Archive for the '5) Jazz & Pop Columns, 1970-71:' Category

17
Apr
09

The Emergence of Jimmy Lyons

From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970

Since 1960, when he began working with Cecil Taylor, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons has been developing from a somewhat diffident musician into one of the more potent voices in the New Music. In recent recordings and appearances with Taylor, Jimmy has been playing with a glowing assertiveness and an often stunning beauty.

Jimmy Lyons

Jimmy Lyons

This past spring, Jimmy’s first record under his leadership, Other Afternoons on the French BYG label, was released and it should make anyone who can get hold of it take serious notice – not only of his increasing mastery of the alto saxophone, but also of his newly revealed and exceptional talent as a composer. The album is highly charged and demonstrates Jimmy’s capacity to play and write with a startling rhythmic energy, a strong sense of melody, and a near-to-excruciating lyricism. He’s accompanied on the record by three first-rate musicians, trumpeter Lester Bowie, who makes fierce and electrifying music, and two colleagues from Taylor’s unit, Alan Silva, a fine bassist and brilliant cellist, and Andrew Cyrille, who I think sometimes might be the best drummer on the planet.

Born in Jersey City, December 1, 1933, Jimmy began playing alto when he was in high school. “At the time, and mostly from records, I was into Ernie Henry. I’d heard Bird first, but when I heard Ernie Henry I dug him more. Afterwards I heard Bird again and could see how he offered more. Then I started listening to people like Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, James Moody…. What really got me to start was a chick who lived next door. She had a baby grand and used to have people coming over and jamming all the time – Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and a lot of local players. I’d been playing for about six months then, mostly by myself, tunes like ‘Indiana’ – I had no teacher, but I had a very good ear – and she heard me and one day she said, ‘Hey, you’re sounding good, why don’t you come over?’ I did, and Monk was there. We played for about a half hour. He told me he wanted me to play a certain figure – sevenths – so I thought, sevenths? I didn’t know what he was talking about. I could hear it, but I’d never studied or learned. Monk said I was talented, but that I had to get down and take care of business; had to learn about music and do a lot of woodshedding. It was actually a beautiful experience. Later I played with Elmo Hope. We had a piano too at that time, and he used to practice on it afternoons when my mother was out working. We used to play and put things together, but I still hadn’t had any formal training.

“In 1959 I met a cat named Rudy Rutherford. He wasn’t as modern as some of the cats I was playing with, but he said, ‘C’mon, I’ll teach you how to play the saxophone.’ I needed to learn and he showed me a few things. He was very helpful.

“A year later I met Cecil. I was playing with a bass player at a club called Raphael’s on Bleecker Street. Cecil worked opposite us on weekends. He had Archie Shepp and Dennis Charles with him, and the whole thing really knocked me out. Up until then I was playing mostly as a hobby, working at the Post Office, with just occasional gigs here and there. But hearing Cecil made me want to get into music full-time. Later a mutual friend said Cecil was looking for another horn, so I went down – he was living on Dey Street then – and we started rehearsing.”

With Cecil, Jimmy was obliged to take a leap into a whole new methodology. “I had to reorganize my whole approach to music and break a lot of habits. That’s not very easy to do. I’d spent about a year trying to get myself together scale-wise and key-wise and tune-wise. Then, all of a sudden, this other thing came up. It took me a little while to get myself together in Cecil’s music, to stop thinking chord-wise and to think about linking idea to idea. Like on the Into the Hot album [Impulse], I didn’t feel I was playing as well as I should be.”

If Jimmy’s work on Into the Hot was uncertain and tentative (and still more imitative of Charlie Parker than an extension of the Parker tradition into the New Music), it gradually, as I’ve said, assumed authority and individuation. Witness the progression of his playing on Taylor’s four succeeding albums: Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Fantasy), Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Fontana), Unit Structures (Blue Note) and Conquistador (Blue Note).

In my conversation with Jimmy I posed a number of questions at random. His comments on various aspects of his approach and aesthetic, as well as the New Music and the current scene in general, follow.

His Influences: “Well, of course there was Bird and there is Cecil. Also, I really dug Sonny Rollins a lot – and Jackie McLean. The man who wrote the liner notes for the BYG album said I’d been influenced by Ornette, but I haven’t really. I like Ornette, and I must say it’s always good to hear him. But if Ornette and I sound alike in any way it’s because of the mutual influence we share of Bird. As for Bird, I think he was what every musician should be. He’s an inspiration for every musician to do his own thing instead of being imitative. That’s the realization I came to. I mean the major thing to learn from Bird was not to play like him, but to play yourself.”

His Procedure: “Music has come to me to be an abstract thing. I don’t try to imitate sounds like birds, or give a direct symbol of the sky or anything like that. I try to just let the music come out of myself without giving any special meaning in front. I might think about what it might symbolize after I play it, but not before. It’s more innate with me than deliberate.”

The New Music and Bebop: “Bebop was very romantic in a sense. It talked about heroic actions – things to do politically as well as musically, rather than doing it now. Of course Bird got to some things, and a lot of the cats who are playing today aren’t as modern as he was. When I say ‘modern,’ I mean using techniques that are indigenous to the modern school, like wide skips or things of that nature. But basically bebop was about the idea of doing what had to be done, rather than actually doing it. Now we’re doing it.”

The Meaning of Freedom: “When we talk about ‘free jazz’ it doesn’t mean that you play whatever pops into your head. It just means greater freedom of choice, and not being tied to some previous cat or things like chord structures.”

The Jazz Continuum: “To move to the next step you have to have a knowledge of tradition – of the tradition of the black aesthetic – to have heard all of the things of the past and to truly have been moved by them. I don’t mean just checking them out, but having been really moved by them.”

Rock: “Rock is dealing with a lot of electricity. You hear a full orchestra playing, then a rock group with four pieces comes along and blows them all away because of all that electricity. But I spent a year in North Carolina and heard a lot of those blues singers and players, and my father was a good dancer who had a good collection of blues records. I feel I’ve absorbed what most of rock is about, and the point now is to go on. I really want to push forward rather than dwell on what’s gone before.”

“Classical” Electronic Music: “Much of it strikes me as bland. Of course, some of it would take a whole lot of fantastic blowing to get. But for me it lacks the human quality. When you hear a John Coltrane record, for example, you not only hear it, you visualize it too. I think the music of the black avant-garde is at least on the level of Stockhausen. But the black avant-garde doesn’t have the kind of scene and patronage that he has. Those cats are able to work and write at their leisure.”

Finding a Place to Play: “It’s obvious that clubs are not the right atmosphere. Guys go to a club to hit on some chick and the music comes along and pulls the whole thing apart. I prefer to play in schools or concert halls because I think the intensity of the music demands the full attention.”

Finding an Audience: “An audience will have to come through education. Black avant-garde music has to be inculcated into the ghetto, and schooling may accomplish that. I mean if you go to a white slum neighborhood where people live in utter poverty and you play them a record by Chopin, they’ll say, wow, that’s really something. They may not really like it, they may be being hypocritical, but they’ll have a certain respect for it because they’ve been educated that way. This isn’t true of black slum neighborhoods. There’s no real respect for jazz. They haven’t been taught in the schools that they should respect it. If it’s taught in the schools they may not like it at first, but they will respect it and support it, and eventually they’ll get to it.”

I asked Jimmy about his plans for the future. “Of all the groups out there playing, I think I’m most satisfied playing with Cecil. Of course I’d also like to have my own context, to set up certain things and build up my own milieu. Like Coltrane. He’s working out of his own thing, and he built it and built it and built it until it was overwhelming. In the last year and a half I’ve been doing a lot of composing – writing things down and putting them aside and developing them when I have the time. Often ideas pop up while I’m playing and I write them down later. I’m also learning things from composing that are changing my playing. Writing and composing can be two very different things, of course. I’ve met a lot of cats who compose some out-of-sight shit, but they can’t play it at all. I want to be able to do both well. What I’d really like would be, say, to write for three months, then woodshed on it for six months, then play it in public for the next three months. Then I’d want to start fresh all over again with new material and ideas. Economics won’t permit that, of course. But I want as best I can to keep moving from one area and context to another, to really get into one thing, get out of it, then get into another thing.

“I want to always be moving. Moving forward.”

09
Apr
09

Introducing Booker Little

From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970.
(Booker died in 1961, just a few months after this piece was originally published in Metronome.)

Booker Little, twenty-three-year-old composer, arranger and trumpet player (the order is arbitrary, each role has equal importance to him), has lately come to demonstrate, in recordings and as the musical director of the Max Roach group, a talent that promises size.

Booker Little

Booker Little

As is true of many jazz players of his generation, Booker is a product of the conservatory. He’s found that experience to be “invaluable,” but has discovered that it can tend to bind one to conventional concepts and result in an excessive emphasis on the technical aspects of making music – at the cost of the emotional aspects.

“My background has been conventional,” he says, “and maybe because of that I haven’t become a leftist, though my ideas and tastes now might run left to a certain degree. I think the emotional aspect of music is the most important. A lot of guys, and I’ve been guilty of this too, put too much stress on the technical, and that’s not hard to do when you’ve learned how to play in school. I think this goes along with why a lot of trumpet players have come up lately sounding one way – like Clifford Brown. They say everyone’s imitating him now and that’s true in a way and in a way it isn’t. Clifford was a flashy trumpet player who articulated very well. He started a kind of trumpet playing that’s partly an outgrowth of Fats Navarro – insofar as having a big sound, articulating well all over the instrument and having an even sound from top to bottom. Most of the younger guys, like myself, who started playing in school, they’d have the instructor driving at them, ‘Okay, you gotta have a big sound, you gotta have this and that.’ Consequently if they came in sounding like Miles, which is beautiful for jazz, they flunked the lessons. They turned toward someone else then, like Clifford. Donald Byrd is a schooled trumpet player and though he’s away from that now he’ll never really be able to throw it out of his mind.”

Booker was born into a musical family in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 2, 1938. His father was a trombonist in a Baptist church band and his mother was a church organist; an older sister sang for a time with the London Opera Company. Booker began playing trumpet in his high school “classical” and marching band. “At first I was interested in the clarinet, but the instructor felt trumpet would be best – because he needed trumpet players. Jazz records were very scarce in Memphis at that time, but there were a lot of guys who were interested in it. George Coleman was one. He was probably one of the most progressive people around town at the time, and there was also Louis Smith, who is my cousin. They were listening. I was rather close to George because he was in the same high school. He was sharp enough to take things off records. I was fourteen or fifteen then, and he sort of got me started. I played with some groups around town and then, when I graduated, I went to the Chicago Conservatory. Being in Chicago gave me greater exposure to things, because guys were always coming through.”

At the conservatory Booker majored in trumpet and minored in piano. He also studied theory, composition and orchestration. In his third year, when he was nineteen, he met Max Roach through Sonny Rollins, and not long afterwards Roach called him for a record date. About that time he decided to quit school. “I gave it up because I realized there wasn’t much I could do as a far as being a ‘classical’ musician was concerned.” The record date eventually resulted in a regular working association with Roach’s quintet, an association that continued through 1958 when Booker took a leave of absence to freelance in New York. During the latter period he gigged and/or recorded with John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Slide Hampton, Ed Shaugnessy, Teddy Charles, Mal Waldron and Abbey Lincoln, among others. He also recorded an album for United Artists and another for Time. In early 1960 he rejoined Roach.

Of late, however, Booker has been considering the possibility of forming his own group. Its repertoire would consist exclusively of his own compositions.

“I think I’ve found the way I want to play on my instrument and now I want to concentrate on the sound I’d like to build around it.” Currently, Booker has a working agreement with Candid Records, for whom he’s already made an album (with Eric Dolphy) comprised entirely of his own writing. At the time we spoke, he was working on the orchestrations for an album that will feature Coleman Hawkins “in a modern setting.”

“I don’t think there’s very much of my work prior to these Candid albums that expresses how I feel now about what I want to do.”

What Booker wants to accomplish as a composer involves drawing on his knowledge of what he terms “the legitimate aspects of writing” without being confined by them.

“Those who have no idea about how ‘classical’ music is constructed are definitely at a loss – it’s a definite foundation. I don’t think it should be carried to the point where you have to say this is this kind of phrase and this is that kind of development. Deep in your mind though you should maintain these thoughts and not just throw a phrase in without it answering itself or leading to something else. Say I know the chord I want the piano player to play and I give it to him. But the other instruments won’t necessarily be playing that chord. Most of the guys who are thinking completely conventionally, they’d say, ‘Well maybe you’ve got a wrong note in there.’ But I can’t think in terms of wrong notes. In fact I don’t hear any notes as being wrong. It’s a matter of knowing how to integrate the notes and, if you must, how to resolve them. Because if you insist that this note or that note is wrong I think you’re thinking completely conventionally – technically – and forgetting about emotion. And I don’t think anyone would deny that more emotion can be reached and expressed outside of the conventional diatonic way of playing which consists of whole notes and half steps. There’s more emotion that can be expressed by the notes that are played flat. Say it’s a B flat, but you play it flat and it’s not an A and it’s not a B flat, it’s between them. And in places you can employ that and I think it has great value. Or say the clash of a B natural against a B flat.

“I’m interested in putting sounds against sounds and I’m interested in freedom also. But I have respect for form. I think sections of a piece can sometimes be played, say, on a basic undersound which doesn’t limit the soloist. You wouldn’t necessarily tell him how many choruses to take. You say ‘You blow awhile. You try and build your story and resolve it.’ One thing I wrote for [producer] Nat Hentoff on the Candid date is like that completely. The undervoices were playing a motif and I just improvised on the sound. It had a definite mood, and the mood didn’t warrant my running all over the trumpet.

“There are a lot of people who think the new direction should be to abolish form and others who feel that it should be to unite the ‘classical’ forms with jazz. The relationship between ‘classical’ and jazz is close, but I don’t think you have to employ a ‘classical’ technique as such to get something that jells. I think the main reason a lot of people are going into it is because jazz hasn’t developed as far as composition is concerned. It’s usually a twelve-bar written segment and then everybody goes for themselves. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to do either of these things to really accomplish something different and new. And I think sometimes a conscious effort to do something different and new isn’t as good as a natural effort.

“In my own work I’m particularly interested in the possibilities of dissonance. If it’s a consonant sound it’s going to sound smaller. The more dissonance, the bigger the sound. It sounds like more horns, in fact, you can’t always tell how many more there are. And your shadings can be more varied. Dissonance is a tool to achieve these things.”

Booker has been impressed by the writing of Charlie Mingus. “He’s been thinking rhythmically, in terms of breaking up rhythms, and that interests me. He’s definitely a giant as far as writing is concerned. He stems from another giant, Duke Ellington. Duke is one of my favorite writers. He’s a man who’s worked at a sound and never wavered, and his musical personality is always identifiable as his. Slide Hampton has impressed me when he’s writing for no other reason than himself. He has a terrific mind. And I thought the Gunther Shuller Atlantic date with Ornette Coleman had some terrific writing.”

As a trumpet player, Booker concedes that his major influence, much for the reasons stated earlier, has been Clifford Brown. “Yes, to a degree I’m afraid there was an influence, but I do think I’ve rid myself of it. I remember when I was living at the YMCA in Chicago. Sonny Rollins was living there too. You had to go down to the basement to practice, and once he heard me listening to a Clifford Brown record. I was playing it over and over again, and I guess I was driving him mad, because he was trying to practice himself. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was trying to learn the melody. He told me that it was probably best that I go buy a sheet on it, because if I kept listening to the way he played it, it was going to rub off, and I was going to play it the same way. I never forgot what he said, though I did continue listening to Clifford Brown records. Brownie was the easiest guy for me to really get close to, as far as finding out what was going on was concerned. I like the way he played his lines.”

Booker is preoccupied with remaining within the mood of a piece when he solos.

“Jazz soloing, as a result of the methods Bird introduced, started a very involved technique, and Bird and some of the others reached a very high degree of emotion, higher than most of the soloists to follow. Sonny Rollins has reached the same height, probably because he was around to hear them. He not only heard them say this is an A major or a D seventh, he also heard, firsthand, what they did with it – the kind of emotion they got out of it. A guy learning as I learned – say, the first chord in the bridge is an A-minor seventh – well, the first thing he had to do was figure out every note in the A-minor seventh, and when it came to playing it, he had to make sure he hit all the right notes. I think this is important, but not half as important as concentrating on staying within the mood. Say you’re playing ‘Blue Monday.’ I don’t think it’s saying very much if you start to play it and then just rip and run all over the instrument. But again, you can get so involved with the technical aspect of playing that you do that – it’s not hard for that to happen. Miles Davis minimized how much trumpet playing you could do as much as anybody could minimize it, But many people have a misconception about him. They say he can’t play trumpet. But he’s a fantastic trumpet player with a fantastic mind. He was one of the first guys around who didn’t have to play every note in an A-minor chord to give you the impression of an A-minor chord and to get the mood that the section needed.

“There’s so many areas of trumpet playing that can be employed, and they don’t have a lot to do with the ‘legitimate’ end of trumpet playing as such. There are a lot of notes between notes – they call them ‘quarter-tones.’ They’re not really quarter-tones, but notes that are above and below the 440 notes. This is something Miles employs a lot, and I doubt that he even thinks about it.”

As a result of the influence Clifford Brown has exerted on the younger trumpet players, Booker said that he believes there is a serious need for everyone to break away and find his individuality.

“The problem isn’t only with trumpet players, and that’s why I think it’s very good that Ornette Coleman and some other people have come on the scene. Ornette has his own ideas about what makes what and I don’t think it’s proper to put him down. I do think it’s okay to talk about what his music has and what it doesn’t have. I have more conventional ideas about what makes what than he does, but I think I understand clearly what he’s doing, and it’s good. It’s an honest effort. It’s like a guy who puts sponges on his feet, steps in paint and then smears it on the canvas. If he really feels it that way, that’s it. At one end you have a guy who does it from a purely intellectual aspect and at the other a guy who does it from a purely emotional aspect. Sometimes both arrive at the same thing. I think Bird was more intellectual in his playing than Ornette is. I think Ornette puts down whatever he feels. But I think both ways have worth, though I don’t believe Ornette himself has the worth of a Charlie Parker. Bird consumed everything, all that has been before and then advanced it all, and I don’t think Ornette has consumed everything, though I’m sure he’s heard it. I do think what Ornette’s doing is part of what jazz will become.

“You know, there are so many things to get to. Most people who don’t listen often say jazz is a continuous pounding and this is something I can feel too. I think there are so many emotions that can’t be expressed with that going on. There are certain feelings that you might want to express that you could probably express better if you didn’t have that beat. Up until now if you wanted to express a sad or moody feeling you would play the blues. But it can be done in other ways.”

Booker is concerning himself with exploring some of the “other” ways. If his aesthetic remains bound to the conventional precepts in which his education is rooted, he is trying to find out how to make his conservatory education nourish rather than taint or restrain his music. His most recent work both in person and on records is evidence of his certainly growing skill and courage as a composer and instrumentalist who is likely to achieve real stature.

09
Apr
09

Cecil Taylor: “This Music is the Face of a Drum”

From Jazz & Pop Magazine, April 1971.

As an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, Cecil Taylor has finally been able to realize a long-held ambition – the command of a large orchestra.

Comprised of fifteen of his students (and augmented by Jimmy Lyons, Sam Rivers, Leroy Jenkins and Andrew Cyrille), the “Cecil Taylor Ensemble” recently played concerts at Wisconsin and at Dayton University in Ohio and it is scheduled to make its New York debut at Hunter College in May.

Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor

The band’s repertoire consists entirely of Taylor compositions, pieces which he describes as “embodying ideas that crystallized for me around 1960, and which were first revealed on the 1966 Blue Note dates [Unit Structures and Conquistador] and then in the procedures Mike Mantler borrowed for the Jazz Composers Orchestra record. They represent a development of those ideas, plus what’s current in my musical vocabulary today. I’m involved in the investigation, on a very consistent and steady basis, of the timbres inherent in the instruments of the band, an exploration of their potential, and an attempt to make a definitive sound with a larger number of people than the scene in New York allows.

“This opportunity to work with a large number of musicians – which enables you to do so many things you cannot do with a small unit – could not have happened in New York,” Cecil continued. “Like the scene has forced Monk to play with just four people for so many years and it has imposed unnatural limitations on what he does. At Wisconsin we’ve been able to rehearse five or six days a week since September because the school is paying for the rehearsal hall. The unique ‘high’ that I’ve been getting in Wisconsin, from the nature of the band and from the continual level of activity I’ve been able to experience is similar to the one I’ve gotten in Europe when I’ve worked every night for a prolonged period.”

The personnel of Taylor’s band (male and female) is young and inexperienced. It’s also mostly white. What, I wanted to know, was the significance of these circumstances for him?

“The inexperience of some of the players is a virtue rather than a drawback. There are fewer things to unlearn. My approach to the members of the band – which is similar to the kind of approach I use in the class that I teach – ‘Black Music from 1920 to the Present’ – constitutes a fundamental attack against the whole structure of the way music is given to people and also against how our parents taught us and what they thought was necessary and important to teach us. All of us intuitively knew the things young people know today, but we could not implement our intuitions because of the way we were taught. This is why people drop out of school. I don’t tell people in the band how to play. I just tell them: ‘Play.’ Then, by doing it, they begin to see how to play. I’ve dispensed with the idea of teaching notes as such. I play for them and they write down what they want to. We have someone in the band who has been playing only seven months. I confront him with possibilities around the one note he can play with ease and have him see how that one note relates to a living musical structure

“As for the personnel of the band being dominated by whites, that’s true. But esthetically the band is dominated by me, and that’s one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of it. White musicians are serving a black director and implementing his concepts, rather than the other way around.

“I think this is very important. You see, black music is the face of white culture and white culture is very busy denying it. That’s why CBS could give an hour to Janis Joplin and call her the ‘Queen of the Blues.’ So I’m involved with making it impossible for white culture to deny the truth any longer. As one who bows to the omnipotence of black creativity in music, I’m also involved with conveying spiritual knowledge to anyone who will hear it. Janis Joplin heard something, but what she didn’t hear were the spiritual laws and heritage which determine what the tradition is. If she had heard that she’d probably still be alive.

“I’m saying that what African culture has been about is the celebration of life, of joy and of creativity – the manifestations of which are to make one high. The white plantation owner saying, ‘Goddamn, where did they get all that energy from?’ thought it was just physical energy, but it was more than that, it was spiritual recognition, a recognition that all things in the universe have energy, that you are part of the universe and that everything around you gives you energy. Africans were agricultural, but they paid homage to nature in their dances, in their consecration of a tree before they cut it down.

“The white people who are in the band are in the band because they responded to this concept.

“In directing the band I try to communicate the aesthetic basis on which black music is built. I’m teaching the musicians in the band the philosophical and spiritual factors which resulted in the idea of black music – a very ancient music. I’m telling them the precepts. I’m giving them the idea of how black men proceed. I’m not expecting them to play as black men, but I’m trying to teach them how to assimilate, as much as they’re culture will allow it, black procedures, and to assist them in achieving their liberation For example, I said to a young, white woman in the ensemble: ‘This music is the face of a drum,’ and her whole attack changed! Blacks would play the music in a different way, but anybody can play it – anybody can interpret it. What you do is you have an exchange and each person takes what he deems to be valid. The whites in the band are attempting to come to terms with the black aesthetic of music.

“You see, what white intellectuals must be confronted with is the black methodology that creates this music. Stravinsky and Bartók made a statement in a certain way, but blacks put it together differently – their way – and Ralph Ellison’s notion of the symphonic form as the ‘ultimate’ is a lie.

“My purpose,” Cecil concluded, “is to carry on the tradition of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington and therefore to reaffirm and extend the line of black music that goes back thousands of years.”

By my lights, every performance by a Cecil Taylor group is an event. But the first New York appearance of the “Cecil Taylor Ensemble” (which reliable sources report is making “astonishing” music) will clearly have a special significance and I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to it.

More on Taylor: Notes From a Season at the Center of the Universe: Cecil Taylor at the Take 3, 1962-’63 and The War is Over: A Conversation About Jazz with Robert Levin

28
Nov
08

Sunny Tells Me a Story

On Taking the Leap from One Reality to Another

The following is excerpted from a work-in-progress, Going Outside: A Memoir of Free Jazz & the ‘60s.

Sunny Murray is widely regarded as the preeminent drummer of the Free Jazz movement.

The “Jeanne” mentioned below was Jeanne Phillips. Although there were, to be sure, significant differences – she was black, she worked a forty-hour-a-week civil service job and her one-bedroom flat on West 10th Street was no showplace – Jeanne, who was astonishingly astute on matters musical, played very much the mother-figure role for the Free Jazz musicians that the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter had played for the beboppers.

We’re in my living room, taking a break on the second day of an interview I’m doing with him for Jazz & Pop – and smoking the amazing bush he’s always holding – when Sunny says, “Bobby, I never told you this, but for a while there were people trying to kill me.”

Sunny Murray

Sunny Murray

“No shit,” I say and turn the Wollensak back on.

“No shit. It began a short time after I met Cecil. Did I ever tell you how I met Cecil?”

“No.”

“It was at the Café Roué in the middle of winter, 1959. I came in one night with a cat named Wade, who had just bought a bass yesterday. All the bebop dudes that I used to play with was there. Cecil came in a few minutes later and sat in a corner with his collar up over his head. All the dudes immediately started packing up, and when I asked them why they said, ‘You don’t know Cecil Taylor. The way he plays can’t nobody get together with him.’”

“He told me that – back when he was making that scene – they’d always say he didn’t know the changes.”

“And it could have been true sometimes, but it’s not exactly what they meant.”

“I know. Go ahead.”

“Cecil, man. I’ve always admired a cat that stood out in a crowd, because it meant he was very…useful. He was a necessity. He wasn’t one to shun, he was one to dig. And I thought, if you pack up when a man comes in to play, then he must be something. Let some more come in that make you pack up and then maybe I’ll be around some really good musicians. It was like when I was hanging out on the corner with the guys in Philadelphia. If a cat would come up who the other cats didn’t like, I’d want to know why. And if they gave me some sick-assed reason I’d say to the cat who’d come up, ‘Let’s you and me split’ and I’d leave them there. So I said, ‘Listen, man, I’m going to play with him.’ And they said, ‘Okay, we’ll listen.’ So I went over to Cecil and introduced myself and said, ‘I would like to play with you.’ And he said, ‘Do you know how I play?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Are you sure you want to play with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He took off his coat, and everybody got all tense, and he went to the piano and started playing. Well in ’59 it was a little different. I said to myself, damn, he sure is into something else, and I struggled along. But I played a whole three tunes. Wade played too, even though he couldn’t really play. Cecil said, ‘That’s all right, let him do it if he wants.’ Cecil laughed. He had fun. A couple of times I didn’t know what to do and I just stopped, and Cecil turned around and said, ‘No, keep going, don’t stop.’ I wasn’t just playing conventional, like tanka-ting – I could have, but I decided not to play that way with him. I was playing on one. Like Elvin Jones was playing on one in Detroit, but I didn’t know about him yet. I just thought it was hip to play on one. Bass players would always say, ‘Oh motherfucker, you keep turning the beat around.’ So a lot of cats didn’t like me, though some cats did.”

“Count me with the first group. I hate the way you play.”

“Fuck you. Anyway, I went back to play with the beboppers after that night and they all started laughing and saying, ‘Sunny played with Cecil, Sunny played with Cecil,’ and making a big joke out of it. And I was thinking. who is Cecil? Who the devil is this cat I played with? And I looked for Cecil, man, for days, every day. I thought, I ain’t heard nobody play like that, and I’m gonna make sure that I can play with him again ‘cause I knew he had enjoyed my playing and it wasn’t like I was bugging his nerves. Finally I found Cecil at the old Cedar Bar and we talked a little. I happened to need a place to stay at the time and he helped me get a small loft on Dey Street where he was living. After I moved in I knocked on his door and yelled out his name. There was no answer, but I could tell he was in there and, as it happened, my keys worked for his place too…”

“Could it be, Murray, that you maybe forced the lock just a little?”

“Maybe. Anyway, I opened the door and brought my drums in after me. Cecil was lying in bed and he just looked at me. It was a depressing period for him – nobody wanted to play with him. I said, ‘You don’t mind?’ And he said, ‘Uh-uh.’ And I set ‘em up. But I was too nervous to start playing with the cat in bed like that. It took me about three weeks to decide, well, I’m gonna play anyway. I’ve got to practice, and my drums is over there now, and he said, ‘Okay, go ahead.’ So I played. But he wouldn’t get out of bed, and his windows was open, and snow was on the windowsill up about twelve inches, and I’d be trying to talk to him and shivering, and finally I said. ‘I can’t talk to you like this. Can I please close your windows?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ I’d been practicing there with a big coat on and I was getting tired of it. Then, one day, Cecil did get up to play with me. He got up to play on his beat-up upright and said, ‘I want you to play something like you never played before.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? Like a drum solo?’ And I started to play a drum solo, and Cecil said, ‘No. Stop. Just – with me – let yourself play.’ Just let myself play. I thought that was kind of weird at first. But you understand what he meant by ‘just let yourself play’. He meant like not to be hung up on artificial rules and roles and disciplines and orders that have been set up and which limit what you can express – or to be daring or hip while still playing within the restrictions of those rules, you know, like playing on one. He meant like to go outside of those rules and roles, you know what I’m saying? Like to go outside of ‘time’ and to play naturally – out of the natural rules and rhythms of my body. Also to really listen to him and to play with him, not just behind him as an accompanist. Dig all the energy that is liberated with this kind of playing and the things that can happen when two or three or four or a dozen cats are playing together like that. The spiritual things that can happen. Like if Charlie Parker had really let himself go twenty-five years ago we would be past all the shit by now and really out there. This is a whole new freedom and a whole new system of music. And dig the revolutionary…enormousness of it.”

“He calls it ‘exchanges of energy’.”

“’Exchanges of energy’. Right. I have to admit that I didn’t understand all of this right away. I was the first drummer to play the ‘New Thing’ and for a long time I wasn’t really sure about what I was doing. It seemed like what I was playing was unnatural, not natural. I was very disturbed. I listened to tapes of myself and I wondered if I was going crazy. It was a couple of years until I understood that Cecil was leading me into a new system. Those were difficult years for me, particularly because of the attempts on my life that happened during this period.”

“Yeah, I’m waiting to hear this.”

“Okay. Like I went over to the Vanguard one night – I had moved to West 11th Street by then – and I got into a discussion with some dude about the music, and he said that this music was crazy and would never survive. I laughed him off and went outside. But when I got to the corner there was a Thunderbird parked there with the lights on real bright. Something said to me, don’t walk in front of that car, that’s the dude you were arguing with. I thought I was being paranoid, so I walked in front of the car. And Jim, if it wasn’t a fucking movie scene! I had to dive and I landed right on my fucking ass. The car took off. I got up and just stood there, and I thought, why the fuck do they want to run me over? I started to walk toward my house and I saw the car again. It was turning a corner and coming toward me. I ran into the house and I went into a vacant apartment. There wasn’t nothing there but a mattress – wasn’t even no lock on the door. I looked out the window and there’s two dudes getting out of the car and heading toward the building. I went to the door, which had a window – a misty window that you couldn’t really see through, but you could see the silhouettes. These dudes were standing in the hall looking for my room. I heard one say, ‘Do you know which apartment he went into?’ One was a soul cat and one was Italian. They were standing right in front of the door – all they had to do was push it. I was scared as hell. Finally they left and drove away and I ran over to Jeanne’s place. Ornette was there. I asked them, ‘Am I out of my nut? Is someone really trying to kill me? Jeanne said, ‘Sunny, I’ll tell you the truth, it could happen that way because this music is bothering a lot of people who don’t want black people to play this way. The whole club scene will come down if this music really happens.’ And Ornette said, ‘Yeah, that’s what’s happening, man.’ And I said, ‘Oh shit, you shouldn’t be saying this, you should be saying I was nuts or something.’ And he said, ‘Listen, those people paid me not to play for a whole year.’

“I think I remember that…”

“Yeah. I stayed at Jeanne’s until the sun came up. Then, dig this, when I went to Europe with a group I co-led with Albert [Ayler] – that was the ‘Free Jazz’ group, and Gary Peacock and Don Cherry was in it – a lot more strange things happened that I didn’t understand. Like when I had gone to Europe a year earlier with Cecil as the leader, almost everything had been pretty cool. But with Albert and me it was different. Like, first of all, part of the tour was cancelled when Albert hit some promoter in the mouth over ten dollars. I always thought he hit the wrong cat. The cat he should have hit he was always smiling at. And like later, when we got ready to go home, I had to go to the embassy because I didn’t have enough money. Everybody else in the band was cool. I didn’t understand that shit – why was I the only one that was uptight? The embassy had to give me a transport ticket to go home. Another funny thing was like on the first tour, when I was playing with Cecil at the Montmartre in Copenhagen, one night this bartender went crazy. He started screaming and tearing up the bar. ‘Stop the music. I cannot stand the music!’ Then on this tour he comes back. Albert, who had played with us on the first tour, saw him and said, ‘There’s that dude.’ And the dude came back and he said, shaking hands and very quiet, ‘You have freed me.’ He’d been in a home for almost a year.”

“That’s funny.”

“But a lot of strange things. In Denmark, [the bebop drummer] Art Taylor, who’s been living over there, told me we were chased to Europe by the business world. The tour was agreed upon by a lot of business cats just to get us out of the country. He said that anything could happen and to be careful. He said, ‘Look what happened to Eric.’ I said, ‘Man, are you serious?’ He said, ‘Just watch yourself.’ And I almost did get killed. See, I was getting strange vibrations all the time we was in Europe. We were very in tune with the spirits when the ‘Free Jazz’ group was over there – we were the most spiritual band in Europe at the time. Eric Dolphy, who’d come over earlier with Mingus, had stayed in Europe to play with us, with the ‘Free Jazz’ group. He wanted to bust loose and really play free. But he died. Suddenly! Rumor was that he was poisoned.”

“Eric. How old was he?”

“Thirty-six? Thirty-seven? Yeah, that set me off and I began to realize that a lot of people were doing things to me to hang me up. I started to get very nervous. It seemed like they was always doing something to me to stop me from the way I was playing. I was getting sick a lot – drugs, I’m serious, were being put in my drinks, and shit like that. Then, when the time came to go home, everybody split on me – Albert said, ‘Bye,’ and flew home. I was stranded and frightened. I was in a hotel room alone in a foreign country. The embassy said, ‘Okay, we’ll send you home on an army boat.’ They told me what boat to catch. And this is how another attempt on my life came about. I had known a chick from the earlier tour, and she came up to me and invited me to stay at her home, which was sixty miles from Copenhagen. I said, ‘I’m catching the boat tomorrow and I can’t go that far.’ She said, ‘Don’t catch that boat, Catch the next one.’ So I got a strange vibration and I didn’t go home with this lady. I packed my bags and headed for the train station to take a train to the port where the boat was. When I got on the train, two cats got on right behind me. They were dressed very debonair. They kept watching me. Smiling at me. Every time I went to eat they followed me into the dining car – real foreign intrigue shit! One time these dudes came and looked in my compartment, opened the door, smiled, and then closed the door. I had some smoke and I threw it out the window. I didn’t know what was going on and I took this little Swedish dagger out and kept it near me all the time. When we got to the port the dudes changed clothes, man, and they came out dressed like sailors – and they weren’t no sailors. This really messed up my head because what happened then was they changed into civvies again. And when I got off the train I saw the dudes cross the platform and get on a fucking train that was going back! It was too much, man. But that wasn’t even it. On the boat, about three days at sea, a dude cuts into me and he says, ‘You know the next boat that was leaving the day after this one? Everybody on that boat is just about dead, man.’ I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘There was an epidemic of spinal sclerosis or something. Somebody snuck a sick person on the boat, and he died on the boat.’ They had taken about four people off the boat in helicopters. So I’m thinking, damn, if I’d went over to this broad’s house and laid up an extra day in her crib and caught the other boat, I’d be dead.”

“Jesus, man.”

“Yeah. But then – it was weird – all these attempts on my life just suddenly stopped. I’ve never been able to figure it out. I remember that it was around the time that J.C. Moses came into town and tried to play like me in the new system – and, right after him, Paul Motian. That made three ‘New Thing’ drummers. Right about then is when that shit broke up. Since around that time I ain’t had no more hassles with people trying to kill me with violence. Since around that time I’ve been cool.”




Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino's Hot, I'm Hot
The Drill Press LLC
See reviews above

109415877-0-m31 Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

"Robert Levin's articles...make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they're something else again. He's a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I've read; his 'found critique' of 'Space' by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray's thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon's introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson...is a minor masterpiece; and he's lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that 'What is meant by 'every man has his price' is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To 'sell out' is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'"
—Colman Andrews, Creem

giants
Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press
Music & Politics and Giants of Black Music are no longer in print, but remain available from Amazon.com and other outlets.