Volume 79, Number 34 | January 27 - February 2, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

B.C. Vermeersch

After 25 years, Vermeersch retires as music school head

By Albert Amateau

It would be difficult to decide the most important achievement of the Greenwich House Music School over the past 25 years that B.C. Vermeersch has been executive director of the venerable music institution at 46 Barrow St. in the heart of Greenwich Village.

And it would be just as difficult to decide what was the most astonishing experience that Vermeersch had during the 25 years before he became executive director of Greenwich House Music School.

His personal history includes modern music, jazz, teaching, managing a popular bar and, of all the improbable things, sailing the South Pacific in a 35-foot ketch.

Vermeersch, who retired from the music school on Jan. 7, spoke to The Villager last week about his experiences past and present, with an eye on the future.

The University of California in Santa Cruz awarded him a Ph.D. in music, philosophy and education in 1975. In keeping with his abiding interest in music and education, Vermeersch is especially proud of programs in public schools.

“We put music in 20 public schools over the past 25 years,” he said, noting that while government and foundation money was available 15 years ago, there is much less funding now. “Back then, we had a music program for people with Alzheimer’s that ran for four years,” he recalled. “Music has a special place in our memories. You may forget who your are, but you’d still be able to sing a song.”

Teaching music to kids, one of the Greenwich House missions since 1905, has been especially gratifying, he said.

“A student, Bobby Lopez, was 11 years old in 1991 when we urged him to submit a song he wrote to BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc., which licenses music performance and collects fees for composers] for a contest and he won $150,” Vermeersch recalled.

“He sent us a check for $150 and a note saying he wanted to give the money to Greenwich House, where he found the confidence to make music,” Vermeersch said. “But I told him to keep the money and spend it on himself because I was sure he’d return it tenfold later on. Well, in 2002 Bobby won a Tony for writing the songs for the show ‘Avenue Q’ with Jeff Marx. And he organized a benefit that raised more than $85,000 for us that we used in 2003 to buy two new pianos for the school. That’s pretty close to 10 times the prize money that he wanted to give us,” Vermeersch said.

“We started a lot of new music events at 46 Barrow St., and some of them moved on to other venues,” Vermeersch said. The New York Festival of Song now holds Carnegie Hall concerts; Keys to the Future presents modern piano music concerts in Merkin Hall and other places; Cutting Edge and North River Music also present new music; and Women’s Work supports contemporary music by women.

“Greenwich House has a history of promoting contemporary music,” Vermeersch noted. Luminaries of modern music, including Edgar Varese, Henry Cowell and John Cage, taught at the music school, he added.

Vermeersch was born and raised in Detroit, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wayne State University, spent some time in San Francisco, the center of ’60s counterculture, and came to New York in 1968 on a New York University Ph.D. program scholarship.

He did whatever stimulated his imagination.

“I sold hamburgers at Woodstock in 1969 until we ran out of hamburger,” he recalled, adding, “I never got paid for it but it was great to be at the event.”

His interest in Happenings — the beginnings of performance art — had a disastrous denouement.

“A floor gave way during a Happening in Brooklyn and I ended up in the hospital for three months,” he recalled.

He went back to the West Coast because University of California at Santa Cruz had an intriguing graduate program in the history of consciousness. But the call of the wild intervened and he alternated coursework with helping friends rebuild a Bristol Bay tuna ketch in Minnville, Or.

His friend Captain Blackie, who owned the boat, sailed it to Samoa, where Vermeersch met him and his crew.

“The plan was to take a slow boat to China, but we sailed around the South Pacific for months drinking beer with the natives,” Vermeersch recalled.

He spent the best part of 1974 in Fiji, where half the population is from India and where he studied the sarod, the classical Indian stringed instrument.

“The Indian government was interested in promoting Indian culture, and I was able to take free sarod lessons in the Indian Consulate,” he said. “I also studied the quin — it’s pronounced ‘chin’ — a Chinese instrument like a zither. I had taken piano lessens too, but I never did master an instrument,” Vermeersch confessed.

He came back to New York in 1975 to finish writing his thesis. He got a job teaching in a daycare center in the Hamilton-Madison center, and in the fall was licensed as a substitute elementary school teacher in the city’s public school system.

“I didn’t get enough work to make a living, so I drove a taxi for two and a half years,” he said. “One summer, I drove a mime troupe — two young women and a man — around the Midwest. I was their driver and stage manager.”

In 1978, his friends Rip Heyman, Paco Underhill and the late Sari Dienes, an artist, opened the Ear Inn on Spring St.

“It was called the Green Door before they got it, and I became the manager for five years until 1983,” Vermeersch recalled. “We painted out the curved elements of the neon ‘BAR’ sign to make it look like ‘EAR.’ We were involved with Ear, a new music magazine,” said Vermeersch. As manager, he filled the Ear Inn jukebox with jazz, contemporary classical music, pop songs and world music — many from his own record collection.

“I remember a two-word headline in the Times about music at the Ear: ‘Triumphantly Eclectic.’ It still tickles me,” he said.

In 1984, Vermeersch began working at Composers’ Forum, a former Works Projects Administration organization, promoting the work of new music composers.

“I learned about fundraising, getting federal and state grants and foundation money for contemporary music,” he said.

In July 1985, the late Anita Gulkin, executive director of Greenwich House, hired Vermeersch to run the music school.

“It was a good fit with my Ph.D. in education, philosophy and music, and my experience raising money for Composers’ Forum,” Vermeersch said. “It was a wonderful chance to put music, education and the community together.

“In 1997, I formed a coalition, New York Community Schools of the Arts, about a dozen not-for-profit settlement music and art schools. We held joint master classes and took on work in public schools,” Vermeersch added.

“I’ve always been proud to work in settlement houses. When my grandfather immigrated here from Belgium and settled in Detroit around 1900, the Franklin Settlement was where they all learned how to cope with their new home,” he said.

Vermeersch has recently become executive director of Musicians Foundation, Inc., which helps professional musicians in times of need. A resident of Nolita, Vermeersch is also a member of the Washington Square Association, the Washington Square Music Festival and the Westbeth board of directors.

“I’m still looking for more,” he told The Villager last week.



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