An exclusive interview with Tom van der Geld, professor, composer, vibraphonist and founder of the jazz group Children At Play. Born and raised in Boston, he recorded the first Children At Play album at Renaissance Studios in Maynard, Massachusetts in 1973, before moving to Germany the next year.
Van der Geld soon invited drummer Bill Elgart to join him in Europe and the two joined fellow New Englanders Roger Jannotta and Kent Carter to record the second Children At Play album Patience in Austria in 1977. In 1980, Van der Geld, Elgart, Jannotta, and Wayne Darling cut Out Patients with Children At Play, the band’s forth and final record. Van der Geld has performed with the likes of Charlie Mariano, Barre Philips, John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, and many other top players at jazz festivals across Europe in a distinguished career spanning decades.
Children At Play Formed in Boston in the Early 70s
Blue Note: How did you meet Bill Elgart? Was it during your time at the Berklee School of Music?
TG: I was a student (and tutor) at Berklee from the fall of 1971 to the summer of 1973, long after Bill had left Berklee.
During this time period I started the first Children at Play group with Larry Porter, Roger Jannotta, Richard Appleman and Jamey Haddad.
I first met Bill in 1975 in the free jazz scene in Boston – I had returned from Germany and was teaching at Berklee again. There were some great “free“ players in Boston at this time: Bill Elgart, George Garzon, Rich Appleman, John Licata, John Damian, Skip Potter, Stan Strickland, John Voigt… just to name a few. I quickly identified with this scene and had a great time playing with these guys.
BN: Where was the first album with Children At Play made?
TG: We recorded the first Children at Play album in Maynard, Massachusetts in 1973. This was the with original group: Larry, Roger, Richard and Jamey. Following the studio session the master tapes landed and remained in the trunk of the engineer’s car for several months! The entire development of the production was quite curious. The session itself went easily. Chuck Ange (the sound engineer) did a nice job.
Relocated To Europe in 1973
BN: Is it true you had a direct role in recruiting Bill Elgart to consider the possibilities of relocating to Europe?
TG: I had heard from several players that is was still possible to realize musical projects in Europe which were in America commercially non-viable. The music I was playing was certainly not commercial. Most of the guys I knew in Boston, including John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Steve Smith, Billy Drews, Kenny Werner, Paul Moen, Bill Frisell and others, were all moving to New York. But New York was too heavy for me (I don’t like big cities!), so I decided on Europe.
Larry Porter and I moved to Germany in September of 1973. During my first year in Germany, I was free lancing there were some rather good groups and lots of work. The scene in Munich was quite active and, in fact, in Germany generally. Years later I was still happy with the choice, that is, not having gone to New York.
Larry was instrumental in having the first Children at Play recording released by JAPO in Munich in 1974. He had met Manfred Scheffner who ran the JAPO label. JAPO was a mail-order record shop in Munich which functioned as the “sister label” of ECM at that time. Scheffner liked the music and included the production in his label.
The Children at Play rebirth in Europe occurred in the fall of 1976 when Roger Jannotta and Bill Elgart came to Europe following my invitation. We lived together in Salzburg, Austria at that time and we practiced together nearly every day. I organized the gigs/tours… with more or less success. We played with various German and Austrian bass players until Wayne Darling formally joined the group.
Patience Released on ECM Records in 1978
BN: Regarding your second Children At Play album, I understand you, Roger Jannotta, Kent Carter, and Bill Elgart recorded Patience in May 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany and it was released the next year. What do you remember about those sessions?
TG: Well, this was my first studio work with Manfred Eicher (although we were already well acquainted), and it was less than enjoyable. It is amazing with which quiet intensity we played on Patience. The music doesn’t betray the fact that there were several problems during the recording session, and that we were all rather nervous.
During the session, Kent Carter was a great asset musically and personally, and was instrumental in making some very difficult musical decisions.
One great quotation did come out of this session: Roger had written “Golden Stabs”, an incredible and very difficult composition in which he played a very high-register line on soprano sax. During the first takes he squeaked once or twice. Eicher’s comment to Roger: “Why do you write these things that you cannot play?” This comment later became one of Children at Play’s most prevalent insider jokes.
Personally after every ECM production in which I participated, I just wanted to go home and cut my fingers off.
BN: Where did the recording sessions take place?
TG: Tonstudio Bauer… a great studio with great sound engineers!
Tom van der Geld’s Path in 1979
In 1979, Path, the third Children At Play album was released by ECM Records. This was the only one of their four LPs which was credited to Tom van der Geld exclusively, although the two other members of the trio, guitar player Bill Connors and Roger Jannotta, who played flute, oboe, and soprano saxophone on the album, are both listed prominently on the cover.
The album features four compositions from Tom van der Geld, “One,” “Eevee,” “Michi,” and “Joys and Sorrows,” plus one piece by guitarist Bill Connors, “Joujou.”
Like the previous Children At Play album, Path was recorded at Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
At the moment, none of the tracks from Path are available on YouTube. However, the full album is now on SoundCloud:
Final Children At Play Album: Out Patients in 1980
In 1980, Tom Van der Geld, Bill Elgart, Roger Jannotta, and Wayne Darling recorded the final Children At Play album, Out Patients.
BN: How about the fourth Children At Play album, Out Patients? Was this the first time you worked with bassist Wayne Darling? How did you meet him?
TG: As mentioned before, Wayne rounded-out the group as our main bass player. I never had heard of Wayne. At some point he contacted me in Salzburg and sent me his résumé (!). We rehearsed in Salzburg a short time later and he remained in the group until 1981.
BN: Do you remember any details about making the album?
TG: Not actually. Steve Lake produced this album… he was great to work with.
I was rather unhappy with my own performance on this production, and it took 30 years before I could really hear and appreciate what an amazing group (and production) this really was.
Van der Geld on Chances of Children At Play Album Reissues
BN: Have you worked on any similar projects since Out Patients?
TG: I disbanded Children at Play in February, 1981. Since then, I haven’t had any real concept as far as establishing a new group. I did work in duo with Frank Haunschild for a few years.
BN: With recent albums of yours like Getting Closer in 1998, with Frank Haunschild, Watching The Waves in 2009, and the Play ‘Chill Out’ Select Your Style, Vol. 1 in 2014 compilation now available as downloads at major retailers such as iTunes USA, is there any chance the four Children At Play albums will join the Digital Age anytime soon?
TG: I doubt it. Unfortunately Manfred Eicher and I parted company with (at least on his part) rather negative feelings. I have contacted ECM several times and tried to get (at least) Path re-issued, but to no avail. These ECM and JAPO projects are seemingly destined to remain collector’s items.
BN: Are there any upcoming projects you can talk about?
TG: Following some recent operations on my hands, I am now enjoying learning how to play the vibes again.
Besides playing vibraphone on his own albums as well as those of others, Tom van der Geld regularly composes for his own small groups as well as doing commissioned works for stage and film. An author of an international standard work for jazz/pop harmony and ear-training, Van der Geld also is currently a lecturer for jazz ear-training, jazz improvisation, ensemble, and jazz mallets at the Musikhochschule für Musik und Tanz Cologne.
Around 6 with Kenny Wheeler in 1980
Later the same year, Van der Geld hooked up with Karl Berger, Dave Friedman, and Wolfgang Lackerschmid on their Vibes Summit album on German label MPS Records and in 1980, Van der Geld returned to Tonstudio Bauer to appear on Kenny Wheeler’s Around 6 album.
The ECM Records release includes Tom van der Geld on vibraphone, J.F. Jenny-Clark on double bass, Evan Parker on soprano and tenor saxophones, Eje Thelin on trombone, Edward Wasala on drums, and Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn.
Tom van der Geld and Larry Porter on Libra in 1975
In 1975, Bobby Stern & Head, Heart and Hands released their Latin-jazz fusion album Libra on Germany’s Vertigo Records. Musicians include Children At Play’s Tom van der Geld on vibraphone and Larry Porter on piano.
The full album, currently online, also features Dave King and Rocky Knauer on bass, Randy Langione and Roy Louis on guitar, Guillerma Marchena on drums, Bobby Stern on tenor and soprano saxophone, and Leszek Zadlo on flute.
Bobby Stern & Head, Heart and Hands’ Libra, which showcases Tom van der Geld’s on “Curacao,” the 21-minute track opening Side B, is here:
“Blame It On My Youth” on 2014 Digital Compilation
In January 2014, Tom van der Geld’s “Blame It On My Youth” was included on the Play ‘Chill Out’ – Select Your Style, Vol. 1 compilation.
An audio file from the digital-only release from Walkin ‘Rhyth’m Records is online.
Three tracks by Tom van der Geld are found on a compilation on SoundCloud including “Eevee” and “Joujou” from his 1979 Path album released by ECM Records and “How Gently Sails the Moon Twixt the Arbour and the Bough (and the World is Waiting for the Sun),” a Bill Elgart composition from Tom van der Geld and Children At Play’s 1980 Out Patients album on Japo Records:
Select Discography for Tom van der Geld
- Between – Hesse Between Music (1974)
- Tom van der Geld and Children At Play – Children At Play (1975) Japo Records
- Bobby Stern & Head, Heart and Hands – Libra (1976) Vertigo
- Between – Contemplation (1977)
- Tom van der Geld and Children At Play – Patience (1978) ECM Records
- Tom van der Geld – Path (1979) ECM Records
- Karl Berger, Dave Friedman, Tom van der Geld, & Wolfgang Lackerschmid – Vibes Summit (1979) MPS Records
- Tom van der Geld and Children At Play – Out Patients (1980) Japo Records
- Kenny Wheeler – Around 6 (1980) ECM Records
- Tom van der Geld – Small Mountain: Marimba Music – Music For Four Marimbas (1986)
- Peter Michael Hamel and Die Gruppo Between – Hesse Between Music (Dichtung & Musik) (1989)
- Frank Haunschild – Looking Forward (1997)
- Frank Haunschild & Tom van der Geld – Getting Closer (1998) (Reissue 2009) Acoustic Music
- Tom Van der Geld – Watching The Waves (2009) Rodenstein Records
- Tom van der Geld et al. – Play “Chill Out” – Select Your Style, Vol. 1 (2014) Walkin ‘Rhyth’m Records compilation
All four of the albums Tom van der Geld made with Children At Play are out of print. However, vinyl copies of can usually be found on eBay and other auction sites specializing in music.
Alternatively, a reference copy of each is currently available at Musica degradata, a website dedicated to high quality broadcast recordings and out of print vinyl. Click the individual Children At Play album covers above to access the MP3 files.
A video LP featuring a selection of the music of Tom van der Geld currently found online includes five tracks from the Children At Play albums including “One” and “Joujou” from Path: