A musician of unusual talent

It seems obvious - a collector of rare glass instruments and international performer on the glass armonica would naturally want to live in Tacoma, just steps away from the Museum of Glass. But for Dennis James, it didn't work out the way he'd intended.

James is a kind of musical Renaissance man, playing seven unusual instruments professionally (including theater organ) and collecting hundreds more. Yet in the decade he’s lived here, he’s done only a handful of Tacoma performances – and none on glass. Which is why, after upcoming Seattle and Olympia gigs, James has decided to pack his moving trucks and leave town, just after an upcoming Seattle gig.

“I moved to Tacoma because you could get twice the space for half the price, and because of the Museum of Glass,” said James. “But I never played a glass concert in Seattle or Tacoma all these years. You live in a place and nobody knows who you are.”

It’s understandable, in a way. James plays some of the most esoteric instruments in the world: the glass armonica (a horizontal set of glass bowls stroked on the rims), the cristal baschet and seraphim (which are similar), the electronic theramin and ondes martenot, Don Buchla electro-accoustic instruments such as the Thunder and Lightning, and the theater organ. It’s perhaps only the latter that rings a bell locally: James was for 10 years the organist for the silent film series at Seattle’s Paramount, appears regularly at Olympia’s Washington Center and played a film in the Rialto in 2008.

All in all, though, this is the kind of musical specialization that requires a constantly touring career, rather than regular hometown gigs.

And James certainly has had an international career. After college degrees in organ, James went on to theater and classical organ gigs nationally and in Europe. He accompanied silent film star Lillian Gish for the last few years of her career, and collaborated with musicians ranging from Emmylou Harris to Peter Schickele. He began to specialize in unusual electronic instruments, such as the theremin and ondes martenot.

But the thing James really loved was glass.

“I was entranced as a child with State Fair glass – little animals, Cinderellas, sailboats,” said James, who talks a mile a minute. “Then in high school I started playing with (rubbing the rims of) glasses.” It’s a party trick that most people have tried at some point, but James became obsessed, taping a set of glasses down by the bottoms to arrange a matrix for playing chords and spending all his time in antique stores searching for the perfectly pitched set of glasses.

But the pinnacle of glass playing turned out to be the glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin: a set of glass bowls turned sideways, aligned concentrically to form a piano-type scale and set in constant motion by pedal. Mozart wrote music for it, 19th-century hypnotists like Franz Mesmer used it to produce trances. Eerily, hauntingly fluty, the sound is just as perfect for Mozart as it is for weird film soundtracks. James had one built with 44 bowls and a chocolate-box Rococo case, and he was off, playing with the London Classical Players, the Emerson String Quartet and the Los Angeles Opera, and recording for Sony. He had a second armonica built to stay in Europe to minimize the enormous travel headaches.

“I’ve played with Linda Ronstadt – she calls me her living tuning fork and stays right next to me to sing on pitch,” said James.

The only place he hasn’t played, he said, is Tacoma.

It’s ironic. After all, this is a man who not only plays glass instruments but collects antique glass canes and bird feeders and takes glassblowing courses at Corning. (“Flameworking – making tiny animals! I was thrilled!”) And when, in 1999, he landed a gig playing organ for silent movies at Seattle’s Paramount, he chose to live in Tacoma, partly so he could live downtown just steps away from the Museum of Glass.

“I’ve approached the Museum of Glass but it’s always ‘Oh no, we’ll come to you,’ ” said James. An upcoming Town Hall concert in Seattle is the first Northwest glass gig he’s had, he said.

Yet staff at MOG remember James as performing on the glass armonica from the Hot Shop balcony at an after-hours reception soon after the museum opened in 2002. Education director Susan Warner said no one there ever has been approached by James for a performance, although they would certainly like to have him do one if they had the budget.

Part of the problem with local gigs, James thinks, is that glass as music is unusual.

“The glass world is a tight community, but I’m not of it,” he said. “No one knows how to place me.” He also admits that, having such a diverse career, “it’s hard for people to take me seriously in any one area.”

Last June, James was abruptly fired from the Paramount after a decade of work. Seattle Theater Group director Josh LaBelle, while singing James’ praise as a musician, doesn’t say why he fired James, but a local organ restorer was quoted by the Seattle Times as saying the organist “was very demanding” to work with.

Whatever the reason, James has decided to leave town. In about a month, he’s moving to the East Coast, where he said he has an upcoming project involving a major touring glass exhibition at the Corning Museum. (David Whitehouse, senior curator at the Corning, said the project is still at the discussion stage but that James has some “engaging” ideas.)

The move won’t be easy. When James came here from San Diego in 1999 he needed five moving vans and two apartments for all his instruments. He doesn’t seem bothered by the upheaval.

“I move every few years,” he said. “I’ve never really unpacked.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568