Free-jazz woodwind specialist Peter Kuhn’s road to San Diego has been long and harrowing. Born in the San Fernando Valley and raised in L.A., Kuhn’s career flourished in the Bay Area and eventually led him to New York at the invitation of Anthony Braxton in the mid-’70s, where he played with violinist Billy Bang, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and bassist William Parker. He recorded several albums as bandleader, including the 1981 collector’s item Ghost of a Trance on the Swiss record label Hat Hut. But as his career was ascending, a drug problem threatened to ruin it all. The Reader sat down with Kuhn to retrace his path of self-inflicted wounds, tragedy, and ultimate redemption.
“In New York, I was like a kid in a candy store,” Kuhn recalls. “In the West Coast, you have to know somebody, it’s all kind of done underground. In New York, there’s whole streets where there’s nothing but heroin dealers. I went from being a functioning addict where I’m paying rent, I’m gigging, I’m moving a career being creative. In the long line of all of my heroes, Peter Lorre and Edgar Allen Poe to Charlie Parker to whoever — the long line of junkie artists, right? But as things started to really break for me — going on tour to Europe and getting strung out there, I was blowing relationships and embarrassing myself in a lot of ways.”
Believing that he had to get away from the ready availability of drugs in the Big Apple, Kuhn returned to California. While cleaning up, things turned for the worse — a 15-month stretch in Chino State Prison. Yet even that wasn’t rock bottom.
“In 1985, the wheels really started to roll off, and I reached the point where I couldn’t pay my rent, my family had disowned me, where I had no hope of ever holding a job, and I was living in my Pinto. I was in and out of 12-step programs and detoxes. Then I heard that my oldest brother, Rich, who was a hero to me, had committed suicide. And I kind of went on a last run; I really wanted to die. I was doing armed robberies and hoping someone would shoot me on the way out the door. I started robbing all the dope dealers — I was trying to burn all my bridges or get killed doing it. There was no way to fool myself that it was working anymore.”
In desperation, Kuhn turned to a friend from a 12-step program. “It was gradual, when I got 30 days clean and sober for the first time ever, I thought I might have a chance. When I got six months clean, I was pretty sure I wasn’t bullshitting. And when I got a year clean, I really got the idea that this was something real that I could keep doing.”
Kuhn got a job in a semiconductor-distributing warehouse. “And then one day, the flu hit, and all the sales staff was out and they needed someone to answer the phones — and, you know, man, I’m a hustler, so I started slinging parts and making good money, but I wanted more and I went to another company and started making serious money. I moved to San Diego when they opened a branch down here.”
By then Kuhn was married with stepchildren and doing well enough to buy a house in Clairemont. Still, there was a nagging feeling of unfulfillment. An unbearable tragedy set the stage for another personal turnaround.
“In 2002, my 17-year-old stepson, who I considered my son, died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition. I’d lost sponsors and my brother, but this was very upfront and personal, because when someone you love dies, you think about the wasted moments.”
Kuhn turned to Zen. “For the first time, I’m reading Buddhist stuff, but it’s not some abstract shit — there’s nothing vague, nothing theoretical, devotional, or religious. It was recipes to engage with life. This is what I’ve wanted all my life...I became a Buddhist monk, in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.”
These days, Kuhn is committed to making a positive difference. He conducts bimonthly visits to Donovan State Prison to teach inmates meditation.
“As people start meditating, they learn to cultivate compassion and how to deal with strong feelings like anger and loneliness, and how to feel small acts of kindness and compassion, or even forgiveness. I should also mention that I never had a single visit at any time I was incarcerated and know what it feels like to be disenfranchised. I’m meeting some remarkable men, and I wish I had been exposed to this when I was locked up.”
And then there’s the music. Kuhn has reemerged through local connections, like drummer Nathan Hubbard, and has even toured the state with a group of L.A., San Francisco, and New York improvisers under the rubric of Dependent Origination. But there is a difference now.
“The beautiful thing is that I have a life of meaning and value before I pick up the horn. I’m not living a life predicated on the success of a record or the next gig. My life already has meaning, and when I pick up the horn, I’m picking it up as a whole person, and anything from there is just abundance.”