Dennis Palmer, Shaking Ray founder, dies

photo Dennis Palmer

Local artist, musician and teacher Dennis Palmer, 56, died Friday night. He was known around the world as a pioneer in improvisational music through his work with longtime friend and collaborator Bob Stagner.

"We were friends for 50 years," said Stagner, co-founder and co-artistic director with Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levi Society, a local arts organization that promoted a variety of concerts and showcases over the years.

"I remember our first fight. It was over who was going to take credit for an elephant joke."

Over the years, the two have performed all over the world with such improvisational notables as Derek Bailey and Col. Bruce Hampton. Palmer also was a painter; he taught both music and art to area students.

"Dennis lived up to the title of living in the moment, and he lit a fire under a lot of people through his art, music and teaching, and he affected so many people." Stagner said. "Physically, he might be done, but his inspiration is still working."

Dan Bowers is president of ArtsBuild, which funds 14 agencies including Shaking Ray Society. Bowers said Palmer had a great deal of influence on the local arts scene.

"Dennis was a passionate and innovative musician. More than that, he was a good person. He loved Chattanooga and the people here, and he proved that through his work and his giving. He will be greatly missed," Bowers said.

A fixture on the local music scene since his days at Brainerd High School, Palmer played in Bend Sinister before forming the Shaking Ray Levis.

In a 2011 Times Free Press profile, Palmer was asked if he'd ever thought about taking his music to a place that had a bigger improvisational scene.

"I think everybody has had to entertain that thought," he said. "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 artwork."

In the same article, Palmer said visual arts have always been important in Chattanooga. He remembered in the 1980s booking a hall and promoting a concert because there was no place for such acts to perform at the time.

"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.

"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."

Funeral arrangements were not known Saturday.

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