Consummate musician, renowned sound engineer, family man and longtime Woodstock fixture Ted Orr passed away on August 1 after a long illness. Despite that illness, however, he spent much of his last day in this realm doing what he loved best: playing music.
That last gig was with fellow longstanding Woodstocker Chris Zaloom. As Chris & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the duo enlivened the socially distanced folks in the side yard of the Bearsville Theater, the rushing Sawkill accompanying Ted’s tabla drums and Chris’s guitar. Diners nodding in time, applauding. Same as it ever was.
“My dad played for three hours the day he passed,” Ted’s son James says. “It was his life blood. He hadn’t played for six months prior to that, so the fact that he got to do it on his final day is a blessing.”
Ted Orr and his wife, Deborah Day, raised James and his sister, Alana, mostly in the Woodstock scene of the Eighties and Nineties, a time of multiple live-music venues, a supportive, tight-knit community, bustling recording studios and legendary, pre-Internet fun. Giants walked the earth, and Ted strode among them, hands-on, giving heart and expertise to many an enterprise.
The sound of music
Ted moved with ease from such high-end situations to all manner of people in the neighborhood. Someone needed bills paid? Ted would organize a benefit while simultaneously engineering a top-level recording session wherein musicians would marvel at how he rendered their sound onto tape.
Both Orr children would become artists, Alana as a performing and recording musician, James as both a visual and sound artist. Each continued a legacy of civic engagement entwined with creative spirit.
James looks back with deep gratitude on a remarkable childhood of nonstop music, accompanying his father to gigs where the elder Orr was either performing with a dizzying list of musicians, or running sound at the Joyous Lake or the Tinker Street Café, minding the frequencies for artists world-famous, obscure, or anywhere between, giving all the same quality of attention.
“My childhood memories are of going with my dad to various parties and festivals,” James says. “I would sleep in the office or storeroom to the sound of live music; a really rich community musical experience. He was out every night. For me, it was a really good vibe, the true heart of Woodstock. It was weird growing up and realizing it’s not like that everywhere.”
Ted Orr was born in Schenectady on November 6, 1956. As a pre-teen enamored of bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, he mowed lawns – including NBA Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird’s – to earn money for his own guitar. Once he acquired one, he played incessantly, tackling ever more complex music with gusto. After learning some basics from a friend’s father, he mastered densely sophisticated Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa songs by the time he 17. Upon acceptance at Berklee College of Music, he realized he was already ahead of his teachers, so he left to pursue a life in music sans degree.
An amazing ear
In 1979, enamored of free jazz pioneer saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Ted darkened the door of pianist-composer-educator Karl Berger and vocalist-educator Ingrid Sertso’s Creative Music Studio (CMS) in Woodstock, a nonprofit instructional enterprise of which Coleman was a co-founder and board member. Their mission: to engage musicians and listeners from all backgrounds to deepen and broaden their musical sensitivity, expression, and understanding through workshops, recordings, and concerts worldwide. Ted wanted in. These were his people.
“He couldn’t afford to pay to participate,” Berger says. “We asked if he had any experience in the kitchen, because we needed a cook. He said he did, so we hired him. But it turned out he didn’t. He was just so determined to be a part of it. What we were doing was right up his alley.”
In the ensuing years, Ted could be found playing guitar with other participants, in the kitchen – where he soon became a skilled chef – or recording the sessions.
“He was a rare combo,” Berger says. “Both a genius musician and a great engineer. He had an amazing ear, like no one I’ve ever known. Participants would discuss what we wanted a recording to sound like, and Ted would make it happen.”
Although the recording process wasn’t considered integral to CMS at the time, in years to come, when tapes began to disintegrate, Ted would painstakingly digitize and save over 500 Creative Music Studio concerts, including performances by MacArthur “genius grant” fellows John Cage, Cecil Taylor, George Lewis, John Zorn, and Ornette Coleman. These recordings are now housed in the Columbia University archives.
Most importantly, Ted would meet a dancer named Deborah Day at CMS. Composer-author Sue Pilla, then affiliated with CMS and an integral part of the Woodstock scene, remembers. “I watched them fall in love,” she says. “It was so sweet.”
Engineering prowess grows
Deborah and Ted left Woodstock for Brooklyn in 1983, shortly after Alana’s birth. While tearing up stages with the Swollen Monkeys by night, Ted found soundman work at the famed venue The Kitchen, and in construction, setting a routine that would continue of keeping his hands busy engineering, building, and performing.
After James came along, the Orrs put down roots at last in Saugerties, carving out a life of deep friendships, and endless opportunities to make art in a fecund period. Through the late Eighties and early Nineties, while making a name as a bandleader and player, Ted would commute with Nevessa Production’s Chris Andersen to Harlem to record Showtime at the Apollo.
Ted’s engineering prowess grew, and not just behind the mixing desk. He would go on to install a massive studio in Kuala Lumpur and become an international product specialist for Passac Midi guitars. He eventually enjoyed worldwide activity as a player, touring Europe and Asia, returning home to bring his music to a growing circle of loyal friends and fans.
Over the years, his bands would include but not be limited to: Futu Futu – with whom he played Woodstock ’94 – Mind Control Salsa, Swollen Monkeys, Blob, 420 Funk Mob, Dharma Bums, Creative Music Orchestra, Blue Food, Salted Bros, Shred, Thump, & Flow, Chris & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, SoundPainting and the Amrod Brothers Band, to name some.
The wildest places
The family moved to a small house on Wittenberg Road near Wilson Park where a dentist’s office had once been. Even as his health declined from diabetes-related issues in recent years, Ted found opportunities to play, at the Station Bar & Curio, Bearsville Theater, the Colony, and elsewhere.
Of his guitar playing, Pilla says: “His technique was flawless. He had complete command, and such expressive phrasing. He could go to the wildest places – because of his love for Ornette – but with such soul. He could put me in tears. It was a joy to hear.”
Berger, who would go on to form still-vital Sertso Studio with Ted, concurs: “He transcended styles. He had an impeccable sense of rhythm.”
Ingrid Sertso of CMS concurs with everything her husband says, but adds how Ted took care of her when Berger needed to travel to work. “Ted taught me to drive,” she says, laughing. “I needed to, because Karl was away. I was scared to death, but he made it so much fun. He took the fear from me. He was like a brother.”
A memorial for Ted Orr will be held on a to-be-determined date, somewhere where people can play music together, and gather to share memories. In the meantime, Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso plan to dedicate their Sunday, August 23 noon jazz brunch set at Bearsville Theater to Ted. Appearing with them will be flautist Steve Gorn and bassist Michael Bisio. That stage is the site of the much-beloved Ted Orr’s final performance, and they intend to honor the ground where his hands last conjured the music of his soul and made people happy.