Randall funke did not hear angels’ voices the night he met Katie Stuart, but he was engulfed by music just the same. He remembers the occasion very well: A struggling musician, he had gone to the River Cat Grill in Rowayton in hopes of finding work when he saw a glowing blonde on the other side of the room. He struck up a conversation with her and very quickly it ran very deep. They had a dozen things in common — the same craziness for art, the same history of unsatisfying relationships, even the same birthday. By the time he hit the sidewalk, he was transfixed.
The next day Katie, an art teacher at Darien High, took him over to her parents’ house in Harbor View. If Randy had a chance left for freedom, it was good and gone. “I walk in and see guitars everywhere,” he recalls with his usual explosive exuberance. “I see marimbas, drums, mandolins, all over the place. I ask if I can pick up a guitar and her dad says, ‘Sure.’ The next thing you know, we’re playing together — we’re jamming! And without missing a beat, her brother comes home, picks up his bass and joins in — and we didn’t stop for an hour.”
Katie, sitting in the Rowayton house they now share, a house overflowing with her paintings and his guitars, smiles at the memory. “I had to go to work, so I waved goodbye. And they were off.”
So, Randy, what was your take on all this? “My take?” Randy repeats before exploding, “My take was, I’m marrying this girl! It was instant. This needs to happen.”
Thus did Randy Funke (not a stage name) find himself enmeshed in the infinitely wonderful. Besides finding a wife, he found a family. He would quickly discover that Katie’s father, John Stuart, the man who lured him into the jam, is the ringleader of the wide-ranging musical ensemble. He’s something of a musical Johnny Appleseed around these parts.
All around us, of course, are a million closet musicians. Anyone reading this page knows three high school kids with astounding musical ability, ten middle-aged guys who rock out on guitar every night in the basement next to the washing machine and three gals who belt out soul songs every day in the privacy of their cars. Stuart has a way of finding these people and urging them into bands. He’s forever making connections, promoting some musical cause or other. His goal is musical cross-pollination.
We met one day at the Chef’s Table in Fairfield, where Stuart had gone to hear old friend Renard Boissier. With red hair combed back from a square face, Stuart beams with a quiet confidence. He has sharp blue eyes that appraise the situation. A man who vaguely describes himself as being “in marketing,” he seems genial, but there’s an intensity going on, especially when the subject is music. In his immediate family alone, there are members of seven working bands.
As we sat in the sunny, low-key soup-and-sandwich joint, which is rapidly becoming one cool hangout, he had one eye and ear on Boissier, who, as it turns out, was once a former player with the Neville Brothers. Boissier has an affecting, bluesy folk-pop-Caribbean style, and it swiftly occurred to me that this lunchtime crowd was getting one hell of a terrific show for free.
“I see music as a way for generations of families to come together,” Stuart explained. He talked with some enthusiasm about holiday parties at his house where the family all piles in and jams on the blues, Grateful Dead tunes or songs one of them has written. In his tales I could hear the inescapably strong echoes of idealism that embraced people who came of age in the 1960s folk music scene. If you once were part of a world that viewed music and song as a humanitarian cause, the feeling never quite goes away.
I already had seen his family philosophy in action at the River Cat. On one night, John’s band, Barnstorm, had packed the place and had folks sweating on the limited dance floor with a stomping-but-easygoing rockabilly. The very next night, I dropped by to see his son Peter’s band, the Well, a more guitar-intense band that stretched out in loving Grateful Dead interpretations; Peter, age thirty-four, along with guitarist Trent Lewis, showed startling flashes of improvisational skill.
But that’s just two of the bands. If Stuart is not playing with Barnstorm, he may be banging congas with his Latin band, Asulado. On any given night, he may be dropping around to check out a concert by Randy’s hard-rock band, King for a Day, or maybe he’s got to see his brother-in-law, Jay Newland, in his rock band, Voodoo Carnival.
Now don’t forget Jay’s teenage son, Max, who’s got a couple of bands going himself, the folkie Levi E Band and then the more rocking band, Stained Glass. Oops, they just changed the name of that band to Satin Jack and the Midnite Blue. Gotta keep up! Stuart will likely be in the back of the hall, observing, supporting, introducing. He even books the music at Sono Caffeine.
Stuart, a longtime Darien resident and still a dutiful member of the choir at the First Congregational Church of Darien, teaches music to kids in the Norwalk housing projects. “There’s one child,” he notes with a faint grin, “I first let him strum a guitar when he was nine months old. He’s been strumming it every day since. He’s four now and I think he might like to be a player someday.” He smiles. “My goal is to inspire kids whose families are not nourishing about music.”
“My dad,” his son Peter would tell me later, “is obsessed with giving back to the less fortunate.”
Come Away with Jay
While members of the family are tearing up the area roadhouses and dreaming of the big time, one of them has already achieved quite a bit of music-business fame, not to mention an armload of Grammys. Jay Newland, presently a Norwalk resident, has been a demon of the recording studio for years, first as a recording engineer, now as a producer. You’ve certainly listened to the magic he’s made with Norah Jones.
Newland, the younger brother of Stuart’s wife, Bobbi, had been a rambling kid without much direction. “When I was sixteen and eighteen, they were always encouraging me,” he recalls. “They were telling me, ‘There’s a big world out there, go see it.’” Stuart gave Newland his first guitar. Eventually that guitar led him to Boston’s Berklee School of Music and then a career twirling knobs in the recording studios. He got to see most of the jazz and blues greats up close, people like Etta James, Keith Jarrett, Sun Ra, Mavis Staples and Pat Metheny.
In late 2000 a friend at Blue Note records asked if he’d like to do some quick demo tapes for an unknown lounge singer named Norah Jones. Newland spent two days recording her songs and thought everything she did was magic. He gave copies to all kinds of friends in the music business. Blue Note thought well enough of them to ask her to record a real album and assigned a “real” producer to do it. But the “produced” album possessed none of the magic from the demos. The frazzled executives begged Newland, who up to that time had mostly been a recording engineer, to record her again and reproduce that clear, warm sound of his. So back to the studio he went with Norah, where he duplicated the setup from the demo sessions. Three of the songs on the resulting debut album, Come Away with Me, are actual demos from their first meeting.
Newland remembers getting a call from a friend telling him excitedly that the CD had sold 500,000 copies in the first week. “I thought, gee, I’m gonna get a gold record. Here I am, driving a beat-up car, and I’m thinking, Hey, a little success.”
That was just the start. Worldwide, it has since gone on to sell more than 20 million copies. Newland would win four Grammys for that record, including Engineer of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year. He’s since gone on to win four more Grammys. But even as he worked with stellar guitarists like Buddy Guy and Gatemouth Brown, Jay’s own playing fell by the wayside. In recent years he stopped traveling so much in order to watch over the growth of his two kids, Anna Rae, eleven, and Max, a junior at Brien McMahon.
It was Max’s Uncle John who got him playing bass in the folkie band Levi E. “I was like the soccer mom taking him to band practice,” Jay recalls. “I’d sit there for two hours while they’re practicing, and I see these guitars sitting on a stand there. So I ask, do you mind? And I began sitting in and became like the other member of Levi E. We started playing little gigs like Chef’s Table, and it was fun because my kid was doing it, too. For years I had worked so much that I never played. I said, I gotta start playing again! I started buying guitars and amps and stuff.”
Soon Jay was invited into a much harder band, Voodoo Carnival, which is led by the spirited vocals of Kim Manning. Voodoo Carnival, which this magazine’s readers voted Best Local Rock Band 2007, plies the juke joints of Fairfield County, such as Westport’s Bobby Q’s and the Black Duck.
“And I’m happy to get my eighty bucks at the end of the night,” Newland cracks. “It’s my vacation money. I come home and put it in a box at the end of my dresser. At the end of the summer, I’ll go to Montauk. Thanks to Voodoo Carnival.”
Son Max is in rocking groove himself lately, which should be expected when you grow up hearing so much music that it becomes what he calls “a normal part of my mental thinking.” Asked to describe the sound of his band, Satin Jack and the Midnite Blue, Max cites the Rolling Stones. “Classic rock is coming back,” he avers, “because most music today is crap, or it’s emo or something. Also, Guitar Hero is changing rock in a significant way — kids are learning about all the great rock guitarists through that game.”
Just as Jay got a boost in life from his brother-in-law John, so Newland is bringing along the younger players to a newer realm. And it’s not just by trading guitar licks in the family jams. “Jay is like an older brother, a mentor, to me,” says Randy Funke, who now finds himself in a position to work as recording engineer. Jay got him started working on a live album by the Tom Tom Club, a national band based in Fairfield. “So I got my first credit,” Randy says with awe. “Basically, he saved me ten years of getting coffee for people.”
Funke is presently working with re-nowned jazz producer John Snyder on a massively ambitious album with famed jazz pianist McCoy Tyner that will guest all sorts of guitar legends. His other daytime gig is managing the astounding website called artistshousemusic.org, a massive compendium of music clips and interviews of jazz stars and music industry people; it holds more than 3,000 video clips. Snyder began it by videotaping master classes with jazz greats. For any music lover, the site is a nonstop cornucopia of music marvels.
Randy took me to the back room of his house, which he calls “the White Cloud”: On one side was a stack of amps and guitars. Facing that was a two-screen computer station. “My dad worked for IBM and had one of the first PCs,” he says fondly. “He brought it home and it became my life. Then later that year he brought home a guitar and that became my life, too. And so it’s been, dividing my time between these two passions.”
If timeless music still has an audience, getting it to the audience can be a problem. “The music business has changed so much in recent years,” Randy notes. “What I’ve learned from the family is: Just do your best, and then do it for others.”
This was seconded by Stuart’s son Peter, a Wall Street trader by day and jam-band genius on weekends. “It’s a super-outgoing family,” Peter relays one day on the back porch of his Rowayton home.
Peter’s years at Darien High were saturated with the driving guitar music he loved so much — the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton especially. He would continue to play jazz as he went on to college at Hobart, but had reservations about music as a career. Through his Uncle Jay, he got to meet a musical titan like Pat Metheny, whom he considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and even Metheny was barely getting a hello from the American culture market.
Temping at a bank led him into trading, and today he works at Jeffries Investments. But in his band, The Well, another side of him comes to flower, even if it’s in a noisy bar. (“We do some Dead and some originals,” he says, “but obviously the Stones’ songs are still the panty-droppers at gigs.” Their CD, October Genius, is available at thewellband.net.)
It all seems part of the family plan, in which one sees a pattern of endless learning. Everybody in the band is just about to branch out into something new. One evening at the River Cat, watching Barnstorm, I noticed that Stuart happily moved from guitar to keyboards to percussion, although he seemed happiest when banging his arrangement of congas.
“Yes,” he explains, “in the nineties I got into Latin music — I just loved the Latin component of jazz. I bought some congas and some Tito Puente records. But I really wanted to learn it properly. So I went and found a class in East Harlem. I used to go down for lessons, and I’d often be the only one in that room who spoke English. I remember thinking, I’m about as far away from Darien as you can get.”
It is, for sure, a wide, surprising orbit that Stuart sweeps through in his daily life — one that ranges from the Darien choir to an East Harlem walk-up and all points between, but most importantly, in the family living room where it all begins, this spilling land of riches called Planet Music.