Bill Ochs died on October 5th after a long battle with a cancer he had largely kept to himself, hoping to tell everyone after he had defeated it.
He was a man whose life was music and the music he most loved -- and he loved many kinds of music -- was traditional Irish music.
He was an excellent player, first tin whistle player and ultimately an uilleann piper. But it was perhaps as a teacher that he made his greatest contribution.
I remember Bill speaking on stage at performances, perhaps a Siamsa, in the early days at New York City-based Irish Arts Center. Some remarks would always precede his playing, something like "Traditional Irish music is the finest, the highest expression of the soul of its people. It is a music of incredible beauty, reflecting the joy and pain, the struggles and satisfactions of Irish men and women." I paraphrase at my own risk. For when Bill said it, it was a commentary born of long study, of combined theory and practice, and of history.
The way I heard it, Bill fell in love with this music when, walking along on a beautiful day in Greenwich Village, he heard Liam Clancy (or was it Tommy Makem?) playing a tune on the whistle. Was it The Butterfly or The Swallows Nest or The Mountain Road? We will probably never know. But we do know that he would not, could not let that sound go out of his head or out of his life. This love was his life’s great passion.
How honored we are that this talented, giving man fell in love with and devoted his life to our music. And with his devotion came teaching. At the beginning of the Irish Arts Center (An Claidheamh Soluis we also called it), when none of us had reached the heights of maturity and skill only many subsequent years would bring us, he was the most advanced in music. So he brought us together to learn, indifferent to levels of skill or experience, interested only in our desire to learn.
He was largely responsible for our first grant from the U.S. National Endowment on the Arts. He had young musicians playing all over the building. If one or some of his students could play the tune sufficiently well, he could play along with the usually large group of musicians playing together at our weekly seisiuns. If they needed teaching and practice they could take one or more of the mostly music courses among the over 40 free, weekly workshops at the center. If we succeeded in convincing one of the great musicians such as Andy McGann to come down from the Bronx, or when Kevin Burke was in town, we could all come hear them at the Concert Series, and even play along with them in the group at the seisiun.
I found out about the grant. Bill and I wrote it up and I sent it to Ralph Rinzler, the NEA musical director and a fiddler himself. Ralph liked what we sent but had a final request before he’d sign off: "Do you know Johnny Cronin? Can I hear him play?" he asked. We sure did, he sure could. And we took Ralph up to the Bunratty Pub in Inwood at 10pm one night. Johnny’s personal habits permitted a 10pm opening set and when he had finished playing the angelic music so unlike its practitioner, and we had introduced them, the deal was done. We got our first matching grant of $7,500 for our music and dance program from the Unites States National Endowment on the Arts.
In those days (1972-1978), no aspiring musician passed through the center without being influenced or taught directly by Bill. He was our unquestioned, unanimously unelected leader. He seemed to know it all. He got to know us all.
Once, at a contentious meeting concerning the musical direction of the Center (we were always having a meeting, to give every opinion its voice) a recent member, a woman, in response to a comment by Bill, stated, "No Jew is going to tell me how to play Irish music." There was an unbelieving hush succeeded by a communal groan of disgust. She was wrong. There was a Jew who would teach us and had been doing so years before she showed up. It was the best man for the job, our own Bill Ochs. Neither he nor we concerned ourselves with his or anyone’s relationship to god. But we cared greatly about his musicianship and his sharing of his love and his talent and lovely playing.
I had one conflict with Bill I didn’t really know about until he told me about it over a year later. He asked me over to his place for lunch -- not a common occurrence -- because he wanted to say something to me. "When Brian named you as his successor as Director of the Center," he said, "I was furious. I thought he was crazy. I now know I was wrong and I want to apologise to your face." I had had no suspicion. "It’s alright Bill, I forgive you," I said. "I thought he was crazy myself."
So, our friend and teacher is gone. And in the way that life is, we owe a debt that we cannot repay. But that’s not completely true either. We can summon the courage to learn from those who know that which we wish to learn, and who are prepared to share it. And we can teach those who come to us seeking the hard-earned knowledge that we possess. And, very much in Bill’s fashion, we will thereby pass on the knowledge and traditions that we love to those who share that love.
Bill Ochs taught us all.
Oiche mhaith, Willie.