Thomas Ferrella is a guy who likes to patch up wounds or create art — and then move on to the next thing. But he hopes the jazz series he helped create will be around for a long time.
Ferrella, who retired in 2013 after a 34-year career as an emergency room physician, lives in a 110-year-old house full of creative work on the Near East side. His eclectic output — ranging from photography and painting to collage, sculpture, woodworking, found objects and more — hangs alongside memorable works by his mother, now 92, who grew up “dirt poor” in West Virginia, helped raise a family in Ohio, and is a self-taught artist in her own right.
Ferrella, too, is self-taught.
“I tend to have a visual idea, then I teach myself the skills to get there,” he said. “I go to YouTube University to gather my information and try to put things together, and I learn on the way.” His extensive range of artwork and outdoor installations is online at www.ferrella.com.
Ferrella, who grew up in the Detroit and Toledo areas, followed his artist-brother Andre to Madison in 1984 after medical school. Father of adult daughter Maia and son Zachary, he helps coordinate the jazz series at Arts + Literature Lab (ALL), a community art space at 2021 Winnebago St. With ticket prices from $10 to $25, the music series now attracts avant-garde jazz headliners from around the country.
Ferrella and others are also putting together a free, mini jazz fest for Gallery Night on May 4 at Schenk’s Corners — where venues from Union Hair Parlor to Monona Bank will host local jazz artists (see schedule at artlitlab.org). Ferrella also will have artwork on display during the citywide Gallery Night (details at mmoca.org) in Yatra Studio, 646 W. Washington Ave.
He’ll perform music along the Yahara River Bike Path during the June 21 Make Music Madison celebration (makemusicmadison.org), and is supportive of the city’s swelling jazz scene, including the Isthmus Jazz Festival (isthmusjazzfestival.com) in early June, and the Madison Jazz Consortium’s InDIGenous jazz series (www.jazzinmadison.org).
How does jazz fit into your life?
I have always loved jazz. Weather Report was the first band that I just fell in love with (in high school), and from there I just started listening to contemporary jazz fusion. I entered jazz through jazz fusion. From there it just went everywhere.
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I have always actively pursued the idea of listening and collecting (recordings) and going to shows. I love other forms of music. I like things that are just good – I don’t tolerate people that are just repeating stuff. If I never see another Shakespeare play again, I’m happy. I don’t want to hear another orchestra doing Beethoven, Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Handel, whatever. I want to hear contemporary, interesting people pushing the art form forward.
How did the jazz series at ALL start up?
That was completely serendipitous. (ALL co-founder) Jolynne Roorda had heard of me because I was looking to do the same thing about five years before she had shown up in town. The idea was to have a gallery space with artist studios. We just couldn’t find a building, and it all fell apart. When she came to town, she made a point of meeting me.
One day I’m getting a call from a buddy of mine — he’s in the basement of Roscoe Mitchell’s house. Roscoe is this incredible avant-garde jazz musician at the highest level. He used to live in Madison, but didn’t get the recognition he deserves (and moved to California). I told my buddy, if you get a chance, ask Roscoe if he’ll play the next time he’s (in Madison). So I booked him at the Art-Lit Lab and he really enjoyed it. He brought up Vincent Davis and Junius Paul from Chicago, and the place was standing-room-only. That was my first show. We were shocked.
I go to Chicago, I go to Appleton, I go to Milwaukee. I travel to hear jazz quite a bit. I was talking to my buddies (and said), “Why are we in Milwaukee? Why can’t that band come here?”
I didn’t invent the wheel on (presenting a jazz series). This has happened over the years. It’s all do-it-yourself, and whoever’s doing it at the moment — it gets hot, and then falls apart.
But Roscoe put the word out for us. The next thing we know, this thing has really taken off. I hardly ever have to invite a band to come and play. They’re emailing us and saying, “We heard you guys have an amazing space.”
It’s not that great a space. It’s just a white box. But we treat these guys very well. They get to eat for free. They can stay here (at my house) for free. And the audience is very listening-oriented.
(The musicians) are used to playing in basements and dirty bars, and people are talking. The Madison audience is paying attention — and they get it. So 2½ years in on this, the schedule is pretty full. ... We have the most vibrant, the longest-running, avant-garde jazz programming that has ever been done in my 34 years of being in Madison.
We are a nonprofit, we have no budget, nobody gets paid. There’s more people than me helping on this project. And we want this to be sustainable. ... Some of the musicians coming are extremely talented, but (people) don’t know who they are. These are the guys moving the art form forward, or sideways, or upside down, however you want to look at it. And for me, that’s what’s really, really interesting about music — the people that are doing that.
— Interview by Gayle Worland