpriya somehow manages to keep up with the ferocious pace of Stefan when they play together. Scott Bucklin, a pianist who can virtually play the full spectrum of jazz, will also be joining. "We don't play much with a pianist," says Dennis. "There are rarely pianos at the clubs we play."

The museum has a very nice piano for the band to incorporate into their sound, which will help give Yells at Eels more form this evening. The piano will likely make the music more accessible to anyone in the audience who does not have a good understanding of free jazz and it will help shed light on the sound of Yells at Eels in a different way. And, purely by chance, tonight will be a celebration of 25 years of "Jazz in the Atrium" that will reunite the series with Dennis, who was there in the beginning.

"Jazz in the Atrium" featuring Yells at Eels will take place at 6 P.M. tonight, Thursday, February 5, at Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 North Harwood, Free Show.


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