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Mahavishnu Orchestra and “Thousand Island Park”

Editor’s Note:  In September we received this article on our TI Life Facebook page.  I was intrigued and decided immediately that we wanted  this story published.  But, at the same time, I discovered the author is the Rochester photographer, James Montanus.  Certainly it is time we introduced his photography and that of his father, Neil,  to our readers, thus we get two for one, “Thousand Island Park” by Mahavishnu Orchestra and Montanus Photography

Thousand Island Park is an amazing and magical place, on the Southwestern corner of Wellesley Island, in the Thousand Islands. It is a late nineteenth century Chautauqua-like community, of 315 ginger bread cottages, so impressive that it has landed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I first stumbled upon this place in the early 80s and I was immediately taken aback by its incredible beauty and charm. I've been back nearly every year since.

TI Park Montanus 1

But here's the problem; there is a vexing question that I needed answered. A question I wondered about for years. "Thousand Island Park" is also a piece of music. But not just any piece of music. It was composed and played by John McLaughlin, one of my all-time favorite jazz musicians and his ground-breaking jazz fusion group, called Mahavishnu Orchestra, who recorded this piece on their 1972 album 'Birds of Fire'.

Was there a connection, I wondered? John McLaughlin is an Englishman, born in Yorkshire England, in 1942 - a long way from Thousand Island Park. Was that piece of music named after the same place I loved so much in the Thousand Islands?

Eventually, curiosity got the best of me (along with a bout of insomnia one night). And so I started researching it on the web, very intently; at first, I could find nothing, but I was persistent.

And then, I found my first clue! In a 1999 interview, McLaughlin talked about how he became interested in Indian thought and philosophy and its influence on his music:

"I became very interested in comparative religion, around 1962, when I was 20. I was raised without any religious education whatsoever. I became a member of the Theosophical Society because they had a wonderful library. On discovery of the wonder and profundity of Indian thought and philosophy, my appetite was really whetted. I became aware of Ramana Maharshi, a man who had a strong impact and continues to exert quite an influence on me. I went on to become aware of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Premananda and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. My discovery of Indian music was also quite a revelation. I was first struck by the beauty of it and the mastery of the improvisation that exists in both the North and South. The relevance of this, to my music, which is jazz music, was great—the necessity of mastering this kind of discipline for improvisation."

It turns out that the Swami Vivekananda, who McLaughlin mentions above, lived at Thousand Island Park for seven weeks in July, in 1895. According to a piece written by the late Susan Turri, in the Thousand Island Park Landmark Society brochure:

"Swami Vivekananda’s arrival, at the Main Dock of Thousand Island Park a century ago, on June 18, 1895, was the result of a convergence of events that would have a lasting effect on millions of people, both here and abroad. He came to the Park at the invitation of Miss Mary Elizabeth Dutcher, an artist and cottage owner who had attended his spiritual classes in New York City and was struck by his strength of purpose ( he landed at the same dock pictured above).

Swami said that he was "at his best’’ at Thousand Island Park. The ideas he refined and expressed here grew, during the years that followed, into institutions both in India and elsewhere.

So this must have been the connection. John McLaughlin must have been inspired enough by the teachings of Swami Vivekananda to come all the way from England to visit Thousand Island Park, to meditate on the very same rocks where the Swami once meditated. And he must have further inspired, by this experience, such that he composed "Thousand Island Park," the piece on his ground-breaking jazz fusion album “Birds of Fire”.

Only thing left to do was get confirmation of my hypothesis. Through much poking around McLaughlin fan sites and numerous posts, I finally came into possession of McLaughlin's email address. I sent him an email asking him if I was correct and much to my surprise he answered me back. He is a man of few words, but basically indicated that I was in fact, correct in my assumptions. Mystery solved!

You would probably have to be a rabid McLaughlin fan to really appreciate this story. Or a rabid Thousand Island Park lover. I am both!
If you're interested, have a listen to “Thousand Island Park ” by John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra:


Uploaded on Nov 16, 2009

Mahavishnu Orchestra, “Birds of Fire” (1973), “Thousand Island Park.”

By Jim Montanus

Jim Montanus, born in Rochester, NY is the son of legendary Kodak photographer, Neil Montanus. A journalism major at Brockport College, Jim wrote for the campus newspaper and took his photographic assignments seriously. After a 17-year career in marketing and communication, he began his true passion of fine art photography three years ago. Today he is vigorously pursuing his dream. In addition, he is passionate about teaching photography classes in his gallery. He was voted 'Best Local Photographer' in City Newspaper's Annual Best of Rochester Poll, for the second year in a row!

Please feel free to leave comments about this article using the form below. Comments are moderated and we do not accept comments that contain links. As per our privacy policy, your email address will not be shared and is inaccessible even to us. For general comments, please email the editor.


Chris Lyttle
Comment by: Chris Lyttle
Left at: 10:21 PM Sunday, November 13, 2016
Thanks Jim, McLaughlin has always been one of my favorites. I remember seeing him perform in Syracuse in the early and mid '70s. Did he say when he visited TI Park?
John Herkimer
Comment by: John Herkimer
Left at: 9:28 AM Monday, November 14, 2016
As a longtime follower of John McLaughlin, and regular summer resident of the 1000 Islands, I've always wondered if that song referred to Wellesley Island's Thousand Island Park.
Jim Montanus
Comment by: Jim Montanus
Left at: 1:11 AM Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Chris, no he didn't say anything about when he visited. I would be curious to know that. I would also be interested in meditating on the same rock as McLaughlin and Vivekananda!
Joe LaMay
Comment by: Joe LaMay
Left at: 10:24 AM Sunday, February 19, 2017
I'm a former resident of Thousand Island Park. I do know there is a cottage there that is referred to as the Swami's cottage. although I'm not sure of the exact location. It's been a few years.

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