The Great Outside

Oakland's Glenn Spearman Music Festival is an international beacon for creative music

Flipping through his mail on a recent Saturday afternoon, saxophonist Marco Eneidi was chagrined to discover that the envelope from the City of Oakland did not contain the check he had been expecting to underwrite this year’s Glenn Spearman Music Festival — but an invitation to audition for the city’s new marching band.

The image of Eneidi in polished spats and tails, with “Oakland” on his chest, is amusing because through the mid-1990s, Eneidi co-led with confrere Spearman one of the ripsnortingest ensembles in town. The Creative Music Orchestra’s collection of jazz improvisers could hardly be relied upon to churn out the oompah for civic functions and football games. If the city wants a marching band, then Eneidi’s late-1990s big band, the American Jungle Orchestra, could fill in for circus animals on parade — especially since the band’s name reflects Eneidi’s belief that America is an inhospitable jungle to those who play improvised music. Sit on the floor of his Laurel District apartment, absorb appealingly cantankerous stories about coming up as a saxman on New York’s Lower East Side, and it’s hard to imagine Eneidi ever donning a uniform.

Eneidi belongs to a school of musicians that views the outward expansions of late Coltrane and the post-ecclesiastics of tenor titans Albert Ayler and Frank Wright as a musical tradition of its own. Glenn Spearman was a fellow traveler whose authority derived from years working abroad in Paris and New York, and from lecturing on the Creative Music Tradition and teaching saxophone at Mills College. After Spearman died of cancer in 1998, Eneidi founded the memorial festival to extend his legacy. In three years, it has grown from a cavalcade of Mills compadres into an international event. Highlights include a documentary on bassist Peter Kowald on Wednesday, appearances by the legendary Peter Brötzmann throughout the week, and Lisle Ellis’ solo bass and electronics project on Saturday.

Even though the two men were acquaintances and had musical touchstones in common, Eneidi and Spearman’s friendship did not blossom until 1995, when Eneidi returned to California and joined Spearman in the Creative Music Orchestra. Recently, Eneidi drew some local heat for suggesting in a Signal to Noise profile that there’s no longer a Bay Area scene to support such large-scale endeavors. He explains, “One night, they [musicians] got a funk band; another night, they’re in a pop band, and then a cocktail jazz band, whereas in New York, you just do this music all the time. Here you got people [who] are all working musicians, so they don’t know the music.”

Local bassist Damon Smith, who’s making many of the festival’s dates, suggests that if there’s no longer a scene here, it’s due in part to Spearman’s loss. Smith recalls his start in the music: “I met Glenn through the Orchestra. I started talking to him about bass players, and then I played with some of the people in the Orchestra more my age. Glenn would call me up to talk in the middle of the day and say, ‘It’s Glenn Spearman; how you doing?’ And I was nobody. There’s not somebody around like that now.”

The third annual Glenn Spearman Music Festival runs Wednesday, March 20 through Saturday, March 23. Concerts are at 21 Grand or Mills College, 7:30 p.m. See calendar at or phone 510-444-7263.

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