Versatile George Koumantzelis talks about the music, acid culture, Jack Kerouac and his Greek friends

"Jack Kerouac loved the sound of music – especially JAZZ music, and Be-Bop music in particular. He would type his books, at times, listening to jazz music."

George Nicholas Koumantzelis: Aeolian Traveler

George Nicholas Koumantzelis is the founder of Aeolian Ergonautics, including: Aeolian Lyrical Music, Aeolian Kid (a rock band), Aeolian Music Works (a record label), Aeolian Photographic Works (a postcard, poster, and print production entity), Aeolia Recording Studio, Paw Print Publications (a homespun small press), Peace Pagoda Productions, and Tan Hat Two-Track (a mobile, digital recording service). He is the author of: Amherst: Dharma Dreams & Fairy Rings (A Spiritual Odyssey), the producer of Cosmic Podunk: A Graceful Space, and the founder of Seeds Of Sound: Ecology Benefit Concerts.

Besides doing photography, George also likes to write poetry, essays, and book and music reviews. An appreciator of art, music, and philosophy, George loves to read books, listen to music, and turn people on to what he's discovered. Primarily a drummer, George has been a natural-born percussionist his whole life. As a musician, he's more comfortable with writing songs and lyrics than with singing or manipulating a melodic instrument. Nevertheless, his musical creative work is prolific, and he composes his songs on piano as well as on guitar. He plays an assortment of acoustic and electronic percussion instruments.

George has jammed and worked with many musicians over the years, and is just as comfortable recording bands live as he is mixing and mastering music in the studio. George loves the freedom-loving, free-flowing, experimental and improvisational music of the creative and fun-loving psychedelic sixties, along with ancient and archetypal, tribal, world-beat rhythms fused with the electronic and spacey, ambient synthesizer sounds of the progressive early seventies. He also enjoys tasty portions of traditional bluegrass and roots-rock music, both acoustic country and electric blues, as well as good old folk music of all kinds. He's also no stranger to enjoying hardy doses of both cool jazz and jazz-rock fusion, as well as huge heapings of late eighties alternative rock and early nineties garage grunge! In fact, he relishes listening to all kinds of world-beat music from around the planet, whether it's lyrical or instrumental. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos Credits © Courtesy of  George Koumantzelis / Aeolian Photographic Works

When was your first desire to become involved in the music?

When I was a kid, it was a thrill to go to the Greek picnics in the summer time and sit by the side of the stage to be close to the band and watch them playing from up close. I always sat next to the drummers, and studied their every move. Later, of course, when we all saw The Beatles on TV, we all wanted to be in a band. Listening to albums like Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cemented my love of music and songwriting.

What does the Beats and Music mean to you?

The Beats, to me, were a breath of fresh air during a time of military madness and a conservative consensus-reality mindset that was anything but truly ‘conservative’ in the accurate sense of that word as someone who practices personal “economia” as well as a balanced approach to a homeostatic and sustainable use of our natural resources. … Music, to me, is my first and greatest love – next to spiritual liberation. Art and photography are very dear to my heart, but music is what makes my heart beat.

"I describe my music as heart-centered, mind-manifesting, tail-wagging, hard-folk, space-blues, and tribal-rock music."

How did the idea of the Aeolian Music & Aeolian Kid come about?

My father’s people – way back – come from the island of Lesvos, before they settled in the Ellasona area in the mountainous region of northern Thessaly and southern Macedonia in the foothills of Mount Olympus. My mother’s people – way back – come from the island of Chios, before they settled in the highest village on the top of Mount Ossa, overlooking the Tembe and the Aegean Sea in Thessaly. All of these ancient Greek peoples were descended from the Aeolian tribes of the original, Aryan, Indo-European, Greek-speaking people who settled into the Aegean basin surrounding ancient Greece in the first Millennium BC. Hence – “Aeolian Kid.” Also, much of my early music was composed on the black keys of the keyboard – the sharps and the flats – which are associated with the minor scales and modes of which the Aeolian is one, beginning with the note of A.

How do you describe your project?

I describe my music as heart-centered, mind-manifesting, tail-wagging, hard-folk, space-blues, and tribal-rock music. That’s what I call it. Most people would probably call it pop-rock, folk-rock, or psychedelic jam-band music.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

So far, I think I would probably say that the best moment of my career was when my bands played at the “Seeds Of Sound: Lowell Ecology Benefit Concert (Rock Mount Trashmore!)” that I organized and promoted as a fundraiser for a group of environmental non-profit organizations in August of 1991. The worst moment of my career was when MP3.com went belly-up in 2003 – after I had spent two solid years uploading all of the music that I had recorded for the Aeolian Music Works record label onto their web site. Thousands of hours of time spent uploading music, photos, and text all went down the drain in a heartbeat. Now, we have CD Baby, ReverbNation, Nimbit, Apple iTunes, and amazon.com.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Do you have any amusing tales to tell from?

At this time, my main band – Aeolian Kid – has been inactive as a live, performing band for over a decade. Of all of the bands that I have been in or associated with, Aeolian Kid is the band that I myself founded, alone, from the start as a solo artist. Over the years, it has had many incarnations. Our most memorable gig – outside of playing at Seeds Of Sound (which was very special) – was one gig we played at Edible Rex rock club in Billerica, MA in 1992 when we performed my song, “Them Blues,” live for the first time – and you could hear a pin drop! … As for amusing tales, I will leave that for the biographers! I don’t want to name names and places at this time, if you know what I mean. I will say this much: I have a whole 90-minute cassette tape full of the greatest jokes you’ve ever heard!

Some music styles can be fads but the Blues and Rock is always with us. Why do think that is?

There is nothing more basic than words put to a simple beat of lub / dub, stomp / clap, downbeat / backbeat, bass drum / snare drum, one / two, and sung out loud alongside some simple accompaniment like a folk guitar and a hand drum – or just your foot stomping on the floor or the side of your guitar. That’s all you need. That’s all people need to feel the beat, the passion, the message, the melody. Everything else is extra. The human voice, alone, is the most powerful instrument of all. Diamanda Galas said that – and she’s right. The Blues, Rock and Roll, Appalachian Mountain (Scott-Irish) Music, Bluegrass, Roots, Americana, and early Country music are all rooted in a genuine sense of true musical expression connected to human feelings of joy and sadness – and everything in between that encompasses human existence. This is real music made by real people in real time about real life and death topics. It’s alive! As I like to say: “Midi doesn’t jam!”

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Beat “culture”?

Secrets – or history? … If secrets, it’s my Uncle – Billy Koumantzelis – who was Jack Kerouac’s close personal friend, his bodyguard, and one of his pallbearers at his funeral who I have learned the most from. Of those secrets, he has shared very few – maybe 5% at most – as he is a man of his word, and when he gave his buddy, Jack, his word, he kept it. He won’t even tell us! Even those 5% that he has shared are not the true secrets. Those, he will never tell. … But, of history, it would have to be Gerald Nicosia, Dennis McNally, and David Amram. Those men are all real scholars who have a great love for the creativity of their fellow artists.

George, Bill Koumantzelis, David Amram, Dennis McNally and Gretchen Goodwin 

Are there any memories from Bill Koumantzelis, which you’d like to share with us?

Well, whatever memories that “Uncle Billy” has have all been recorded and distributed already on his CD that I produced for him: “ON THE LOWELL BEAT: My Times With Jack Kerouac.” That is available for sale at CD Baby. Recently, he was interviewed by the New York City editor, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, and we taped it both as an audio recording as well as a video document. So, that may come out some time in the future. My favorite story is the one about the “Blood on the Book.” You’ll have to get the CD to hear that one!

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your experiences with David Amram, John Sinclair, and John Sampas?

Not really. David Amram and John Sampas are both true gentlemen keeping the literary torch of Jack Kerouac alive. John Sinclair is a passionate poet who I only recently met for the first time in Lowell in 2012. I videotaped his performance at the Lowell Celebrates Jack Kerouac! Festival, and it’s up on You Tube in “The Aeolian Kid” section. He’s a great guy – very brave and very soulful. David Amram is a musical genius. John Sampas is a very well-read and kind person who cares deeply about the literary legacy of his deceased brother-in-law. That’s all.

What are you miss most nowadays from 40s - 50s era of Jack, Bill, Tony’s friendship in Lowell, MA?

Well, in the Forties, Jack Kerouac was friendlier with my now deceased, paternal uncle, John Koumantzelis. They called them “the three Johns”: John Kerouac, John Koumantzelis, and John Lang. They all ran track together at Lowell High School. But Jack was closest with Sebastian Sampas, the poet, from what I’ve heard. In the Fifties, Jack was closer to his Columbia and Beat friends like David Amram, Gregory Corso, and them. It was in the Sixties that Jack re-kindled his relationship with Uncle Billy who was born in 1926 and younger than him. Tony Sampas worked with Uncle Billy at his bother Nick’s bar on Gorham Street called “Nicky’s” where Jack used to hang out. Tony Sampas and Uncle Billy were best friends, and that’s how Jack became close friends with Uncle Billy – because Tony Sampas was the brother of Stella Sampas, Jack’s last wife who he is buried with on the corner 7th and Lincoln in Edson Cemetery in Lowell, Massachusetts, also on Gorham Street. Small world!

"Well, whatever memories that 'Uncle Billy' has have all been recorded and distributed already on his CD that I produced for him."

Make an account of the case Kerouac & Music and what characterize the “Sound” of Jack’s words?

Basically, Jack Kerouac loved the sound of music – especially JAZZ music, and Be-Bop music in particular. He would type his books, at times, listening to jazz music. The cadences and sentence structure of much of his writing is inspired by and intentionally tries to emulate and convey the energy and dynamics of JAZZ music. Uncle Billy says that Jack had a great voice, and that when he sang out loud, it was very soulful.

Who from the Beats had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz? How does the music come out of the Beat literary?

I am not the best person to answer this question. You should ask Dennis McNally who also worked with The Grateful Dead – because Jerry Garcia hired him on reading Dennis’s great biography of Jack. He “got it.” You should also talk to David Amram. He would be the expert on this subject. In fact, of all of “The Beats,” it could be David Amram himself who “had the most passion for the Blues & Jazz,” but I’m not so sure that Mr. Amram would even like to be considered being called a “Beat” personality. Maybe the answer is Neal Cassady or Gregory Corso? I do not know. You really should talk to David Amram.

Why did you think that Jack Kerouac’s adventures, continued to generate such a devoted following?

Jack Kerouac was authentic, genuine, original, real, and unique in every way. He was a great writer – pure and simple. He saw himself simply as a writer – pure and simple. He created great classics of lasting literary appeal because of his candid and honest approach to his craft. He was an artist and, according to Uncle Billy, “a true genius.” He was always writing – all the time. He always had little notebooks in his pockets that he constantly wrote in – even when he was drunk. He had a great memory. He had a great sense of panoramic sweep in his literary imagery. His words were cinematographic with a constant narration that commented on both the outer landscape and activity as well as the inner thoughts and feelings and immediate reflections of the protagonist – like a 360 degree movie camera with constant commentary working simultaneously side-by-side. He also had a great sense of humor and the compassionate heart of a Buddhist monk. His relevance is rooted in his reality!

Jack Kerouac and Bill Koumantzelis photo from CD "ON THE LOWELL BEAT: My Times With Jack Kerouac"

How important was the role of Greeks immigrants in Lowell, Massachusetts in Jack Kerouac’s life?

It was huge! … The Greeks of Lowell embraced Jack Kerouac as a brother. Roger Brunelle is always saying that Jack had more Greek friends than French friends. His closest friends were his Greek friends. In the classroom, it was Sebastian Sampas. On the sports field, it was Johnny Koumantzelis. Later in life, as a matured married man, it was Stella Sampas and her kind and supportive brothers who looked after Jack like a real brother. They admired and enjoyed him. Of course, Uncle Billy, looked after him as well. They all loved him and enjoyed his company. Remember: Jack Kerouac was part Native American Indian – Mohawk – as well. He had real American roots that went way back before even the French and the Vikings and the Knights Templar, et al. He had soul.

How does the Greek philosophy affect Jack’s life? What's the legacy of Beats legendary bohemian adventures?

I really can’t answer that question. Other than his similar love for freedom, liberty, individuality, respect for the individual, democracy, and the glory of the ego in comparison to the glory of the state or the king, I cannot say. I think he was far more influenced by Christian Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, European Literature, writers like Jack London, and the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau than by any of the ancient Greek philosophers like Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea, Pythagoras, or even Socrates. … The legacy of The Beats, if there is one, was carried forth by Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady – who drove his psychedelic bus, FURTHUR, across the country – when The Merry Pranksters, the original Flower Children, and the early bohemian San Francisco “hippies” set out to continue walking further along the path that was cleared through the modern concrete jungle by Jack Kerouac and his other so-called “Beat” buddies. The Acid Tests, Owsley Stanley, and the good old Grateful Dead had a huge role to play in this ongoing dynamic social metamorphosis as well. That cannot be overstated!

Have you never had the chance to meet Jack Kerouac, do you remember something from this meeting?

Oh, yes. Quite clearly. … I first met Jack as a very young child one day at Uncle Billy’s house when he was in the other room with the grown-ups who were all talking, smoking, and drinking. I had no idea who he was. … Later, when I was a young teenager and working in my other uncle’s restaurant in downtown Lowell, called TATSIOS Restaurant, Jack walked in one evening with his disheveled raincoat and I waited on him. He sat at the counter. He had the most intense eyes I had ever seen in a human being, and I was a little afraid of the looks of him. I had no idea who he was, but I knew he was different. I looked at my uncle, he sensed my apprehension, and said something to me like: “Don’t worry. I went to high school with that man. He looks a little strange but he won’t bite you. He’s a very famous author.” … He left me a quarter tip. He was very quite and humble. He sat at the counter by the window. I’ll never forget it.

George Koumantzelis and John Sinclair at Lowell Celebrates Jack Kerouac, 2012

Tell me about the “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac” Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Is a non-profit, public-charity, 501 ( c ) ( 3 ) Corporation that was established to keep the literary legacy of Jack Kerouac alive. Through the help of John Sampas and the Kerouac Estate as well as the support of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and people like Paul Marion, LCK! has made a huge contribution to the ongoing cultural impact of Jack Kerouac on American life in general and American literature in particular. … The most memorable event I can think of is when the Jack Kerouac Park was dedicated in June of 1988, and I met Stella Sampas, Allen Ginsberg, Ben Woitena – the sculptor of the memorial monuments – US Senator Paul Tsongas, and Jan Kerouac – Jack’s daughter – who were all there for the celebration. On another occasion, I met Gregory Corso at the Smith Baker Center in Lowell. On yet another occasion, I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ray Manzarek of The Doors at the same location. Then, there was Patti Smith, Thurston Moore, 10,000 Maniacs, Douglas Brinkley, John Sinclair, Joyce Johnson, John Tytell, Robert Creeley, Michael McClure, and many others. Living in Lowell can be quite a blessing in this regard. Of course, the greatest thrill was the day John Sampas brought Allen Ginsberg by my health food store, AEOLIA: Whole Foods, circa 1992, to buy macrobiotic food. Of course, meeting David Amram and Brent Mason was a great honor, for sure. I especially enjoyed meeting Miss Helen Weaver when she simply walked into my store one day, we began to talk about astrology, and became lifelong friends. Now, she is a real lady – Helen Weaver. Such grace and beauty!

Do you know why the psychedelic art is connected to the underground culture?

Of course – it is closer to depicting the total experience than any art form other than music. The psychedelic poster artists of the Sixties, as far as I know, had all partaken of the sacrament, had personally wandered through the halls of “The Eleusinian Mysteries,” shall we say, and had first-hand empirical experience with mystical transcendence and death / rebirth, ego-loss, religious experience in the classic sense of the word. Psychedelic is a Greek word that means: “Soul” that is “Pure.” It comes from “Psyche” and from “Deloun.” It is connected with the god Apollo and with light and enlightenment. The art conveys both the personal subconscious images brought forth as well as the collective unconscious images. But it goes far beyond that. It goes deep and far and wide into the Akashik Field itself and the very Void of the true reality beyond the Platonic dream of what the Tibetan Buddhists call this “Third Bardo” or dreaming state of existence. Georyios Georyiades – better known as “Gurdjieff” – said that “the sly man takes a pill.” He may not have been specifically referring to psychedelic drugs in particular, but might as well have! Gurdjieff said that most of mankind exists in a “state of sleep.” Psychedelic drugs wake you up. They are “a shock” (another 4-th Way term) to the so-called materialistic matrix of the system. They are a cosmic force in this bio-physical sphere of natural planetary reality that connects one to the Cosmic Consciousness of the ALL IS ONE state of non-dualistic unity. The samadhic state of non-dualistic visionary experience can directly lead one to the ultimate state of nirvanic Satori. The Hindus call it YOGA – “Union.” The Greek Orthodox Church would call it Holy Theosis. Saint Gregory of Palamas and the practitioners of “The Jesus Prayer” do the same thing through fasting and constant prayer. The only difference is that Christians call it “GOD,” and Buddhists call it “The Void.” … These types of experiences are a direct threat – and always have been the greatest threat – to the planetary, plutocratic, capitalistic-consumerist-corporate culture of organized world-finance and post-modern-multinational big business of corporations like Monsanto who have no respect for the planetary genome of our earth mother GAIA. “You Cannot serve both God and Mammon.” … We must save the seeds of our planet and our culture!

Psychedelic is a Greek word that means: “Soul” that is “Pure.” It comes from “Psyche” and from “Deloun.” It is connected with the god Apollo and with light and enlightenment.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Pow-Wow, Jazz, Psychedelic, African, World music and beyond?

Basically, it is “tribal.” … Tribal / World-Beat / Planetary Music is universal in spirit because it is pre-civilization-based and, therefore, connects with all people. It is not lyric-based. It is not based on the Bach 12-toned scale. It is based on open scales and modal music. It is far more ancient. The dividing line is Greece; from Greece on to the Far East, modal music and open tunings prevail. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards have helped to bring the open tunings of the east into the folk and rock music of the west. Native Americans sing and dance to tribal drumming and chanting; jazz incorporates modal modalities and free-form experimentation; African music is rooted in the rhythm and melodies of multiple, poly-rhythmic drumming and chanting; and World Music is a modern trend that blends and combines these various planetary traditions together into new hybrids of sound through the wonders of modern electronics, computerized synthesizers, and digital recording equipment that can mix the analog old with the digital new – and more!

What is the relation between Native-American, Beat, Psychedelic and Ancient Greek philosophy and culture?

Mixalis !! … This is not an interview question, pehthee-moo! This is a serious proposal for a Ph.D. doctoral dissertation! … The short answer is: there is a strong unifying thread that runs deeply through all of these pre-Christian cultures that values both the entheogenic state of Cosmic Consciousness (depicted in the artwork of Alex Grey) as well as a profound respect for the natural world – at least until the 5th century BC in Greece. Shame on them for cutting down all of their trees!

How you would spend a day with Jack? What would you say to Buddha? What would you like to ask Euripides?

With Jack, I would go for a ride to Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, along the way listening to mid-period Miles Davis with albums like Kind Of Blue. … With Buddha, I would simply sit beside him and quietly and peacefully wait for him to speak – if ever – and not be worrying about a thing. … With Euripides, I would ask him where he got his psychedelic mushrooms from, and if he still ate them. I would also tell him that his spirit was alive and well in people like Jeremiah Johnson (played by Robert Redford), Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder. I would also hand him a free copy of my first album and thank him for his inspiration

George Koumantzelis -  Aeolian Music Home

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