It was Peter Follansbee who suggested I consider interviewing Ed Maday for the Lost Art Press blog. “We’ve only met once, before I ‘knew who he was,’” he wrote in a note a few weeks ago.
Back when I worked in the museum field, one day this ordinary tourist type was slumping around. Belt & suspenders, shorts, shirt not tucked in. I happened to be hewing a bowl from a catalpa log and when this fellow made his way to my spot, he told me he used catalpa a lot, as an instrument maker. Made the backs of non-traditional violins from catalpa & loved the sound it makes…didn’t get his name. It was a short interaction. Probably 7-10 years ago.
Some time later, I was at Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking w[ith] Bob Van Dyke. When I’m there, we usually have dinner with Leslie Dockeray, a friend/student/collaborator there. She teaches violin to children in NYC. My twins had just started violin lessons, and we were generally talking violins. I mentioned this man, and his use of catalpa. Leslie exclaimed “THAT’S ED MADAY!” – which meant nothing to me. Then she went on to tell me he’s one of the best violin-makers in New York.
He’s amazing. I can make all manner of household junk out of wood – but it doesn’t make a sound. Ed’s things come to life.
At the corner of Broadway and Johnson Place, in the playground of Woodmere Public School on Long Island, N.Y., a catalpa tree grew three stories high, Ed recalled. Always among the last trees to form leaves, it blanketed the ground with popcorn as the end of spring semester approached. On close inspection, each exploded kernel revealed an orchid-like form – creamy petals surrounding a magenta- and gold-flecked throat. In summer, the tree’s dense canopy of bright-green leaves, each shaped like a heart, offered shade and a backrest to readers. It littered the playground with long brown seedpods just as children began to dream about costumes for Halloween.
“In the 1960s, we all played under this tree,” he said. The living landmark had stood over the monkey bars even when his father was a kid at the same school.
The playground was closed when the school expanded its library in the mid-1990s. The authorities took down the tree.
“When I saw the tree down,” said Ed, “I went up there that night with my Chevy Astro van. My wife went…with me. We rolled the logs in.” His brothers Jimmy and Albert set their band saw mill in the yard and cut up the tree with help from Ed and their eldest brother, Joe. “From this catalpa tree I’ve made about 80 instruments so far,” said Ed. “It’s a little like black walnut in density. It rings like a bell and has this beautiful grain and is perfect for instrument making. It’s even great for violins. [Most] people will choose Bosnian maple, but this catalpa makes a beautiful sound for fiddles, for old-time music.” So beautiful that he made a model of Maybelle Carter’s 1929 Gibson L5 as a gift for Nashville-based bluegrass musician Molly Tuttle (the first woman awarded an International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year) in 2019. “I knew her from going to the bluegrass festivals,” he continued, adding that he has always loved the Maybelle Carter Gibson. He also made a cello from the catalpa for Madeline Fayette, who plays with the Orpheus Chamber Group (you can hear a performance of hers on the Maday catalpa cello here); her sister, Abigail, is a professional musician who plays a violin Ed made from Bosnian maple.
Ed, 63, earns his living by making highly customized string instruments, from the daintiest of fiddles to the most sonorous double bass. To date, he has made some 350 of them; his repertoire also extends to viola dagambas and mandolins. Many of his customers know him from his time repairing and restoring antique instruments; in addition to work for well-known musicians, he performed basic sound adjustments to his customers’ preferences. “I’ll make [an instrument] play to the way they want to hear it and feel it,” he explains. “[All instruments] are affected by weather changes in the wood. Mostly people come here…because they know me, they like me.”
His customers select their preferred wood, partly for looks but mainly for sound. Ed buys Lombardy poplar, a common wood for cellos and violas, from Italy. Most people who come to him for a classical instrument want flamed Bosnian maple for the back and sides, and spruce from Italy or Bavaria for the tops (i.e., the front). Some come to him for custom dimensions; it’s critical that the instrument fit the player’s body. Almost all want something “really cool that’s not commercial.”
One commission was a rebec he made for a client who wanted her instrument to resemble Rocinante, Don Quixote’s horse. A predecessor to the violin, used from the 13th-15th centuries, the rebec is carved entirely from a single block of wood, as you’d carve a spoon. Some customers ask him to carve a head at the scroll; several months ago, during the pandemic, he carved a John the Baptist head, complete with a beard and eyes looking to heaven for guidance. An upcoming job will have a dolphin instead of a human head. Once, a lady in Portugal commissioned an instrument with the head of a dragon. As Follansbee observed, these are musical instruments: they not only demand an artist’s skill in carving; they also have to sound good. Ed assured me, “I get ’em to sound nice.”
For the past 2-1/2 months Ed has been working on a double bass for a teacher on Long Island who plays jazz. Ed carved the back from catalpa planks, though these didn’t come from his childhood tree. At 44″ long in the body and requiring two 3″-thick pieces, each 10-12″ wide, he needed something more substantial. That catalpa came from his friend Jimmy Koehler’s yard. “His tree is big enough to make double basses out of,” he said. Ed has carved the neck and scroll, and dovetailed the neck to the body. With luck, the piece will be ready for varnish in the next three to four weeks. He’ll finish it with a traditional violin maker’s varnish made with fossil amber (also known as Baltic amber), the same material used by Dutch masters in the 17th century. He cooks the amber with linseed oil and rosin for 4-5 hours, until it polymerizes – that’s the process that makes it dry – and colors it with pigments made from natural materials such as madder root and walnut husks, “pretty much the way it was done in the 1700s.”
Ed, the second of five children, was born in Woodmere in 1957. He has lived there his whole life. Today, he and his wife live in the house where he grew up, a place his parents built in 1960 that’s less than a half-mile from the Woodmere Public School.
Ed’s father, who was born in 1930, grew up in the house next door. He owned an auto body shop in Woodmere but was a lifelong woodworker who spent hours in a shop converted from a garage, building boats, carving wood and making furniture for his family. He always encouraged Ed and his siblings to join him in the shop and make whatever they wanted; Ed recalls making balsa airplanes. The only catch: They were not allowed to use power tools of any sort, because their father had lost four fingers on his left hand in a woodworking accident at the age of 16.
Another influence Ed mentioned is the traditional culture of Woodmere Bay (also cited on maps as Brosewere Bay), which was historically home to clam diggers and farmers. Along with many others who lived near the bay, his family had a bay house on stilts where they spent a good part of each summer. At a time when much of America was abandoning traditional ways of living for new conveniences, from electric washers to frozen dinners, and the nation’s evening ritual became relaxing in front of a black-and-white TV, these bay houses had no electricity; kerosene lamps provided light, and coal stoves generated heat. “Everyone did stuff by hand,” Ed said. Those summers made a deep impression. Sadly, the Madays’ stilt house was washed away by Hurricane Sandy, but its echoes linger in Ed’s cluttered shop, which he likens to Geppetto’s.
After Ed came Johnny, followed by their sister, Jane, then brother Jimmy. Albert is the baby of the family. Everyone played the violin except Joe, who played banjo. Ed has played violin since third grade. Their mother worked at their school, first as a kindergarten aid and later as a library assistant. “She played folk guitar and sang songs around the house. At family gatherings everyone would hang out in the kitchen and sing,” said Ed.
His parents didn’t push him in any particular direction, which was nice, considering that he knew he wanted to be a violin maker from an early age. He made his first violin at 15, after three years of reading library books on the subject and experimenting with materials and techniques. In the mandatory meeting with his guidance counselor to discuss further education and possibilities for a career, he expressed his interest in making violins. “She didn’t know what to do with that,” he said. She suggested he should first learn a bit about business and talked him into studying accounting at Hofstra University.
He applied to Hofstra and decided to major in business, but flunked out of business after two semesters. “The courses I did really good with were music, English, philosophy, arts. Any of the arts: the humanities.”
Meanwhile, he had never stopped playing violin. His violin teacher, Olga Bloom (best known as the force behind Bargemusic, a floating concert venue under the Brooklyn Bridge), was one of his professors at Hofstra. She encouraged him to stick with music. He won a scholarship to play violin, which got him parts in chamber group sessions and playing in the orchestra pit for the theater department.
Throughout his time at college he built and repaired instruments on the side. Three or four nights each week he also played fiddle on stage in Long Island and the metro area, and sometimes in New York City – early style jazz and swing with The Uptown Radio Cowboys, bluegrass with the Jumbo String Band – sometimes working ’til dawn. It was the mid-’70s – a time, said Ed, when there was “a bluegrass wave.” He could see a future combining bluegrass and swing with violin making.
In the end, he didn’t graduate from Hofstra. He took a part-time job in the produce department of his local Key Food grocery store, where his work ethic made such an impression on his employers that they offered him the position of produce manager, a regular job with 40 hours a week and grown-up benefits. “I remember looking at the guy and saying, ‘No, man, that’s not why I’m here.’” A pivotal moment came soon after, while he was eating a slice of pizza on his lunch break. He spotted an ad in the Long Island Newsday for a scholarship at Molloy College, which had recently added a music department. “It always bothered me that I didn’t finish college,” he says. “I walked over to the payphone, put in a quarter and called.” They scheduled him to audition on violin. He won a full scholarship and graduated in 1984 with a degree in violin performance.
Within a month and a half of graduating, he found a job with Kolstein’s, a well-respected business that repaired and restored string instruments. Ed “did a lot of repair work,” much of it for musicians with household names. He met Percy Heath and George Duvivier, who played for jazz greats Coleman Hawkins and Sy Oliver, as well as more widely known stars such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Lena Horne. Beverly Peer, who played bass for such stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Bobby Short, was a customer. “He’d come over and stick a couple of bucks in [your] shirt pocket and say ‘Get yourself something nice for lunch.’ All these cool old guys would come in there. So I’ve always kept in touch with the Kolsteins.”
Still, Ed wanted to make violins. His friend Joe Tripodi, whose place Ed had taken at Kolstein’s when Joe left to open his own business, hosted quartet parties in his home once a week, where he and his friends got together to play Beethoven and Mozart. Joe had trained at the Cremona International School of Violin Making in Italy, where 17th-century master Antonio Stradivari had made violins; he was steeped in the Italian method. Around 1984 he offered Ed a job he couldn’t refuse – it was, said Ed, “a super-great opportunity for me to learn. Joe taught me a whole lot of cool stuff.” (Note the typical Ed Maday understatement.)
One of Joe Tripodi’s friends, Stan Schmidt, was a Chicago-based painting conservator. Because his clients were museums, he was seriously interested in original pigments used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stan’s enthusiasm spread to Ed and Joe, who began to research historic Italian varnishes. Ed quoted a widespread belief to underscore the importance of finishes in string instrument making: “The varnish is the secret of the sound.” Stan showed them how to precipitate pigments and make varnishes as an artist would, rather than using methods common among furniture makers. Historically, Ed pointed out, varnish makers were a separate guild from violin makers. Thanks in good part to Stan’s encouragement, Ed’s varnish today is as historically accurate as possible.
“Joe was very anti-capitalist” in those days, Ed said. “He wanted everyone to be treated fairly. When repair work came in, he’d ask, ‘Who wants the job?’” Joe might take 10 percent of the cost of the job, but the rest went to the person who did the work. Ed appreciates the respect for workers inherent in this m.o. but said “it didn’t really work out. Joe wasn’t making any money, and nobody else was [either].”
Ed left Joe’s shop in 1990 and went to work at his childhood home. He’d always kept a work area there, routinely putting in 20-30 hours a week after his regular job. (He’s had his bench, a gift from a neighbor, since he was 12 or 13, and still uses it for carving.) He expanded the shop, and when his parents moved out in 1997, he and Janet bought the place and moved in. “Now,” he said, “the whole house is stuffed up with instruments and wood” – not so surprising when you consider Janet’s a cellist who gives lessons in their home. A devoted instructor, she teaches well into the evenings – from 2:30 in the afternoon to 9:30 or 10 at night in the school season. With the pandemic, however, “everything’s done through Zoom,” said Ed. “It makes it hard, because some of the younger ones can’t physically manage their cellos yet.”
Despite the pandemic, Ed’s business is thriving. He has six instruments on order after the double bass that’s currently on his bench; his customer has been talking for three years about hiring Ed to make the instrument. “All the musicians I know, they’re out of work. They’re taking on any odd jobs they can find to make money. Some of the greatest musicians. Around here, in New York, they have no work. The ones that would work in clubs, bars, little venues, that’s all out the window. [There’s] minimal work here and there, but not enough to make a living.” For college students who hope to make a living playing music in orchestras, hopes have dwindled. “It’s kind of depressing,” he said. “It’s not good for the music.”
As for that stash of catalpa from his beloved childhood tree, he says, “I have a lot of it. I don’t think I’ll ever get through it all, ’cause I’m 63 now.” Whether Ed uses it up or not, the playground catalpa lives on in the music brought to life through the instruments he makes.
Finally, here is one of my favorite cello performances of all time, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUgdbqt2ON0″>Jacqueline du Pré performing the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto