William “Barney” Balch, scientist and musician

Oceanographer by day, musician by night
Posted:  Friday, April 8, 2016 - 8:00am
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William “Barney” Balch finds no contradiction in his lifelong attachment to science and music.

“They both involve research,” Balch said from his office at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in East Boothbay.

Balch began both careers as a teenager growing up in Rockport, Massachusetts.

"I just wanted to work in marine science," he said.

Bigelow co-founder Charles Yentsch gave the 14-year-old a job counting phytoplankton at his then-University of Massachusetts Marine Station.

“I spent two hours a day, three days a week counting cells after school,” Balch recalled.

Several university degrees later, Balch found himself again working for Yentsch at the former Bigelow labs at McKown Point, but this time as a leader of a team studying the biometrics of the Gulf of Maine.

“It was in the old lobster hatchery,” said Balch of the original lab. 

Eighteen years later, Balch now works with state-of-the-art NASA satellites and unmanned subsurface gliders that collect millions of bits of oceanographic data along a path from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The new laboratory itself is a modern glass and steel complex overlooking the Damariscotta River.

Balch’s musical career also began in his youth.

“My mother and father had a great record collection. I was fortunate to be able to join the American Legion Band.”

Years later, while pursuing his doctorate at the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, he was able to advance his skills on the trombone, taking lessons from jazz man Jimmy Cheatham.

It turned out that upon his return to Maine, Yentsch was also a jazz buff. They often listened to jazz recordings together.

In the mid-1970's, Balch met Bob and Dave Page, who were forming the Jazz Babies in Damariscotta.

“What a treat,” Balch said.

The group will be celebrating its 40th anniversary this summer.

Balch and his wife Patricia, also an oceanographer, moved permanently to Maine in 1995 and have raised their two children at their home in Sheepscot Village, Newcastle.

“I came full circle,” said Balch.

At the same time, he was beginning to meet a variety of Maine jazz musicians, including pianist Mickey Felder. A fledgling group began to jam at a house in Pittston. 

Balch approached director Pam Gormley at the new Skidompha Library in Damariscotta with the idea of using the atrium as a performance space.

“My daughter Sara came up with the name, Novel Jazz,” Balch said.

Some of the players in the septet have come and gone; the core group that remains consists of Felder on piano, Mike Mitchell on trumpet, Herb Maine on bass and Dave Clarke on guitar. Currently, Brian Jones is on saxophone and Bill Manning is the drummer. Guest artists often join the group.

Several years ago Balch became intrigued with the work of jazz great Duke Ellington. After some bureaucratic struggles, Balch was able to gain access to some of the 3000 Ellington compositions stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

His hands shook when he first touched some of the original manuscripts which are now part of every jazz player’s repertoire, he said.

“It was a gold mine,” said Balch. Only about two percent of the compositions are currently well-known and only a fraction have been recorded, he said.

“We know only the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Although the septet meets regularly to play jazz standards at the Skidompha Library, the group has developed a formal concert format that concentrates on Ellington and Billy Strayhorn compositions. Over the last few years the concert band has toured northern New England and added new elements to the repertoire. The group also relates much of the history of the collaboration of the two musicians to the audience. The septet has already booked 10 concert dates for the coming summer.

Back at the lab, Balch and his crew continue to add to the 18 years of data collection from their two automated “gliders” and from summer daylong cruises with a portable lab aboard the commercial ferries that connect Portland with Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

One of the preliminary conclusions is that there is an overall decline in phytoplankton productivity in the Gulf of Maine, that may be due to the influx of microscopic particles; those organic and inorganic materials from Maine rivers may then block the solar radiation required for photosynthesis, Balch said.

Do Balch’s two professional careers present scheduling conflicts?

“We sometimes pray for rain on the weekends.”