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For Connie Walkershaw, Life Is Just Go Van Gogh
By Maire Farrington
Connie Walkershaw, 37, still gets stopped on the street by fans who recognize her from her former band, Jungle Dinner. But most people know her as the alto and soprano saxophonist for Go Van Gogh, the band she started in 1992 with her husband, bassist Jesse Walkershaw, 41.
Hitting on a catchy name for their new band was no problem. "We have always loved Van Gogh's paintings, and in the first few years of our career we always used them for our flyers," says Connie. "Jesse and I were playing around with names for the band, and he came up with Go Van Gogh."
But describing the band's musical style--that's another story. "We'll approach a jazz club and they'll say, 'You're not jazz.' Then we'll approach a rock club and they'll say, 'You're a jazz band,'" Connie says. "I'm sure that's what our drummer, Kelvin Burton, thinks -- that we're just some weird kind of jazz band. For a while we were calling it 'gypsy jazz,' and then our former violinist, Kate Regan, coined the phrase 'gypsies on acid jazz.'
"But then there's the funk element," she continues. "And our tenor player, Jamison Smeltz, came in the other day with this great revelation: 'We are a rock band. We rock!'
"If that works for him, okay. But if he starts telling me we're a rhythm and blues band, I'm going to be really upset," she jokes. Her own biggest musical influences--and she's the leader of the band-- are John Coltrane and "loads of Middle Eastern and ethnic music."
In any case, the five-member Go Van Gogh -- featuring two "sinuous" saxophones, violin, bass, and drums -- wowed Noe Valley last October when it teamed up with the klezmer group Davka for a concert at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street.
For Connie, who was born and raised in Noe Valley, performing at the Ministry brought back many happy memories of her old stomping grounds. "It was a great place to grow up," she recalls. "We had a lot of freedom. We felt very safe.
"My grandfather [Trent Karpus] owned a house on 23rd Street and lived there nearly 45 years. When I was 12, we moved in with him for a year and a half while our house on 28th Street was being renovated after it burned down." In the early 1950s, she adds, "My mother and grandmother, Muriel Karpus, used to go folk dancing on Friday nights at the Noe Valley Ministry [then the Lebanon Presbyterian Church]. There was a whole group of families that would get together."
As for the 24th Street shopping strip, says Connie, "It's kind of sad that all the businesses I knew are gone. My mother used to go to the movies where Bell Market is now.... But every once in a while I'll walk down the street and see somebody who used to work at the dime store [Glen 5 & 10] when I was a kid, and that kind of makes you feel good. My grandfather used to always sit in the same seat at Herb's diner, and I'd go in and have a donut with him. Whenever I walk by there, I look in and see his shadow."
Connie spent her childhood surrounded by music. Her mother, Kay Walker, was a singer. Her sister, Pamela Walker, played clarinet as part of a classical quintet. And her father, T. Michael Walker, "played all kinds of instruments," Connie says. "He was a bass player, drummer, and piano player, and then he went on a trip around the world and brought back a bouzouki -- an eight-stringed, long-necked instrument with a big, gourd-like body. He used to play Greek and Turkish folk songs, and now he's in a jazz band [The English Professors in Santa Cruz]. We still jam together, but now he wants to play Girl from Ipanema," she quips.
By age 11, Connie was playing flute with her dad's band, which provided backup music for belly dancers. At 18, she was considering going to fashion design school. "But then it dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was play music. So I bought my saxophone."
In 1982, some mutual friends introduced her to Jesse Walkershaw, a bass player in search of a saxophonist. That same year, the two formed a band called Jungle Dinner, made up of "two saxophones, a bass, drums, and vocals, so it was really not so dissimilar from what we have right now," Connie says.
Jungle Dinner disbanded in 1984, and in 1985 Connie and Jesse got married, then set out with their drummer to find adventure in Europe. "We were very young, and we thought we had it all set up, but it was kind of a disaster," Connie recounts. The trio arrived in Amsterdam only to find that their apartment deal had fallen through. "We ended up buying a van and driving to Belgium where we had friends. But we had no papers, so it was hard to get work. And our drummer was definitely not happy there."
After further travels, Connie and Jesse returned to San Francisco in 1986. Two years later they moved to the Big Apple. There they formed another trio and played the nightclub scene for three years. "But the quality of life was too rushed, and we found that we weren't doing as much with the music there as we had been here," says Connie, "so we decided to come home." She, Jesse, and their 3-year-old daughter Carmen currently live on Church Street near Market.
"It's much more satisfying here," she says. "After about a year and a half, I found myself thinking, I love it here. Why would I want to live anywhere else? But I had to leave and then come back to find that out."
Since the birth of Go Van Gogh six years ago, the band has played more than a hundred gigs at Bay Area clubs and concert halls, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The group has also recorded two CDs, Go Van Gogh and One, due out this month. Both can be found at Streetlight Records on 24th Street.
Connie composes about two-thirds of the songs -- all of which are instrumental -- but she and Jesse and the other band members collaborate on many of the tunes through improvisation. All of the band's music is original, and these days their sound is a unique blend. "Jesse has a phrase for it: 'snaking grooves, smoldering eastern modes slammed up against jazzy western lines,'" Connie points out.
When not writing or playing, Connie is either chasing her toddler or following another of her longtime interests: fashion. She designs and produces her own line of clothing for women -- Walkershaw Clothing -- specializing in coats, jumpers, and jackets. "They are classic women's clothes with a twist. At first glance it looks like '40s clothing, but then if you look closer," you'll see her modern touch, she says. Working from a small sewing room in her apartment, Connie makes all the clothes herself. Her creations can be found in boutiques such as Uko on Union Street and Bella Donna on Hayes Street.
She's the first to admit that her revolving roles as musician, designer, wife, and mother can be dizzying. "Sometimes one thing will take off more than the other," she says. "We'll have five gigs in a row. Then the next month we'll have none. But you just deal with what's going on and know that it will balance out in the end."
As for the challenge of living and working with one's spouse, Connie says flexibility and friendship are the key. "Jesse and I were band mates for many years before we got involved romantically, so that kind of set the tone," she reflects. "We also became close as best friends. We know how to argue and leave it at the door. The most difficult thing at this point is that we're both doing this band and have a child. So now we rely on Grandma. [Thank goodness] she's ever ready and happy to take care of Carmen."
Though their daughter doesn't accompany her parents on the nightclub circuit, Carmen can already bang out a few notes on the piano and has started to play around with the flute. She also has her own toy saxophone.
"The other night we went to our friends' to play, and Carmen brought her saxophone and announced, 'This is my first gig,'" Connie relates. After joining in with Mom and Dad, Carmen played a solo on Mom's saxophone. "She's really good. I move the fingers, and she blows. That was probably the cutest gig I ever had," Connie says with a smile. M
If you'd like to see some live Go Van Gogh, mark your calendars for Friday, May 29, when the band will again play the Noe Valley Ministry. (Call 282-2317 for time and ticket information.) For other performance updates, check out the band's web site at www.govangogh.net.