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After a 20-year musical journey, Pam Bricker has discovered an ideal place in the D.C. club scene.
Watching Pam Bricker onstage at U-Topia, a newcomer to D.C. would never suspect that the youthful, vivacious singer has contributed to the local music scene for two decades. On U-Topia, her just-released CD, Bricker and her musical partners, pianist Wayne Wilentz and drummer Jim West, celebrate the Sunday-night gig they’ve sustained at the U Street NW club for the last five-and-a-half years with an eclectic repertoire that embraces standards by Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein, Brazilian compositions associated with Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto, pop songs by Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix, jazz pieces by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, and a brace of original tunes.
U-Topia weaves together the strands of a musical career that seems to have been predestined. Bricker’s parents met in 1950 while they were students at Bucknell College. Trombonist Peter Bricker headed the Campus Kings, a dance band. One evening, while the group was serenading a women’s dorm, Olivia Lowry leaned out of her window and sang along. Peter liked what he heard and invited her to become the group’s vocalist.
Pam Bricker, 45, grew up in Summit, N.J.; her father worked as a research scientist at Bell Labs. A specialist in psychoacoustics, the study of human speech and sound perception, he contributed to the development of the touch-tone system. Following the births of the couple’s three children, Olivia developed psychological problems, which were exacerbated, her daughter suspects, by electroshock, overmedication, and other crude therapies of the time. In 1960, the Brickers divorced. Both remarried: Peter to a co-worker at Bell, and Olivia to another trombone player, Henry Southall, a veteran of the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman bands.
Growing up with her father in a home that resounded with Miles Davis and Don Ellis records, Bricker sang with her high school’s madrigal group and stage band, played folk guitar, and studied clarinet at a summer music camp in Great Barrington, Mass. She enrolled in Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., but dropped out in her freshman year to become a member of Twin Oaks in Louisa, Va., an egalitarian community founded on B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist principles.
“I was obsessed with the idea of communes,” Bricker recalls, “ever since my dad gave me a copy of Skinner’s Walden Two. He supported my decision to leave school and move to Twin Oaks. At that time, the community consisted of 100 adults, no children. I edited the newsletter and wrote editorials. One day, while I was working in the hammock factory, somebody played a John McLaughlin record. At that moment, I thought, I’ve got to be doing music full time. My mother helped me get my first gig, at Poor Richard’s in Richmond, singing and playing guitar in a folk-pop style inspired by Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. After two-and-a-half years, I left the commune to pursue a performing career.”
Returning to Amherst, Bricker sang and played in coffeehouses. Influenced by the recordings of Bette Midler, the Pointer Sisters, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, she added standards and jazz tunes to her repertoire. Then, with Jim K., she founded a bar band that, in the mid-’70s, played rock ‘n’ roll covers and originals in Western Massachusetts clubs. When the band dissolved in 1976, Bricker started her own group, which appeared in clubs throughout New England.
In 1978, she formed a duo with a bassist and moved to Boston. “An agent tried to help me find a record label,” Bricker recalls. “I went out to audition in California and was hired to sing ‘Spring Fever’ over the closing credits of a Susan Sarandon movie, Something Short of Paradise. But record companies seemed more interested in my songwriting than my singing, so I returned to Boston and decided to devote a year to writing. It was a big mistake. The writing didn’t happen, and my personal life fell apart. I had an emotional breakdown, then pulled myself together and returned to Twin Oaks.”
Back at her first utopia, Bricker met her future husband, Gareth Branwyn. During his high school years, Branwyn had read and admired Bricker’s Twin Oaks newsletters at a Richmond public library; the day after graduation, he became part of the commune. (A writer on “the intersection of technology and culture,” Branwyn currently edits Wired’s “Jargon Watch” column and runs the Web journal Digital Living Today.) The pair befriended Twin Oaks residents Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, the physician-clown known for his unorthodox healing techniques, and his wife, Linda Edquist. In 1981, the two couples moved to Arlington and shared a rented house in Clarendon, just around the corner from Dischord Records.
A new arrival on the D.C. scene, Bricker had to begin her career all over again. She performed folk, jazz, and Brazilian music at Whitey’s in Arlington and at Dupont Circle’s Food for Thought, where Mary Chapin Carpenter encouraged her. She sat in on open-mike nights at Charlie’s in Georgetown, where she met pianist-trumpeter-singer Rick Harris. With vocalists Jamie Broumas and Steve Hilmy, she and Harris formed the quartet Mad Romance, which, after a year of rehearsals, debuted at Georgetown’s Blues Alley in October 1983. In its four-year existence, the critically acclaimed group recorded an album and appeared at the Blue Note in New York and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. But the difficulty of obtaining enough work to sustain four singers and a backup trio, coupled with tensions among the members, led to Mad Romance’s breakup in 1987.
The same year, following the birth of her son, Blake, Bricker and Harris settled in for a five-year run at the Henley Park Hotel on Massachusetts Avenue NW. “I loved that gig,” Bricker says. “The audiences treated us like royalty. I learned a lot about the Great American Songbook. Fans suggested material and brought me tapes. Those were my cabaret years. While we were at the hotel, Rick and I recorded two duo CDs, All The Things You Are and Echoes of Mad Romance.”
Bricker and Harris left the Henley Park in 1990, when the management insisted that they play dance music and proposed to reduce their salariesdemands that they were unwilling to accept. “I had always supported myself with my music, and I wasn’t sure where to turn next. For a while, I thought that I had retired, that my career was over, but I was wrong. I started working with wedding bands. I had at least one job a week, built up a lot of chops singing Aretha Franklin covers, and earned more money than I ever did at jazz clubs and lounges. And I headlined at Blues Alley and the One Step Down. I sang with Louis Bellson’s band at Constitution Hall and reunited with Rick to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland.”
In 1995, Bricker realized a longstanding ambition. She recorded Lookin’ Good, a collection of singer-pianist Dave Frishberg’s songs, backed by the composer. “Frishberg is one of my heroes. Mad Romance had performed and recorded some of his material. A fan from the Netherlands Embassy called Dave and suggested that he do the album with me. I was delighted when he agreed. I had to catch up with him while he was on the road. We rehearsed in New York City, and recorded in D.C. and Portland, Ore., where he lives.”
Bricker’s Sunday night U-Topia engagement began in February 1994. “I started at an insultingly low fee that gradually increased as crowds started to come. It’s a beautiful gig,” she says, “the first time in years that I’ve been able to become myself again. Wayne Wilentz recommended me. He’s a New Yorker pianist with an R&B background who moved to D.C. in the mid-’80s. He’s one of the few players I know who can get a good sound on an electric piano. He and I have nearly identical taste. We’re interested in pop and Brazilian tunes, not just material for jazz snobs. We hear things the same way and rarely have to rehearse. If we both know a tune, we can perform it for the first time right on the stand.
“After so many Sunday nights at U-Topia, Wayne, Jim West, and I decided that it was time to get our music down on tape. We recorded several sessions at a studio at Wayne’s house, using mostly first takes. We’re happy with how U-Topia came out, and I’m especially pleased that my father agreed to play trombone on the closing track, ‘I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.’”
Always game to expand her creative horizons, Bricker has joined forces with the 18th Street Lounge’s Thievery Corporation, headed by Eric Hilton and Ron Garza, producers of soft techno who employ an ever-changing ensemble of performers. “I appear on three tracks of their new CD, The Mirror Conspiracy. Bebel Gilberto, João’s daughter, sings on it, too. I toured with them last year in Europe, where they are very popular. We performed for huge crowds in Amsterdam, Athens, and the south of France. Next month, I’m going with them to Iceland, and we’ll be touring the United States and Europe before the end of the year.”
Bricker has yet to realize all of her musical goals. She’d like to record with several of her favorite musicians, including guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Gary Bartz, and wants to experiment with other styles of music. “I can do all sorts of things, even avant-garde. I grew up hearing Harry Partch. I can do that shit.”
And she’s begun writing songs again, in collaboration with jazz-rock guitarist Chuck Underwood, thus resuming the composing career that she abandoned after her “big mistake” in Boston two decades ago. Although she confesses to some disappointment that she hasn’t received the national recognition she once sought, she’s not bitter. “Maybe I wasn’t discovered,” she says, “but I have a life.”CP
Samples of Pam Bricker’s music may be heard at http://www.dcjazz.com/jukebox/jukebox.htm.