The Rock 'n' Roll Doctor
Sonoma Resident Joel Rudinow finds existential meaning in boogie-woogie
“Two degrees in be-bop, a PhD in swing;
He’s a master of rhythm, he’s a rock and roll king...”
When Little Feat recorded “Rock and Roll Doctor” in 1974, they could hardly have known how well Joel Rudinow would come to match their lyric. A professor of Philosophy by day, the soft-spoken Sonoma resident has a musical alter ego that comes alive at the keyboard, where his lifelong love of New Orleans piano traditions finds full expression.
Although he has toured nationally with Elvin Bishop, gigged regularly around the Bay Area with the Michael Barclay Blues Band and Gator Beat, and just released his first solo CD, Dr. Rudinow views his music-making as a hobby, maybe even an obsession. But not a job.
“I really consider myself an amateur,” he explains with a quiet intensity, “which basically means you do it because you love it; because if you didn’t do it, you’d be more crazy than you are. You’d have more trouble managing your emotional life if you didn’t play. And that’s always been true for me.”
Rudinow pursues an altogether different path in his day job teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College, a position he has held since the 1980s. Part of that choice is simple pragmatism. “I could see pretty early that if I tried to make a living at [music-making], the kinds of compromises I would have to make would be heartbreaking, and the kinds of risks I would be taking would be insane,” Joel reasoned. “So if I have an opportunity to pursue another activity that has integrity and is more secure, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice that” for the uncertainties of the music business, with its notorious lack of steady work, health care benefits or other signs of stability.
A native son of Santa Rosa, Rudinow began his musical studies at age 7, taking piano lessons from Eugene Shepherd, Norma Brown, and Francis Kelly, each an important figure in Sonoma County classical music circles. But the beginnings of rock and roll were in the air, and Joel was breathing them in deeply.
“There was always some tension there, because I was interested in boogie-woogie and my teachers weren’t all that encouraging in those directions,” he smiles, reflecting back, “so I was in various stages of rebellion against my training. But it was good training, and I’m very grateful to have gotten it.”
The phonograph became his other teacher, as Joel explored the popular music that caught his ear—especially the piano players, such as Little Richard, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis. “You get it off records and you play in ensembles and you just try and absorb it,” he shrugs. “You find your way around by tracking sources, so I went back to the boogie-woogie guys, Albert Ammonds, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson”.
As he delved into the music that most enchanted him, Rudinow found that much of it derived from the rich musical history of New Orleans. “For instance, when you hear [Little Feat keyboardist] Bill Payne, you might wonder where does this come from? And then you find out, ‘Well, there’s this guy, James Booker. His records aren’t available domestically, but you should check out this German record over here.’ So I became aware of James Booker. And of course I had heard a lot of Dr. John. He was an obvious link to the deeper roots in New Orleans.”
Rudinow remains so enamored of the New Orleans piano tradition that he presented a lunch hour colloquium on the topic at SRJC last month, tracing the links from Jelly Roll Morton to Professor Longhair, to Booker and Dr. John, to Henry Butler and Harry Connick Jr., Allen Touissaint, and Jon Cleary.
As he began his informal musical education, Joel was also searching for a career path. The initial choice, somewhat by default, was engineering, which he began with limited enthusiasm.
On a whim, he tried an introductory Philosophy class. It was an immediate fit.
“I found Philosophy really engaged some of my dialectical chops; I can argue a bit and here’s an environment in which that is encouraged and rewarded. So I got into that right away.” A college degree led to graduate work and the Ph.D, followed by seven years of teaching Philosophy at Dartmouth College. Then it was time to come back home to California, where he found work at Sonoma State, and then SRJC.
But the vibrant local music scene Joel had left behind was much different now, and musically he was paying dues “in some pretty raunchy bands for a while.”
Things got better when he joined Rich Domingue in the early incarnation of Gator Beat. Joel also met Michael Barclay through some neighboring musicians, and has been a mainstay in Barclay’s blues band for nearly 20 years.
Then, while jamming one afternoon in Cotati’s Inn of the Beginning, he was offered an audition with Elvin Bishop, and leapt at the opportunity. Since Bishop mostly performed on weekends or during the summer, “I could finish my classes, zoom down to the airport and catch a flight to, say Atlanta, do the gig and be back in time to teach again Monday morning. It was a bit hairy, but I managed to juggle it - for two years.”
That association also got Joel started on his recording project. “When I got into Elvin’s band, he asked me, ‘Do you write?’ So I began working on demos, and right about the two year mark I was just about finished with the first one.”
That was in 2000, but Rudinow slowly continued working on his private project, assembling a modest, computer-based home studio—dubbed the Doctor’s Office-- to do so. “At first I thought, I’ll never finish this project. You have to steal time one or two nights a week to invest in it. But after awhile I had five tunes in various stages of completion and it began to look more plausible.” With “a real finishing sprint,” he wrapped up the recording late last year.
The resulting 12 tracks on Rude Notes Galore find Rudinow stretching out on both piano and organ (plus keyboard bass here and there), often in the company of friends like Norton Buffalo, sax man Al Garth, and guitarists Michael Barclay and Volker Strifler. His original songs pay homage to several traditions, from ragtime to big-band R&B, along with a healthy dose of blues, all with Joel asserting himself on lead vocals, too.
But he’s hardly ready to rest. “I’m starting to think about the sequel,” he confides, “and if that takes another five years, I guess I’d better get started.”
Dr. Joel Rudinow: Press
If your musical tastes begin and end with either Barry Manilow or Snoop Dog, this book is probably not for you. On the other hand, if you're sincerely curious about roots, deep-down seminal stuff that defines not just the origins of American music but at least part of the DNA of the human soul, then Dr. Joel Rudinow has written a book you should start to visit on a regular basis, maybe even move in with.
Rudinow, who lives in Sonoma and teaches philosophy at Santa Rosa Junior College, is both a serious, PhD-type academic, and a serious musician. He's been playing keyboards in some very good bands for years, and he offers the perfect bridge between philosophy and funk. Want proof? Hook up with the track, "Rock 'n' Roll Dr." ("I got your rock 'n' roll PhD, right here in my pocket, it ain't no college degree...") on his Rude Notes Galore CD.
This book is a kind of personal journey in search of soul and an examination, as Rudinow puts it, of "the metaphysics of music as a healing art."
Quoting widely from Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) to Bob Dylan, from Plato to Jelly Roll Morton, Rudinow wanders through the landscape of our musical heritage looking for and intertwining the warp and woof of soul.
There are deep thoughts here, some wonderful insights into the musical mind, musings on politics, racism and the meaning of life. It's a rich feast of words, ideas and connections, a major work.