By Michael Heller
Born in New York City and raised in Northport, Jim Turner is the product of musical family: His mother, brother, and sister were all musically oriented, and his father was a trumpet player in college, so it was only natural that at age 14 he picked up the guitar. His brother showed him a riff called “John Henry,” and then a friend in school showed him how to play “What I Say” by Ray Charles. “And from there it kind of just grew,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be a musician. It was just a side thing.” He moved back to New York City at age 21 to study acting, and before long found himself being cast in major roles in Broadway musicals, including Joseph Papp’s Public Theater production of “Blood” and opposite Nell Carter in a production called “Dude” with the cast members from “Hair,” while all the while continuing to play gigs in restaurants and coffeehouses. In 1978, he moved out to the East End.
MH: So what was it that made you decide to come to live in Sag Harbor?
JT: I was really in the guts of the New York professional world. I look back at that now, and I realize that I was around the big time. I wasn’t the big time, but I was around it, so I saw what the high level of competition and the high talent, and how disciplined and how professional you had to be in that world—you had to go out for a lot of auditions on Broadway stages, and it was terrifying. I got cast and I was around these people. There I was in this Broadway show with top talent like Nell Carter and a lot of other famous people, and it was like the big time, it was shocking, I was really honored. But I continued playing music, and you know, I was in that New York world and here I had been in that Manhattan jungle for so long, that I finally got to the point where I—and it’s really kind of mundane, what I’m going to say—I just got a longing to live in the country. I wanted to switch gears…. Suddenly I just did not want to do the urban thing. I look back and I had spent almost 12 years, including college, in New York, and I just got this longing to be in nature—almost like a Thoreau—and I was looking to go a hundred miles away, because I didn’t want to cut the cord. I didn’t want to leave New York, because New York is a universe. But I met a woman, and she lived out here and I visited out here, around 1978. She was going away the following summer, so I rented her house out in Sag Harbor for the summer, and I was smitten by this area. I had this huge, romantic thing: I wanted to be with clean water…. my life was a concrete jungle, and the city was so challenging to live in, so bang I rented her house and later on I moved out here.
When I came out here what happened was I was able to get the music going, playing music out here, right away. Playing music out here was suddenly so much easier than in New York. In New York you finish playing a gig and you’re on the subway, or on the street. Here, I came home to my cottage I rented and I’m out here with the crickets and the night and I’m thinking, “This is relaxing! This is healthy!” Since I’ve been out here I took off and formed my own band in 1988…. I backed up a lot of people for years and played solo, and it took off pretty much in the late ’80s. I did concerts at Guild Hall, I got a role for Time-Warner doing an ad for Optimum, and since then I’ve just been out here doing hundreds of gigs.
MH: So what keeps you out here, seeing that this is not the music capital of the world?
JT: One of the answers to that is that it’s kind of easy living here, in a country-life kind of way. Now, it’s not easy financially because it’s gotten very expensive, but I’ve kind of lucked into something that I wouldn’t have been able to do in New York. I get a lot of work out here, especially May through September, so rather than be on the road as a musician—and it may not be as romantic—I can actually have a life and not be out in motels travelling the country. What I found in New York as a struggling artist was that it was very difficult to make money and to be in the city; out here it’s still hard, but it’s easier: I come home to this home, and I have peace and quiet. I do get hired, and I’ve done well, and gotten paid pretty well. But on the other hand, I agree that in the off-season it’s kind of dead, and that’s the downside to it.
I once heard something in a music seminar, and that was, “Don’t get addicted to the local music scene, because that can shortcut your career.” I might have done that. I might have been someone who went to L.A. or Nashville, or could have had a big career… and yet, at the same time, I’m not sure I was looking to be a star; I think I just wanted to play music and have a relaxed, healthy life—it’s as simple as that.