Though they were both very active members of the Boston music scene in the early 1970s, acoustic guitarist Guy Van Duser and reed man Billy Novick hadn’t worked together – hadn’t even met – before fate took care of things on a September night in 1975.
Just a few years earlier, Van Duser, originally from Rochester, New York, and Novick, a Long Islander, had made the move here (Van Duser now lives in Hull, Novick is in Lexington) and started landing gigs. Novick, on clarinet, alto sax and pennywhistle, was playing two-man shows with guitarist Gray Sargent and was in the lineup of David Bromberg’s band. Van Duser was regularly performing solo guitar sets and played bass in a country band.
They also each took part in whatever freelance work they could find. Coincidentally, each of them composed music, then played it live for different modern dance choreographers. Which is what led to that September, 1975, encounter at First Congregational Church in Cambridge for a concert presented by Dance Circle.
It went like this: They were at dress rehearsal. Van Duser did his piece – a solo guitar performance. Afterward, he looked across the room and saw Novick with his clarinet, along with a bass player and a drummer. Van Duser had never played with a clarinetist, thought it might be a good idea, and walked over to introduce himself. Over the years, both of them, in recalling what went down after that, tell the same story, almost word for word.
Van Duser: “ ‘Hi, I’m Guy Van Duser. Do you know any Benny Goodman?’ And Billy said, ‘Yeah, I know some of that.’ ”
Novick: “But the group I was playing with and the piece I wrote was very avant-garde jazz. So, for someone to make the connection that I play Benny Goodman was very Guy-like.”
They ended up playing a couple of swing tunes (with the drummer and bass player joining in) during the dress rehearsal, and something clicked. So, at the Friday and Saturday concerts, they decided to play while people were coming in. Van Duser had a cassette recorder with him, caught it on tape, and later wrote on it “Music to Be Seated By.” It was their first recording.
They liked what they heard and they liked playing together. But, due to various commitments, it would be almost three months later before they got together again, that time at Guy’s home. Two months after that, they landed their first gig – a Sunday afternoon show at Passim on Valentine’s Day of 1976. Then things took off, resulting in numerous albums, a steady supply of gigs, usually at coffeehouses and churches, frequent appearances on A Prairie Home Companion and a growing fan base.
Of course, they had been making plenty of music before meeting each other. Their shared love of it came from the rich musical atmospheres at home during their formative years. Van Duser’s mother was a concert pianist and his father took up guitar as a hobby. Novick’s older brother played clarinet, before moving on to bassoon. And there were records, lots of records, at home.
Novick listened to, among others, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane. Van Duser was digging his father’s collection, which included Dixieland, big band and cool ’50s jazz, as well as the guitar wizardry of Chet Atkins, which really caught Van Duser’s ear. Both of them were prone to playing along with the albums, developing their chops along the way. Novick had been playing clarinet since the age of eight, when he got his brother’s hand-me-down instrument. He added the saxophone when he was 15. Van Duser began with piano lessons, moved on to accordion, then received a guitar from his father and soon began playing duets of old swing tunes and Tin Pan Alley songs with him.
One early band Novick was in, when he was 16 – he can’t recall the name of it – was, in his words, “sort of like Blood, Sweat, and Tears.” Van Duser’s high school band was the Accents, a rock outfit that could, upon request, also play dinner music so they could get more jobs.
When they finally did meet, it wasn’t long before they discovered that they both had an affinity for older jazz – the music that has made up so much of their shows and albums. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their repertoire includes such gems as “Cheek to Cheek,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “Limehouse Blues” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Though today they don’t play nearly as many duo gigs as they used to, they’re still completely wrapped up in music. Van Duser recently began his 16th year as a professor at Berklee College of Music, and he’s working on a solo CD of pop and jazz songs. Novick joined the New Black Eagle Jazz band in 1986 and has been running the group since 2018. He also maintains a busy freelance schedule, explaining, “On any given month I may play with six or seven different groups.”
(by Ed Symkus)