The first time Stefan Gonzalez took the stage after his father Dennis’s death, it became a spontaneous reckoning.
What had been a previously scheduled gig at Oak Cliff arts hub Wild Detectives turned into a memorial. After all, what is navigating grief if not an act of improvisation?
“We made it a huge celebration of what we were feeling at the time,” Stefan said during a recent conversation. “That was all steeped in completely free improvisation that night.”
This weekend, on, appropriately, Father’s Day, the concert “Homage Nation: The Life and Music of Dennis Gonzalez” will unfold at the Kessler Theater. It will be no less emotional, Stefan said, but much more structured, designed to reflect the breadth of all his father accomplished in an eclectic creative life. (Dennis’s visual art will also hang in the Kessler lobby for viewing before and after the concert.)
“This night we’re doing on Father’s Day is digging deep into the Yells at Eels song repertoire, and my dad’s repertoire from the ‘80s,” Stefan said. “We’re digging into his songbook and we’re actually playing his compositions. … We’re doing two sets of 10 songs total, from basically about 1984 to the early 2000s.”
Above: KERA interviewed Gonzalez for this televised segment in the ’80s.
Damon Smith, who frequently collaborated with Gonzalez, described him to me last year as “the most important jazz or free jazz musician from Texas that never left Texas.” Fittingly, an array of top-flight talent will perform Sunday, including his sons, Aaron and Stefan, as well as drummer Gerard Bendiks, guitarist Gregg Prickett, trombonist Gaika James, vocalist Lily Taylor, saxophonist Jason Jackson, bassiste Drew Phelps and trumpeter Chris Curiel.
“[The concert] ties the past to the present, and shows that he was always a very welcoming and sociable outsider, but he was just always on his own trip,” Stefan said. “I feel like after he passed, it was like a big renaissance — it was a big heightening of awareness of people being like, ‘Wow, he really did all of this.’ I mean, that was one of the healing factors, helping us during the time when we were missing him and down in the dumps … to really reflect on the amazing stuff that he did, and all the hard work he put in all these years.”
To that end, such a rich and varied artistic life inevitably leaves behind much to sift through and assess, a process Stefan acknowledges is ongoing.
One goal in progress: formal archiving of Gonzalez’s work to make it available widely. Stefan mentioned awe-inspiring recordings like a 1979 collaboration with Max Roach at El Centro College, and a 1980 performance with Cecil Taylor in Woodstock.
“The house that I grew up in, my family house that’s still in Oak Cliff — that was just his playground,” Stefan said. “So there’s stuff sprinkled throughout. When you think you’ve cleaned up a section, stuff just keeps emerging. So, it’s just endless discovery right now.”
“Endless discovery” also feels like a fitting epitaph for such a profoundly influential figure. Stefan said they do feel some weight as caretakers of their father’s extensive legacy — “It is heavy sometimes [but] it’s not a burden, in any way” — but also a responsibility to ensure the contributions of Dennis Gonzalez are noted. To that end, Stefan said there are hopes for similar nights like Sunday to transpire in other parts of the world.
“I want to make him proud, and make him feel like we’re preserving his legacy the best we can,’” Stefan said. “We just played music together for so long … it’s not that I ever tried to take it for granted, but when it becomes normal, you don’t look at it from the same angle — it’s just your reality. After he passed, it was like a flower bloomed right in front of our face.
“I think that [his legacy] will unfold more to us when we play this show on Sunday. … I think that when we find the pockets of moments to improvise, and play together and just surrender to the moment, thinking about how my dad would do it, that’ll all make a lot more sense to us, you know?”
“Homage Nation: The Life and Music of Dennis Gonzalez” at Kessler Theater, Dallas. 8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20-$320.
Preston Jones is a North Texas freelance writer and regular contributor to KXT. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter (@prestonjones). Our work is made possible by our generous, music-loving members. If you like how we lift up local music, consider becoming a KXT sustaining member right here.