Michael Stocker: A life immersed in sound

Sasha Landauer
Michael Stocker, playing stand-up bass at a recent jam, is heading up a jazz revival at the Papermill Creek Saloon.  

Michael Stocker spends his days lobbying to reduce human-generated noise in the ocean, but last Monday night, he was whipping up an audience during a jazz jam at the Papermill Creek Saloon. 

“The area is trying to build a jazz scene—it’s been trying for many years,” a San Rafael resident said. “Michael is bringing it back.” 

Last week’s jam was the second of its kind, and it drew 25 people. Clustered around the bar was a mixture of wool-capped construction workers, hippies eating Chinese take-out and fellow musicians drawn by the promise of a shared jam. Mr. Stocker dashed between the flute, xylophone, piano and bass; his style fluctuating between classical jazz and Sinatra. 

“Jazz has been dying for years now, but I don’t think it ever will,” he said later. “When I first started learning about jazz, Miles Davis came out with this amazing album that was all electric and all the old guys were saying this isn’t jazz. It just evolves.” 

Mr. Stocker, who lives in Forest Knolls, entered the field of marine research in 1992 when the navy was proposing a communications system that would broadcast noise across the ocean. He was working in the music business at the time, but he was drawn to informing the public about this “very bad idea.” 

“I found that most people that were conservationists weren’t conversant in science, and the guys proposing this weren’t conversant in biology,” he said. “I helped clarify to the public what was being discussed.” 

He went on to found Ocean Conservation Research in 2007 to consider the impacts of human-generated noise on marine life. “The ocean is an auditory environment where animals use sound to get around just like we use light to navigate our habitat,” he said. “Two hundred years ago, the ocean was noisy, but it was biological sound. Today, the shipping noise alone is 10 times more than it was 20 years ago.” 

While marine life has adapted to natural sounds, the rapid infiltration of human-generated noise has greatly disturbed their patterns. 

“Each animal has its acoustic niche to settle into,” Mr. Stocker explained. “Some, like birds, communicate at high frequencies and those on the sea floor, or whales, have low frequencies and they can all hear through each other.” Human-generated noise interrupts these niches and makes it difficult for animals to hear each other. 

The synergy between marine animals is not unlike that found in Mr. Stocker’s jazz jam. As a rolling piano solo of “Fly Me to the Moon” gave way to smooth thrumming bass last week, each instrument seemed to inhabit its own acoustic niche inside the saloon’s ecosystem—outfitted with a Coca Cola lamp, a disco ball and fairy lights.

“Jazz is great because everyone can say whatever they want to say for as long as they want to say it,” said saxophone player Aaron Saul, who was part of another jazz jam last week at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon. “Nothing else I do gives me more freedom.”

This freedom is considered endangered by many jazz musicians. “In terms of overall numbers, jazz is dead,” pianist Art Levit, a Point Reyes resident, said. “There are fewer clubs for exclusively jazz all over Marin, the Bay Area, and New York. The club scene in this area that used to be only jazz is branching into other genres. I think jazz hit its May Day.”

And not all musicians agree that it’s a natural death. “It’s not that jazz is dying; the proprietors are killing it,” said a San Rafael resident who did not want to be named. She used to play at bars, country clubs and wineries all over Marin for a flat fee plus tips. “Now, they say ‘Here’s a space, go fill it and if you don’t fill it, you don’t get paid.’” 

In West Marin at least, saloons like Papermill Creek and Smiley’s open their doors to musicians like Mr. Stocker who can fill the space and don’t mind playing for tips. In the meantime, Mr. Stocker will continue his attempts to quiet the noise and cultivate musical niches.