Curtain Call: Dennis Palmer is a leader of the improvisational arts

Curtain Call: Dennis Palmer is a leader of the improvisational arts

October 6th, 2011 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Dennis Palmer, right, performs with Col. Bruce Hampton as part of the Egyptian Windmill Operators.


Hometown: Chattanooga.

Age: 54.

Education: Brainerd High School.

Vocation: Artist/musician/teacher, co-artistic director Shaking Ray Levi Society.


Movie: "A Serious Man" by the Coen brothers.

Book: "Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art" by Steven Nachmanovitch.

Musical performance: "The Yellow Shark," Frank Zappa.

Quote: "You do wrong if you praise, but worse if you criticize, what you do not fully understand." Leonardo da Vinci.

Dennis Palmer's career arc mirrors the trajectory of the local arts and entertainment scene, which he's also helped shape by opening people's minds to new things.

As half of the Shaking Ray Levi Society, Palmer, along with lifelong friend Bob Stagner, has been instrumental in bringing a variety of artists in the improvisational field to Chattanooga. It's an art form that is often described as avant garde or nontraditional, but Palmer said it "is a very free and natural thing to do. It is the underpinning of all music, really."

Palmer is also a painter and a teacher. He is a facilitator for the Mark Making public art project and is past president of the Association for Visual Arts.

He is a member of Col. Bruce Hampton's latest project, the Egyptian Windmill Operators, and is working on a Shaking Ray project with David Greenberger.

Q: When you started, the art scene in Chattanooga was different than it is now, right?

A: Well, take for example this conversation: Twenty or 25 years ago, Musical Moose [which my brothers were members of] and Bend Sinister, which were called at the time, rented out the Knights of Columbus hall and put on a show. We did that because there wasn't a place to play original music. There wasn't a lot of original music either. It was a big deal back them. You had to play covers, or be popular enough to draw a crowd to play in the clubs.

Q: Is it fair to assume that at some point or another you thought about living somewhere else?

A: I think everybody has had to entertain that thought. I was very fortunate to have run into [folk artist] Howard Finster years ago and he gave me some great advice, or really an inspiration. He built this situation for himself where people began to notice him. He didn't leave his place. That was always very inspiring for all of us. He didn't move off to share his art work.

Q: It seems to me that you and the Shaking Ray Levi Society kind of represent the growth of the arts over the last two decades. Would you agree?

A: I think that folks have always realized that art is important in Chattanooga. We've always been an artsy town visually. I think over the years, since that show in the '80s, that we really have a stronger feeling and sense of empathy for the arts community. I don't think that was so much true at the time.

Q: The Shaking Ray Levi Society is an Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga funded agency. Am I correct that getting a chair at the table, so to speak, wasn't easy in the beginning?

A: That is funny you say that. We did have to go out and get some reviews to kind of prove ourselves and fortunately we did get some great reviews. In New York and Miami and up and down the East Coast. The Village Voice gave us a great review and so did the Chicago Reader. Had we not had that, no one would have taken us as seriously as they did.

Q: You guys were doing something different...

A: We do focus on ideas of improvisation, but that's not all we do. The ideas of free improvisation, a lot of people see that as odd but it isn't. It's a very free and natural thing to do. It is the underpinning of all music.

Q: But, it was new at the time and at least today I think people are more open-minded and willing to try it. You guys deserve some of the credit for that changing attitude.

A: Allied Arts has definitely evolved and the community has, too. It's gone beyond pleasure and satisfaction. Now they see it as a part of the growth of the community. They want to foster that. It's always been there, it just took a lot of repetition and perseverance from everybody. Places like AVA and Barking Legs have worked hard.