In 2003, Michael Ferrari-Fontana, then 42, walked into a 400-square-foot apartment on St. Marks Place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his sister, Alisa, a building manager for a real estate company. Following a divorce a year earlier, he was looking to restart his life in New York City. Working as the head sculptor for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for thirteen years, Ferrari-Fontana was a stickler for good design and didn’t take to the “new” place. Little did he know at the time, that an estimated 14,000 people would come knocking at that door to jam and listen to live music.
Born in New York City in 1961, Michael considers his family to be part of the “White Flight” of the 60s. They'd lived on 106th and Broadway before moving to a tiny suburb of New Jersey. Michael likes to say they went on to live in three different New Jersey towns, each “as boring and uneventful as the next.”
Michael doesn't remember a lot of music being play in his house growing up. His mother owned a stack of Burl Ives 78s from the 1950s, but she didn't play them often. The family never seemed to have extra money for buying albums. The lack of music in the household might seem strange considering Michael's grandfather was the first dramatic lead tenor at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC when it opened.
Instead it was comedy albums that played in the Ferrari-Fontana household, and Michael particularly remembers one by Jackie Mason with a bunch of material on John F. Kennedy Jr. It made quite the impression on Michael as a young boy. "For some reason, I was fixated on JFK." He recalls and even remembers making a relief of JFK's profile. He started making things early in his life. "I had a nail biting problem when I was five, so my mother took all my toys away, pledging to return them when I stopped biting my nails. Instead of stopping the biting, I started making my own toys.”
The following interview (edited for content and length) is from a visit with Michael in his "jam den" in 2013. This is another piece from the Guitarkadia Vaults.
GUITARKADIA: What was it like having an opera singer as a grandfather?
MFF: Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana was like a rock star. He was my father’s father. I never knew him. I only knew stories and I have some photos of him from his career. I've heard some MP4s from different opera aficionado websites and he had quite a sweet voice…so much character, so dramatic. Oddly enough there's some orchestral stuff in there that's happening that reminds me of the Little Rascals. I think he's not more known because he ended his career just as the recording industry was really beginning to take off. He was the first lead dramatic tenor for the Metropolitan Opera House when they originally opened in New York around the turn of the century or so. Enrico Caruso is my dad's godfather. I think aside from Caruso being a fantastic singer, he was a fantastic singer at the right time, the right place at the right time technologically, and a hell of a singer no matter what.
GUITARKADIA: Did your parents taste in music influence you?
MFF: Music just wasn't a big thing in the house. My mother had a soul album, and like stack of 78 LPs of Burl Ives from the 1950s, but I don't remember her playing that much. I remember exploring them, finding it kind of all corny and charming, but not being too impressed. We had a couple of Broadway albums, ‘The Rothschilds’ and ‘Funny Girl’ and that's about it. I think growing up there was never really money for albums, so I only had a handful of albums and a very old Victrola, with a single speaker, you know, they looked like suitcases. Dreadful contraptions, the scratchy reproductions were awful. I don't really remember discovering albums much until I was a young teenager going through puberty. The first music that I kind of studied deeply enough to know most of the words to was Pink Floyd's Animals, which is a very dark and dreary album. Then I had a girlfriend who introduced me to Genesis, and they fascinated me. She had introduced me to "Foxtrot" and "Nursery Cryme." I was particularly interested in "Nursery Cryme" because it was abrasive, but there was something intricate about it as well, or at least there was something I was embracing about its intricacy, without perhaps fully comprehending. I couldn’t have told you the difference between an A and an E.
GUITARKADIA: But you appreciated the arrangements and the complexity? Or were emotionally drawn to the music?
MFF: Part of being an artist is recognizing parallels between the different arts. All art, in my opinion, succeeds or fails on the same mathematical principles. I don't want that to sound unromantic in any way because I think romance can be quantified mathematically. What's a crescendo? It makes your heart soar, but it can all be broken down beyond 1s and 0s or into beautiful scaffolds, and frameworks, and masses, and volumes, and opacities and you feel it. You feel it in the same way in a poem. The cadence of the poem. There's structure in that cadence. There are great sweeping wave forms that rise and fall, and expand and contract. There's a plasticity to it, in its conception, in its birth. There's an ephemeral nature to the sweeping gesture in a quickly drawn line.
GUITARKADIA: This led you to want to learn to play the guitar?
MFF: I didn’t learn until I was 46. I’m 52 now [57 in 2018]. I took a stab at it about 10 years ago, completely on my own, not knowing a single musician. I learned three chords, and learned nothing about time signatures or rhythm. It was a cheap guitar, $100 Fender from Korea, acoustic, no cut-out, jet black with white pin striping. Then I moved here, brought all my weird crap, including the black guitar on a stand, which actually was stolen from me. I’d left the door open of my house once and someone walked in and stole nothing else. I didn’t want a naked stand so I replaced it with this blue Fender Squire. I figured the stand was red so I’ll get a blue guitar, it'd be a nice contrast. Never learned to play it however. It's like one of these $100 guitars where you get the crappiest carrying case you've ever seen and a $10 tuner, which really only should be given away in cereal boxes, if they still give toys away and cereal boxes, and a little amplifier. All for $100.
GUITARKADIA: This is an amazing location. How did you find this place?
MFF: I’d been living with one of my sisters in New Jersey for a while after my divorce. That period was terribly depressing for me, so I figured I had to bust a move and get back to doing things I love. I’ve always loved the city. Another sister of mine was managing buildings for a real estate company so I asked her to show me some places I could live. My only criteria was that I could only afford $1,000 a month. And I needed a full bathroom because many of these buildings, or at least they did at the time, have this feature where the shower's in a closet in the kitchen, and the toilet is in the bedroom or in the smallest back room. I've seen them where the toilet's in the living room. You know, you have a nice party, people coming over, and then someone has to walk into a little closet in the corner of the living room to take a dump. I saw this place first and it was dreadful, just frightening. She showed me half a dozen or so other places, and after seeing many bad interior design experiments executed by amateurs, I went back to her and asked if this was still available. I laid out the whole apartment before I moved in. It became very civilized very, very quickly.
GUITARKADIA: And you just brought the one guitar, the Squire, with you?
MFF: I had the guitar. I had the stand. And that’s it. I didn’t have an amplifier. I don’t think I had a spare set of strings. I didn’t have a tuner. I didn’t have any musical equipment of any kind. Now I have a $4000 drum kit.
GUITARKADIA: At what point did you decide to take up studying guitar again?
MFF: I became friends with Ken Greenwood from the sixth floor when I first moved in. One day he said, “I know you want to play the guitar, so how about we go get a couple of used guitars because the Squire isn’t a real guitar.” He told me to get rid of it and buy a real guitar. So we went to a place a couple of blocks over, traded in the Squire, added a couple of hundred bucks and we both walked out with two Washburns. He started to teach me how to play stuff and I think the first thing he showed me was The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” I got instantly hooked. It was always fascinating to me that if you don’t play guitar and you watch somebody play it's all magic tricks. Then you learn a few basic chords and suddenly you're playing The Rolling Stones, and suddenly you're playing Crosby, Stills and Nash, and suddenly you're playing songs you listened to when you were a child. All of a sudden, it's not magic tricks anymore. I started playing four to five hours a day. Before I had calluses, I’d play through open wounds. It was disgusting, pieces of my fingers all over the fretboard, literally like Zombie learning curve!
GUITARKADIA: Was Ken the first friend you made when you moved to this apartment?
MFF: The first friend I made here was a street philosopher named Eric Krupnik. I knew him for two years before he died. I made a death mask of him after he passed. So he’s actually spread all over this apartment. I have three of his heads over there. I have another head on my shelf up here which is the original master I took at the funeral parlor, so he gets to look down on his favorite hangout, St. Marks. He was a dear friend but he never knew me as a musician. I’m not a great guitarist, I’m a rhythm guitarist and I fiddle around with a bit of lead these days, but I’m still on the learning curve. I had my own theory that in order to have muscle memory I had to learn how to play fast without thinking. But, when you have no sense of rhythm yet. . .everybody thought it was amusing.
GUITARKADIA: How did all the jam session start in this space?
MFF: A couple of Ken’s friends with guitars came over on a Halloween seven years ago. We had a four-way little jam and I did my best to keep up with the simplest stuff. That was within a couple of months after I started to learn the guitar.
GUITARKADIA: You jammed with them within two months of picking up the guitar?
MFF: Very badly. I don’t want to sound like I’m any sort of musical genius. Clearly I’m not, but I had a lot of enthusiasm and determination and that had something to do with it. This is a groovy environment and the jam sessions evolved. Eventually, better guitarists started to show up and more complex songs were introduced in the jams and I simply couldn't keep up. I tried, but I couldn't.
GUITARKADIA: Do you think you have an unusual perspective about learning the guitar having picked it up ‘late in life' as opposed to being nine or ten years old?
MFF: As far as I knew I didn't think I had the genetic predisposition to play. I thought that musical affinity was a gene. I discovered that was just preposterous. It was maybe just an excuse I made for myself to say, "Well, there's a reason why I haven't learned music." Also, it's a performing art, which is something that I'd never learned. Sculpting, boy, there's a physicality to it, and painting, will absorb you. A lot of my carving was done with chainsaws through styrofoam pieces. When I was Chief Sculptor for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we did enormous things. There's something very heroic about bending iron pipe and pencil rod, welding it together and creating armatures, and yes, it can be fascinating to watch, but it's not performance art. To take all the effort that is required in the creation of art and apply so much of it abstractly into this new medium, makes you feel differently about everything that you'd ever done.
GUITARKADIA: What types of musicians come jam in your apartment? Where do they come from?
MFF: Many of the musicians come from the Washington Square Park music culture. Not all of them, but so many of the most terrific musicians you'll find playing in Washington Square are professional musicians. They show up here. It’s interesting how I’m part of the Washington Square Park music culture and I’m almost never there. They come visit me. This place has accommodated thousands of guests, cumulatively. At one point, a friend of mine figured out that we've had 14,000 people come in and knock on my door. Not all different people and many repeated guests. It’s fascinating. All of it. And for the most part people behave beautifully. I’ve had people come here who are teenagers and I've have people come here who are in their seventies.
GUITARKADIA: The jam sessions seem to have originally stemmed from a few guests coming over to play the guitar, and have evolved into something unique. How do you feel about opening your apartment up this experience?
MFF: I'd say the biggest thing is the joy of participating in the creation of a piece of music at any given time with other musicians. There's a humble, quiet, joy in just sitting and trying to perfect a song that you've been working on, something that you have loved since your childhood. There's also a shared energy, a one-on-one sort of energy, an unspoken communication between people, especially when they're really watching and really listening, and really trying to find that common wave. That common wave, man, when you hit that, when all the ducks are in a row, when everybody has found their way and there are interludes, and ins and outs, and nobody's playing over anybody, and everything fits exquisitely, that's when a guitarist starts soaring. You can actually close your eyes and just be gliding over everything, and leaving this amazing swirling trail behind, and it fades into somebody else answering it. Every hip is swaying and every foot is tapping, and you just don't think a moment could be better in the mix. You kind of hit that spine-tingling, oh my god moment. It's impossible to know, the profoundness, the height of that sensation, is possible unless you've participated within it.
GUITARKADIA: It seems like so much of your life has changed for the better because of these jam sesesions. Is it hard to even imagine life without a guitar?
MFF: You gain this companion. No matter how crappy I might be feeling, I can pick up a guitar and play "Whipping Post" and kind of vent it out a little bit, you know? It's just lovely when people are here and I'm hanging out having a conversation with folks in the kitchen, just noticing that everybody's tapping their foot to what's going on in the living room. There's a certain kind of ancient luxury to that. Just think the luxury kings and noblemen used to have surrounding themselves with music before stereos were even invented.