When it became clear that Betty MacDonald had come home to die, Susan Robinson noted the Scottish tradition on Facebook and the word spread.
“When I pulled up [on Friday, August 6] there were cars on 212 and Ricks Road. No one knew what to do that first time, but by the third time, Sunday, Jim Curtin brought his bass, and I had made copies of a lot of songs, so I passed out lyrics. Alix Dobkin started us off. After the big singalong, where we did I’ll Fly Away, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot, we tried to do some good jazz stuff that she would like, we did OK with All of Me, and Jim, Perry Beekman and Tim Moore did some beautiful stuff. We were all in the back of her house, outside the open window, just a few feet from where she lay. And the family said that all three times that it happened, her breathing changed because she was listening. It was very sweet.”
Elizabeth Ann Knieser MacDonald, jazz artist, violinist, vocalist, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, radio personality, teacher, and much more to the community she loved and that loved her back equally, died at dawn Monday, August 9. It was a long illness that finally caught up to her.
She was born January 8, 1938, daughter of the late John and Josephine Knieser of Olean.
She attended Fredonia State College on a scholarship.
She was married to the late Donald MacDonald and is survived by her sons Evan MacDonald of Woodstock and Lee J. MacDonald and his wife Deb, of Kansas; grandchildren Kristin, Connor, Alexis and Madison; step grandchildren Jordan and Mackenzie, and many nieces and nephews, all of whom were touched by her music and love.
She is also survived by her brother, James Knieser of Rochester; a sister, Chris Crawford and her husband Frank, of Olean. She was predeceased by a brother, Robert Knieser;
her devoted lover of 23 years, Paul Minkoff, and River Light Womoon, her long time trusted and loving confidant.
Betty arrived in town in the late 1960s, stayed after her marriage dissolved and became one of the most important, beloved heartbeats of Woodstock over the last decades of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first.
“I don’t remember ever not knowing her,” said Robinson, expressing a sentiment that could fall from the lips of any Woodstocker, whether old-timer or new.
She had an enviable career as a musician and only this year finished a duo CD with the great jazz guitarist, the late Joe Beck. The recording was her fourth solo CD, after several earlier recordings and the list of artists with whom she performed was long, including Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Burrell, Mike Mainieri, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Dave Holland, Warren Bernhardt, Sheila Jordan, Pete Levin and on and on.
“I started late in life,” Betty said, when interviewed earlier this year about the album with Beck. She sighed, then burst into laughter. “But at least I started…I always had music inside of me bursting to come out.”
Indeed, she did. As the leader of her own band, she could caress a jazz standard with a smooth, sweet voice or could spit fire from the bow of her violin. As a side musician, her savvy with a song would lead to long flowing lines in her solos, and a sympathetic fill to a songwriter’s lyric.
A goodly piece of her musical career was spent onstage beside Marc Black. For the better part of more than three decades, she played thousands of shows with the singer, songwriter and guitarist Black and bassist Michael Esposito. It might have been just the three of them, or it might have been a bigger band with Bernhardt on piano, Don Davis on saxophone, Eric Parker on drums. If you’ve spent any time in Woodstock, you’ve seen them, at Joyous Lake, the Whitewater Depot, at the Bearsville Theater, the Kleinert, the Expresso, at Joshua’s where they’d play in the early days.
“I watched her in the last couple of years and as she was getting weaker she managed her energy so she could play. Everything was about playing music,” said Black, on the day she passed. “She couldn’t carry her amplifier, couldn’t walk long distances…she’d stand on stage like a lost librarian…and I would say to her take it, Betty, like I had thousands of times and she would light up…that was the first stage of letting go.
“The next stage was more profound. A month ago I had to do a show and she couldn’t make it. She made every show for 35 years. It would come time for her part, time for a lead and she wasn’t there and I just played the accompanying part…
“Last Thursday morning about 4 a.m. I got a phone call and I got up to get it. It was Betty calling from her hospital bed. I think she knew at that point she was going to die. There were things she wanted to say to me and she did. It was all about gratitude and appreciation…so we talked for about 20 minutes, it was 4:30 in the morning…I got dressed and got in the car and drove to Kingston Hospital. We talked, she was in and out of lucidity, but her leg was really bothering her, she was in enormous pain. She asked me to rub her right leg. I did for about an hour and a half…then her sister and brother and Evan came in, and she made her final wiseass remark…she pulled me close to her and said, ‘don’t worry Marc Black, I won’t tell your wife how good you make me feel…’
“I went over on Saturday and we sang outside her window and when Betty didn’t complain that we played the wrong changes I knew she was out of it. When we were singing outside, Mike said to me, ‘I think that Betty can still hear us…’
“And she was such an interesting player…the ability to dig so deep. She played with masters who appreciated her heart and soul, with Joe Beck and Fathead Newman, who loved her. She was very opinionated but could let go of it in a second, and she knew all the best jokes, it was great hanging out before a show with her…and as a band leader I had to appreciate how many times she saved me.
“I would say from the bandstand, ‘and now ladies and gentlemen, Miss Betty MacDonald,’ and it was a real warm feeling. It’s a big hole, it’s hard to imagine life without her.
“In so many circumstances, it’s like family, the band from way back, with Mike, Warren…it’s like family.”
To an even wider audience, she was the host of the Sound of Jazz (she always liked Sound of Jazz instead of the misnomer, Sounds of Jazz), that aired for decades on WDST radio, from its inception in 1980. For those first two years, we shared the program after I stepped in following saxophonist Joe Giardullo’s departure from the airwaves. She found a voice (a beautiful radio voice, if I may say so), musical, deep in its knowledge and love for the idiom. She spread wide over the area the gospel of Monk, the soul of Coltrane, the depth of Lady Day (and whose music she celebrated with her own tribute show and CD), and was responsible for the airings of the hard earned recordings of local jazz artists who deserved daylight in the world. In fact, she connected more musicians with work and jobs, often performing with them so that they would get more recognition, draw bigger audiences.
Jerry and Sasha Gillman, who owned the station, loved having musicians do the programming, and we all delighted in bringing an esoteric light to the airwaves. I’ll always remember the night Sonny Rollins visited us from his home in Germantown. He was a regular listener.
Leslie Gerber, who programmed classical music at the station tells this story: “Betty told a few people about a dream she had while she was working at WDST. She dreamed she came into work one evening and couldn’t play any records because the turntables were covered with broccoli. Jerry Gillman heard this story and made sure that, one day the following week, when Betty came in the turntables were actually covered with broccoli. We all laughed over this one for years.”
She stayed at the station long after we had left, when it was down to once a week and there was not much call for jazz on those airwaves. Stayed on bringing the truth to the public. They were heady days. Later, she moved on to WAMC.
“Betty MacDonald probably did more good for more people than anyone else I’ve known personally,” said Gerber. “She was a wonderful musician, one of the best jazz violinists I’ve heard…I thought the sheer beauty of her voice was second only to Ella’s. She was one of the first people I met after moving to the Hudson Valley in 1970 (our kids went to the same small private school), and in four decades of friendship I never lost my love for her glowing presence. I could never summarize in a paragraph, or a book, how much Betty has meant to me and how much I will miss her.”
The tributes have poured in, illustrating the different facets of her life, the ways in which she shared. (You can read more at the website caringbridge.org.) There were more than 200 by Tuesday.
They show Betty, the loving teacher: “All I can say is that you were such an incredible part of my life. With any other violin teacher, I might have quit, but you kept me at it, and I am so grateful that you did because now I have a gift you have given me that will last forever.” — Marley Claire Alford
“Have I told you today how much I love you? So many of us do. You’ve always given tirelessly of yourself....to friends, students and audiences....yet taken so little from us in return. I get dizzy when I think of all of the student benefits that you’ve played for and with me. Many of the recipients of the benefits you had never even laid eyes upon! But that never stopped you from caring.” — Wini Baldwin Paetow
And an acute appreciation of her of her stature: “Here’s to you, Betty MacDonald. Good for you. Mission accomplished. You brought your love of music to so many with unswerving dedication, humor, a strong sense of community, a beautiful lilting voice, and an articulate way of championing players, singers, composers, and, especially, promising women musicians. I remember your years on the air as a jazz apostle. It was in those years that I realized how much sheer love and appreciation you had for every person and piece you played.” — Tim Moore
She had a great run and was so proud of her kids and everything she had endured,” said Black. ‘She was victorious…her husband had left her but she bought that house and took care of her kids…she had all those students, that was one of the hardest things for her to give up…”
“She had a smile on her face,” said River Light Womoon. “When she died this morning, she’d been breathing from her mouth and her face looked so relaxed and the darkness around her eyes was gone. And her mouth slowly started to close. She looked better than I had seen her in months, and I could remember her that way. It was a very peaceful look. I think maybe Joy and David and Joe came and got her. She looked beautiful.”
Michael Suib and Nancy Butler-Ross offered this Haiku:
Zings her white violin’s strings
But from heaven now++
Editor’s note: Betty’s wishes are to have no funeral. There will be a celebration of Betty’s life in the future at a date to be announced.