In Fine Fiddle
In the '70s, David Bromberg Had the World for a Song. Now He Has a Town on a String.

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006


Past the discount drugstore, the wig shop and the fried chicken joint, the scene inside the hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse appears like a mirage. Step into the back room, beyond the crabby cook flipping burgers, and the place is packed with guitarists, fiddlers, stand-up bassists, mandolin and banjo players.

On a Tuesday night, they're what passes for life on this dead stretch of downtown.

A bald biologist and his mop-topped teenager are jamming, along with a gray-haired man in a leather cowboy hat and a woman with glasses perched on her nose. An unshaven social worker launches his best eyes-shut approximation of Willie Nelson.

"Well it's a good thing that I'm not a star , you don't know how lucky you are. "

He finishes and collects an approving nod from the bear of a white-whiskered man who is responsible for this ungainly weekly ritual, the one who has lived a life the rest can only imagine.

"You're on this record, I believe," the social worker says.

"That's right," David Bromberg answers softly, smiling, guitar on his knee.

He doesn't say much more, and he doesn't need to. Everyone in the joint knows he played with Bob Dylan and Chubby Checker and Ringo Starr and the Grateful Dead and countless others. And they know he led his own big band on a never-ending tour of colleges in the 1970s, whipping up a blistering mix of blues and bluegrass and everything in between.

Bromberg was never stretch-limousine famous. But among musicians and a devout following, he was a guitar god. Now he's something of an attraction-in-residence in this city many know only as a passing blur from the highway.

He didn't come here to perform. He largely retreated from that career years ago to pursue another obsession -- buying and selling violins.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. He fell into a world of small-town, no-name musicians, like the assistant principal who makes his harmonica sound like a howling freight train, and the stonemason whose piercing riffs on electric guitar make him shout "Yeah, George!"

And somehow, where he least expected to find it, Bromberg rediscovered his passion for playing guitar.

How David Bromberg found his way to Wilmington is the story of a city desperate to gin up a nightlife and lure people to a downtown that largely dies at 5 p.m. Yet it's also about a traveling minstrel's three-decade metamorphosis, in which he yanked down the curtain on a celebrated act and scripted a new encore.

Tomorrow Bromberg will be at the Library of Congress to speak on the historic significance of that ever-under-appreciated musical instrument, the American-made violin. He owns nearly 250, some dating back more than 100 years. It is the largest such collection, and they are displayed in cabinets from one end of his loftlike living room to the other.

"My wife calls it the wallpaper," he says.

At 60, Bromberg retains the playful glint that infused his music. He loves showing off his museum-like shop, David Bromberg Fine Violins, including the metal-lined, fire-resistant vault where he stores more than $1 million in string instruments.

Looking for a $100,000 antique French bow? He's got two, along with 17th- and 18th-century Italian-made violins, and the 80-year-old Philadelphia-made cello that just arrived from Michigan, care of UPS. The owner wants five figures for it.

"Great varnish!" Bromberg gushes as he rips open the package. He's in the rear workshop, which he shares with two craftsmen who make and repair violins, cellos and bows.

If asked, he's happy to delve into the old days: how, as a teenager, he asked the Rev. Gary Davis, the legendary blind bluesman, to give him guitar lessons in exchange for leading him around New York; how he traveled in 1969 to Woodstock to perform at the historic concert, and wound up in a tent jamming for hours with the Dead's Jerry Garcia; how he went to a Thanksgiving dinner in Jersey and ended up writing a song with fellow guest George Harrison before the turkey was served ("The Holdup").

Just don't press Bromberg on dates or places or any other minutiae that might lend chronological order to his life.

"I'm sorry," he says, shrugging. "Too many drugs."

There were more than a few smoke-filled nights in those years when he and his band zigzagged the country, a traveling jukebox spitting out Chicago blues, Texas waltzes, country, Dixieland, rock and folk. Then there were his own tunes, often humorous meditations on carnival dancers, gamblers, cruel lovers, betrayal and revenge.

Music critics liked to describe his appearance: gangly and whiskered, with long, thick hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Some flayed his often nasal, tremulous, straight-from-New York vocal style. "Wretched" was the way one put it.

But no one questioned Bromberg's mastery as a musician. He could play guitar, fiddle, mandolin and dobro. Unlike folkies penning sensitive odes to love, Bromberg could perform virtually any genre of traditional American music. "It made him a highly valuable sideman, someone who was instant authenticity," says Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone contributing editor. "What set him apart was his skill."

At the same time, DeCurtis says, Bromberg "didn't seem to need the success all that much. He was a player, he enjoyed it. But I don't think he needed to be a big star."

Peter Ecklund, who played horns in his band, says Bromberg has always had a pronounced sense of mission, whether choosing an eclectic set list or deciding to sell violins: "He always knows what's right for him."

* * *

On a quiet Wednesday, Bromberg is in his office, a few feet away from that vault with all the violins. He's dressed in a jacket and tie because, as he says, no one spending thousands on a violin wants to buy from a slob.

The conversation turns to his childhood in the New York suburbs. While most boys were following Mickey Mantle, he delved into the world of magic, riding the train into Manhattan to hang out at a Midtown cafeteria where a gaggle of adult magicians tested their tricks on each other.

At 13, he caught the measles and spent two weeks on his back with nothing to do but play his brother's nylon-string acoustic guitar.

It was love at first noodle.

The itch stayed with him at Columbia University, where he majored in musicology. His parents did not approve. They expected him to become a lawyer, a doctor -- anything but a musician.

His family was no stranger to accomplishment. A grandmother was a star of the Yiddish theater. His grandfather Baruch Charney Vladeck was a union organizer elected to the New York City Board of Aldermen. At his funeral, tens of thousands lined the streets, and the governor spoke.

Mention his father, and Bromberg's otherwise gentle gaze hardens. Norbert Bromberg, a psychiatrist who emigrated from Vienna, showed his son neither affection nor interest. Bromberg, the second of three children, describes his late father as cruel. "Whether he felt real love or not, I don't know," he says by phone a few days later. "He didn't express it, and he didn't show it."

He became a performer, he says, "so I could enjoy someone saying something nice to me. . . . I craved it."

During his sophomore year at Columbia, he suffered an emotional breakdown, took a leave and never returned. He taught guitar and hung out at coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, meeting future stars like Richie Havens and Jerry Jeff Walker, with whom he toured for a couple of years.

Then one day he heard a message on his answering machine (he says he was an early owner of the device), and the voice sounded distinctly like Bob Dylan, saying he'd be in touch.

"I thought it was someone playing a joke," Bromberg says.

It wasn't. In 1970, Dylan hired him as a session guitarist on "Self Portrait" and "New Morning." A year later, Dylan played harmonica on a track on Bromberg's debut record.

By the late 1970s, Bromberg had cut more than half a dozen albums and kept up a nonstop tour schedule. Soon he tired of the grind. At 35, he found himself sinking into a deep depression. "I wasn't practicing, I wasn't writing, I wasn't playing," he says. "As far as I could see, I wasn't a musician anymore."

So he went back to school -- to learn how to make violins, a decision he compares to "jumping off a diving board with a blindfold on." He reunited with his band here and there, but he focused on studying violins, and buying and selling them wholesale in Chicago, where he lived for more than two decades with his wife, Nancy Josephson, and their two kids.

Five years ago, after digging out from yet another snowfall, the family planned a return to the East Coast, but New York was too expensive so they ended up in Wilmington. It turned out Bromberg's road manager, Stephen Bailey, a close friend, lived there.

At the same time, Wilmington officials trying to revive downtown learned that Bromberg was interested in relocating, and offered the couple a dilapidated, vacant brick building across from a Caribbean eatery and the Delaware College of Art and Design. All Bromberg and his wife had to do was agree to stay there for four years, and volunteer some of their spare time playing music and promoting the arts.

Another small matter: They had to make the four-story building habitable, a renovation that cost them more than $600,000. Bromberg acknowledges that he might have gotten more for his money elsewhere ("Maybe it was a stupid move, what do I know? I'm not an expert in real estate"), but he wanted to be downtown, where there's daytime foot traffic.

When the deal was signed, the mayor celebrated with a press release announcing the arrival of a "World Famous Rock/Musician and Classical String Collector."

Although artists haven't quite rushed to relocate downtown since the couple arrived, William Montgomery, chief of staff to Mayor James Baker, says developers have shown renewed interest in the area in recent years and that Bromberg has helped generate buzz. At the very least, he added, the weekly jam sessions draw crowds that otherwise wouldn't have any reason to go downtown. "It adds to the whole panache," he said.

In a city known for button-down bankers, lawyers and du Ponts, Bromberg and Josephson don't exactly blend in. She's an artist studying to become a voodoo priestess, and dyes her short hair a vibrant purple. A sequined miniature cow, two alligators and roses adorn the hood of their blue Pontiac minivan. On the roof is a beaded egg resting on a pair of duck's legs.

"A work in progress," she says of her art car. "As we all are."

They're busy. When Bromberg isn't running his shop -- he answers the door and the phone -- he travels to auctions and his own gigs, which have picked up in frequency in recent years.

Their commitment to stay in the building for four years ended last month, Bromberg says, but they have no interest in moving. "I love my life here," he says.

A main reason is the twice-a-week jams he organized -- bluegrass on Tuesdays, blues on Thursdays. At first he expected that he would "endure" the jams, and sometimes, when a player stumbles through a mediocre version of a tune he recorded long ago, he wonders how he ended up there.

Mostly, though, there's more than enough talent to keep him interested. His favorite is John Lippincott, a teenager who walked in one night with an electric guitar. Bromberg calls him the best electric blues player he's ever played with. He also met a mother-daughter singing team. Their voices were so stirring that Bromberg and his wife recruited them to form Angel Band, which occasionally opens for his own group.

The scene takes him back to the old days in New York, when he'd spend hours playing with friends in his apartment. "It has given me back my chops," he says.

* * *

When Bromberg walks into Cafe 4W5, where the jams were held for three years before moving this month to a nearby hotel, friends and strangers alike greet him by his first name. On bluegrass night, they know he'll start in the back, then wander up front where more experienced musicians play.

They also know that when 10 p.m. arrives, he will announce that he has to leave and walk the dog. No one complains. They're just happy he's around.

"Before he was here, there was nothing," says Joe Allen, 55, a produce man at a supermarket who writes poetry. "It's turned the whole scene around. It gives a place for old hippies to home in on."

Not just hippies. The bassist is all of 12 years old. And the kid playing mandolin is 13.

When it's Bromberg's turn to lead, his right eye closes slightly, lips curling as his long fingers prowl the fret board. "You don't know how happy I am to see you," he tells the group when the tune is over.

After two hours of playing, he asks for a slice of strawberry cream pie. Then the clock strikes 10, and he disappears out the door.

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