Volume 74, Number 54 | May 18 - 24 , 2005

Villager photo by Robert Stolarik

Eric Oxendine in Jefferson Market Garden

Jammed with Jimi, he now plays at Jefferson Market

By Greg Paulos

In the early evening on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Eric Oxendine can be found playing guitar for a small group of people at Jefferson Market Garden in Greenwich Village. His concerts will resume this July after a winter hiatus.

The soft music, tranquil pond and tall trees provide an unexpected contrast to the bustle just outside the old iron gates of the park: post-work commuters angrily pushing their way home, the motley crowd waiting for a cheap dog at Gray’s Papaya, frazzled shoe-shoppers coming off Eighth St.

With his 60-year-old frame, Oxendine himself provides another contrast: his classical musician present to his rock-and-roll past. He has played bass with acts ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Van Morrison, in historic venues from Royal Albert Hall to Madison Square Garden, before crowds of more than 100,000 people. That’s Oxendine on bass on the radio-play version of “Brown-eyed Girl.”

On one night last fall, however, a crowd of about 10 people lay across the garden’s lawn, in various states of consciousness, listening to Oxendine’s peaceful fingerpicking. He played mostly classical music, on an acoustic steel-string guitar slightly amplified through a vintage Fender tube amp. An extension cord from the greenhouse provided the needed electricity. As Oxendine quietly ended a song, light clapping was drowned out by angry honking from a taxi on Sixth Ave.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, his next song morphed into an instrumental “Hey Joe.” A young punk who had been dozing on the lawn bolted upright in recognition and started groggily nodding his head. Two older Asian ladies who were admiring the fish in the pond left. Oxendine finished with as searing a solo as you can get on an acoustic guitar. This time the applause was slightly louder.

“Classical ‘Hey Joe!’ ” He cried out to the crowd.

George, an older park volunteer who monitors the donation table, described a time when one of Oxendine’s old partners in rock and roll dropped in unexpectedly.

“This real dapper guy runs in here accompanied by a 20-year-old blonde, and says ‘I saw the sign out there! Is that Eric?’ ”

“ ‘Yes,’ ” George recounted himself saying.

The man squinted at Oxendine. “What the hell happened to all his hair?”

Oxendine told his side of the story: “Yeah, that was Denny from Sha-na-na. Man, he was so excited to see me. You see, I used to be the big act, and they use to open for me. People like Hall and Oates used to ask me if I thought they were going to make it.

“This one time,” he continued excitedly, “I played a gig with Ritchie Havens at Shea Stadium, and Janis Joplin also played. After her set she invited us back into her dressing room and gave us all a shot of…um…of…uh….damn! Wait, it’ll come back to me….”

He trailed off, deeply lost in thought. There was an extended moment of silence. “I did a lot of drugs,” he finally said by way of apology. And indeed, his stories included the full range of the ’60s pharmacopoeia. “Hey I’m not going to lie,” he said. “People want to know the truth.”

Michelle, a psychiatrist with a nearby office who often listens to Oxendine’s shows, walked by.

“Hey, Eric!” she said warmly.

“No wait, this is really bothering me,” he said. “Janis gave us this liquor…It was real cheap, but she loved it…uh….”

After playing bass for numerous stars of ’60s and ’70s rock and roll, Oxendine began a solo career in 1978. His songs were inspired by his Native American heritage and he performed at various cultural events. During this time he also studied classical guitar at CUNY. In 1990, he founded a Native American dance and performance ensemble called the Eagle Clan and soon after began to work as a cultural interpreter for the National Museum of the American Indian, located in Downtown Manhattan. While working at N.M.AI., he started to create Native American art objects, which he sold at the gift shop. He continues to create and privately sell his jewelry, medicine shields, flutes, feather work, leatherwork and turtle shell rattles.

Oxendine started his twice-weekly gig in the Jefferson Market Garden about two years ago. He’s lived nearby — in the same apartment on 11th St. — since 1974.

“I’m not a green thumb,” he said, “but I have a musical thumb, so I went to one of their meetings and offered to play.”

He tends to play atmospheric music, responding to the moods of the garden. If a breeze blows it might affect the sound of the music.

Is it hard to play the Jefferson Market Garden after you’ve played Madison Square Garden?

“Well, I did the whole drugs and groupies thing, and there were nights after playing to 100,000 people when I’d come home so full of energy that I’d, you know, be punching the walls and throwing TV’s in the pool. But now, in a place like this, with only a few people, they’re so close, listening so intensely, it can make you even more nervous. It’s the intensity of the people, not the number.”

As the night grew chilly, he quickly finished packing up. A cute, fortyish, redheaded woman from the audience walked up to Oxendine and struck up a conversation. Before long they were walking out together, perhaps indicating that his life hasn’t changed all that much after all.

He stopped suddenly at the exit gate and turned around.

“Southern Comfort!”

Oxendine will start playing guitar in the garden the last Saturday in June and then play Wednesdays and Saturdays from July through September, from 4 p.m.-7 p.m.

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