Posts Tagged ‘Albert Ayler

19
Dec
09

Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the ’60s (2003)

(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, Sam Shepard, 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.

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18
Sep
09

Notes from a Season at the Center of the Universe: Cecil Taylor at The Take 3

(Excerpted and adapted from a work-in-progress, Going Outside: A Memoir of Free Jazz & the ‘60s.)

Originally published on the All About Jazz website.

photo

Robert Levin and Cecil Taylor, June 2015.

In the summer of 1962, Cecil lands a three-month, four-night-a-week gig at The Take 3 coffee house on Bleecker Street. A large, nondescript room with a stage at the back end and several dozen tables of various shapes and sizes, The Take 3 is right next door to the glittering Bitter End where Woody Allen had performed just weeks before. (Allen was second on the bill and I’d thrown him a quick couple of lines in the Village Voice column—something about how this new comic exploited his appearance to good advantage.)

For Cecil, 33 now, The Take 3 experience will be important for the opportunity its extraordinary duration affords him to develop new ideas and achieve deeper levels of interaction with the two musicians he brings with him, Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone, and Sunny Murray, drums. (The trio will be joined on occasion by either Buell Neidlinger or Henry Grimes on bass, but most of the time there’s no bass player.)

For me, 23, and never happier than when I’m in a jazz club and in the company of musicians I admire, it’s a chance to hang in my element on a semi-regular basis. But it’s something else as well. This is 1962. An increasing number of us live with the conviction that a seismic change in human consciousness is both possible and imminent. We also share a belief that the New Jazz, in its break with established forms and procedures, and with its resurrection of ancient black methodologies, is showing the way. “Man,” the bassist Alan Silva (coming off an hour-long, 13-piece collective improvisation one night at another venue) can say to me, “in ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”

At The Take 3, I’ll feel myself to be at the very center of the universe.

I mention Cecil’s engagement in the column a few days before he opens and maybe six people a night show up in the first week. The following week, impervious to criticism that I’m functioning as Cecil’s unofficial publicist, I write what amounts to a paean to him. I also discuss a simultaneous Monk date at the Five Spot. (Monk, of course, is one of Cecil’s principle influences.) The Voice titles this column “The Monk and the Taylor” and gives it a banner front page headline. The next night I arrive at The Take 3 and see that the proprietors have hung an enormous sign over the entrance:

“CECIL TAYLOR! ‘STARTS WHERE MONK LEAVES OFF!’—VILLAGE VOICE

Not exactly the way I had put it, but so what? The column and the sign serve their purpose. From this point on the room is sometimes filled to capacity.

Among the musicians who come on a night that I’m there (and who would have come without the hype) are John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. When the last set ends they sit at a table with Cecil, Anne (my girlfriend then) and me, and a love fest breaks out. John says to Cecil that he’s “awestruck” by him. Eric calls Cecil “the spaceman—the astronaut!” After Cecil tells Eric that Eric is “about to become great,” I raise my hand and say, “So what about me?” Everybody laughs except Eric. I can see him thinking: Wait a minute. Should I know…? Does Bob play an instrument?

John and Cecil had recorded together in 1958 and a word on the album they made, and their musical relationship in general, is in order here. The album, Hard Driving Jazz, was originally a Cecil date and later reissued under Coltrane’s name as Coltrane Time. It was certainly an interesting album but it turned out to be less than terrific.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Tom Wilson, an early champion of Cecil’s and the producer of his first record, Jazz Advance, produced this one as well. He also chose the sidemen, all of whom—trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Chuck Israels, drummer Louis Hayes and tenor saxophonist Coltrane—were serious beboppers and, with the exception of Coltrane, very much set in their ways.

Tom believed that he was putting something seminal together, something that would foreshadow where, following Cecil’s lead, bebop might go from here. But surrounding Cecil with a group composed largely of intransigent beboppers was counterproductive to say the least. While Coltrane acquitted himself decently, Dorham (a splendid bebop trumpet player) was incensed by Cecil’s “eccentric” comping and he made no effort to conceal his feelings. For their parts, Israels and Hayes could only struggle with the rhythmic challenges Cecil posed.

But the album would still have failed to predict bebop’s future even if these men had been more flexible. Although it wasn’t entirely clear at the time, Cecil was in the process of creating a discrete system of his own; if anything, he was shedding bebop. (It would be Coltrane who’d deliver bebop to its outer limits.) Given this circumstance, what a Cecil Taylor record needed was musicians inclined and prepared to take his journey with him. Cecil had been opposed to Dorham’s inclusion on the date—he’d wanted Ted Curson, a younger trumpet player who was very much in sync with him. And he hadn’t been so sure about using Coltrane either. That John would be more capable than the others of taking Cecil on wasn’t enough. (Jimmy Lyons, whom he didn’t encounter until 1960, became Cecil’s most congenial supporting player. Jimmy survived for years on odd jobs in order to be available if Cecil had work, and when Jimmy needed a new saxophone Cecil rewarded his loyalty by buying him one. “It had to be a Selmer, so that’s what he got,” Cecil told me. When Jimmy died in 1986, it was months before Cecil could bring himself to go near a piano again.)

Probably the closest thing to a successful number from the Hard Driving Jazz recording sessions, Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Song”— “For the Noël market,” Cecil said—was left out of the album.

By 1962, of course, Coltrane was all but possessed by the Free Jazz players. He was both their patron (he gave them money and employed many of them in his band) and their student. “He loved us,” Archie Shepp would say. But as far as Cecil’s approach was concerned, there was only so much that John could use. “That’s too complicated,” he remarked about it once, and he derived a lot more from Archie, Eric, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, among others.

But Coltrane was always prepared to honor Cecil. I’m thinking of a night at Birdland a year or so later. John is about to go on as Cecil and a small group of us come in. We walk past the bar where Pee Wee Marquette, the club’s midget and famously nasty emcee, is saying to the bartender—and just loud enough for us to hear—“How much more of this ‘Greenwich Village’ jazz am I supposed to take?” John sees Cecil and says something to McCoy Tyner who’s already playing an intro. Tyner abruptly quits the number he’s started and they open the set instead with “Out of This World.”

.

Another musician who comes to The Take 3 doesn’t stay very long.

It’s between sets and the band is backstage when I hear something going on at the door. I turn to look and see Coleman Hawkins standing there. Coleman Hawkins! The “Bean” himself!

I can’t make out what Hawkins is saying, but I hear the girl who collects the admission charge say: “Everybody pays a dollar, Sir.”

I see what’s happening and I want to rise from my chair and drop a dollar onto the girl’s table, but I can’t do anything. I’m frozen. Coleman Hawkins!

And it’s over too fast. Hawkins glares at the girl, then turns and splits.

“Maybe ‘Bean’ didn’t have a bean,” Cecil says when I tell him about it.

.

So what about me?

On the same night as Hawkins’s abortive visit, Cecil and I leave The Take 3 together. In the years ahead I’ll grow up a little and how I relate to Cecil, who I met in 1956 and who quickly assumed the role of an older brother, will change.  But as I’ve made evident elsewhere, in this period of my life I’m not someone you’d describe as perfectly centered and no serious time spent in Cecil’s company can pass for me without a certain issue erupting. I refer to my unrealized and maybe never to be realized, creative writing aspirations and to the envy and resentment that will unfailingly be triggered in me at one point or another.  Cecil is a genuine artist. The real thing. I’m chronically “blocked” and without any clear sense of what I want to say or how to proceed. (If a part of me is counting on osmosis with him, it isn’t working.) In Cecil’s words, spoken without malice—to be straightforward about such matters, at whatever the cost, is central to the stance he’s taken in the world—I’m a “person of artistic persuasion.” It’s a phrase that he’s used more than once and it embarrasses and infuriates me. But anything that makes me too conscious of the contrasts between us can set me off. When that happens my pattern is to become aggrieved and petulant and then, in a paroxysm of indignation and vainglorious self-assertion, to withdraw from him, sometimes for months. In this particular instance, however, a separation at least is forestalled by Cecil in a way I could not have anticipated.

With the completion of an evening’s last set, Cecil’s usually eager to check out what’s going on in clubs that are still open. But on this night, a sultry night in late August, he’s not feeling well and he wants to go home. I need to get home as well—to finish an overdue Blue Note liner. “You’re killing me, Robert,” Frank Wolff had said to me earlier on the phone. “Frank,” I told him, “I’m suicidal myself. This is the fourth Jimmy Smith album you’ve assigned me. Didn’t you get that I had nothing to say about him the first time? Why doesn’t Joe Goldberg have to do these?”

I plan to accompany Cecil as far as Second Avenue.

“What’s the matter with you?” I say once we’re outside. “You don’t have the clap again? I warned you not to sit on public piano stools.”

Cecil, who’s looking a little gray, grimaces. “Ulcer attack,” he says. “I have something to take at the apartment.”

The stomach ulcer has been a persistent concern for Cecil (he’s convinced it will soon become something lethal) and waiting for traffic to pass on the corner of LaGuardia Place, I’m about to ask him if he’s seen his doctor recently when this guy I’d noticed standing outside The Take 3 approaches us. “Excuse me, Mr. Taylor,” he says—and to me, “Excuse me, Sir.” He’s black and around my age.

“Mr. Taylor,” he says, “I just wanted to tell you how amazing I think you are and how much I love your music. No one can play the piano like you do.”

Cecil smiles. “Thank you,” he says.

“I wish I could be a musician,” the guy goes on. “I’ve taken lessons, but I’m no good at it. I just don’t have the aptitude for it, I guess.”

Cecil looks at him and says gently, “Then be a good listener.”

Not a bad answer, I think, and I’m instantly rankled by it.

“What empty shit,” I say after the guy—nodding earnestly, then smiling broadly and vigorously shaking my hand as well as Cecil’s—backs off. “‘Be a good listener.’ Was that the best you could do?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Cecil says as we resume walking. I see that his countenance has brightened considerably. Cecil responds well to adulation.

“I mean that’s not what he wanted to hear,” I say.

“He seemed satisfied to me, Bob,” Cecil says. “But then you may be right. Since when do I give people what they want to hear?”

“He wanted you to tell him the secret,” I say. “When he digests what you said he’s going to sink into a profound depression.”

Cecil gives me a sidelong glance. “Are you talking about him, Bob? You’re not starting some shit here, are you?”

I ignore this. I’m remembering something I’d all but buried, but which is suddenly of great importance to me, and I say: “Come to think of it, since when do you really give much of anything, even when you say you will?”

Cecil stares at me. He obviously has no idea what I’m talking about.

“Cecil,” I say. “What the fuck happened to ‘Bobt’?”

“What the fuck happened to who?” He says.

“To ‘Bobt’, I say. “ Shit, man. Not ‘who’. What! ‘Bobt’!”

“Bob,” he says laughing at me.  “Listen to you. Are you’re having a fit of some sort? Should I take you to an emergency room?”

“You said you were composing a tune for me and that you were calling it ‘Bobt,’” I say. “That was a year ago. I’ve waited long enough, don’t you think? Where is it? I want it.”

“You want it?” Cecil says.  “Have you collapsed into an infantile state, man? Do I need to remind you of the vicissitudes of the creative process?”

“In other words you never wrote it,” I say.

In other words, please be kind’,” Cecil sings. “ In other words…’”

“You were bullshitting me,” I say. “Will you cut the crap and give me a straight…”

“It was absorbed by something else.” Cecil nods to himself after he hears what he said. He bought a moment with the musical interlude and he’s pleased with the answer he’s come up with.

“‘Absorbed by something else’?” I say. “That’s beautiful. Well you know what, Cecil? I’m going to write a poem for you—a poem I’m going to finish—and I’m going to call it…”

“‘The Magnificent One’?” He says. “‘The Immortal…’?”

“I’m going to call it ‘The Insufferable Self-Centered Prick’,” I say.

“Bob,” he says, his hand on his chest, “Are you saying that I’m self-centered? Me? The amazing Cecil?

“I’ll tell you what I’m saying,” I say. “I don’t need this shit—that’s what I’m saying. The one thing I do get back from knowing and touting the ‘amazing Cecil’ is reflected glory, and it definitely has some practical benefits—I can point to two occasions when it’s actually gotten me laid. [For some reason, Cecil finds this little joke hilarious.] But is it worth the indignities I have to suffer? Will it make me immortal, too? No, you can shove reflected glory, man. I don’t have to settle for it anyway. I’m making some moves. I’m going to be my own Cecil Taylor.”

Cecil feigns a horrified expression “You…you…” he blusters. “You would dare take my name, the name of Cecil?”

I stifle a laugh. “And I’m not exactly beginning at zero either…”

“Listen,” he says, “there’s something I haven’t told…”

“…Maybe it isn’t really ‘writing’,” I continue, “but…”

“…The column?” He says. “You’re talking about the column? I appreciate what you’ve done with it but no, you know it isn’t ‘writing’.

Ready, in the wake of this remark, to take permanent leave of him, to never even listen to a record of his again, I say: “I just conceded as much. But fuck you, Cecil. No one’s ever told me their three-year-old daughter could do it.”

Cecil stops walking and grabs my shoulder. “Robert,” he says, “I haven’t mentioned this.”

What?” I snarl, pushing his hand off me.

“Awhile back,” he says, “that poem you wrote…the one you gave me …”

That poem?” I say. “That poem sucked. It was awful.”

He shakes his head. “Something about that poem…it made me want to write poems myself. I started writing poetry the next day.”

“I didn’t know you were writing poetry,” I say. “How fucking dare you.”

He laughs. “I haven’t been able to stop. Not since I read that poem. No one’s seen any of it yet. I guess I’ll have to show it to you now.”

I take this in. I’m still only a “person of artistic persuasion”—at best I’m destined to be a footnote in his biography. But I’m also something more than Cecil’s flack now. I’ve managed to have an impact in a way that really matters to me. “Bobt”? Who needs “Bobt”? I regard what Cecil’s imparted as a gift beyond measure.

“I’m glad to see that you’re feeling better,” I say a moment later when we arrive at Second Avenue. “So Coleman Hawkins came to check you out. Too bad he didn’t want to pay for the privilege.”

Cecil shrugs. “We could have used his dollar,” he says. Then he says: “I’m thinking about going to Slug’s. Come with me.”

“Sure. Yeah.” I say.

If Frank Wolff dies I’ll find a way to live with the guilt.

.

[Following a trip to Scandinavia in the fall of 1962, Cecil, Sunny and Jimmy played The Take 3 again in 1963. It was during the second engagement that Albert Ayler made an impromptu appearance. Since, at this point in time, I tend to recall both gigs as one, I’m taking the liberty of reporting on the event here.]

On a night I’d have regretted missing, a heavy presence causes me to turn my head in the middle of a set and I see this dude with an odd patch of white on his goatee and wearing a green leather suit. He’s holding a gleaming tenor saxophone. (Sunny will tell me that he polishes it every day.) I know who he is. Sunny and Jimmy had both spoken about Albert Ayler, the “new bitch on tenor” they’d met and played with in Copenhagen on the recent tour. Before they left Denmark, Cecil had invited him to “say hello” when he returned to the States.

But Albert isn’t wasting time with any formalities. The cap is already off his mouthpiece and he’s edging his way between the tables toward the bandstand. Sunny says to Cecil, “Albert’s here,” and though Cecil barely raises his head that’s enough for Albert to mount the stage.

I write this half a century after the fact, but the first sounds Albert makes remain as vivid and immediate to me as if I’d heard them only moments ago.

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler

It’s his vibrato. The breadth, the amplitude, of his vibrato is astonishing. (It will redefine the scope of the tenor saxophone and Coltrane will admit to having dreams about trying to duplicate it.) If it succeeds in chasing a portion of the room into the street, the rest of us are riveted by it. And we are no less transfixed by what follows. Coming from an obvious rhythm and blues matrix, and reminiscent of the shouters and honkers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, what Albert proceeds to play—with suddenly shifting meters and no regard for tonal centers—isn’t a sequence of notes so much as an amalgam of sounds. Primal sounds. Ecstatic sounds. Achingly mournful sounds. Grotesque and funny sounds.

Albert’s intention, he’ll explain to me, is to reassert black music’s original function, to “conjure up holy spirits.” I can’t vouch for his success in that regard, but I can say that for me what he’s doing is equal in its emotional impact to the first time I heard Cecil.

And Cecil. When Albert begins to play, Cecil laughs and his posture changes noticeably. He’s recalibrating to accommodate Albert. Sunny and Jimmy respond in the same fashion. They embrace Albert and unite with him. Half an hour passes before the number he cut in on is completed.

Of the many gifted musicians who belonged to the New Thing’s second wave, Albert, an astronaut and an archeologist all at once, was the monster. The full range of his unique vision wasn’t revealed the night he sat in with Cecil, of course. But later, in bands of his own and with the pre-Louis Armstrong-through-Ornette Coleman spectrum of material he would utilize, Albert created a fascinating body of innovative work. Many of us took for granted that he’d be the next major force in the music.

In 1964, when I’d be living with “Pretty,” Albert came to the apartment several times to hang out and also to do an interview. The tape of that interview (and a tape of an interview with Betty Carter) was inside the Wollensak case when I was burglarized. I never got the chance to transcribe it.

Albert would die in 1970, apparently by his own hand. A year after that, in the process of moving to the West Village with Carolyn, I discovered a leather tie on the floor of the bedroom closet. It was caked in plaster dust, but I was able to make out the letters “AA” written in ink on the label. My first thought was, how the hell did this get here? Had Albert removed his tie while we talked and forgotten about it? Had “Pretty” found it and, for safekeeping, hung it in the closet where, forgotten by her as well, it had eventually been jostled from its hook? After a moment I realized that the circumstances behind the tie’s appearance in my closet were probably not so innocent—and I could smile about it now. When I met her, “Pretty” had already “balled” every living entry in the Encyclopedia of Jazz and cohabiting with me had in no way discouraged her from moving on to the supplementary volume. Why not Albert?

Speaking of girl singers, I should note that in the course of Cecil’s run a couple of remarkable vocalists, Jeanne Lee and Sheila Jordan, work opposite him from time to time. Another performer who turns up (making his debut, as I remember it) is Tiny Tim. “What the fuck is this?” two people at separate tables exclaim in unison when he launches into “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

I should also add that someone who doesn’t show is Ornette. Eventually Ornette and Cecil will be acknowledged as the dual progenitors of the New Music, but they’ve been competing for sole ownership of this distinction from the start and, declarations of mutual respect aside, they aren’t especially supportive of one another. Ornette, who’s the better known of the two, clearly wants to protect his advantage. A few days after the “Monk and Taylor” column I’m walking on 8th Street, head down against a driving rain, when my path is suddenly blocked. I look up and it’s Ornette.

“You must make a lot of money writing for that paper,” he says and brushes past me.

So much for the parties at Ornette’s loft.

(There’d been talk about Ornette and Cecil recording together since the late ‘50s, but nothing ever materialized. Around 2003, preparations for an album by them were actually underway when Ornette decided not to go ahead with the project.)

.

Just days before the gig will come to its conclusion, and determined to savor every last moment, I’m seated at a table right near the stage. The band has been “exchanging energies” for forty minutes. Each time the torrent of sound begins to ebb and you think, that’s it, they’re spent, they can’t possibly have anything left, an apparently tossed-off phrase, a single note, reignites the process and the music builds to even greater levels of intensity than it had reached before. (Buell Neidlinger, who’s here tonight, isn’t going along at this point. He’s stopped playing and he looks to be exhausted—or worse. Eyes closed, his glasses askew, his head is hanging over his bass at an alarmingly strange angle. Has he broken his neck?)

I’m facing straight ahead and totally absorbed in what’s taking place, when Jack Kerouac bounds onto the bandstand in front of me. Appearing to be in a…well…beatified condition, he twice, and very slowly, makes a circle around the entire group. Then he walks between and around each of the individual players. Finally he bends down and slides under the piano where, lying on his back, he folds his arms across his chest. At the end of the piece (some twenty minutes later), he emerges from beneath the piano and extends his hand to Cecil.

“I’m Jack Kerouac,” he says, “and I’m the greatest writer in the world.” A startled Cecil (who at first isn’t sure who this cat is and who’d apparently been unaware of his presence) recovers quickly. Accepting Kerouac’s hand he says: “I’m Cecil Taylor and I’m the greatest pianist in the world.”

Me, I’m thinking, Jesus, this is too much—it’s way past too much. And though it occurs to me to say to them: “I’m Robert Levin and I’m the greatest ‘person of artistic persuasion’ in the world,” that’s just a reflex. I’ve got, right now, no need to say anything—certainly nothing bitter. No. If reflected glory turns out to be the best kind I’ll get I’ll take it. Right now my simple proximity to this is enough to make me feel like I’ll live forever.

02
May
09

Introducing Anthony Braxton

From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970

To anyone still questioning the validity of the systems and methods at which Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman arrived, I would first of all recommend that he listen more attentively to the work of those men. But I’d also suggest that he make it a point to hear the strong and very exciting musics of an emergent collection of musicians from Chicago who constitute what is already a third generation of New Music players (Ayler, Shepp, Dolphy, etc., representing the second), and whose very existence serves to certify the innovations which Taylor and Coleman forged.

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton, Maurice McIntyre, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith, Steve McCall and Henry Threadgill are just some of the gifted and mostly very young musicians involved in the Chicago movement. These men have not only embraced the new aesthetic, they are adding remarkable dimensions to it. In addition to the utilization of extraordinary instruments like harmonicas, accordions, sirens, Chinese gongs, Hawaiian tipples, whistles, etc., the Chicago players are into using objects like garbage can covers, chairs and beads to make sounds with. They are also incorporating theatrical effects with provocative results.

Although I’d heard most of the Delmark albums (the Chicago label that’s recorded many of these players), my first live exposure to what these guys are doing came on an evening last May when a five-man cooperative group calling itself the Creative Construction Company of Chicago played its first New York concert at the Peace Church in Greenwich Village.

The music which Anthony Braxton, LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith, Richard Abrams, Steve McCall and Richard Davis made that evening was lifting and invigorating, full of movement, wit, adventure and surprise. It reminded me in its spirit as well as its setting of the loft and coffee house gigs that Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Don Cherry, Pharaoh Sanders, et al used to play seven or eight years ago. The music was as new and as fresh, and the same kind of joy exuded from the musicians, as though each sound they made represented a new discovery about music and themselves, and each discovery surely had an extraordinary significance.

Especially impressed by Anthony Braxton, I introduced myself to him at the completion of the concert and invited him to be interviewed. We got together to talk several days later.

Braxton was born on Chicago’s Southside and turned twenty-five this past year. He is classically trained – he studied for a few years with private teachers and at the Chicago School of Music – and has composed orchestral pieces and piano music. Although the alto saxophone is his chief instrument, he plays all the reeds, woodwinds, some brass and various other conventional and unconventional instruments.

The first jazz group Braxton remembers hearing was the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “That was at a very early age. I didn’t dig Brubeck that much, but I was attracted to Paul Desmond. Actually, it was after listening to Desmond, whom I heard before Charlie Parker, that I decided to play woodwinds. He was very important to me and he’s still one of my favorite musicians.”

In 1961, Braxton heard Ornette Coleman’s <i>The Shape of Jazz to Come</i>. “I had gone by a friend of mine’s house, his father listened to jazz, and he said, ‘Listen to this, because this is what’s going to be happening. This is where the music will be going.’ When I heard Ornette I was immediately affected by him. I was afraid of him, because he was so different in relation to what I’d been hearing. I was very conscious of the fact that something was happening with this music – it drew me very strongly, and I knew that someday I would have to deal with it.”

Braxton continued to play with his “Desmond sound” for several more years, during which time he was also listening to Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, as well as to Lee Konitz – “whom I still love. I have every record Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh ever made. Konitz, even by today’s standards, was into some far out things – ‘Marshmallow,’ ‘Ice Cream Konitz…” Later Braxton encountered Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. “Those guys really turned my head around. They were so advanced even then it was incredible. I thought I had some knowledge of music, but I found I didn’t know anything.”

In 1963, Braxton went into the army, spending most of his hitch in Korea. When he was discharged, in 1966, he met again with Jarman and Mitchell who were by then involved with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the cooperative of some thirty or forty musicians that is nearly four years old now. He began then to really get into Ornette, and Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, and to “stop playing like Paul Desmond.” He also, during this period, got seriously turned on to ‘classical’ music.

“One day I happened to put an Arnold Schoenberg record on by accident, and I almost passed out. So there was something else for me to check out. I was very much affected by Schoenberg, and he led me to other people like Berg and Webern and Stockhausen, and finally to John Cage.”

Braxton was playing concerts with other AACM musicians by this time, and he also recorded two albums for Delmark – 3 Compositions of New Jazz and a two-record set of alto solos, which was scheduled for release in late 1970. He also played on Richard Abram’s <i>Levels and Degrees of Light</i>.

In 1969 Braxton went to Europe with LeRoy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Steve McCall. He spent nearly a year there, working all over and recording two albums for BYG and Polydor. He also participated in an album of Alan Silva’s on BYG, <i>Luna Surface</i>. While in Paris, Braxton met Ornette Coleman, who heard him play and invited him to come to New York. Braxton responded to the invitation and, with LeRoy Jenkins, got here early this spring and stayed with Ornette until he was able to get his own place. Of Ornette, Braxton says, “I’ve always loved him, loved and respected his music. And after getting a chance to meet and to know him, I’m thoroughly in awe of him, of the kind of person he is. He’s been such a good friend. He has my deepest respect, musically and personally.”

Despite Ornette’s hospitality, the aforementioned concert, a gig with Chick Corea and record dates with Corea and Marion Brown, Braxton hasn’t had that easy a time of it in New York, though it’s been no worse for him than for most New York musicians. He had, he told me, been looking for a day job, but without success.

We talked about the dismal economic realities of the scene and then Braxton began to discuss his music and what was happening with the Chicago players.

“When I got out of the army I joined the AACM and found everybody deep into exploring different avenues. Roscoe Mitchell talked of colors. Steve McCall was into shadings – he knows more about shadings, I think, than any other percussionist. Joseph Jarman, at the time, was into theater and getting politically involved; he was very concerned about the social aspects of what was happening in this country. Henry Threadgill was talking about healing through his music, and he was learning about different sounds and how these sounds affected people – like the relationship of one note to a particular illness. Richard Abrams was concerned with the spiritual aspects of music. So many different things were, and are, happening. If you talked to Leo Smith, he would talk to you about composition and about theater. LeRoy Jenkins, a master string musician, he’s concerned with opening up avenues for the violin and arriving at different approaches. He wants to utilize the whole instrument without having someone call him a ‘classical’ violinist.

“I myself was into mathematics and philosophy, seeing music from a mathematical perspective and working with mathematical systems. I wanted to make up my own vocabulary because I didn’t want to follow anybody else. I wanted to find my own avenues. Now my music is a combination of all I learned in the AACM plus what I was working with in mathematics in terms of sound relationships, densities, textures, different forms – what I call ‘conceptual grafting,’ which is about mixing different elements. I’m moving now toward trying to free the music in other ways, like playing in the streets and bringing carpenters and automobile mechanics into the music. I’m starting to see the music, and to me the notion behind the music is just as important as the music itself. I can see how in the next ten years or so everybody will be able to bring something into the music from whatever their occupation is. Like, you bake cookies? You make ice cream? Well, we’ll find a way we can create with that.

“I’ve just finished a piece for one hundred tubas. I’d like to go to all the high schools and get all the tuba players and have a parade and go down to City Hall playing this piece. I want to make music that is socially usable and from which there can be direct results. Like, I dig watching shoemakers, watchmakers, ceramicists, work. I wish my art could be as useful as theirs is – I wish somebody could put tea or coffee in my music, or put their feet in it.

“But there are so many different types of music happening in the AACM. Chicago is a new center of the New Music. The atmosphere there seems to be more conducive to real creativity than New York’s. Nobody’s famous there and nobody’s working, so if you’re in music it’s only because you love it.

“Each person is realizing the different things he can do – his capacity for creating in different areas. This is something that’s just beginning – we’ve been practicing and working for three years now, but it’s still just beginning. What’s happening now is really just a stepping stone and a way of people getting their minds together. The music has just begun. That’s why the AACM is so important, because it’s given us the opportunity to study exactly what’s been opened up by people like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and ‘classical’ composers like John Cage – to find out what will be the disciplines that we have to learn and what new avenues are available for the young musicians to explore.”

I asked Braxton to elaborate on the ‘classical’ influences in his music.

“I want to be able to make use of everything that’s in the air,” he said. “I want to arrive at a world art that takes in everything. Nobody can tell me that John Cage, or David Tudor playing Stockhausen (which I just heard the other day, and which knocked me out), is not my music. There are a lot of people contributing in ‘classical’ music who I’m attracted to. I listen to ‘classical’ music an awful lot and I’m very involved with it. Like, for me, John Cage is one of the two most important composers in the country today – the other is Duke Ellington. Cage’s knowledge and use of so many different concepts, textures and properties have been a major contribution to music, and anybody who’s in contemporary art has to know about them. Cage has done so much in terms of materials he’s worked with and notions he’s gone through – even the unsuccessful notions. And the fact that he’s always trying to assimilate new concepts into the music, I find that very attractive.

“Of course there are a lot of things Cage hasn’t come to terms with. His music is almost all intellectual, all conceptual. He’s so conceptual that the only way you can really deal with him is through some kind of intellectual system. That’s true of Stockhausen, too. Stockhausen (who is just the end of Webern) and Cage are like at the opposite polls of the same thing – Stockhausen with his empirical intellectualism, Cage with his metaphysical intellectualism. I met Cage once and we talked about this. I was telling him that when you look in this life you see trees and rocks, but you also see people – people exist, egos exist (in the sense that each person is coming from his own head), and if that’s true then his music isn’t reflecting nature as much as he thinks it is, because people are just as much a part of nature as rocks and trees.

“I’m also aware that Cage has put down black art. But that’s something I overlook because that’s something he has to deal with, not me, and I devote my attention to the positive things he’s contributed. Actually, I think Cage, in regard to jazz, is starting to listen now and going through a period of change. He’s been a victim of the scene, like everybody else; his inability to really expose himself to black art, to really be open to it and acknowledge it, has led him to a lot of wrong conclusions. But now I think he’s becoming aware of the importance of black musicians, aware that he can learn from Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. It’s basically about improvisation. Nobody who walks into the next twenty years and calls himself a contemporary musician will be able to do it without having some understanding of what improvisation is all about in terms of the emotions behind it. Improvisation has been a property of world art – with the exception of Western art – for as long as this planet’s been here. Most contemporary ‘classical’ musicians have now come to the juncture where they’re starting to understand that they’re going to have to know about Duke and Miles. If you don’t know about them, you’re missing some essential knowledge, because they’ve been through it gloriously.

“But I’m saying that in spite of themselves and their emotional deficiencies, people like Cage and Stockhausen have done so much. One thing for sure, the next stage of creativity will employ the gains that Cage has made, as well as the gains that black art has made. That much is undeniable.

“Getting back to the music in the AACM,” Braxton went on, “what’s happening is that we’re coming to realize that we have to bring all the different arts, all the different avenues, together. Music, painting, sculpting – they’re all, in themselves, very limiting. We’re working on getting to a wider spectrum with a label like ‘art’ or ‘activity’ or ‘environment,’ rather that ‘music’ or painting.’ We want to incorporate as many different approaches and avenues as possible. We’re working together in different kinds of groups with different kinds of approaches. We have pieces where each musician plays ten balloons. I have a piece in which I conduct four chairs and four shovels; another piece where an audience comes, the musicians play three blocks away, then someone comes to tell you the concert is over. Leo Smith wrote a lot of plays that we perform. All these different avenues are being covered.

“I mean we can all play on changes, and most of us could read music in a symphony orchestra. But we’re really not concerned with that anymore. Sometimes I do it because I like that kind of music. But it’s not about proving anything anymore.

“What’s happening now can be seen as a logical reaction to the lies this country was built on. But this is not so much a revolution as it is a final curtain being drawn on a particular scene, and while the final curtain is being drawn, a curtain is opening on the next scene.”

Although he was determined to stay in New York, to “meet musicians, hear music, go to art galleries and get into new avenues of expression,” Braxton said that he’d found the scene here in many ways “depressing.”

“The musician’s here are so divided economically, because people who control things divide them that way. But they’re also divided from a lot of other standpoints, and the music in relation to the people is not as strong as it could be. There’s so much dissension here. I feel like what’s needed here is some kind of organizing by the artists along the lines of the AACM. In New York musicians are so separated. It would be nice if we could get together some kind of orchestra and take it to different neighborhoods. I mean there are so many remarkable people walking around now creating music, whose music could reach out to all the people. But those in control won’t let it get through to the public.

“There’s been a conscious, plotted attempt to suppress and wipe out creative music in this country. I think you realize the significance of art in a culture and what the new art represents and who it threatens if people are able to hear it. It becomes a threat to existing values because it can expand things and stimulate people to change the existing state of things. This is dangerous to people for whom change is not an advantage, so it becomes very…interesting.

“Let me tell you how deep this thing is. When our first record came out on Delmark, it was put down immediately. Immediately. And what was strange, the jazz cats said it wasn’t jazz and the ‘classical’ cats said it wasn’t ‘classical’ music. The critics said it wasn’t even music. One way they’d put it down, they’d use comparison to try to destroy the morale within the group – compare me to Roscoe, compare LeRoy to someone – and they would say, well, the conclusion is that this cat’s better than that cat. That’s a very good way to destroy unity, and that is what was done. Everybody in the group knew it, but we were not in a position to do anything about it. Like certain individuals – they know who they are – consciously exploited what we did and used it for something else.”

Braxton was ready to split. “You know,” he paused to say, “here I’ve been talking all this time about art and artists, but actually I’ve never really wanted to fully identify with the idea of being an ‘artist,’ or with the idea of playing music for a living. I’m afraid of being a ‘musician’ in the sense that society defines it – that is, of separating art from life, or of being in the music business. Art gets to be so manipulated. Like everybody’s a potential artist – butchers, bakers…I think the whole idea of art is something that Western culture has introduced so that it can be used on evil trips. Like, Western music was originally just a toy for rich people, something for the king to talk shit about. I feel that potentially we all are the music, our lives are art in the purest sense. So I don’t want to sell my music anymore than I want to sell my hands. It’s very evident, just checking out the scene, that if you tamper with the music and turn it into a synthetic, then in fact you turn yourself into a synthetic. It’s very hard to participate and not have that happen.

“Of course, I can see how right now we need ‘artists,’ as such, to help show people that they’re artists, too; to show them what’s meaningful. Consciousness is the most valuable thing that can be communicated right now – making people aware of themselves and their environment – and there has to be somebody holding the line and pointing out the options and the different avenues to learn about. In this country right now the people who are artists in the truest sense of the word are participating in an activity which will bring this consciousness about. And then maybe we will be able to stop categorizing ourselves.

“Actually, some of the most creative people I’ve met are not involved in music. They’re simply living what the music is about.”

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
Reviews

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.
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