(Left) Cecil Taylor & Robert Levin at Taylor’s Brooklyn home, June 2015. (Right) Cecil Taylor & Robert Levin leaving Ornette Coleman’s funeral service, June 27, 2015.
Archive for the 'JAZZ WRITINGS:' Category
Now available from K2B2 Records!
Marty Krystall, reeds, with Calvin Keys, guitar, Jerry Peters, piano and Hammond organ, Buell Neidlinger, bass, and Peter Erskine, drums
I’ve written elsewhere that, in my judgment, Marty Krystall is the very best of the post-Coltrane reed players. And for anyone still unfamiliar with this remarkable musician (he’s worked and recorded with people like Steve Lacy and Charlie Haden but has largely confined his activities to the Los Angeles area) I can think of no better entrée than the album at hand.
Krystall has said that he wants to surprise himself as well as the listener when he plays. “I want to compose in the moment, spontaneously, and to come up with different sounds. It’s about sounds for me—colors, textures—not licks or notes. I try to get the most juice I can in my tone. And I want to find things on the horns that I couldn’t get to before. I also want to utilize the full capacity of the instruments.”
That statement places Krystall solidly in the realm of the ultra-modernists. But Krystall is hardly a devotee of the arcane. He’s a musician who wants to use his prodigious virtuosity not to intellectually impress or intimidate his audience but to move and shake it. If he’s essentially an emotive player, however, he’s a strikingly disciplined one who never descends to empty pyrotechnics or solipsistic meanderings. Cogent and lucid, his solos can claim a consistently coherent structure and, as highly charged as they may get, are models of focus and compression. Certainly in this album, a celebration of his roots in rhythm and blues, Krystall makes music that is eminently accessible as well as viscerally stirring.
“What I wanted to do here,” Krystall explains, “is recreate a period in my life when I was very much into rhythm and blues, a time, around 1970, when I was in my late teens, and all but consumed by that music.
“It was a busy time for me,” he says, “and I rarely got more than three hours sleep a night. I was teaching woodwinds at a music store in the late afternoon, then making gigs in black R&B clubs in Hollywood and after-hours clubs in south-central L.A. until six in the morning. From 11AM to 3PM it was constant jazz jam sessions. I was living in Venice then, in a court where a lot of musicians lived. We would play in each others garages and musicians from all over Los Angeles County would show up. There was a Hammond organ in one of the garages and I developed my sound mainly by playing over guitars and the Hammond organ.
“By playing R&B,” he adds, “especially in clubs, I also learned how to relate to an audience and how to feed off of it. It was about getting the crowd yelling and screaming. If you could do that then you knew you’d succeeded. If you didn’t you had to figure out what you did wrong and correct it. You could say that I learned how to play performing for black audiences. And, maybe because I was the only Jewish kid on the block when I was growing up and knew a little bit about racism, it was always black music that I gravitated to. I wasn’t interested in West Coast Jazz. My main heroes in that period were John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. But I was also very taken with people like King Curtis and Junior Walker. I wanted to play funkier and more soulfully and with the energy they had. I would practice before gigs to make sure I was hot.
“You have to have talent and the chops to pull it off, of course, but it’s really passion and drive that count. And I learned that from playing R&B and jazz seventeen hours a day for eighteen months.”
To assist him in recapturing what he describes as his “R&B side,” Krystall enlisted musicians who, for the most part, he first encountered in the early ‘70s. And it’s an illustrious bunch. Calvin Keys, guitar, Jerry Peters, piano and Hammond organ, Buell Neidlinger, bass, and Peter Erskine, drums are, each in his way, certified legends.
Calvin Keys, present on six of the tracks, is a consummate musician with the rare ability to straddle the full spectrum of styles from gospel to “free jazz.” Keys has worked with some of the great organ trios, including those led by Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Groove Holmes. He’s also played with Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Sonny Stitt, Ahmad Jamal and Pharoah Sanders, among others of comparable stature. Jerry Peters, whom Krystall calls “a genius with so much technique—he performs miracles at the keyboard,” is a Grammy award winner and a songwriter best known for the hit single, “Going in Circles” by the Friends of Distinction. Peters has played with some of the most noteworthy performers and groups of his time, including, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, The Emotions, The Jacksons, Diana Ross, Deniece Williams, Gladys Knight, Al Green and Lionel Ritchie. Peter Erskine, who was a member of Weather Report, is a first-to-call drummer when you’re in need of a brilliant time-keeper—just ask Diana Krall or Linda Ronstadt. And Buell Neidlinger! His résumé includes stints with virtually everybody from Little Esther, Bobby Blue Bland to Gil Evans, John Cage and Cecil Taylor. Is there any kind of music that this singular musician can’t play, or that isn’t enhanced by his playing of it?
Considering that some of these men hadn’t played with Krystall for several decades, the collaborative ensemble work in this set is nothing short of amazing. And so is what these players do as individuals.
Peters, for example, who contributed two terrific numbers to the session, “Round & Round” (with its compelling chords and syncopated beat) and the stunningly lovely, samba-inflected “Hannah’s Tune,” swings mightily throughout on both piano and organ—what a right hand! And, harmonically and melodically, Keys is superbly inventive in his solos, particularly on “Round & Round” and “Tenor Badness.”
But this is Krystall’s date and it’s his extraordinary musical gifts that shine the brightest.
I’m speaking of his capacity for relentlessly swinging, as in, most conspicuously, his flights on “Round & Round,” Thelonious Monk’s “Introspection” and “Beybluhor.” (The latter piece, taking its inspiration from vocal music—opera and R&B—and influenced by Krystall’s experience in a backup role for R&B singers, is based on Peters’s rearranged harmonies of “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” and it’s notable for the interpolation, by Krystall, of his arresting original melody.)
But that’s just for openers. I’m pointing as well to Krystall’s ability to sustain a creative line at breakneck speed, as he does in Monk’s “Skippy,” and to the poignant lyricism of which he’s capable, as evidenced on “Hannah’s Tune” and Billy Strayhorn’s haunting “Blood Count” (an homage to Johnny Hodges). I’m also referring to the depth of his connection to the blues that is manifested on the classic Benny Golson composition, “Stablemates,” on Neidlinger’s “Billy’s Blooze” and on the album’s title number, “Liquid Krystall Displayed” (a take on LCD for those too old to grasp the reference). Not least, I’m talking about the authority with which he embraces and commands the full resources of the tenor saxophone, as demonstrated on “Tenor Badness” (after Sonny Rollins’s Tenor Madness).
Talent. Chops. Passion and drive. These are skills and virtues that Krystall owns in abundance and which he exhibits to perfection in this album—an album that, as I’ve indicated, will afford the listener an excellent introduction to a genuinely outstanding jazz musician.
Tags: Anton Webern, Art Blakey, Ben Webster, Bernard Hermann, Brenton Banks, Buell Neidlinger, Cecil TaylorJaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Frank Zappa, Gil Evans.Eric Dolphy, Jerry Peters, JJ.P. Maramba, John Coltrane, Leonard Rosenman, Marty Krystall, Mojave, Morty Stevens, Nat Hentoff, Peter Serkin, Sincair Lott, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk
NOW AVAILABLE FROM K2B2 RECORDS!
1748 Roosevelt Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006-5219
Marty Krystall is a genuine rarity—at once an accomplished and practicing studio musician, and a tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist who Nat Hentoff could rightly call, “one of the most passionate, powerfully swinging, and just plain unselfconsciously original players in all of jazz.”
Anonymity goes with the studio musician’s territory. That not everybody knows what Hentoff knows about Krystall’s creative dimension is because, with exceptions like four European tours with the bassist Buell Neidlinger and a period in Japan where he journeyed as a soloist, Krystall has largely confined himself to playing in the Los Angeles area where he was born and raised. Were he living and playing in New York there’s no question that Krystall would be recognized as one of the very best of the post-Coltrane reed players. Maybe the best.
Indeed, dynamic and muscular, relentlessly propulsive and endlessly inventive, Krystall’s work, interspersed where called upon with a searing lyricism and always informed by an exceptional musical intelligence, is routinely astonishing. Go directly to the title track, the theme from “Gunsmoke” (which Krystall manages to transmute into a credible, even elevated, jazz tune) or Thelonious Monk’s haunting “Ask Me Now,” for exemplary demonstrations.
Krystall says of his approach that he wants to “surprise myself as well as the listener. I want to compose in the moment, spontaneously, and to come up with different sounds. It’s about sounds for me—colors, textures—not licks or notes. I try to get the most juice I can in my tone. And I want to find things on the tenor or bass clarinet that I couldn’t get to before. I also want to utilize the full capacity of the instruments.“
Artists frequently derive inspiration from what, to others, may seem unlikely sources. Much of Krystall’s inspiration (and this would apply to both of the hats he wears) comes from television shows that he watched growing up, especially “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Twilight Zone.”
“I remember, in 1960, being obsessed with those shows. They had a deep moral compass. Especially the character of Paladin in ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’. He would hire out, but never as an assassin, more like a problem solver. And sometimes he would forego his fee for the opportunity to do something good, like finding justice.
“Paladin was the classic anti-hero, exposing his client’s lunacy or greed. I struggled as a nine-year-old to understand these morality tales, but he was my hero because he was educated, worldly, dressed to the nines, usually accompanied by beautiful women and had his pistol custom made. To me he was like the ultimate studio ‘doubler’ [multi-instrumentalist]. Show up with the finest instruments and play anything that’s put in front of you perfectly. The first time!
“For me, it’s have horns, will travel.
”But it wasn’t just the stories and the characters that captivated Krystall. The musical scores, by composers like Morty Stevens, Bernard Hermann and Leonard Rosenman, seriously impressed him as well. “That same year my dad took me to my first hi-fi and stereo show where we heard the latest recordings of those scores on state-of-the-art audio equipment. Talk about ‘mind-expanding!’ And if that music was very romantic and expressive it was also scary and filled with tension, which appealed to me a lot and still does. Sounding much like what Gil Evans was writing, it had very hip modern chords and was heavily weighted with clarinet and bass clarinet solos. So when my Dad, an amateur pianist, asked me what instrument I wanted to play, it was the clarinet.
“Of course,” Krystall adds, “when I heard Eric Dolphy on the local jazz station, and then Art Blakey and John Coltrane, I realized that this was it for me musically. Tenor sax, bass clarinet and modern jazz, here I come! Yeah, I would listen, in those early days, to people like Trane, Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and write out their solos to see how it was done. Ben Webster, too. Buell Neidlinger turned me on to Ben Webster and also to Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor.”
In addition to fronting groups of his own, Krystall went on to play with other bands, notably Krystall Klear and the Buells, Thelonious, the Word of Mouth Orchestra and the Liberation Orchestra, that included or were led by three outstanding and innovative bassists: Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden and Neidlinger. Playing and recording with Buell, Krystall acknowledges, was a major factor in his development as an improviser and composer.
“But I also wanted to make a living,” he unabashedly admits, “and to that purpose, I was determined to become a studio musician as well. When I was fifteen, I learned that to be successful in the field one had to play at least the clarinet, saxophone and flute. I studied the flute and later the oboe and, by the early ‘70s, started to break into the studio scene while earning a reputation for sight reading the most difficult music—like Frank Zappa and Anton Webern—and also as a legit clarinetist who could rock out on tenor. One gig led to another and I became fairly busy as a freelancer. Especially gratifying has been the chance to work with three world-class pianists, Peter Serkin, Brenton Banks and Jerry Peters.”
While continuing to do studio work Krystall has of late become increasingly focused on his own musical adventures, specifically his new band “Mojave”.
Krystall checked out any number of people before he encountered the drummer Sinclair Lott and the bassist J.P. Maramba and knew right away that he’d found the combination for the band that he wanted. It should be noted that Krystall deliberately chose to omit a piano. “Unless you have the absolutely right pianist the piano can inhibit harmonic freedom and get in the way.” In any case, Maramba and Lott are uncommonly skilled and intuitive musicians and it’s hard to imagine Krystall coming up with more suitable partners or a more complete and perfect unit. “We played together,” Krystall says, “and it just happened. They are amazing.”
J.P. Maramba, who takes a justifiable pride in his ability to adapt to any musical situation, has worked with Willie Nelson, Adam Rudolph, L’Esprit d’ Afrique Pan-African Performance Ensemble, Gilbert Castellanos, Bennie Maupin and Ingrid Jenson. Not unlike many musicians he regards the organization of sound from a spiritual perspective and he’s earnest in his belief that “the vibration in the air we call music is, in the most practical sense of the word, magical. Music not only has a way of unifying people and cultures, and all of their nuances, but it can also affect the physical chemistry of your body.”
Maramba contributed the sweet and rhythmically infectious “We’ve Heard It All Before,” to the set and he can be a fascinating soloist, as witness his work on Krystall’s “Trini’s Blues” and Herbie Nichols’ boppish and challenging “Terpsichore” in particular.
Sinclair Lott, whose father, Sinclair Sr., was principal horn of the L.A. Philharmonic has played and/or recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Diane Reeves, Frank Zappa, Big Joe Turner, Dorothy Donegan, Otis Rusch, Tigran Hamasyan, Tierney Stafford, Billy Childs and Bob Sheppard. Lott sustains an extraordinary level of focus and concentration throughout the album and is especially mesmerizing on “Duo at Diablo,” on which Maramba lays out. The depth of his accord with Krystall on this number and the compelling results it yields might put you in mind of Cecil Taylor’s legendary duets with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Oxley.
And what exactly prompted Krystall to name this band “Mojave” instead of, say, “The Marty Krystall Trio”?
“Mojave is where my roots are. In the late 19th century, my grand uncle left what’s now Poland for America and, after meeting and consulting with the man who would become Barry Goldwater’s father, decided to open a general store (the first of its kind) in the southeastern California desert town of Mojave. My grandfather, the son of a rabbi, came here when he was thirteen. He stepped off the boat, ordered a ham sandwich and, journeying to California where he took a job at the store with my grand uncle, never looked back.
“That was, of course, when Mojave was still the ‘wild west’. And my grandfather would tell me about shootouts on the street and a Chinese cook that nobody messed with because of the hatchet strapped to a shoulder holster that he carried.
“Now if Mojave gives me the connotation of a hard blowing, desolate wind, and a harsh existence, it also reflects a pristine and spiritual beauty. And this is why I call the band ‘Mojave’. It’s to represent that and also to remind me of where I want to come from when I play—a windy plain where the air is clear and all of the stars come out at night.”
Whatever location Krystall may in his mind be coming from when he plays, he is also, as I’ve indicated, coming from a large musical gift. His capacity to stir and shake the emotions is unfailing. His facility on both the tenor saxophone and the bass clarinet is never on display for its own sake, but always dedicated to the service of his fertile imagination. Moreover, his statements are pithy and cogent—there’s no meandering or repetitiveness. He says what he has to say and then it’s on to the next tune. His performances on Ben Webster’s jaunty “Ben Addiction,” where his lines and tone implicitly acknowledge his debt to Webster, Jaki Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of KC,” on which, playing bass clarinet, he honors Eric Dolphy by both emulating and taking him to new places, “Blue Dunes” (“Blue Skies,” actually, but with a new melody that he came up with on the spot), and his own immediately seductive “Renovation Blues,” are, as is true of the aforementioned tunes, all revelatory of a talent that can claim an extraordinary force and singularity.
But Krystall’s brilliance and uniqueness notwithstanding, there’s another reason this group isn’t called “The Marty Krystall Trio”. Maramba and Lott function not as Krystall’s sidemen but as his collaborators. Their artistry and controlled intensity are every bit as prominent as his own—and due in large measure to a remarkable alchemy, the trio has a much bigger sound than its number would suggest. These qualities make for a single and powerful sonic entity and a set that’s loaded with heat, exquisite interplay and wonderful tensions.
Discover the marvelous with Mojave.
1748 Roosevelt Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90006-5219
Recorded at the Ravenna, Italy jazz festival in 1987, and including some of Thelonious Monk’s classic compositions, this exemplary demonstration of post-bebop jazz presents five remarkable musicians at the very top of their game.
Leading the group is the legendary bassist Buell Neidlinger, a musician distinguished not only by the size of his talent—his extraordinary acuity, accuracy, intonation and tone—but also by what one writer called “the sheer, bewildering diversity of his resume.”
Possessed of an uncanny affinity for virtually every category of music, Neidlinger, as a bassist and cellist, and in clubs, concerts, on records and for TV and films, has worked in every imaginable musical context from polka bands to the Boston and Houston Symphony orchestras. The people with whom he’s played range from Lester Lanin to John Cage and they number among them such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Ben Webster, Dick Wellstood, Tony Bennett, Herbie Nichols, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Costello, Gunther Schuller, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and the Beach Boys.
Neidlinger takes a justifiable pride in his history and his ability to shine in any musical situation. But if he’s a monster soloist (go immediately to “Epistrophy” and “Reflections” for confirmation) and not without an ego, his first purpose—the specific use he wants to make of his astonishing virtuosity—has always been to “serve” the music he’s playing, whatever it is. And this attitude extends beyond his role as a sideman. It applies to bands that he fronts as well. He puts bands together, he says, to “play and promote other people’s music.” In this instance, Thelonious Monk’s music.
Neidlinger regards Monk, with Ellington and Herbie Nichols, as the “greatest” of American composers, and bemoaning the fact that, because of their idiosyncratic nature, Monk’s tunes—like those heard here: the riff-rollicking “Epistrophy,” the intensely melodic “Reflections” (among the most beautiful of Monk pieces), the witty and humorous “Little Rootie Tootie” and the compellingly built “Criss Cross”—are largely neglected by current jazz musicians, he wants to correct this circumstance. “Monk is on a level that very few got to,” Neidlinger says. “I mean in the sense that he created a sound and a concept. It was probably Monk who had the most to do with creating those tunes at Minton’s Playhouse—to confuse guys like Coleman Hawkins—and which became bebop. I want to keep the tunes of Monk alive.”
And the band that Neidlinger assembled to accomplish his objective is more than up to the assignment.
Nat Hentoff called the tenor saxophonist Marty Krystall, who’s played with Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, “one of the most passionate, powerfully swinging, and just plain unselfconsciously original players in all of jazz.” And Kirk Silsbee observed that “Krystall remains one of the strongest reed players in jazz. His mobility on the tenor and ability to retain a fullness in any register is formidable. He can slide effortlessly into the stratosphere and avoid the thinness that plagues so many overtone excursions. Just as quickly, he’ll drop down into a low explosive note for an accent and be up the ladder again.”
I would add that Krystall’s ability to stir the emotions is matched by his stunning inventiveness. (His work on “Epistrophy,” “Reflections” and “Criss Cross” offers especially salient examples of the breadth of his capabilities.) I always thought of John Gilmore as having been the best of the lesser known tenor players in jazz—until I heard Marty Krystall.
The late pianist Brenton Banks came from much the same musical background as Thelonious Monk, but as a gifted violinist as well as a pianist, he spent most of his career in Nashville where, as Concert Master and String Arranger for the likes of Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley, he attained something of a legendary stature of his own. In addition to his achievements in country music, Banks was an authentically creative and individuated jazz soloist (check out his right hand on “Epistrophy” and “Reflections”) and, in Neidlinger’s words, “a wonderful comper.” He was also a venerated teacher who could claim Jim Hall and Hank Crawford as his students.
Billy Osborne has a connection to Neidlinger that reaches back to the ‘50s, when they accompanied Chris Connor and Big Joe Turner together. Of Osborne, Neidlinger says: “He’s one of the greatest drummers I’ve played with—he’s right up there with Philly Joe Jones. Coltrane and Miles wanted him to play in their bands.” Osborne, who has worked with Ray Charles and Wes Montgomery among myriad others, is a bright and intuitive drummer, thoroughly versed in all genres of music from R&B to every species of traditional and modern jazz.
And Steve Lacy. If Neidlinger views this set as being more about Monk than about him, he also wants it to function as a reminder of the considerable artistry that was the late Steve Lacy’s. Invited to join in on the gig, Lacy, an expatriate since the early ‘70s, came down from his home in Paris to play it. And renewing a musical relationship with Buell that began in 1955, when they both worked with Cecil Taylor (and later with Gil Evans and Jimmy Giuffre), he acquitted himself brilliantly.
Lacy, who single-handedly brought the soprano saxophone into modern jazz and in whose hands the instrument seemed almost to be an organic extension of himself, was no stranger to Monk. On the contrary, a devoted disciple of Monk since the late ’50s (and a member of several of Monk’s bands), Monk compositions, notably in a group he co-led with Roswell Rudd, had long been at the center of Lacy’s repertoire. In fact, he had made of himself the leading interpreter of Monk tunes.
Recognizing, as he said once, that Monk’s “harmony comes from the melody,” Lacy’s expertly composed solos never fail to respect this essential aspect of Monk and they are, everywhere here, beautifully structured—by turns heated and jagged, soaring and lyrical.
So played by elevated musicians, all of whom fully comprehend the intricacies and complexities of Monk’s rhythmic, harmonic and melodic uniqueness, this is a ferociously exhilarating album that from the opening notes of the high-velocity “Skippy” (Monk’s satiric take on “Tea For Two”) crackles with energy and marvelous interplay.
Indeed, feeding, challenging and extending one another, these musicians make each of the tunes models of group interaction (listen to the astonishing unity and the wondrous exchanges on “Little Rootie Tootie” for a prime case in point), and they succeeded in producing a set that, in its entirety, yields new marvels with each hearing.
A master played by masters.
Tags: "Jazz Masters of the Fifites", "Jazz: A People's Music", "The Disc Book", 8) The War is Over: A Conversation About Jazz with Robert Levin, Abner Levin, Addison Farmer, Alan Silva, Andrew Cyrille, Andrew Hall, Anthony Braxton, Arnie Kinsella, Art Farmer, Arthur's Tavern, bebop, Bill Dixon, Bill Dunham, Billy Crystal, Billy Strayhorn, Birdland, Bix Beiderbecke, Blue Suitcase, Bob Thiele, Brian Nalepka, Cecil Taylor, Charley O's, Charlie Parker, Chuck Wilson, classic jazz, Coleman Hawkins, Dan Barrett, Dan Block, Dan Levinson, Dave Winograd, David Hall, David Ostwald, Dick Dreiwitz, Dick Schwartz Dick Sutton, Dixieland, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Edmonds, Down Beat, Duke Ellington, Ed Bonoff, Ed Polcer, Eldridge Cleaver, Erroll Garner, Frank Perry, Fred Stoll, free jazz, George Sprung, George Wein, Geri Allen, Giampaolo Biagi, Gigi Gryce, Greenwich Village Bistro, Grove Street Stompers, Hank Mobley, Harry Lim, Herb Gardner, Howard Alden, jazz, Jeanne Phillips, Jerry Orbach, Jesse Gelber, Jim Fryer, Jim Perry, Jimmy Lyons, Joe Goldberg, Joe Licari, Joe Muranyi, John Bucher, John Coltrane, John Eckert, John Hicks, John Kirby, Johnny Hodges, Jon-Erik Kellso, Julliard, Kevin Dorn, Lester Young, Lincoln Center, Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, Mal Waldron, Marianne Mangan, Marilyn Monroe, Marshall Stearns, Martin Williams, Mike Weatherly, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Minton's, Monroe's Uptown House, Murray Wall, Nat Hentoff, Oliver Lake, Ornette Coleman, Peter Anderson, Peter Ballance, Peter Ecklund, Peter Sokolow, Ragtime, Reggie Workman, Robert Levin, Sam Goody's, Shirley Scott, Shorty Rogers, Sidney Bechet, Sidney Finkelstein, Skip Muller, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Stan Rubin, Steve Alcott, Steve Elmer, Steve Lacy, Sunny Murray, Sweet Rhythm, swing, Swing 46, Terry Waldo, Thelonious Monk, Tony Scott, traditional jazz, Vincent Gardner, Will Anderson, Wynton Marsalis, Zero Mostel
The following interview was published on the All About Jazz website: http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=37025
by Eleanor Brietel, New York Editor of The Drill Press
(Most of this interview was conducted via email.)
BRIETEL: You’ve published fiction and you also write essays on a variety of subjects. I want, however, to confine this discussion to your thoughts about jazz, a special interest of yours that has resulted in a couple of books, a lot of liner notes and numerous articles in places like Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Metronome, Jazz and Pop Magazine (where you were the Jazz Editor) and The Village Voice (where you earned a reputation as an avid—some would say, zealous—supporter of the so-called “jazz revolution” in the ’60s). What got you into jazz in the first place? Who were your guides and teachers?
LEVIN: Working at Sam Goody’s record store got me into it. My father, Abner Levin, a classical music critic—he wrote a much-praised book, The Disc Book, with David Hall—was Sam Goody’s partner from the early 1950s, when the Long Playing Record was introduced, into the mid-1960s. In 1954, when I was fifteen, I started working part-time at the main store (on West 49th Street, midway between the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and the Brill Building on Broadway) and it was there that I met George Sprung and Joe Goldberg. George, who was the head jazz salesman, played a recording of Bix Beiderbecke’s for me on my very first day and, upon noting my enthusiastic response, suggested that I check out albums by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Errol Garner, among others. I did and I was fully hooked in a matter of weeks. Then Joe Goldberg, who came to work as a salesman at Goody’s a year or two later, expanded the field of what I was listening to by turning me on to people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Joe—who’d later write Jazz Masters of the Fifties—was six years older than me and a big influence. He was writing plays then and Frank Perry wanted to direct one of them—a marvelously poetic three-act play called “Mexican Blues.” It got as far as a backers’ audition, which Joe invited me to. Zero Mostel, who was still unknown then, read one of the parts. (Joe was rooming with Jerry Orbach around that time and I remember Orbach joining us for coffee next door to Goody’s just moments after he’d auditioned, unsuccessfully it turned out, for “West Side Story.”) Someone else who worked at Goody’s, a trumpet player named Dick Schwartz—under the moniker Dick Sutton, he’d recorded an album with Steve Lacy called “Progressive Dixieland”—also made valuable recommendations and he played an important role in how I listened.
Other guides and teachers were visitors to the store. Goody’s location and enormous inventory (it stocked virtually every LP in existence and sold them at deep discounts) made it a kind of mecca, and besides all of the celebrities who came in—I recall an entrance by Marilyn Monroe very vividly—a lot of musicians and people in the jazz business showed up. I met Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People’s Music, Harry Lim, Martin Williams and Marshall Stearns there. And Nat Hentoff, as well. The Farmer brothers, Art and Addison, were regulars and Tony Scott, known then as the “first bebop clarinetist,” would stop by often. He took a liking to me for some reason and brought me with him to a couple of his recording sessions. Lee Konitz had worked at Goody’s before I did and he’d come back to buy records from time to time.
And it was at Goody’s, where he was paying a call on Joe Goldberg, that I met Cecil Taylor.
BRIETEL: I want to ask you about Taylor, of course, but first: Are you musical yourself? Do you play an instrument?
LEVIN: No. I tried to play the saxophone when I was in my teens but I realized fairly quickly that I had no talent for it. I am on a record though. I was part of a vocal chorus on Ornette Coleman’s “Friends and Neighbors” album, which was recorded by Bob Thiele for his pre-Impulse Flying Dutchman label. On the title track, it was the chorus’s job to shout, “Friends and neighbors, that’s where it’s at!” That line (and my reading of it) notwithstanding, “Friends and Neighbors” is actually a pretty good album.
BRIETEL: Was it when you realized you weren’t going to be a musician that you decided to become a writer and critic instead?
LEVIN: Ha. Maybe that’s the way it worked. But I was never a “critic” in any true sense of the word. Martin Williams was a critic. I played at being one occasionally and—it’s been gnawing at me for forty years—I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Shorty Rogers, Shirley Scott and Mal Waldron for the unconscionable bullshit I spouted about them in that role. Basically I thought of myself as an advocate, particularly when the “new music” came along.
BRIETEL: For the record: You’re talking about the emergence of “free jazz” in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
LEVIN: Yeah. And if we’re going to use that term—”free jazz”—let’s make sure we’re clear about what it was intended to convey. To play “free” didn’t mean to play anything that came into your head. What “free” meant was to be working within systems—many of them highly structured and complex—that were at a remove from traditional or conventional systems; systems that, in the parlance of the time, were “liberated” from the perceived constraints and limitations of established systems.
BRIETEL: Your tone, if I may say so, is a little bit defensive.
LEVIN: I suppose that I am defensive. Too many people have said to me: “But that’s just anarchy.”
BRIETEL: OK. But not questioning its legitimacy as music, wasn’t “free jazz” ultimately destructive? Didn’t it cost jazz its audience? It definitely turned a lot of people off.
LEVIN: Yes, it did turn a lot of people off. The intention of the “free” players wasn’t to entertain but to enlighten. Animated as they were by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, a goal of many of those men, in addition to reaffirming the hegemony of jazz’s African strain, was to restore black music to its original function as a music of spiritual utility. Resurrecting, in some instances, ancient African methodologies, they wanted, in the high fevers of their self-assertion—with the sense of infinite possibility that accompanied those fevers—to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way that we lived. Those who were conservatory trained (a relatively new phenomenon) and with an intellectual bent, were also employing elements of the European avant garde, concepts and systems they felt they owned now as much as whites did. (Their avowed purpose was, of course, to incorporate them into a black aesthetic.) So if you looked to “free jazz” for familiar and agreeable harmonies and melodies you were missing the point. At its inception there was a moment, at least in certain quarters, when “free jazz” was very much welcomed. But finally the broader audience didn’t want to go where it had gone. As Eldridge Cleaver, taking stock of developments in his province, the social and political sphere, put it later in that period, “America didn’t want a revolution.” Did you know, by the way, that Cleaver went on to become a designer of mens pants? They were pants that, to more comfortably accommodate the natural inclination of one’s genitals, offered a choice of extra material on the left or right sides of the crotch. But apparently America didn’t want his pants either.
BRIETEL: I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing.
LEVIN: But there’s more to say about this—no, not about the pants. If “free jazz” cost jazz a large portion of its audience, support for jazz was also diminished by the advent of rock—the first hip white popular music. Those young and counter-cultural white people who’d always been drawn to jazz because they identified with the outsider image of blacks, gravitated to rock instead.
BRIETEL: So where has this left jazz as a music? It’s hard for me to get a handle on what’s happening right now. Is jazz finished as an evolving music? Has it become the museum music that Wynton Marsalis seems to think it is? There’ve been no major movements or innovations in almost fifty years—seventy years if you don’t count “free jazz,” which Marsalis and the Lincoln Center people apparently don’t regard as jazz.
LEVIN: Wynton Marsalis? You mean Wynton Marsalis the “jazz great,” as I heard him introduced recently? Yeah, he’s right up there with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, isn’t he?
Look, it’s entirely possible that Marsalis is right and that jazz is indeed finished as an evolving music. What I’d emphatically disagree with is the judgment that jazz culminated with bebop and that the “new thing” wasn’t really jazz. If jazz and the changes within it can be said to have served as a document of the African-American’s evolution—if that’s, in fact, one definition of jazz—then “free jazz,” as a reflection of where African-American musicians had arrived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was no less a part of the jazz continuum than bebop was. Actually, coming from this definition, and from the assumption that jazz is no longer an advancing art, you could say that “free jazz,” implicitly—and appropriately—completed jazz.
BRIETEL: Then what now?
LEVIN: We can’t know with any certainty. In the future, the underlying dynamics of American art music will be different. Changing ethnic demographics figure to engender all manner of new musics. Will jazz systems have their place in them? I can’t see how they wouldn’t. But frankly, Eleanor, I’m not as interested in issues like that as I once was—no more than I’m interested in participating in the war between jazz factions or arguments about whether or not black jazz musicians are innately superior to white jazz musicians. After years of listening to and occasionally writing about only one species of jazz, I find that I’m refocused now on musicianship and artistry on their own terms and that it makes no difference what style a musician is playing in or what color he is. If a talented musician is emotionally connecting to the discipline he’s chosen to work within, I can be moved by what he’s doing.
BRIETEL: Wait. Are you saying that, contrary to some very strong opinions you came to hold, you believe now that white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians?
LEVIN: Yes, of course white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians. And yes, they can be great jazz musicians. In the past, white musicians who wanted to play jazz had to break with certain of their own cultural precepts in order to open themselves to black perspectives and methodologies. They had to be rebels of sorts. At this point in time, given the sweep and depth of the Afro-American’s influence on American culture and the fact that most everyone has assimilated that influence, the African-derived elements of jazz have become as ingrained in white musicians as they are in black musicians. I think that any white musician who’s disposed to play jazz is now as innately qualified to play it as a black musician is.
But again, issues like that no longer preoccupy me. I’m into jazz now purely for the music. At the moment there are still a lot of people playing what we call “jazz,” and in literally every idiom, and I’m listening to as much of what’s going on as I can. In New York, representations of the entire spectrum of jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop and beyond—or in various combinations—can, on a given night, all be found within a several-mile radius. Most of these idioms are still attracting new recruits and can still claim a following. If it’s true that some of the musicians playing these musics are essentially mimics and functioning largely as custodians, others are infusing the genres they’re choosing to play in with new energy and ideas and are actually expanding those genres.
In the case of “free jazz,” the musics of a number of people have not only survived the passing of the movement in which they originated but are also wielding an influence on a significant percentage of the younger musicians. I’m thinking, for just a few examples, of the work of the recently deceased Bill Dixon (who I regarded as a great American composer), Ornette, Anthony Braxton and Cecil, of course.
BRIETEL: Taylor. You go back a long way with him.
LEVIN: Yeah. More than half a century, since right after he made his first album, “Jazz Advance.” He’s ten years ahead of me, but, it’s amazing, we both got to be senior citizens.
BRIETEL: Fifty-plus years later, how would you assess him?
LEVIN: Cecil hasn’t realized all of his ambitions. He’d wanted at one time to achieve the stature and influence of an Ellington. But I think enough people would agree that if he’s fallen short on that count he’s still taken his place alongside the masters. Certainly as a pianist.
I admire Cecil for all kinds of reasons, not the least of them being his belief in himself. He had his ambivalent periods and he made his mistakes, but he held to his vision. George Wein, who’d wanted to exploit Cecil’s enormous talent for its potential commercial possibilities and whose ideas about how to do it Cecil steadfastly resisted, actually said to Cecil not too long ago: “Well, you did it, and you did it your way.” Cecil did do it his way and, initially, with very little support. But if Cecil didn’t require approval to pursue and accomplish what he has, he certainly wanted it. Wein’s remark was a source of immense satisfaction to him.
Of course the man whose approval Cecil really wanted but never got was Miles Davis. Miles had exclaimed in a Down Beat “Blindfold Test”: “Who’s that motherfucker? He can’t play shit!” And Cecil was deeply wounded by that. Cecil and Miles were on several concert bills together and they would get into verbal exchanges backstage. But Miles refused to acknowledge that what Cecil was doing had merit. I would try to cool Cecil out by telling him that it was precisely because Miles “got it” that he was so hostile to it, and that if Cecil’s aesthetic took hold it would, in Miles’s mind, diminish his accomplishment. But Cecil wouldn’t accept my argument. Achieving Miles’s validation became a minor obsession for him and when he answered Miles’s “So What” with “D Trad, That’s What,” I think he really believed that Miles would come around.
BRIETEL: I know that Miles reacted in a similar fashion to Ornette Coleman.
LEVIN: Yes, that’s true, he did. “[Coleman] must be screwed up inside to play like that,” he said. But I’ve just now reminded myself of another of Cecil’s disappointments. This one involved a nasty reaction to his music at a black bebop club on a summer night back in the early ‘60s. Don’t ask me to remember the name of the club—it was somewhere deep in the bowels of Brooklyn—or how Cecil got booked there. Cecil, [alto saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons and [drummer] Sunny Murray, none of whom had played this place before, were scheduled to do a weekend and Jeanne Phillips, a long-time friend of Cecil’s, and I went with them on opening night. Cecil was excited about working at this club. The people there were precisely the people he wanted to reach. He wanted to demonstrate to them what was possible in the music now. Well, it was a Friday night and the place was jammed—every table was occupied and people were standing three-deep at the bar. It was also very hot; what passed for air-conditioning was thoroughly neutralized by the quantity of bodies in the room. The band was assigned to a small pit behind a railing opposite the bar and things started to get seriously tense just a couple of minutes into the opening number.
If Cecil still had one leg in bebop, the other was dangling well outside of it, and what the band was playing wasn’t exactly what the folks there were expecting or ready to hear. Men at the tables began standing up, shouting obscenities and making threatening gestures. Women, too. It was quite a scene. But the band, lost in the music, was oblivious to what was going on. If they heard the noise at all they probably assumed they were being cheered. A year before a drunk had waved a gun at me in a bar, but I wasn’t nearly as alarmed by that as I was when two men approached the pit and, with their arms folded, stared at the band in a very menacing way. It didn’t help that the bartender, a giant of a man—I thought of him years later when I heard the Billy Crystal joke, “The guy was so big his crucifix had a real person on it”—looked so panicked himself. I was standing near the door with Jeanne (who, every bit as fearful as I was at that point, had grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go), when I saw him frantically motioning to us. I managed to get over to him and he said, “You need to take them out of here. And right now!” So while Jeanne was focusing on Cecil and Jimmy, I was leaning into the pit trying to get Sunny’s attention. But neither of us was having any success. Sunny, who was dripping with sweat, had his head way back and his eyes tight shut and all he was hearing was the music. Finally the bartender came out from behind the bar and yelled at the band: “That’s enough! Goddamnit, that’s enough!” That worked—or maybe it was the long and heavy shadow he’d cast over the pit that did the trick. Shortly thereafter we were on the sidewalk. Jimmy’s alto was still hanging from his neck. He’d left the case inside and no way was he going back to get it. I’d never seen Cecil quite so crestfallen.
BRIETEL: Wow! How did he handle that?
LEVIN: He absorbed the experience and went forward. And in a more determined way. Adversity doesn’t defeat Cecil, it energizes and extends him. He makes creative fuel out of adversity—adversity and the experience of an affront, real or perceived. I think he sometimes goes out of his way to place himself in situations that will result in making him angry. Being pissed off focuses and centers him. In this respect I take personal credit for a couple of his best sets.
BRIETEL: Am I correct about this? Didn’t he approach you at one point about writing his biography?
LEVIN: Where did you hear that?
BRIETEL: I don’t remember now.
LEVIN: Yeah, in 2005. I did mention it to a couple of people. I wasn’t sure that I’d made the right decision. We’d gone to hear [pianist] John Hicks at Sweet Rhythm when that came up. (John was dying—he had just months to live—and he played one of the most exquisitely beautiful sets I’ve ever heard.) I don’t want to dwell too much on why I declined to do the book. It’s still something of a sensitive issue for me that involves a lot of stuff I’d rather not get into here. What I will say is that I thought such a book needed a first-rate musicologist and that I didn’t feel qualified to do it justice. (I told Cecil this and he said he’d “take care of that part.” I said, “Yeah, you’ll write a hermetic poem that’ll only turn more people off.”) But that’s as far as I want to go about the biography.
BRIETEL: Okay. Let’s bring this into the present. Who exactly have you been listening to these days?
LEVIN: As I said, I’ve been listening to a lot of different people. I had a chance to hear the Trio 3 plus Geri Allen band, with Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman at Birdland a while back and I was blown away by it. Of course any band that has Andrew Cyrille playing drums is automatically elevated. I’ve also been making all the gigs I can by two reed players, Peter and Will Anderson. Identical twins, they’re still in their early twenties and I can’t say enough about them.
They’re Julliard graduates and still doing postgraduate work at Julliard, but there’s nothing studied about the way that, as instrumentalists, arrangers and composers, they make music. They’re naturals and while essentially into bebop—which they play with a passion, unpredictability and sense of discovery that can make you feel like you’re back at the beginning of it at Minton’s or Monroe’s Uptown House—they can claim an astonishing affinity for the full range of jazz forms and styles, at least up to the “new thing.” I’ve listened to them play all kinds of jazz now and have yet to hear an inauthentic note. They easily hold their own with the best of the Dixieland players. They interpret Monk compositions in a way that I’m sure Monk would have appreciated. They have a solid grip not only on what Miles and Gil Evans were after in the “Birth of the Cool” period but on the work of a John Kirby as well. Along with the depth of knowledge they demonstrate about saxophone players as diverse as Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley and Gigi Gryce, to name just a few, they understand Ellington and—they play ballads with an emotional sophistication that’s way beyond their years—they know what to do with a Billy Strayhorn song. Have I mentioned that they also command their principal instruments, the clarinet and alto and tenor saxophones, with a stunning authority? I could go on and on about the Andersons. Right now the distinctions between them as musicians are as subtle as the differences in their appearances. It will be fascinating to see how they progress, how they diverge from one another and what they make of their prodigious talents, once they’ve become centered in their individual identities. But what they’re presenting at this point in their development is already substantial and compelling enough to be worthy of preservation. I’m surprised that there’s no big-label album yet. I should think that their marketing potential—the twin thing, their age—would be considerable.
BRIETEL: I’ve got to check them out.
LEVIN: Yeah, you do.
BRIETEL: Who else?
LEVIN: Actually, a lot of traditionalists. For the past year or so I’ve been hanging a lot with traditionalists.
BRIETEL: You’ve been hanging with Republicans?!
LEVIN: I don’t think they’re all Republicans. Most of them give the appearance of being highly evolved human beings. No, what happened was that my wife, Marianne Mangan, was into this music and she got me to pay attention to it.
BRIETEL: Marianne Mangan. I’ve read some of her stuff. She’s good. I knew there was a relationship. I didn’t realize you were married.
LEVIN: Much to my irritation, Marianne chose not to take my last name. I’ve been trying to persuade her to at least take my first name, which I think is a perfectly reasonable compromise.
In any event, Marianne, who’s frighteningly knowledgeable about this music, got me to listen to it. Yeah, like a lot of people, I regarded modern manifestations of traditional and swing era jazz as reactionary and pretty much ignored them. But stripped of that extra-musical baggage there’s some extraordinary music being played in these categories by a body of serious, dedicated and very good musicians, and I regret that long-held biases prevented me from finding that out sooner.
BRIETEL: Anybody in particular you want to mention?
LEVIN: I’ve been especially impressed by the trumpeter, cornetist and flugelhornist Peter Ecklund. As we used to put it, he’s “saying something” when he plays. I’ve heard Ecklund now in a number of different contexts. He can remind you, at times, of a host of people from Armstrong to Beiderbecke to Harry James to Harry Edison to Art Farmer, but his approach, including a sound that’s multi-textured and rich with contrasts, is totally individuated. Just a few notes and you know that it’s him. His solos, consistently crafted with wit and intelligence—unerringly musical—can be powerfully dynamic and emotive, and his presence in an ensemble always serves to extend the musicians he’s working with. In his own group, Blue Suitcase, which has been playing occasionally at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Carmine Street, he draws not only on jazz but on a classical training, extensive experience with rock and pop bands, outstanding song writing and arranging skills, computer technology and a droll sense of humor, to produce music that’s inventive, edgy and immediately seductive. He’s a genuine artist. The real thing.
BRIETEL: OK! Go on.
LEVIN: I haven’t heard everyone, not nearly, but of the players and groups I’ve caught thus far I’ve been consistently dazzled by The Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, a group of shifting, but invariably first-rate personnel (the estimable trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso is frequently featured), that David Ostwald, who plays tuba, leads at Birdland on Wednesday evenings. I heard Will Anderson, on clarinet, get into an electrifying exchange with Ed Polcer, a magnificent Chicago-school cornetist, there. And the pianist Bill Dunham runs an always stirring group, the Grove Street Stompers, at Arthur’s Tavern on Monday nights with Peter Ballance on trombone, Skip Muller on bass, Giampaola Biagi on drums, revolving and stellar trumpet or cornet players like Ecklund, Polcer and John Bucher (a wonderfully subtle and lyrical musician), and Joe Licari on clarinet. Joe Licari. There are a lot of excellent clarinetists playing classic jazz—the brilliant Dan Block, of course, and Joe Muranyi and Dan Levinson—but, and I’m talking about his unfailing exuberance, his touch with a ballad and the marvelous symmetry of his solos, no one reaches me quite the way Licari does.
Someone else I’ve come to admire is Herb Gardner. He’s an exceptional trombonist, accomplished pianist and terrific bandleader—he leads the Stan Rubin big band at Swing 46 on Wednesday nights in addition to small groups at venues like Charley O’s—and I always get a major lift when I go to hear him.
And each of them owning his own particular strengths and virtues, there are others that I’m glad I’ve gotten to hear. I’m thinking of pianists like Peter Socolow, Terry Waldo, Ehud Asherie, Steve Elmer, Don Edmonds, Jesse Gelber and Dick Voigt; saxophonists like Jim Perry, Chuck Wilson and Bob Curtis; trumpeters like John Eckert and Barry Bryson; the trombonists Dan Barrett, Vincent Gardner, Dick Dreiwitz and Jim Fryer, and the guitarist/banjoist Howard Alden. I’ve also discovered that along with a lot of stand-out percussionists like Biagi, Jackie Williams, Fred Stoll, Arnie Kinsella, Steve Little, Ed Bonoff and Kevin Dorn (who’s an especially bright and gifted younger drummer), more than a few superb bassists—Brian Nalepka, Mike Weatherly, Murray Wall, Steve Alcott, Dave Winograd, Muller and Andrew Hall among them—are devoting themselves to this music.
BRIETEL: Your thinking about jazz has clearly undergone a significant transformation, Robert.
LEVIN: Well, I do continue to play the hell out of my John Coltrane CDs.
BRIETEL: Still, what happened that enabled you to expand the range of what you listen to?
LEVIN: You mean besides Marianne? I got older.
BRIETEL: You got older.
LEVIN: As you get older a lot of the illusions you’ve lived with become transparent and they evaporate. You’re left with reality. I believed, back in the ‘60s, in the possibility of a fundamental change in human consciousness and behavior. Hanging tight with like-minded musicians and others, I was convinced that the “new black music” was the embodiment of that possibility. I may have smiled at the hyperbole of a remark [the “free jazz” bassist and composer] Alan Silva made to me after coming off a high energy set—“Man, in another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another”—but I have to confess that I didn’t think the remark was entirely off the wall. So I developed an agenda when I wrote about jazz that limited what I could appreciate and made me less than objective. I wanted to promote the revolution the “new black music” was leading. I didn’t understand yet that the black musicians I revered weren’t necessarily in possession of a special wisdom, or that even some of the more modest changes I envisioned were, for reasons I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, beyond the realm of the possible. [Ed. Note: See “Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the ‘60s”]
BRIETEL: But what you said about being “left with reality.” That does sound almost…grim.
LEVIN: It’s deflating, but it’s hardly all that grim. Not when I can still be mesmerized by the interactions within a finely-tuned group, or thrilled by hearing a superior improviser challenge himself and then rise to the challenge. Not when what’s left is the gift that, each in his way, George Sprung and Joe Goldberg gave me. The treasure that jazz is in all of its expressions.
Tags: acid, African music, Alan Silva, Alan Watts, Albert Ayler, Allen Ginsberg, Andrew Cyrille, Apollo landing, Archie Shepp, Bela Bartok, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor, Charles Ives, Cuban Missile Crisis, Duke Ellington, Ed Sanders, Five Spot Cafe, free jazz, Gregory Corso, Herbert Marcuse, Igor Stravinsky, Jimmy Lyones, John Coltrane, John Sinclair, Kate Millet, LeRoi Jones, Meredith Monk, Norman Brown, Ornette Coleman, Pentagon, Sunny Murray, the Fugs, Thelonious Monk, Timothy Leary, Vietnam, William Burroughs, Yippies, Yvonne Ranier
(Revised and expanded here, this piece originated as an oral essay for an installment of the Cosmoetica Omniversica internet radio series on the arts and sciences. The series was hosted by Dan Schneider and Art Durkee.)
More or less officially unveiled with the first New York appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot Café in the fall of 1959, free jazz (or new black music, space music, new thing, anti-jazz or abstract jazz as it would variously be labeled), gave new dimension to the perennial “where’s the melody?” complaint against jazz.
For most of the uninitiated, what the Coleman group presented on its opening night was in fact sheer cacophony.
Four musicians (a saxophonist, trumpeter, bassist and drummer) abruptly began to play—with an apoplectic intensity and at a bone-rattling volume—four simultaneous solos that had no perceptible shared references or point of departure. Even unto themselves the solos, to the extent that they could be isolated as such in the density of sound that was being produced, were without any fixed melodic or rhythmic structure. Consisting, by turns, of short, jagged bursts and long meandering lines unmindful of bar divisions and chorus measures they were, moreover, laced with squeaks, squeals, bleats and strident honks. A number ended and another began—or was it the same one again? How were you to tell? No. No way this madness could possibly have a method.
But umbilically connected to the emergent black cultural nationalism movement, the madness did indeed have a method. The avowed objective of the dramatic innovations that musicians like Ornette, Cecil Taylor—and, in their footsteps, Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Jimmy Lyons, Eric Dolphy and (the later period) John Coltrane, among hundreds of others—initiated and practiced from the late ‘50s into the early ‘70s, was to restore black music to its original identity as a medium of spiritual utility. When these men abandoned an adherence to chord progressions, the 32-bar song form, the fixed beat and the soloist/accompanist format, and began to employ, among other things, simultaneous improvisations, fragmented tempos and voice-like timbres, they were very deliberately replacing, with ancient black methodologies, those Western concepts and systems that had, by their lights, worked to subvert and reduce black music in America to either a pop music or (for many of them no less a corruption of what black music was supposed to be) an art form.
Alan Silva, a one-time bassist with Cecil Taylor and then the leader of his own thirteen-piece orchestra, made the point in an interview I did with him for Rolling Stone.
“I don’t want to make music that sounds nice,” Silva told me. “I want to make music that opens the possibility of real spiritual communion between people. There’s a flow coming from every individual, a continuous flow of energy coming from the subconscious level. The idea is to tap that energy through the medium of improvised sound. I do supply the band with notes, motifs and sounds to give it a lift-off point. I also direct the band, though not in any conventional way—like I might suddenly say ‘CHORD!’ But essentially I’m dealing with improvisation as the prime force, not the tune. The thing is, if you put thirteen musicians together and they all play at once, eventually a cohesion, an order, will be reached, and it will be on a transcendent plane.”
(I commented in the interview that “Silva says his band wants to commune with the spirit world and you aren’t sure that it doesn’t. With thirteen musicians soloing at the same time, at extraordinary decibel levels, astonishingly rapid speeds and with complete emotional abandon for more than an hour, the band arrives not only at moments of excruciating beauty, but at sounds that rising in ecstatic rushes and waves and becoming almost visible in the mesmerizing intensity, weight and force of their vibrations, do for sure seem to be flushing weird, spectral things from the walls, from the ceiling, from your head.”)
Of course not all of these musicians shared Silva’s position entirely. Some saw the music as an intimidating political weapon in the battle for civil rights and exploited it as such. Others, like Taylor, did and quite emphatically, regard themselves as artists. For Taylor, a pianist and composer who took what he needed not just from Ellington and Monk, but from Stravinsky, Ives and Bartók, it wasn’t about jettisoning Western influences on jazz, but about absorbing them into a specifically black esthetic.
For the most part, however, disparities among the younger musicians of the period amounted to dialects of the same language. All of them shared the “new black consciousness”—a new pride in being black—and their reconstruction of jazz, their purging of its Western elements, or their assertion of black authority over those elements, was, to one degree or another, intended to revive and reinstate the music’s first purpose.
Silva saw broad extra-musical ramifications in his procedures. He believed that by rejecting all externally imposed constraints the inherent goodness in men would surface and enable them to function in absolute harmony with both nature and each other. “Man,” he said to me once, coming off an especially electrifying set. “In another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”
And I have to say that I agreed with him.
This was, after all, a period in history when “restrictions” of every conceivable kind, from binding social and sexual mores to (with the moon shot) the very law of gravity, were successfully being challenged. And if you were regularly visiting Timothy Leary’s “atomic” level of consciousness, and if you could call a girl you’d been set up with on a blind date and she might say, “Let’s ‘ball’ first and then I’ll see if I want to have dinner with you,” you could be forgiven your certainty that nothing short of a sea change in human nature itself was taking place.
And some of us who regarded Western values as both the cause of all ill (had they not brought us to the brink of annihilation with the hydrogen bomb?), and the principle impediment to such a transformation, saw the new black music as leading the way, as the veritable embodiment of what Herbert Marcuse called “the revolution of unrepression.”
In so heady a time, earnest unself-conscious debates about the relative revolutionary merits of free jazz and rock—the other musical phenomenon of the period—were not uncommon.
I remember a conversation I had with John Sinclair, the Michigan activist, poet and author of Guitar Army (and the co-author, with me, of Music & Politics).
John took the position that rock was the true “music of the revolution.”
No, I argued, rock did stand against the technocratic, Faustian western sensibility. It did, and unabashedly, celebrate the sensual and the mystical. But in these respects it only caught up to where jazz had always been. In contrast to what some of the younger black musicians were up to—the purging of white elements African music had picked up in America—rock was simply the first hip white popular music.
Rock, it was my point, never got beyond expressing the sentiment of revolution while free jazz, by breaking with formal Western disciplines—by going “outside,” as the musicians termed it, of Western procedures and methods and letting the music find its own natural order and form—got to an actualization of what true revolution would be. Rock’s lyrics, I said, promoted, in many instances, the idea of a spiritual revolution, but musically rock remained bound to the very traditions and conventions that its lyrics railed against and the audience never got a demonstration or the experience of authentic spiritual communion. Rock’s lyrics were undermined and attenuated in the very act of their expression by the system used to express them. The new jazz, on the other hand, achieved freedom not just from the purely formal structures of western musical systems, but, implicitly, from the emotional and social ethos in which those structures originated.
As I say, it was a heady time.
Now, of course, free jazz, in anything resembling a pristine form just barely exists, and obviously it has ceased to exist altogether as a revolutionary movement. Like other emblematic movements of the epoch with which it shared the faith that a new kind of human being would surface once all structure and authority that wasn’t internal in origin was rejected, free jazz was ultimately ambushed by its naiveté.
But on purely musical terms free jazz has not been without an ongoing impact. If it never achieved what Alan Silva expected it to, it did (however contrary to its original ambition), expand the vocabulary and the field of options available to mainstream jazz musicians. And while they function today in what are essentially universes of their own, Taylor, Coleman, Murray, Cyrille, Shepp and Dixon are still very much around and continuing to discover the marvelous.
Indeed, stripped though they may be of their mystique as harbingers of an imminent utopia, these extraordinary musicians continue to produce musical miracles as a matter of course. For an always compelling demonstration, try to catch Cecil in one of his live performances—what he would call “exchanges of energy”—with drummers like Tony Oxley.
In a bad time in every department of the culture, a time of rampant—often willful—mediocrity, I could name no better tonic.
Edited remarks on the ‘60s from the interview that followed.
It’s admittedly facile to cast it this way, but you could say that what we mean by the “‘60s” began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the moon shot—the moon shot and the Yippies failed attempt to levitate the Pentagon and shake out the “demons” that inhabited it.
At bottom the ‘60s were a reaction to the prospect of total annihilation posed by the invention of the hydrogen bomb and they were rooted in the belief that what was wrong, what had brought us to this place, was the denial and suppression of our true selves, of the human beings we were intended to be.
This belief—variously shaped, nourished and focused by a conflation of psychedelic drugs, birth control pills, the popularization of Freudian psychology and Eastern philosophies, glaring racial and gender inequities and a clearly unjustified war in Vietnam—opened virtually every tradition and institution, every custom and convention and every embodiment and instrument of authority, order and structure, to attack. On one level or another everything from the anti-war, civil rights and woman’s rights movements, to the anti-materialism and sexual abandon of the period, to spontaneous prose, rock and free jazz, stemmed from the conviction that somewhere in antiquity humanity had taken the wrong path and that the course could be corrected.
The enemy was the superego, the cultural, social and psychological restraints we’d inflicted on ourselves. Destroying the superego would yield the good human beings we were supposed to be. It was, again as Marcuse described it, a “revolution of unrepression.” We wanted to abolish the apparently arbitrary and misbegotten rules that artificially limited us and led to deluded thinking and behavior. We wanted, ultimately, to abolish the constricting forces of guilt and shame themselves. Guilt and shame were invented by authority, they were trips governments and parents laid on you to keep you in line. We wanted to take an unfettered pride and joy in our bodies. We wanted to be free of the guilt and shame that had crippled and disfigured us.
This is where Jerry Rubin was coming from when he exhorted us to kill our parents.
Of course I’m talking about what the ‘60s were in their deepest aspirations. The vanguard figures—like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Norman Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Marcuse—envisioned a kind of benign anarchy, a society with no need for governments or police; a society ordered by natural needs, appetites and rhythms and made up of men free of neurosis and in perfect harmony with both nature and other men.
And fueled as it was by the sheer number of people involved (and in what seemed every corner of the culture) I don’t think the sense of utopian possibility we were feeling could possibly be exaggerated. Certainly the intensity of the psychic fevers we were experiencing in the East Village (which to me was the epicenter) can’t be overstated. In the East Village, and in addition to all manner of radical political activity, there was an amazing pullulation of iconoclastic art in every category—dance, music, theater, poetry, painting. People like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Roi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Kate Millet, Yvonne Ranier, Meredith Monk, Ed Sanders and the Fugs (I’m forgetting a couple of dozen other major players) were all living and working within a one-mile radius and feeding, challenging, validating and energizing one another.
But upheavals like this were hardly limited to New York. They were occurring everywhere—San Francisco, Paris, on every college campus and in the smallest towns. And, Jesus, we were going to the fucking moon—successfully breaking the very law of fucking gravity!
So those of us who were sucked into the vortex of the ‘60s can maybe be forgiven the fact that we were failing to recognize something very basic—that we were challenging a reality that was beyond our capacity to fundamentally change. There was, after all, only so far we could go without entering into a void. We could tinker with social, cultural, economic and political systems—make reforms, expand our horizons, achieve more justice—but essentially society already reflected the best we could do.
I mean we didn’t recognize (and I’m standing behind Ernest Becker here) that the very problems we were attempting to overcome—the constraining social and sexual codes, the emotional hang-ups and the destructive tendencies we wanted to jettison—were actually working solutions to our worst and deepest problem, the problem of mortality. (We also didn’t appreciate that guilt and shame weren’t created by society, but were built into our essence, that they were a natural consequence of living under a death sentence.)
We didn’t understand the legitimacy and necessity of repression and delusion. We didn’t understand (I’ve said all this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating) that as debilitating as repression and delusion were they enabled us to deny and distort certain untenable truths of existence and to make an otherwise intolerable condition somewhat manageable. We didn’t realize that we had no choice, that what made us crazy, stupid and destructive (what, for an obvious example in the current world—and to the objective of transcending death in heaven—has spawned all these suicide bombers and Christian Fundamentalists) was our profound and abiding need to mitigate the terror that the fact of death causes us. We didn’t see that the reality of the human condition required us to be constricted and insane.
Off-the-wall as it sounds, you could say that the hydrogen bomb was invented in order to create, for its inventors at least, a controllable and therefore relatively comforting death locus.
But in our millennial zeal we were oblivious to such things and I think that at the Pentagon and with the Apollo landing, we were secretly expecting some kind of palpable divine ratification, expecting God to show His face and prove us right. That didn’t happen, of course. Our acid visions turned out to have no physical application at the Pentagon. And the moon was only a barren rock—no Kubrickian monolith buried there to give blessing to the project. It was disappointments like these, disappointments equal in their size to the size of our ambition, that took the heart out of the ‘60s.
It wasn’t long afterwards, remember, that mind-expanding drugs began to be replaced—and necessarily—by mood-elevating stimulants like cocaine.
Beyond the moon shot it was just the motor revolving down after it’s been shut off. I mean the ‘60s are commonly judged to have ended when we finally withdrew from Vietnam. But they’d already expired at the foot of the Pentagon and in the deserts of the moon.