Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Patty Waters: Priestess of the Avant-Garde

Patty Waters in the late 1960s

Just before midnight on a chilly evening last May, a black-robed priestess stood before a congregation of two hundred in New York’s Little Italy. Raising a frail, ghostly voice, she led people willingly into a dark corner of their souls. They stared at her in silence, hanging on her every agitated murmur and moan. For all they knew, this seer who had vanished for 35 years might never come back.

That spectacle closed the first night of the 2003 Vision Festival, an annual gathering of the avant-garde in jazz-those musicians who, starting in the ’60s, blew apart every established notion of beauty, safety and truth.

In 1965, the movement found a voice in Patty Waters, a pretty Iowa farm girl.

With her long brown hair and trusting eyes, she looked like the high school Queen of May, which in fact she once was. But Waters, who had sung with dance bands in her teens, grew up to become the eeriest of doomsday prophets. On her first album, Patty Waters Sings (ESP-Disk), she turned an innocent folk song, “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” into a 14-minute seizure of blood-curdling shrieks and wails, all erupting from the word “black.” Waters became the underground symbol of every placid surface that was exploding into a nightmare of race riots, assassinations and war. “Anyone who has heard her has reeled from the impact ever since,” wrote Larry Nai in Halana, an alternative music magazine.

Her two albums for ESP-Disk, a groundbreaking free-jazz label, would give Patti Smith, Joan LaBarbara, Diamanda Galas and other primal screamers the courage to push their voices to throat-scorching extremes. But Waters vanished almost as quickly as she had appeared. “If she had wanted to create a mystique for herself, she couldn’t have done a better job,” says Bernard Stollman, ESP’s owner.

Now here she was again, in the youth-center gymnasium where the Vision Festival was held. Viewers shuddered when she walked out looking nearly identical to her ’60s self. Her nervous smile faded as she began “Nature Boy” in that icy whisper of old, a voice that sounds raw from crying.

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love, and be loved in return.” After she sang those words, pianist Burton Greene, the free-jazz pioneer who played on “Black Is the Color,” and bassist Mark Dresser stirred up a manic atonal storm behind her, and Waters made the Exorcist-like transformation everyone was hoping for. She started incanting the word “love” as though possessed-batting it around, gasping it, yowling in a frenzy of rage and disillusion. The old wounds, whatever they were, clearly hadn’t healed. As she cried out, spectators hovered, pointing camcorders at her.

After Vision, Waters rushed off to Scotland to repeat the show. Then she flew back to her home on an island in the middle of the ocean: Kauai, Hawaii.

Where had the reclusive singer been all those years?

In 1969, Waters-whose vocal hysteria belies her almost pathological shyness-fled a fragmentary career in New York to settle in northern California. There she raised a son fathered by drummer Clifford Jarvis, who had deserted them. Her albums, reissued worldwide, have earned her, to date, a total of $350. Since the release of the second, she has hardly sung at all.

But she may be coming out of her shell at last. Recently she agreed to discuss her life, something she has seldom done. Talking by phone in a cracking voice that holds a pained smile, Waters exuded warmth, sweetness and mystery. As she turned the heavy pages of memory, every recollection sounded pushed out with effort. Key episodes seem vague and unexplainable to her, as if she’d been helplessly dragged along by fate.

Certainly there’s much she would rather forget. Waters describes growing up in Logan, Iowa, with an evil-sounding stage mother who made her sing at community functions from the age of three. The child grew up without her birth father; her mother had divorced him then forbidden him to see Patty, who soon had a dairy farmer for a stepfather. Before she was 18, Waters, who had studied piano and won popularity polls in high school, had been sent off to sing with a local dance band, then to tour with regional orchestras.

“It was very lonely when I left,” she says. “I remember writing letters home and crying. The paper would get wet.” When she asked her mother and stepfather for financial help, they told her she was lazy. “I thought they were right,” she admits. “I wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t ever feel like I was as good as I wanted to be.” Night after night she went to bed listening to the end-of-the-line sentiments of Billie Holiday’s album Lady in Satin.

Drifting from town to town, she sought assurance from musicians, particularly black ones. One of them forms the center of a typically odd moment in her life. Living in San Francisco briefly in 1963, Waters went to hear Miles Davis at the Black Hawk. She was dazzled. “He invited me to spend some time with him,” she explains. “Well, his limo driver actually approached me.” At her apartment, she showed him a tortured song she had written in high school, “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight.”

“He looked it over and corrected the notation. He encouraged me. He was very nice.”

Did she see him again?

“Yes! I mean-there are private things I don’t want to talk about.”

She would later name her son Andrew Miles Waters.

Settling in Manhattan in 1964, Waters spent her days waitressing on Wall Street; by night she haunted the jazz clubs. She was especially drawn to the freer players: Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. Sometimes, “late at night,” she transcended her bruised confidence and sat in with Ben Webster or Chick Corea or Bill Evans. Keith Jarrett invited her to his home. “I sang at parties too,” she says-parties she went to by herself. “I was a loner. I was very quiet.”

Soon she became lovers with Clifford Jarvis, the black drummer who toured with Sun Ra. But he was often gone, and the interracial affair brought trouble. “My parents disowned me,” she says. “They said I’d never loved them, I was never capable of love, that I would be poison to the family and not to come home.” Home alone in a series of tiny apartments, she wrote the painfully scarred, diarylike ballads that would fill side A of her first album. To hear them is like eavesdropping after midnight on a tortured girl at her piano, trying not to cry lest she wake the neighbors. “But sad songs don’t make me feel sad,” she explains. “I find beauty in them, joy.”

Albert Ayler, the saxophonist whose ferocious honking defined free jazz, heard Waters in a club one night. Fascinated, he introduced her to his record producer, Bernard Stollman, an idealistic young lawyer who had borrowed a large sum from his parents to form ESP-Disk. In Ayler’s apartment, Waters played and sang for him. A week before Christmas of 1965, she was in the studio, recording an album that was anything but merry. As accompanist she had chosen Greene, the classically trained founder of a watershed free-jazz group, the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. Before the session, they met in his Manhattan loft to rehearse her ballads along with “Black Is the Color.”

Why that song? Waters hesitates. “I just thought it was a good idea,” she stammers. “I had in mind what I wanted to do, and we went through it just a tiny bit, then we went into the studio.”

But according to Greene, Waters had been all set to sing “Black” as another ballad. “I let her know in no uncertain terms that we weren’t doing that,” he says. After the first chorus, he began scratching and tugging the piano strings, hoping to jar her into someplace darker. “She started to take the tune out a bit,” he recalls. Later, as they recorded it with bassist Steve Tintweiss and drummer Tom Price, he injected the same harsh, metallic sounds, which evoked the pushing open of a steel door to some dank medieval dungeon. “Suddenly out came these primordial screams around the word black,” he says. “We were shocked.”

Waters wasn’t the first singer to employ screams. In 1960, Abbey Lincoln had done so on Freedom Now Suite, an angry demand for black equality written by her husband, Max Roach, and Oscar Brown Jr. But Waters says she didn’t hear that performance for years.

What was she thinking as she recorded?

“I was hoping I could be heard by the musicians, that their headphones were working. And that the recording engineer was getting it. Everybody was so sweet afterwards, they were reacting very excitedly. It was a happy day.” But Greene sensed grim tidings: “I feel that without her even being conscious of it, she was the newspaper of the time. The storm clouds were growing all over America with the unbelievable bullshit going on with the suppression of black culture. She came from a WASP background, but she liked to hang out with black guys, and I guess by proxy she felt a lot of the frustration and anxiety that was already prevalent in this music.”

None of that occurred to Down Beat’s Harvey Pekar, who called “Black Is the Color” “pretentious” and gave the album a one-and-a-half-star rating. But Waters electrified the alternative press. In Rolling Stone, Nick Tosches called her “one of the best fucking singers alive,” terming her voice “a strange, awe-inspiring animal.” Other people giggled at it. But to Michael Mascioli, a record dealer and writer, “this was not something to laugh at. She was working in an avant-garde art form, and that kind of stuff is always shocking and you don’t know how to react.”

Attempting to market his bizarre music to open minds, Stollman persuaded the New York State Council for the Arts to sponsor a week-long college concert for a group of ESP artists-Sun Ra, pianist Ran Blake, saxophonist Giuseppi Logan, Greene’s trio, Waters-in May 1966. Tapes of those performances yielded Waters’ second album, College Tour, which heightened her mystique. The love of her life had inspired “Song of Clifford,” an improvisation of hums and moans in tandem with an eerie flute. “Hush Little Baby With Ba Ha Bad” is just as macabre, a lullaby that sounds more like a child’s death wail. Offstage Waters hid from the public, eating and sleeping on the band bus.

From the sunny girl next door on her first album cover, Waters morphed into a Manson Family look-alike on the second. In Chuck Stewart’s blurred photo, her eyes look like two black holes; her hair hangs down around a satanic-looking symbol painted on her forehead. “I guess I was thinking of it as jewelry, something to dress up my face a bit,” she says, denying any darker meaning. She refused to be interviewed-“I just didn’t want to talk about what I was doing”-and flinched when fans approached her in record stores.

I asked her about a Down Beat poll I’d heard she won. “I don’t know, it could have been New Artist,” she says. (Waters tied Betty Carter for second place in the 1967 International Critics’ Poll.)

With some momentum building, Waters disappeared. Using her small savings, she spent months vacationing in a string of cities throughout Europe. Singing there didn’t seem to cross her mind, even though she saw her albums in shops. Once home in New York, she resumed her job as ticket-taker at an East Village movie house. Her nearby apartment was “like a closet,” says Stollman. “The only thing she had was an upright piano, I think a little table and a cot.” Jarvis showed up when he felt like it. “I understood,” she claims. “He needed to concentrate on his career.” Still, she says, “I was living my dream. Life was wonderful.”

It wasn’t so good for other stars of ESP, which folded in 1968. The avant-garde music that many people blamed for killing jazz was imploding; several of its artists, says Greene, were shattered by the “the wear and tear, psychologically, physically, spiritually, of being so free.” Giuseppi Logan, he says, turned into a “bag person on the street,” partly due to drugs. In 1970, Albert Ayler was found floating in the East River, near Brooklyn’s Congress Street Pier, dead of an apparent suicide. Soon after that, Greene, who had moved to a houseboat in Amsterdam, suffered a nervous breakdown so severe he had to relearn how to walk.

Waters was treading a precarious line herself. But her spirits soared in February 1969 when she gave birth to Jarvis’ son. Photographed holding him, the singer had never looked happier. That October she decided to raise her child in a peaceful setting: Marin County, near San Francisco. With no support from Jarvis, she became an assistant preschool teacher and earned degrees in liberal arts, humanities and art-doing nothing with them. “But I would enjoy taking more classes,” Waters says. She performed only twice in the ’70s, then not at all for the next two decades.

In her absence, the myth around kept soaring. Patti Smith acknowledged her influence in print. Yoko Ono’s caterwauling vocals, which first appeared on record in 1970, are widely assumed to be Waters-inspired, but Ono denies it. (Answering an inquiry, her assistant e-mailed, “Ms. Ono did not know Ms. Waters or her work.”) Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth called Waters one of his heroes. The Scottish experimental-rock band Telstar Ponies covered “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight.” Flattering as it is, none of that helped pay the rent, which she could barely do. “I don’t really appreciate people who copy me or try to, or even sing songs that I’ve done,” she says somewhat bitterly. “People are sheep. They follow fads. The pioneers like John Coltrane-they’re the ones who deserve all the honor.”

A few admirers tried to steer some honor to Waters, who had moved to Santa Cruz and taken a job in a friend’s dress shop. In 1995, pianist Jessica Williams, who lived nearby, organized the singer’s comeback album: Love Songs (Jazz Focus), an intense but nonhistrionic salute to Billie Holiday, in duo with Williams.

Two partners in San Francisco’s Medium Rare Records, Michael Mascioli and Sean Connors, arranged the first album signing of her life. Waters was stunned to see a line outside. “She seemed really grateful, and touched by the attention,” says Mascioli. But true to form, she wound up fleeing from it. In 2000, she followed her son, a surfer and bartender, to Hawaii.

Verging on destitute, she kept track of the Patty Waters reissues in Italy, Germany, Holland and Japan. When she wrote to the companies about possible royalties; they directed her to Stollman. The producer who had put nearly all his artists on the map insists that, beyond the original pressings of 500, his albums were bootlegged uncontrollably and that his foreign licensees breached their royalty agreements with him. He plans a series of surround-sound reissues from which the artists will profit-“but we have to make some money first.”

Waters isn’t optimistic. “What a pity that he has no respect for me,” she says of Stollman, who is full of glowing words about her. He greeted her at the Vision Festival. “I didn’t want to introduce him to my son,” she says. “I thought my son might punch him in the nose.”

It seems like cold comfort to remind her of how fondly remembered she is. “I appreciate that,” she says. “I appreciate that people wrote kind things, that critics liked me and said I had integrity. I’m very concerned about my integrity. It’s all I have, really.”

And she has that voice-but not necessarily the urge to sing. “It sort of comes and goes,” she says. “I call myself retired.” Nevertheless, Waters has been asking Greene to arrange tours for them-“It’s difficult, man, it’s still an underground thing,” he admits-and hand out a flyer that reads: “Patty Waters is now available for performances and recording sessions.”

I ask Waters if she wants her e-mail address published for those interested in hiring her. “Yes!” she says, and the sun finally comes out in her voice. “That’s a good idea.”

Patty Waters can be reached at [email protected]. Her albums are available through or on CD via

Originally Published