Say Farewell to Cafe Noir's Gale Hess, Who Made Some Extraordinarily Beautiful Music


Word began to spread late last night: Gale Hess, said friends, died two days ago. Cancer is to blame, say those who've been close in recent years. Gale was young -- young enough to have been first violinist in the W.T. White Symphony Orchestra in 1973, at least. And she was among the most talented musicians ever to come from here; all those who got to hear her play with Cafe Noir or at the Dream Cafe with the Gyros String Quartet or at the Old Warsaw all by her striking lonesome or on Randy Erwin's Cowboy Stomp in 1988 or Josh Alan's The Worst! in '94 or with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at Reunion Arena in March 1995 can attest to this. The sampler above and continued below, shot by Mark Trew when the band took to a UCLA stage for a live recording in 1998, only shows off a fraction of a fraction of her range -- classical to classic rock, honky-tonk to hepcat all in the time it takes most people to exhale.

CafeNoirWindowtotheSea.jpg
Cafe Noir's line-up for Window to the Sea, from left: Gale Hess, Lyles West, Randy Erwin, Jason Bucklin and Norbert Gerl
Friends use words like "sweet," "supportive," "influential" and "brilliant" to describe the violinist and composer. I was fortunate enough to write -- frequently -- about Cafe Noir during my tenure as music editor in the early to mid-'90s. Cafe Noir, assembled by Hess and guitar virtuoso Norbert Gerl in 1985 after years of friendship, won countless Music Awards and played several award shows -- each one, our honor. The ensemble also provided the first track on our first rare-tracks compilation CD, back in 1996: a swinging iteration of "Back in the Saddle."

The band released only a handful of records -- 1988's eponymous debut, '93's Window to the Sea (from which this is taken), the farewell The Waltz King a year later -- all on Carpe Diem, all out of print. They were oft-haunting, occasionally jaunty, sometimes mysterious sound tracks to smoke-filled movies in which you wish you'd starred, foreign affairs with a twang. Each was anchored by Gale, Stéphane Grappelli by way of Bob Wills but so clearly meant for the arena. (When Gerl told her of the Page-Plant gig, Gale, who served as principal viola, was initially leery, I recall -- or maybe just nervous. I told her it was the coolest thing ever. She replied as though she didn't believe it: "Is it?" Or perhaps she just didn't buy it.)

Cafe Noir played Deep Ellum when it was a loose-knit "scene" consisting of bands in varying stages of being signed or dropped by what used to pass for major labels. Somehow, though, Cafe Noir fit in amongst the electricity and noise, filling Chumley's regularly with silent, spellbound audiences.

Of late Gale had been playing with Cirque du Soleil; a reviewer in 2007 called her "a stunning violinist," an understatement. I was a fan, as you can see, but also a friend for a long while, long ago. Only last week, while cleaning out some bookshelves, I came across a copy of a book she gave me on my 25th birthday -- Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, a dizzying thing, much like Gale. She wrote inside: "I hope this book brings you as much pleasure as it has me." She would have turned 57 on February 22. A memorial service is in the works for a later date.



The 1986 line-up of Cafe Noir, featuring Hess, Gerl, Kim Platko on guitar and Buddy Mohmed on bass:


And a slightly later iteration, before Window to the Sea, featuring Giampiero Scuderi on guitar, performing "La Manouche" off the first album:

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41 comments
david_biko
david_biko

Helped out on the Waltz King album in college. And recorded them at SXSW. Gale was amazing and I remember asking her, naively, as a fellow violinist, if she ever wrote down her solos. She said no of course. I said I asked because I would love to learn how to play like her. A true gem to the music world! Wish I could have pursued getting to know them better...you will be missed... 

chris1948
chris1948

I was lucky enough to see them three times when they were in L.A.  Thanks to Chris Douridas for introducing this extraordinary group to southern california

ABassPlayer
ABassPlayer

Again and again, however we know the landscape of loveand the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the othersfall: again and again the two of us walk out togetherunder the ancient trees, lie down again and againamong the flowers, face to face with the sky. Goodbye, my beautiful Gale

Kirby Tassos
Kirby Tassos

Played in band and orchestra in Jr Hi and WT White with Gale and followed her career'secclectic journey. She was a true free spirit and followed her own life's path. Too young.A very unique person. I think everyone who met her fell a little in love with her.

Wuwaygirl
Wuwaygirl

I was deeply saddened by the news.  Gale was kind-hearted, considerate, and extraordinary -- as a musician and a person.  I worked at the Dream Cafe and saw her play weekly in the Gyros, and also around town in Cafe Noir.  Such heart-felt music!   I have never heard anything like it before or since.  She was a national treasure.Remembering the Divine spark that Gale nurtured in her life and music -- reminds me of these words from a "Rumi-esque" zikr song."How can I be empty before You?When I'm full of Your sweet, sweet, Wine."

Kate Rodger
Kate Rodger

Beauty Gale.....thank you....♥I love your smile and laughter, forever etched upon my heart.  Radiant, soulful transition, Dear One, as this next life experience embraces, beholds, and glorifies you.~ Always One ~

Dan Lewis
Dan Lewis

What a shock!  I was just talking with another music colleague about Gale earlier this week.  I hadn't seen much of her in recent years, but she was a joy to work with, and a truly beautiful person, inside and out.  Gale, you will be mourned and missed by so many...

Heather Carlile
Heather Carlile

Gale held a magical and loving place in our lives. Jack and I were honored to hold her close every now and then. She came to his studio to play the violin like no other performer. He conjured beauty, bravado, passion, virtuosity and sizzle when Gale appeared in the iso booth and picked up her bow...just the way she did for Cafe Noir. Experiencing them live was like being whisked away to an other-worldly and idyllic gypsy refuge. I always wept. It was an exhortation to be braver myself. Both of us are weeping now. Gale's presence always brought that sense of the glamour which is like perfume. She didn't create it, it was her true essence. Her expressiveness was somehow bigger yet never manufactured; she lived with constant intensity, sensitivity, good cheer, generosity and verve.One day, when she was playing for Jack, he heard her voice over her violin: "Jack, your yard is on fire." Yes, the lawn had caught fire (kids playing), she saw it, alerted him, and kept on playing without skipping a beat! Another time she came to play "Tango for Heather" when Jack wanted the best to record the Argentine Tango he had written for me. He's creating a link so you can hear it if you want a treat of hearing her violin up front and soaring. And she also played ALL of the violin and viola parts on Jack's orchestral film score,"Enchanted Fantasy." http://x.co/cLQ6Jack remembers her bringing a little dog to a gig, so small it would fit in a teacup. And one time she apologized for the smell: "What smell?" "My cat threw up in my violin case!"Gale, with your passing a bright light has gone out.With all sincerity, Heather Carlile and Jack Waldenmaier

Mark M Fournier
Mark M Fournier

I was with Gale at WT White.  Always in awe of her talent and brillance. She was  a fantasticmusician - All-State Band on clarinet, All-State Orchestra on viola. Brillant in the class room - the old music/math connection.We had great time in high school driving the old Model A Ford her Dad had restored.She will be missed.

Mark Fournier

Sean
Sean

Shocked and saddened. I used to always go see Cafe Noir when they played at UTD, and of course in Deep Ellum. I loved bringing a friend and watching their jaw drop. I still get the UTD performance flyer and haven't been to a performance there since, but it always makes me think of them.

Now we really know we'll never see Cafe Noir again.

Allen McCalla
Allen McCalla

I am shocked.  I had the privilege of working with Gale, Norbert and Buddy in numerous productions of CHRISTMAS CAROL at DTC and seeing Cafe Noir perform in Dallas.  An incredibly talented musician and a lovely person so open to life.  Very sad indeed. 

Mark Birnbaum
Mark Birnbaum

Back in the day, another Yankee transplanted to Dallas, I remember how blown away I was to discover Cafe Noir's sound here, of all places. I became an instant fan.

Years later James Neel was recording the score for a documentary Jim Schermbeck and I were making, Larry v. Lockney. Most of the tracks — West Texas hardscrabble blues licks — were laid down by Jim Suhler. But there came a point where a violin's voice was needed. James called Gale, she came to his Deep Ellum studio, and made her magic. Working with her was an honor.

I was thinking of Gale and Cafe Noir like a week ago. I last saw her playing her fiddle behind her back at Cirque du Soleil.

Please let us know about a memorial.

MarySue
MarySue

This is quite a loss. Gale Hess was a master musician and superb performer. Such a lively presence. Fly free, Gale!

Jake Tison
Jake Tison

Gale was my cousin. She was always the star of our family with my five sisters and her two brothers. My grandmother would just sit and listen to her albums without end day after day, year after year. I remember one summer she had came out with Norbert and we had a house in Pine Valley, CA made of rock that our grandfather built and they would play and play and play. Her virtuoso style was astounding, but her smile and the softness of her voice dwarfed anything she ever recorded. Her Texan accent with a British twist in her words set the tone to tell her stories of her travels and performances. This is such a sad ending.

John Daniels
John Daniels

Another great memory for me was the concert that she and Beledi put on with Candy Buckley; I think that Martin Rayner was also involved.

Shannon Smith Monk
Shannon Smith Monk

Has anyone heard any plans for a memorial event?  I know of a couple of venues that would be willing to host such an event.  Seems fitting. Something musical.

Deb_Reitman
Deb_Reitman

Sharing thanks for the fantastic times I heard Gale music away. Her talent and warmth will be treasured. My deepest condolences to all so very close,she is extraordinarily missed.

Teddyd1
Teddyd1

Rest in Peace. Such a cool artist and a warm soul.

Dreadheron
Dreadheron

gale hess was the heart of the flame that took deep ellum music to the heavens..her talent & spirit were other-worldly...she will be missed deeply thank u robert for a beautiful tribute xo david garza

Syd_Nancy
Syd_Nancy

I took her picture several times in the ellum days. She was as beautiful as her music.

johan
johan

I came across Cafe Noir in an unusual way --- I bought a 1987 Mustang GT off bassist and fellow hot rodder Lyles West in 1993 when the band was hitting its stride. Gave their music a listen, didn't get it, and then got it much later. It's always that way with great music, isn't it?

I kept that GT for ten years and racked up 250,000 miles on the odometer before I sold it. I have no idea where it is now. Just stuff --- it comes and goes. However, great art and music have a never-ending lifespan. In that way, so will Gale Hess.

Schermbeck
Schermbeck

In 1990, Cafe Noir agreed to be the "headliner" at what was then the single largest Earth Day demonstration in DFW history - when 2000 or so people lined the streets from City Hall to the Houston Street Viaduct to help draw attention to how the Trinity connected the region's pollution problems. The stage was pathetically small and the sound system totally inadequate, but the group played as if they were at Carnegie Hall. I specifically remember the sounds of Gale Hess's violin strokes reverberating off the slanted walls of City Hall and wondering if they'd ever heard anything like that before. It was a great moment.

Josh Alan
Josh Alan

She could be a spellbinding musician, yet adorably absent-minded. I remember her showing up to a rehearsal and taking her seat before the music stand. Then she realized she forgot to bring her violin. This was a great lady.

Jerome Weeks
Jerome Weeks

The memorial website link no longer works.

Melody in Oak Cliff
Melody in Oak Cliff

I was heartbroken to get this news early this morning. I discovered Gale's music -- and Cafe Noir and Randy Erwin -- through a Rounder Records catalog in Hong Kong. Every month I placed an order, and I was always thrilled when there was a new offering from Gale and her circle of musician friends.

I recently digitized all those CDs and began playing them again, and just this weekend blew through all her work with Randy Erwin on my Kindle.

I am so very, very sad today.

me
me

what a dear sweet gal with the most beautiful smile and warm loving spirit. everyone she knew or touched was indeed blessed to have had seen, heard or loved her.

Merritt Martin
Merritt Martin

This is terrible news. I used to love it when Gale would come into Emeralds to Coconuts (back when I worked there for nearly a decade) and ask to store her instrument cases in the hall while we shopped for a new gig outfit for her. She was one of our favorite ladies to serve. 

I would run into Gale around town after she started touring with Cirque. It never ceased to amaze me that she remembered me from the store and was always so willing to take a few minutes from her busy schedule to chat with me.

I didn't know her well, but it was quite obvious she was incredibly talented and a beautiful person inside and out.

Mike Finkel
Mike Finkel

So sad.  I was very fortunate to have done several recording sessions with Gale several years ago.  She was an amazing musician and just a sweet wonderful soul.  She will be deeply missed.

Andrew J.
Andrew J.

Very sad! I've been a fan since around 1987, loved Cafe Noir and Gale has been one of my favorite violinists of all time. Rest in Peace, Gale.

Nicky
Nicky

Hey, Mark.  You are so right. I remember cruising on Forest Lane in the Model A.  Gale later restored it to mint condition.  Happy to see your post here.

Nicky
Nicky

That was her "Jimi Hendrix" style!

Shannon Smith Monk
Shannon Smith Monk

Yes. and Ken Bryant passed away during the run of that show. Inspector General was in rehearsal at that time. Wow. Losing Gale so prematurely feels the same as it did when Ken passed. So tragic. 

Laray
Laray

Most of my memories of Gale were in connection with gigs she played with Jamal and Buddy. She and Jamal agreed to play a "Make Levees, Not War" concert the weekend of Hurricane Rita at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. Because of the stormy weather, turn out was small but they brought as much heart to that stage as can be conjured. 

I also remember this little dog that she adorned and took places during the day. He was a one-eyed little mutt named "Beckley," named after the street she rescued him from, Beckley Avenue. It is a street close by to where I live, and I think of her and that dog every once in a while.

Superlative musician and human being, wished she could have stayed a little longer. 

KimCorbet
KimCorbet

I remember playing a session with Gail under Carl Finch in Denton and her sound was so etherial like it was coming from everywhere at once. I was mesmerized and immediately melted in love with her sweet sweet spirit. safe travels, gypsy.

Robert Wilonsky
Robert Wilonsky

Indeed, and so I have removed it. I did speak with Sparkman this morning, though, and plans are she will be cremated. Perhaps it will be replaced by proper obituary. I will update accordingly.

Nicky
Nicky

Beckley is still with us...

Jerome Weeks
Jerome Weeks

Thanks for the update.  And BTW, as I note over on Art&Seek, that last video, 'La Manouche,' features some rare footage of early Matt Posey in comic-tango action, back when he ran the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage.

Nicky
Nicky

Beckley and Maggie will be well cared for by Gale's family, so all is well.

Nicky
Nicky

We may need to find a new home for Beckley and sister "Maggie" - cute, little Chihuahuas.  They are both quite old, but doing OK.

Deb_Reitman
Deb_Reitman

I remember the Cafe Noir becoming Beledi Ensemble, performing way up on a platform at the Dallas Theater Center Christmas Carol 92(?). They were the angels on high. Even the night they didn't see the opening cue light, they were on top.

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