Calling Upon History

By Mike Jurkovic

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“This sweet old lady takes my face into her warm hands, kisses me and says “And you’re black!” recalls Kitt Potter, the new executive director - Maverick’s first in its century-plus history - when telling me about her introduction to the Maverick board and its membership.

But color is hardly the point or the lone color on her broad spectrum. Born on Beethoven’s birthday with perfect pitch and a stunning contralto to soprano range, this Hudson Valley kid learned chorale at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Newburgh and NFA (Newburgh Free Academy) then left for Howard University. Came back scatting, singing soul and successfully developed human service and education programs and organizations back in her home town, notably securing over $1 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Newburgh. And she’s here now, calling upon Hervey White’s pioneering, ever present presence to help her amp up the Spirit of the Maverick Horse.

 Kitt Potter in performing

Kitt Potter in performing

Granddaughter of union welder, local NAACP president, and renowned civil rights leader Ellsworth V. Potter, who, on the Newburgh waterfront in 1942, secured from the then segregated International Boilermakers Union full membership for the 29 African Americans and all the women hired to boost wartime productivity in the shipyards. So she knows a little “something” about history and her part in it.

“I was raised and trained classical,” she recalls fondly, without hesitation. “I grew up with Bach and Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn in one ear and Ella, Miles and Charlie Parker in the other. I was soprano in our amazing chorus at St Georges Church and the Chaminade Chorus at NFA. I waited excitedly every year to sing in the Hallelujah Chorus.” As these warm remembrances cross her face I believe I see Hervey White, Maverick’s founder, nodding behind her, his calloused hand on her shoulder.

A cold, Catskills northerly sweeps down Ohayo Mountain and weaves sonata-like through these hand hewn walls, one can only imagine the music that has resounded through these old pines since 1916. Back when the Ulster-Delaware Railroad brought the sound of children celebrating those archived summers. And, of course, Woodstock, post-Dylan. Post August ‘69. 

“Just look at this and listen to the wind blowing through the tree,” she exudes, as we step out into the frozen forest that cradles the old hall. “Ohhh if these trees could talk!” she enthuses.

“I come out here,” she says, taking in the cold air and brilliant blue sky. “I come out here and ask Hervey for wisdom.”

The huge tree growing through the roof on the right side of the hall complains stiffly, icily. Since Maverick’s schedule wraps every September, the drafty hall is all packed up, waiting for a new season. It’s hundred and second new, consecutive season, to be exact. Making Maverick the longest running chamber music festival in America.

 Hervey White founder of the Maverick

Hervey White founder of the Maverick

But to understand the spirit upon which Ms. Potter calls, we have to go further back to when writer, poet, reformer, and socialist Hervey White, born in Iowa and pained by the poverty he witnessed spread through Europe since the dawn of the Industrial Age, returns home via Chicago in the late 1890’s. There, in a settlement house founded by Jane Addams, (feminist, and no less, if not much more so, a social reformer and arts activist) White and his fellow thinkers and doers (among them Clarence Darrow, painter Bolton Brown, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and British financier Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead) began formulating the idea of an arts colony where artists needn’t struggle financially to advance mankind forward. 

In the shadow of Mount Guardian was as good a place to start as any so in 1902, Whitehead, along with White and other artistic partners, founded Byrdcliffe. But Hervey was quickly disillusioned. His creatively confined, not freed, by the financier’s dominance. So in 1905, he took his last $200 dollars and purchased land roughly five miles from Byrdcliffe, thus beginning his own artistic quest. 

A charismatic funk-a-teer, Marion Kitt Potter brings her own history to these hallowed, bohemian grounds and the two distinctly American, fiercely independent histories hold together like Hervey placing plank upon plank. Not only does she have a deep, successful background in nonprofit leadership and as a community advocate, she’s sang with and shared the stage with Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Kool and the Gang. She’s sang for the King and Queen of Sweden, the Atlanta Falcons, and played alongside jazz visionary pianist Mulgrew Miller, sax great Hugh Brodie, all while winning millions in grants to support education, business and government institutions, community, youth and arts-based organizations in the Hudson Valley and beyond.

A forceful gust rumbles the rafters. But listen intently and, right in the sweet spot, you can hear Hervey’s hammer and saw. Hear him huffing and puffing, dragging the milled pine, oak, and chestnut from a nearby sawmill. When he wasn’t building, he was writing, founding the Maverick Press in 1910, so perhaps you can hear him reading aloud from his journal The Wild Hawk. See the naked nymphs frolic as part of a 1917 presentation. Imagine an 80 foot pirate ship burning to ground at the end of The Ark Royale (1924) or imagine yourself in the audience on August 29, 1952 as pianist David Tudor performs John Cage’s revolutionary 4’33”.

What made Maverick, after a whole century, decide on hiring an executive director?

“Producing 30 concerts within four months, raising and managing funding, maintaining a beloved historic treasure and more is a lot of work. Maverick has a very strong dedicated board and volunteer core. My expertise covers the waterfront: PR, Marketing, Audience Development, community and media relations, event planning, management. I guess I had what the board was looking for: someone to take the baton and help them to move this great institution into its next exciting century.”

“So many on the board have and continue to work so hard,” says Potter. The great milestones over time would not ever have occurred without their hard work and dedication. I can’t do it alone and need them to continue to guide and support the organization but do hope that with my taking on this post, they can take on a higher leadership role as well as once in a while being able to just relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

But this is a switch for you. We’ve known each other a long time and you’re way more an r ‘n b and jazz kid.

“My parents always had music playing. Miles, Mingus, Vivaldi. Rhapsody In Blue. Ella . . I saw Duke when I was four and that was it for me!”

“But when I got older, if my friends and I weren’t scaling the ‘gunks, we were at Tanglewood listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, falling asleep on the lawn and the groundskeepers waking you up. Or we high-tailed it to Montreal for the annual jazz fest. Chamber music and jazz are big parts of my blueprint. When I’m writing grants I like music that soothes me and keeps my thoughts in focus so I’ll get a little Beethoven or flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal going in my earbuds and I’m totally zoned in.”

“I have to keep pinching myself,” she says. “I am humbled, honored and wake up every day, if I’m not too excited to sleep, grateful that I have a job that I love and work for leaders who are so incredibly wise and wonderful.”

“Yeah, this is my dream. It’s hard work but when the gate and box office open and everyone’s sitting here and the Maverick Horse is casting its energy upon the awesome talent that Alexander (Platt, music director) brings to the stage it all just takes your breath away!”

The Maverick Horse. Sculpted with an ax from a chestnut tree in 1924 by handyman sculptor John Flannagan (believing that all work was useful, White paid him fifty cents an hour). It stands eighteen feet tall and welcomed you at the head of the road for nearly four decades, until it was moved into painter Emmet Edwards’s studio to protect it from the ravages of Catskill seasons.

It remained hidden, away from its home, until 1979 when it was returned to the Maverick and placed on the stage from which it casts its divining shadow and light upon the performers.

Long time supporter Leslie Gerber who moved into Big Pink not too long after the Band moved out, started coming to Maverick in ’72. “I was amazed,” he enthuses, as readily today as he did then. “The music and musicians that came to Maverick were as good as any I’d seen in New York, in a smaller hall and, at a fraction of the price. The Aulos Wind Quintet, the Rogeri Trio, Charles Libov and Nina Lugovoy. The Tokyo, Emerson, and Colorado Quartets . . . all world class. Last summer’s performance of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” by pianists Frederick Chiu and Andrew Russo is burned into my memory. And Alexander is a gifted conductor. His chamber orchestra concerts have been highlights every summer since 2002.”

Any discussion of the Maverick, be it history deep or future facing, intimately involves its music director, Alexander Platt, whose own history records musical directorships for among others, The Racine Symphony Chamber Orchestra, The Wisconsin Philharmonic, La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, Berkeley Chamber Players and Berkeley Singers . . . his work as a conductor includes works by Berlioz, The Beatles, Bernstein. You could go through the whole alphabet. 

“Six years ago Alexander and the board broke daringly with tradition and introduced jazz to the faithful,” Kitt enthuses. “The difference was night and day. Jazz brought in a more diverse and youthful audience. And now that the Chamber Music of America Organization regards jazz as a classical music form, it not only validates Maverick’s forward thinking but it allows us to approach that younger, financially secure audience and make them aware of what Maverick offers.”

With her years of grant-writing and fundraising acting as a sixth sense, she sadly reveals “There is no money in historical renovation. The money’s tight everywhere given our national situation.

So it always comes down to donors.
“We have concerns about the stage. They’ve recently completed a total redo of the electrical wiring because the mice and squirrels were chewing through it. And the green room, where numerous globally renowned virtuosi through the years have waited to take the stage, has been unfinished since 1905. Our next project is the roof. So new blood and new dedication is crucial. It’s how Maverick began and what is has become and what it will continue to be.”

Does your office have heat at least?
“We all work from home so yeah, I have heat there,” she laughs, still amazed at how Maverick runs on sheer people power and passion. “But when the new season opens on June 24 with our Young People’s Concert, I’ll be living in that green room. Meeting maestros and moms, pianist Bill Charlap (July 15) the Grammy Award winning Parker Quartet (July 16) and the Harlem Quartet (August 13) soprano Maria Jette (August 26) . . . “IfHervey thinks I’ve been calling on him a lot since I got here, wait till the season begins.”

For all Maverick information and schedule:
http://maverickconcerts.org

For a comprehensive history and exhibition:
www.newpaltz.edu/museum/exhibitions/online.html