Friends and colleagues reflect on the legacy of the GRAMMY-winning cellist who co-founded Music for People.
David Darling, the GRAMMY Award-winning cellist and composer who co-founded the pioneering arts organization Music for People, died on Jan. 8 at home in Goshen, Connecticut. He was 79.
Darling rose to prominence in the 1970s as cellist of the Paul Winter Consort. He subsequently collaborated with a diverse array of other artists, including Consort guitarist Ralph Towner, the jazz-fusion band Spyro Gyra, mythologist Joseph Campbell and Rumi interpreter Coleman Barks.
A consummate studio musician, Darling played on more than 40 albums, half of which were his own. Many of his solo projects—such as the GRAMMY-winning “A Prayer for Compassion” (2010) and the GRAMMY-nominated “Homage to Kindness” (2020) and “Cello Blue” (2002)—welded vast, electroacoustic soundscapes.
Music for People Program Director Mary Knysh says Darling helped formalize the concept of grassroots music making. “David taught us that we’re full of creativity, regardless of our skill level or experience. He invited us to discover the wellspring of expression in each of us.”
Skirting the Boundaries
Born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, Darling began playing piano at age 4. He quickly absorbed other instruments, including voice, cello, double bass, alto and baritone sax, and tuba. An interest in music education led him to Indiana State University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and founded his own jazz ensemble.
After graduation, Darling taught K-12 music in southern Indiana and then served on the music faculty of Western Kentucky University. Fate intervened in 1970, when Paul Winter invited him to join his eponymously named Consort. “He learned all of our charts in one night,” recalls Winter, whose sextet skirts the boundaries of jazz, classical and world music.
For the next seven years, Darling performed with the Consort, while leading a double life as a classical and studio musician. “David always was racing off to the airport between gigs,” recalls Winter, referring to Darling’s stint as assistant principal cellist of the Nashville Symphony. “One night on the road, we had to bail him out of jail because he had gotten arrested for speeding.”
Darling’s genre-bending, improvisational ethos was uniquely captured on “Icarus,” from the Consort’s 1970 live album, “Road.” The track became a cult classic and, like the rest of the Consort’s oeuvre, served as a reaction to the strictures of European chamber music. “In each of our instrumental voices, including David’s, has been the soul of a jazz player,” Winter says.
Jim Oshinsky was a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in the mid-1970s, when he first saw the Consort live. “I was mesmerized by David, who soloed like Jimi Hendrix, complete with wah-wah pedal and delay effects. I became an instant fan,” recalls the former Music for People director and author of “Return to Child,” which is still regarded as the final word on music improvisation and authentic group leadership. “David created an atmosphere that I wanted to be part of.”
Touching the Soul
After the Consort, Darling reinvented himself as a solo artist and collaborator. Many of his creative partners, including dancers, writers and filmmakers, reflected his growing interest in the indigenous sounds of South America, Africa and India. “David beat and illuminated a path to musical liberation and integration,” says cellist Eugene Friesen, Darling’s successor in the Consort. “He could imbue a single note with more meaning than might be found in an extended jazz solo. His extended improvisations were contemporary sound sculptures that moved the standard way, way up the field.”
In addition to recording 15 albums for the German-based ECM, Darling appeared on a host of other labels, including Elektra, Hearts of Space, Narada and Relaxation. Many of these albums have since enjoyed a second life on satellite radio. John Diliberto, host and producer of the syndicated program “Echoes,” says Darling could make the cello cry and soar, sometimes simultaneously. “Apart from his virtuosity, he was a composer of amazing depth and melody.”
Longtime friend Barry Green believes Darling’s lack of pretense helped break down barriers between professional and amateur musicians. “His music touched the soul like nobody else,” says the former principal bassist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and co-author of the bestselling “Inner Game of Music.” “David will live on in the hearts of all whom have experienced his music, teaching, humor and energy.”
Darling also knew when to ease up on the gas. Green recalls a memorable meeting in Darling’s home in preparation for a joint concert at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). “We discussed our program over dinner and then decided to watch football on TV, eat popcorn and drink beer,” he says. “We never rehearsed a note—and our concert at CCM, a few weeks later, was probably the best thing we ever did together.”
That and a workshop Green organized in northern California, featuring Darling, multi-instrumentalist Mary Knysh, improvisational singer Rhiannon, Tai Chi Master Al Huang and choreographer Alan Scofield. “It was historic,” says Green of the all-star line-up. “I’ll never forget it.”
Combining Holy and Reckless
Al Huang was especially close to Darling, calling him a “true soulmate immersed in Tai Ji Tao Flow.” “We were performers on stage and partners in teaching, following our bliss for nearly five decades,” says the Chinese performance artist, whose partnerships with Darling and international “Storydancer” Zuleikha elevated music, dance and movement to new levels. In turn, the trio shared the stage with such luminaries as singer-songwriter Joan Baez, harpist Andreas Vollenweider, erhu virtuoso Chen Zhongsen and the Glasharfe Ensemble (Els Ilg, Pius Brogle and Annamarie Moergeli).
Likewise, composer-pianist W.A. Mathieu enjoyed a lengthy association with Darling. The two met in the 1960s, when, unbeknownst to one another, they had developed similar games for small-group improvisation. “It was impossible not to love him, then as now,” says Mathieu, citing Darling’s Rumi-inspired collaborations as “precious gifts to the world.” “The serendipity in our approach, combined with youthful enthusiasm, forged a lasting bond.”
Mathieu says that, musically, Darling could be a combination of holy and reckless, something not always perceptible to the casual listener. “Those who listen more deeply to David’s music,” he says, “will pick up on indigo currents of introspection and the bright blue skies of praise as a singular, inedible music.”
Embodying Crazy Wisdom
Darling was—and, for many, still is—the face of Music for People. Co-founded with flutist Bonnie Insull in 1985, the organization drew on Darling’s interest in teaching and performing improvised music. His goal was to turn people into active participants of the arts, rather than remain passive observers.
Darling headlined hundreds of classes, workshops and performances worldwide, before health issues forced him to retire from MfP in 2012. His infectious, easy-going style endeared him to musicians of all stripes who found his playfulness refreshing.
Friesen insists that Darling’s popularity marked a sea change in the traditional, Eurocentric model of the classical musician. Only recently has improvisation—once the province of composer-performers like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven—made a comeback in music education, says Friesen, also a professor at the Berklee College of Music. “David modeled joyous freedom from the creative confines embedded in this 200-year-old methodology.”
Darling arguably walked a fine line between creativity and risk-taking. “He didn’t ask participants to do anything that he hadn’t modeled first,” Oshinsky says. “By starting with large-group activities, he made you feel safe and anonymous. And then he slowly helped you find your voice.”
Stories abound of Darling’s unconventional teaching techniques, such as “Babbling to Free up Your ‘Yay’ Energy,” “Sirening Over a Drone,” “One-Minute Solos” and “Sing What You Play, Play What You Sing,” all of which are still used in classrooms today.
Then there were his signature witticisms: “A crisis can be an opportunity”; “You’re not doing what I’m doing; you’re doing what you’re doing”; “It’s YOU. You’re GREAT!”; and “Congratulations! You DID it.” Many of these sayings—along with the ubiquitous “There are no wrong notes”—are echoed in Darling’s 11-point “Bill of Musical Rights,” which doubles as MfP’s creed.
Julie Weber, former chair of the MfP Musicianship and Leadership Program, got Darling to elaborate on these ideas in their three-CD set, “The Darling Conversations.” Being with him, she says, was like coming home. “He had the gift of getting people to believe in their own worth. Now his students are teachers of this humanistic approach to creative expression, forming a bountiful legacy.”
MfP charter member and veteran teacher David Rudge was spellbound the first time he saw Darling perform. The opportunity to attend one of his workshops revealed a deeper, more vulnerable side of the artist. “David approached his playing and teaching moment to moment, like a true Taoist,” says Rudge, a violinist and conductor who is a music professor at SUNY Fredonia. “He could lead by moving, playing, clowning, singing—and saying nothing. David was so Zen-like in his focus, presence and simplicity.”
Darling’s ability to distill big ideas into short sentences was one of his gifts, notes MfP charter member Ange Chianese. Consider such divinely inspired mantras as “When in doubt, offer your silence” and “When you are completely still, the next note will present itself to you.” “He had a less-is-more attitude,” Chianese says.
Darling’s profundity was uniquely captured in a large painting of a Chinese fool, which hung in his home. Teacher-scholar Joseph Campbell told Darling that the illustration represented his role to the world. “It’s known in some spiritual traditions as ‘crazy wisdom,’ and David embodied it,” Rudge adds.
Despite the loss of Darling and challenges posed by the pandemic, MfP persists. “We want to honor David’s contributions while carrying his legacy forward,” says Board President Todd Rogers. “That MfP is bigger than ever is a tribute to his vision.”
The last time MfP charter member Ron Kravitz talked to Darling was a year ago. Even though Darling’s health was failing, his inimitable sparkle was still intact. Kravitz eventually reminded him of the many lives he had touched. As if on cue, Darling perked up and responded, “Yes, I will always be your greatest cheerleader!”
“And that he was,” says Kravitz with a trace of emotion.
Author: Rob Enslin