Jack Conners’ Perfect World
The master of so much northern Michigan music still playing, producing, despite cancer diagnosis
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 7, 2021
You might not have heard Jack Conners. But if you’ve ever attended a live show at Northwestern Michigan College or Glen Arbor’s Manitou Music Festival, if you’ve listened to Interlochen Public Radio or albums by the likes of Peter Erskine or Jeff Haas, you’ve heard his work.
In a perfect world, Conners today would be happy, healthy, and enjoying his retirement while working the control panel at his private home studio, Perfect World Studios. He would be ready to record music by any number of musician friends, play bass, and teach students the ins and outs of both digital and analog recording.
Unfortunately, the world outside his control panel isn’t perfect. While he continues to play and share his expertise with students and professionals alike, Conners also continues to battle cancer.
“I was diagnosed in 2019 with stage 4 lung cancer,” he says. “That was tough.”
Tough doesn’t begin to describe it. A persistent cough led him to the doctor in January 2019, and he was told a month later it was cancer. What’s more, it had already spread throughout his body. “It was complicated — tumors in the brain, the gut, bones, virtually everywhere.”
He went through a series of treatments, including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. They helped. “I felt [the cancer] in my hip and couldn’t walk. Radiation brought almost instant relief,” he says of one part of this journey. But it wasn’t until he qualified for an immunotherapy treatment that doctors were really able to arrest the growth of the cancer cells.
“My doctor said he’s never seen anybody who it worked better on. So now I’m maintaining the immunotherapy. I’ll take it,” he says.
Conners grew up in Prescott, near Standish and Tawas on the northeastern side of Lower Michigan. He started playing guitar at age 12 or so, met some friends, and started a band. “The bass player wasn’t very good, and I replaced him [when I was] 16. I loved [the bass].”
While holding down the bottom end, Conners also typically provided the band with its sound reinforcement. “I was always the guy with the PA, mics, tape recorder. I could do sound on sound, could record more than one track.”
That predilection led him to Baltimore after graduation. A school there offered a six-week course in recording engineering. “That’s where I really got the bug,” Conners says. He did so well that after successfully completing the course he was offered a job at the school’s studio.
He continued to do live sound, as he’d done throughout his career. “I did shows in Baltimore, Philadelphia — the Commodores, Eddie Kendricks, a lot of Black artists around the region,” Conners says.
He never dropped his bass for long though, often picking it up to play in the same sessions where he was working the board. “I decided I wasn’t going to be a rock star when John Entwistle died, and Pete Townsend didn’t call,” Conners says slyly. “I liked sessions, engineering, and playing bass. I did a lot of radio jingles.”
Conners parlayed his mastery of playing and producing music into bigger gigs, in bigger music towns. He began working in studios in Nashville and California, where he helped install and demonstrate the large mixing consoles at studios such as Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Disney.
He eventually made his way back to his home state, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Mary. He worked at Interlochen Public Radio in the summer and eventually was hired there full-time; he served as chief engineer and head of recording at the station.
Conners’ skills made him the region’s most sought-after sound man, and he delivered a lot locally, providing live mixing year after year for some of the region’s most popular live shows — Paul Keller at the top of the hill at The Homestead, at the Glen Arbor-based Manitou Music Festival, and for Leelanau Uncaged. After he landed a position as auditorium manager at NMC, he left Interlochen but continued to teach students at both institutions and eventually began booking the artists for both the renowned Dennos Museum music series and the Manitou Music Festival.
Despite the demands of booking, engineering, recording, and teaching, Conners continued to play as well, with outfits as diverse as the NMC Jazz Ensembles and the popular local party band the Horndogs.
RETIREMENT? FOR SISSIES
When he retired, he didn’t unplug his sound mixer; he upgraded his home recording situation. Today the private studio has both digital and analog control rooms, a large studio with a grand piano, and another room for drums.
In this age of digital everything, where you can write and record a song on your laptop, is a recording studio even necessary? “If you want to use real instruments like we used to do in the old days,” Conners says with a laugh. “Record a real piano, real drums, real acoustic instruments, use real monitors.” The analog room is outfitted with a 1984 Harrison board – just like he worked on and installed across the country when working for the company way back when.
The studio is not just for creating music for release. Conners continues to teach students the ins and outs of studio recording and engineering. “When the pandemic hit, I started teaching online, so I had students every week since last April. I really like teaching. It’s very rewarding.”
One of Conners’ most recent efforts is Manitou Music Favorites, a fundraising CD he put together featuring artists who have performed at the Glen Arbor music series over the past several years. Conners worked the soundboard and recorded the shows, then persuaded the artists to allow the release with proceeds benefiting the Glen Arbor Art Center.
Today he continues to teach and work from home, while maintaining his battle against cancer. He’s buoyed by the support of his family as well as his many friends. And his students as well. Says Conners: “I’m still always learning from every student.”
The Magic, as Captured by Conners
Just Dropped: CD showcasing music of the Manitou Music Fest
Over the years, a huge number and variety of acts have performed at the Glen Arbor Art Center’s annual Manitou Music Festival. Held each summer in Glen Arbor, the festival is a longtime rite of summer —its Dune Climb concert, in particular, a show that consistently drew hundreds to sit and scamper about the sandy dunes while live music drifted up from the stage below. Though the pandemic prevented the festival from happening in 2020 and 2021, Conners was determined to capture some of magic that made those summer evening shows so unforgettable.
The result: Manitou Music Favorites, a newly released CD that offers 17 tracks from bands who performed as part of the series over the years. Artists on the disc include local favorites like the Tannahill Weavers, Moxie Strings, Trina Hamlin, Jeremy Kittel Trio, Fullset, Detour, May Erlewine, and the Crane Wives. The live sound and the recordings were, of course, provided by Jack Conners.
Kate Pillsbury, one of the members of the Crane Wives, says the recording is as much a tribute to Conners as it is a fundraiser for the arts center. “Jack has been one of the Crane Wives’ absolute favorite sound engineers. We established a relationship with the Manitou Music Festival through him.
“We know Jack has had a rough couple of years. He’s one of the kindest people we’ve ever been around,” she says. So when he approached the band about including a couple of their tunes, the group was all in.
The music was performed and recorded from 2013 through 2018 at the studio stage located behind the GAAC building. The recording is available through the Glen Arbor Arts Center website, www.glenarborart.org, under the Support tab.