From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970
To anyone still questioning the validity of the systems and methods at which Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman arrived, I would first of all recommend that he listen more attentively to the work of those men. But I’d also suggest that he make it a point to hear the strong and very exciting musics of an emergent collection of musicians from Chicago who constitute what is already a third generation of New Music players (Ayler, Shepp, Dolphy, etc., representing the second), and whose very existence serves to certify the innovations which Taylor and Coleman forged.
Anthony Braxton, Maurice McIntyre, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith, Steve McCall and Henry Threadgill are just some of the gifted and mostly very young musicians involved in the Chicago movement. These men have not only embraced the new aesthetic, they are adding remarkable dimensions to it. In addition to the utilization of extraordinary instruments like harmonicas, accordions, sirens, Chinese gongs, Hawaiian tipples, whistles, etc., the Chicago players are into using objects like garbage can covers, chairs and beads to make sounds with. They are also incorporating theatrical effects with provocative results.
Although I’d heard most of the Delmark albums (the Chicago label that’s recorded many of these players), my first live exposure to what these guys are doing came on an evening last May when a five-man cooperative group calling itself the Creative Construction Company of Chicago played its first New York concert at the Peace Church in Greenwich Village.
The music which Anthony Braxton, LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith, Richard Abrams, Steve McCall and Richard Davis made that evening was lifting and invigorating, full of movement, wit, adventure and surprise. It reminded me in its spirit as well as its setting of the loft and coffee house gigs that Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, et al used to play seven or eight years ago. The music was as new and as fresh, and the same kind of joy exuded from the musicians, as though each sound they made represented a new discovery about music and themselves, and each discovery surely had an extraordinary significance.
Especially impressed by Anthony Braxton, I introduced myself to him at the completion of the concert and invited him to be interviewed. We got together to talk several days later.
Braxton was born on Chicago’s Southside and turned twenty-five this past year. He is classically trained – he studied for a few years with private teachers and at the Chicago School of Music – and has composed orchestral pieces and piano music. Although the alto saxophone is his chief instrument, he plays all the reeds, woodwinds, some brass and various other conventional and unconventional instruments.
The first jazz group Braxton remembers hearing was the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “That was at a very early age. I didn’t dig Brubeck that much, but I was attracted to Paul Desmond. Actually, it was after listening to Desmond, whom I heard before Charlie Parker, that I decided to play woodwinds. He was very important to me and he’s still one of my favorite musicians.”
In 1961, Braxton heard Ornette Coleman’s <i>The Shape of Jazz to Come</i>. “I had gone by a friend of mine’s house, his father listened to jazz, and he said, ‘Listen to this, because this is what’s going to be happening. This is where the music will be going.’ When I heard Ornette I was immediately affected by him. I was afraid of him, because he was so different in relation to what I’d been hearing. I was very conscious of the fact that something was happening with this music – it drew me very strongly, and I knew that someday I would have to deal with it.”
Braxton continued to play with his “Desmond sound” for several more years, during which time he was also listening to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, as well as to Lee Konitz – “whom I still love. I have every record Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh ever made. Konitz, even by today’s standards, was into some far out things – ‘Marshmallow,’ ‘Ice Cream Konitz…” Later Braxton encountered Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. “Those guys really turned my head around. They were so advanced even then it was incredible. I thought I had some knowledge of music, but I found I didn’t know anything.”
In 1963, Braxton went into the army, spending most of his hitch in Korea. When he was discharged, in 1966, he met again with Jarman and Mitchell who were by then involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the cooperative of some thirty or forty musicians that is nearly four years old now. He began then to really get into Ornette, and Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, and to “stop playing like Paul Desmond.” He also, during this period, got seriously turned on to ‘classical’ music.
“One day I happened to put an Arnold Schoenberg record on by accident, and I almost passed out. So there was something else for me to check out. I was very much affected by Schoenberg, and he led me to other people like Berg and Webern and Stockhausen, and finally to John Cage.”
Braxton was playing concerts with other AACM musicians by this time, and he also recorded two albums for Delmark – 3 Compositions of New Jazz and a two-record set of alto solos, which was scheduled for release in late 1970. He also played on Richard Abram’s <i>Levels and Degrees of Light</i>.
In 1969 Braxton went to Europe with LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall. He spent nearly a year there, working all over and recording two albums for BYG and Polydor. He also participated in an album of Alan Silva’s on BYG, <i>Luna Surface</i>. While in Paris, Braxton met Ornette Coleman, who heard him play and invited him to come to New York. Braxton responded to the invitation and, with LeRoy Jenkins, got here early this spring and stayed with Ornette until he was able to get his own place. Of Ornette, Braxton says, “I’ve always loved him, loved and respected his music. And after getting a chance to meet and to know him, I’m thoroughly in awe of him, of the kind of person he is. He’s been such a good friend. He has my deepest respect, musically and personally.”
Despite Ornette’s hospitality, the aforementioned concert, a gig with Chick Corea and record dates with Corea and Marion Brown, Braxton hasn’t had that easy a time of it in New York, though it’s been no worse for him than for most New York musicians. He had, he told me, been looking for a day job, but without success.
We talked about the dismal economic realities of the scene and then Braxton began to discuss his music and what was happening with the Chicago players.
“When I got out of the army I joined the AACM and found everybody deep into exploring different avenues. Roscoe Mitchell talked of colors. Steve McCall was into shadings – he knows more about shadings, I think, than any other percussionist. Joseph Jarman, at the time, was into theater and getting politically involved; he was very concerned about the social aspects of what was happening in this country. Henry Threadgill was talking about healing through his music, and he was learning about different sounds and how these sounds affected people – like the relationship of one note to a particular illness. Richard Abrams was concerned with the spiritual aspects of music. So many different things were, and are, happening. If you talked to Leo Smith, he would talk to you about composition and about theater. LeRoy Jenkins, a master string musician, he’s concerned with opening up avenues for the violin and arriving at different approaches. He wants to utilize the whole instrument without having someone call him a ‘classical’ violinist.
“I myself was into mathematics and philosophy, seeing music from a mathematical perspective and working with mathematical systems. I wanted to make up my own vocabulary because I didn’t want to follow anybody else. I wanted to find my own avenues. Now my music is a combination of all I learned in the AACM plus what I was working with in mathematics in terms of sound relationships, densities, textures, different forms – what I call ‘conceptual grafting,’ which is about mixing different elements. I’m moving now toward trying to free the music in other ways, like playing in the streets and bringing carpenters and automobile mechanics into the music. I’m starting to see the music, and to me the notion behind the music is just as important as the music itself. I can see how in the next ten years or so everybody will be able to bring something into the music from whatever their occupation is. Like, you bake cookies? You make ice cream? Well, we’ll find a way we can create with that.
“I’ve just finished a piece for one hundred tubas. I’d like to go to all the high schools and get all the tuba players and have a parade and go down to City Hall playing this piece. I want to make music that is socially usable and from which there can be direct results. Like, I dig watching shoemakers, watchmakers, ceramicists, work. I wish my art could be as useful as theirs is – I wish somebody could put tea or coffee in my music, or put their feet in it.
“But there are so many different types of music happening in the AACM. Chicago is a new center of the New Music. The atmosphere there seems to be more conducive to real creativity than New York’s. Nobody’s famous there and nobody’s working, so if you’re in music it’s only because you love it.
“Each person is realizing the different things he can do – his capacity for creating in different areas. This is something that’s just beginning – we’ve been practicing and working for three years now, but it’s still just beginning. What’s happening now is really just a stepping stone and a way of people getting their minds together. The music has just begun. That’s why the AACM is so important, because it’s given us the opportunity to study exactly what’s been opened up by people like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and ‘classical’ composers like John Cage – to find out what will be the disciplines that we have to learn and what new avenues are available for the young musicians to explore.”
I asked Braxton to elaborate on the ‘classical’ influences in his music.
“I want to be able to make use of everything that’s in the air,” he said. “I want to arrive at a world art that takes in everything. Nobody can tell me that John Cage, or David Tudor playing Stockhausen (which I just heard the other day, and which knocked me out), is not my music. There are a lot of people contributing in ‘classical’ music who I’m attracted to. I listen to ‘classical’ music an awful lot and I’m very involved with it. Like, for me, John Cage is one of the two most important composers in the country today – the other is Duke Ellington. Cage’s knowledge and use of so many different concepts, textures and properties have been a major contribution to music, and anybody who’s in contemporary art has to know about them. Cage has done so much in terms of materials he’s worked with and notions he’s gone through – even the unsuccessful notions. And the fact that he’s always trying to assimilate new concepts into the music, I find that very attractive.
“Of course there are a lot of things Cage hasn’t come to terms with. His music is almost all intellectual, all conceptual. He’s so conceptual that the only way you can really deal with him is through some kind of intellectual system. That’s true of Stockhausen, too. Stockhausen (who is just the end of Webern) and Cage are like at the opposite polls of the same thing – Stockhausen with his empirical intellectualism, Cage with his metaphysical intellectualism. I met Cage once and we talked about this. I was telling him that when you look in this life you see trees and rocks, but you also see people – people exist, egos exist (in the sense that each person is coming from his own head), and if that’s true then his music isn’t reflecting nature as much as he thinks it is, because people are just as much a part of nature as rocks and trees.
“I’m also aware that Cage has put down black art. But that’s something I overlook because that’s something he has to deal with, not me, and I devote my attention to the positive things he’s contributed. Actually, I think Cage, in regard to jazz, is starting to listen now and going through a period of change. He’s been a victim of the scene, like everybody else; his inability to really expose himself to black art, to really be open to it and acknowledge it, has led him to a lot of wrong conclusions. But now I think he’s becoming aware of the importance of black musicians, aware that he can learn from Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. It’s basically about improvisation. Nobody who walks into the next twenty years and calls himself a contemporary musician will be able to do it without having some understanding of what improvisation is all about in terms of the emotions behind it. Improvisation has been a property of world art – with the exception of Western art – for as long as this planet’s been here. Most contemporary ‘classical’ musicians have now come to the juncture where they’re starting to understand that they’re going to have to know about Duke and Miles. If you don’t know about them, you’re missing some essential knowledge, because they’ve been through it gloriously.
“But I’m saying that in spite of themselves and their emotional deficiencies, people like Cage and Stockhausen have done so much. One thing for sure, the next stage of creativity will employ the gains that Cage has made, as well as the gains that black art has made. That much is undeniable.
“Getting back to the music in the AACM,” Braxton went on, “what’s happening is that we’re coming to realize that we have to bring all the different arts, all the different avenues, together. Music, painting, sculpting – they’re all, in themselves, very limiting. We’re working on getting to a wider spectrum with a label like ‘art’ or ‘activity’ or ‘environment,’ rather that ‘music’ or painting.’ We want to incorporate as many different approaches and avenues as possible. We’re working together in different kinds of groups with different kinds of approaches. We have pieces where each musician plays ten balloons. I have a piece in which I conduct four chairs and four shovels; another piece where an audience comes, the musicians play three blocks away, then someone comes to tell you the concert is over. Leo Smith wrote a lot of plays that we perform. All these different avenues are being covered.
“I mean we can all play on changes, and most of us could read music in a symphony orchestra. But we’re really not concerned with that anymore. Sometimes I do it because I like that kind of music. But it’s not about proving anything anymore.
“What’s happening now can be seen as a logical reaction to the lies this country was built on. But this is not so much a revolution as it is a final curtain being drawn on a particular scene, and while the final curtain is being drawn, a curtain is opening on the next scene.”
Although he was determined to stay in New York, to “meet musicians, hear music, go to art galleries and get into new avenues of expression,” Braxton said that he’d found the scene here in many ways “depressing.”
“The musician’s here are so divided economically, because people who control things divide them that way. But they’re also divided from a lot of other standpoints, and the music in relation to the people is not as strong as it could be. There’s so much dissension here. I feel like what’s needed here is some kind of organizing by the artists along the lines of the AACM. In New York musicians are so separated. It would be nice if we could get together some kind of orchestra and take it to different neighborhoods. I mean there are so many remarkable people walking around now creating music, whose music could reach out to all the people. But those in control won’t let it get through to the public.
“There’s been a conscious, plotted attempt to suppress and wipe out creative music in this country. I think you realize the significance of art in a culture and what the new art represents and who it threatens if people are able to hear it. It becomes a threat to existing values because it can expand things and stimulate people to change the existing state of things. This is dangerous to people for whom change is not an advantage, so it becomes very…interesting.
“Let me tell you how deep this thing is. When our first record came out on Delmark, it was put down immediately. Immediately. And what was strange, the jazz cats said it wasn’t jazz and the ‘classical’ cats said it wasn’t ‘classical’ music. The critics said it wasn’t even music. One way they’d put it down, they’d use comparison to try to destroy the morale within the group – compare me to Roscoe, compare LeRoy to someone – and they would say, well, the conclusion is that this cat’s better than that cat. That’s a very good way to destroy unity, and that is what was done. Everybody in the group knew it, but we were not in a position to do anything about it. Like certain individuals – they know who they are – consciously exploited what we did and used it for something else.”
Braxton was ready to split. “You know,” he paused to say, “here I’ve been talking all this time about art and artists, but actually I’ve never really wanted to fully identify with the idea of being an ‘artist,’ or with the idea of playing music for a living. I’m afraid of being a ‘musician’ in the sense that society defines it – that is, of separating art from life, or of being in the music business. Art gets to be so manipulated. Like everybody’s a potential artist – butchers, bakers…I think the whole idea of art is something that Western culture has introduced so that it can be used on evil trips. Like, Western music was originally just a toy for rich people, something for the king to talk shit about. I feel that potentially we all are the music, our lives are art in the purest sense. So I don’t want to sell my music anymore than I want to sell my hands. It’s very evident, just checking out the scene, that if you tamper with the music and turn it into a synthetic, then in fact you turn yourself into a synthetic. It’s very hard to participate and not have that happen.
“Of course, I can see how right now we need ‘artists,’ as such, to help show people that they’re artists, too; to show them what’s meaningful. Consciousness is the most valuable thing that can be communicated right now – making people aware of themselves and their environment – and there has to be somebody holding the line and pointing out the options and the different avenues to learn about. In this country right now the people who are artists in the truest sense of the word are participating in an activity which will bring this consciousness about. And then maybe we will be able to stop categorizing ourselves.
“Actually, some of the most creative people I’ve met are not involved in music. They’re simply living what the music is about.”