Bernie Hovden, clarinets
“Music will always be an important part of my life.”
I was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Golden Valley which connects to Minneapolis on the northwest side. I’ve been in California since ’69 but I have gone back almost every Christmas. I have one high school friend who still lives in Minneapolis and he just sent me a photograph of the trees outside his window with snow on them. I sent him a picture of the thermometer in my backyard that reads close to 100 and he said, “Fththt.”
I have four younger sisters. I was the oldest and the first grandchild on either side by a couple of years so I got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents. My mom’s parents lived on a farm so I spent a lot of time there with them when I was growing up. My mom’s paternal grandfather was born in Switzerland. His parents were from Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
My mother’s maternal grandparents came from Denmark. That grandfather’s mother was a widow who brought him over as a young boy with his sister. There was another baby who died on the trip from the east coast to Minnesota. He fought in the Minnesota regiment in the Civil War.
My dad’s father came over from Norway when he was 14 or 15 to live with an uncle in Wisconsin and my dad’s mother was born in Wisconsin but her parents came from Norway.
When I was five my dad and grandfather built our house in Golden Valley. It was an over/under duplex and it took two years to construct. When they finished my grandparents moved upstairs. It was all concrete. The bottom floor was concrete blocks with steel beams and my grandfather invented the process of mixing zonolite, sort of a mica insulator, into the concrete and pumped it into forms so that the insulation was poured right into the walls of the upper story. And it was all electric. He claimed it was explosion proof because there was no natural gas, only electricity with electric heat.
My father’s family lived in Wheeler, Wisconsin, a tiny town; probably at that time it was about 200 people. (ed. Wheeler is a village in Dunn County, Wisconsin, United States, along the Hay River. The population was 348 at the 2010 census.) My grandfather started a community band. I have one picture of the old Wheeler Band and I think he was playing clarinet. He had two clarinets, a trumpet, a mellophone and a violin. When I got into 4th grade and wanted to get into the band, we told the band director what instruments were available and he suggested that I play clarinet. It was one of those old really cheap metal clarinets and I still have it. I turned it into a swag lamp because it was a horrible instrument. I had no idea when I was playing it that it had really bad pads. I never had lessons and nobody else ever played it so I developed all kinds of bad habits to get any sound at all. I would use both little fingers on all of those notes in order to get any sound out of it. Several years ago I had it fixed but it still has really horrible tone. I played that clarinet all the way into high school.
It was a three year high school, a big school. In the first two years there were over 3000 students. We had three or four bands. There was a big marching band and a sophomore band. I wanted to be in the marching band but I never got good enough on the clarinet so I switched to bass clarinet and played that through high school.
My two youngest sisters played the flute and my youngest sister still does. She and her husband and daughter play in the Robbinsdale City Band. I’ve sat in with them sometimes when I’ve gone back to visit. We sometimes have a family quartet or quintet and we’ve also played in church. Their son plays trumpet and their daughter plays percussion. My nephew is studying composition and arranged a beautiful medley of my mother’s favorite hymns for our family band for her celebration of life: 2 flutes, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, tuba and percussion.
Growing up, we went to church every Sunday and I sang in youth choirs starting with the cherub choir when I was probably four or five, then the carol choir and in a select choir–the Little Singers of Central–and then the chapel choir when I was in high school. That has limited my imagination in improvising because the intervals I’m used to hearing aren’t very interesting.
It was Central Lutheran church, a big cathedral that probably seats three thousand people. On Easter and Christmas the ground floor and balconies were full and there were overflow crowds. They would open up a room in the basement where people could hear the service piped in. It was a big congregation, a couple thousand probably.
There was a period of time when I only listened to classical music. And jazz too—Dave Brubeck. I didn’t really like Rock and Roll at first. They were out of tune too much of the time.
I went to Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota with a double major in physics and math. It was a Lutheran college that was smaller than my high school. They only had one band. We had three bass clarinets and I knew that they wouldn’t need all three of us on band tour. And I wanted to go on band tour so I switched to contrabass clarinet and played that through college.
There wasn’t a marching band. For the homecoming parade the freshman band members were required to march so we got together a few times beforehand. My roommate and I (both clarinet players) played bass drums. We were on each end of the percussion section. We looked good (laughs). We hit the drum over the top and behind our back and once in a while we were probably on the beat.
I graduated in ’69 at the height of the Vietnam War. I had a teaching fellowship to Rice University studying nuclear physics but my draft board didn’t think that was a good use of my time. I joined VISTA hoping that would get me out of the draft and got assigned to San Francisco. VISTA is Volunteers in Service to America. It was like the Peace Corps and there were a lot of different kinds of programs. I was working in an “own recognizance bail project” in San Francisco so I spent an hour five days a week inside the city prison interviewing people who had been arrested the day before. We would get information about their ties in the Bay Area, the reason they were arrested and their prior record and we would verify it by contacting friends and relatives. If they met the criteria we’d present it to a judge who may decide to release them on their own recognizance without having to pay bail. I believe that California still does this. With people on felony charges it’s called a “no warrant.” Under suspicion. The police see something and they arrest someone. Then the DA looks at it and decides whether they actually charge them. They had three court days to decide whether to prosecute. A lot of simple drug possession stuff. 60 or 70% of the charges were dropped and those people never had to appear in court but if they couldn’t afford to pay bail they could spend up to a week in jail if they happened to get arrested on a holiday weekend. They’d have “never been arrested” but some of them lost their jobs.
I had never had any contact with the criminal justice system before that. Being there every day I got to know the police officers that were working in the prison. One of the ways that people got assigned to the prison was that they got into trouble on the street. It was a disciplinary thing. One guy told me, “I always liked to beat people up so I knew that I was going to be either a crook or a cop. I decided to be a cop so I could beat people up and it wouldn’t matter.” And I saw him do that.
Through the church I got a pretty good foundation and pretty good values but I bumped into pretty extreme racism. During the ‘60s when there were protests one of the guys I worked with in summers for the highway department on the crew told me, “I’m going to go down town at night and shoot niggers.” My high school was not diverse at all. There were a handful of Asians and a handful of American Indians and probably three or four Blacks and I don’t remember any Hispanics out of 3000 kids.
In 1970 and ’71 San Francisco was a pretty exciting place to be. I had made a lot of friends there so I just decided to stay after VISTA. I had worked at the OR project in VISTA for a year and a half and I continued to work paid staff for a little while. The street artists in San Francisco were organizing and they had a mass protest. A lot of them were selling their street art around Fisherman’s Wharf and a bunch of them got arrested. I was at OR and I helped get them out. I had met people so when I lost that job I tried my hand at it. I sold macramé and candles on the streets of San Francisco for a few months earning less than $10 a day. Fortunately my girl friend had a job. Later on I took a civil service exam and worked for the Department of Social Services for four and a half years.
I lived In San Francisco for eight or nine years, mostly in the Mission and the Excelsior districts and a few months at Golden Gate and Arguello close to the park. Although I say I didn’t play music for the time I was in San Francisco, I bought a C Melody saxophone, two flutes, a harmonica, two recorders and a few hand percussion instruments and two banjos. I started to teach myself to play the banjo; I got Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the Banjo” and I played my recorders. I never played with anybody else but I guess music was always a part of my life.
One of the reasons I moved to Sonoma County was to get back to what I had studied in college, to use that. I knew that Hewlett Packard had a big factory up here and I decided that I wanted to work there. Because I had been planning on being a nuclear physicist I had never taken solid state physics or other things that would fit into working there so I took electronics classes at the JC and got hired on. I worked at Hewlett Packard for thirty years. It was a great place. It had really good benefits. Bill and Dave (ed. William Hewlett and David Packard) had a pretty enlightened management philosophy so I was always learning. I had opportunities to work on different products, all different parts of the business, different measurement areas. Now it’s Keysight Technologies but they make the same kinds of products—high end spectrum analyzer, digital sampling oscilloscope. Anybody who wanted to could buy them. Forty years ago they were $60-$100,000 apiece. We sold them to manufacturing companies that were using them in their test lines. Some of our customers would have 30 or 40 of them on their production floor. And the military also bought a lot of them to test microwave stuff.
I moved up here in 1978. I love to dance so I used to go out to the Cabaret, the Inn of the Beginning, any place that had live music. The Cabaret was a great place, my favorite spot, the best dance floor. I met my first wife there. I worked in Rohnert Park so it was close.
While I was taking classes at the JC I walked past the band room. I stopped and looked in as they were just getting ready for a rehearsal and the director Dan Goulart saw me and said, “Oh, you play an instrument?” I said, “Well I used to ten years ago.” “What do you play?” “Well I played contra bass clarinet.” He said, “You should join us.” And I did. I played in one of the symphonic ensembles at the JC for over 40 years.
I’ve always been politically active. I was involved in unions in San Francisco—SEIU (editor: Service Employees International Union) when I worked at the welfare department. I have been involved in peace and justice work, Central American support work, anti-nuclear, anti-Vietnam War, housing rights like the International Hotel in SF. I had attended May Day marches and down in the Bay Area I started playing with the Musician’s Action Group. They play old labor songs and protest songs at marches and demonstrations. It was founded by some people from the Mime Troup Band and the Pickle Family Circus. I’d go down to San Francisco and play with them in May Day marches. One time I came back from San Francisco and caught the tail end of a May Day march here near Julliard Park in Santa Rosa. I took out my clarinet and jumped in and just crashed. That’s how I got connected with the Hubbub Club. That was probably thirty years ago.
Alicia and I have been together thirty years. Our son Joshua will be twenty-seven in the fall. He went to every one of my concerts since he was conceived. He heard a lot of music. He played trombone through high school but I couldn’t talk him into taking it with him to college. I offered to buy him a new F attachment trombone. Last time he was here he did take it out and was surprised that he was able to play it at all. He might pick it up again. I don’t know.
He’s living and working in Manhattan. He loves the city life. That’s what his goal was. He wanted to get as far away from Sebastopol as he could. He wanted to be in a big city. He didn’t even bother to apply to Berkeley or Stanford where some of his high school friends went. He went to Columbia.
My girlfriend at the time had been in the Peace Corps in South America and had made some friends who stayed with us until they found a place to live. They had come back so their oldest daughter would be born in the United States. They had a second daughter the next year and I was godfather to both of them. The parents split up a few years later when their girls were two and four and they lived with me for a while. The youngest one never really knew her father in her early years and her mother at one point decided that she needed a break from the kids so her older daughter went to live with their father and the younger daughter lived with me for about six months. I became a single parent for a while and it worked out since I had some really close friends with kids the same age. So my family now includes my god daughters. I’ve known them all their lives since ’71, ’72.
Now both of their biological parents are gone. I consider them my daughters. It’s an intentional family. They have chosen not to have kids and they probably have a couple of distant cousins that they don’t really know so our family is what they have left. One of them is in Vancouver, WA and one of them is in Portland, right across the river. Covid has put a wrench in but I see them every week on Zoom.
I have weekly zoom meeting with my sisters too. Three of them are in Minnesota and one is in Arizona. I have two sons and two god daughters. They’re not all on each call. And I get to spend Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with my 4 year old granddaughter.
Ray Walker (editor: Ray was one of the New Horizon band directors, the leader of the swing band and the Stompers, a trad jazz group and a fine clarinet player. He died in 2020 at the age of 90.) played in the Tuesday night band at the JC so I met him long before either one of us played in the New Horizons Band. The Tuesday night band at the JC was cancelled. They put a limit on how many times you could repeat a class and that pretty much killed it. It was a great group, mostly music teachers or retired professionals and people from the local musicians union. Bennet Friedman directed that band for a long time so I got to know him pretty well then. I’ve taken some of Bennet’s improv classes.
The next group I joined was Sebastopol Community Band and I probably heard about New Horizons through them. I started playing New Horizons and the day band at the JC.
Since I retired I play more music. I have Sunday Hubbub Club rehearsal, Monday Petaluma Community Band, Tuesday New Horizons and the JC Band and Swing and a Miss—a swing band, Wednesday the Clarinet Quartet, Thursday New Horizons and the JC Band. Those are the regular ones. My wife complains about it sometimes.
I still play with the Musicians Action Group four or five times a year when I go down to the Bay Area for some protest. Actually Alicia and I went to Paris with the Musicians Action Group five or six years ago. Some of the people in the band had contacts in Europe. Two activist bands from Milan and Paris organized an activist street band convention in Paris and we played on the streets. There were eight or nine bands from around Europe and we played at different protests in the streets of Paris for a couple of days. One time we marched onto the subway and went to another spot. It was great. It culminated by playing in the May Day March in Paris which is incredible, an all day event. About 10,000 people gathered at sunrise in the plaza. We played in part of a large group, maybe seventy activist musicians from around Europe. We had to wait three or four hours as people in other plazas joined the march. The people from Paris had us peel off and drop out before the end of the march because there’s always some anarchist action going on and people could get caught up in some police activity–teargas or something.
And now my plan is to go to the Trad Jazz Society every month and play there. There are a couple of Dixieland bands that I have subbed in a few times. I did a couple of semesters of the jazz improv class via zoom through Covid and played in the summer jazz workshop with Bennet Friedman. Music will always be an important part of my life.