Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Parker

14
Apr
11

9a) Liner Note: Marty Krystall’s Mojave: Gunsmoke

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Marty Krystall is a genuine rarity—at once an accomplished and practicing studio musician, and a tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist who Nat Hentoff could rightly call, “one of the most passionate, powerfully swinging, and just plain unselfconsciously original players in all of jazz.”

Anonymity goes with the studio musician’s territory. That not everybody knows what Hentoff knows about Krystall’s creative dimension is because, with exceptions like four European tours with the bassist Buell Neidlinger and a period in Japan where he journeyed as a soloist, Krystall has largely confined himself to playing in the Los Angeles area where he was born and raised. Were he living and playing in New York there’s no question that Krystall would be recognized as one of the very best of the post-Coltrane reed players. Maybe the best.

Indeed, dynamic and muscular, relentlessly propulsive and endlessly inventive, Krystall’s work, interspersed where called upon with a searing lyricism and always informed by an exceptional musical intelligence, is routinely astonishing. Go directly to the title track, the theme from “Gunsmoke” (which Krystall manages to transmute into a credible, even elevated, jazz tune) or Thelonious Monk’s haunting “Ask Me Now,” for exemplary demonstrations.

Krystall says of his approach that he wants to “surprise myself as well as the listener. I want to compose in the moment, spontaneously, and to come up with different sounds. It’s about sounds for me—colors, textures—not licks or notes. I try to get the most juice I can in my tone. And I want to find things on the tenor or bass clarinet that I couldn’t get to before. I also want to utilize the full capacity of the instruments.“

Artists frequently derive inspiration from what, to others, may seem unlikely sources. Much of Krystall’s inspiration (and this would apply to both of the hats he wears) comes from television shows that he watched growing up, especially “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Twilight Zone.”

“I remember, in 1960, being obsessed with those shows. They had a deep moral compass. Especially the character of Paladin in ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’. He would hire out, but never as an assassin, more like a problem solver. And sometimes he would forego his fee for the opportunity to do something good, like finding justice.

“Paladin was the classic anti-hero, exposing his client’s lunacy or greed. I struggled as a nine-year-old to understand these morality tales, but he was my hero because he was educated, worldly, dressed to the nines, usually accompanied by beautiful women and had his pistol custom made. To me he was like the ultimate studio ‘doubler’ [multi-instrumentalist]. Show up with the finest instruments and play anything that’s put in front of you perfectly. The first time!

“For me, it’s have horns, will travel.

”But it wasn’t just the stories and the characters that captivated Krystall. The musical scores, by composers like Morty Stevens, Bernard Hermann and Leonard Rosenman, seriously impressed him as well. “That same year my dad took me to my first hi-fi and stereo show where we heard the latest recordings of those scores on state-of-the-art audio equipment. Talk about ‘mind-expanding!’ And if that music was very romantic and expressive it was also scary and filled with tension, which appealed to me a lot and still does. Sounding much like what Gil Evans was writing, it had very hip modern chords and was heavily weighted with clarinet and bass clarinet solos. So when my Dad, an amateur pianist, asked me what instrument I wanted to play, it was the clarinet.

“Of course,” Krystall adds, “when I heard Eric Dolphy on the local jazz station, and then Art Blakey and John Coltrane, I realized that this was it for me musically. Tenor sax, bass clarinet and modern jazz, here I come! Yeah, I would listen, in those early days, to people like Trane, Dolphy, Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and write out their solos to see how it was done. Ben Webster, too. Buell Neidlinger turned me on to Ben Webster and also to Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor.”

In addition to fronting groups of his own, Krystall went on to play with other bands, notably Krystall Klear and the Buells, Thelonious, the Word of Mouth Orchestra and the Liberation Orchestra, that included or were led by three outstanding and innovative bassists: Jaco Pastorius, Charlie Haden and Neidlinger. Playing and recording with Buell, Krystall acknowledges, was a major factor in his development as an improviser and composer.

“But I also wanted to make a living,” he unabashedly admits, “and to that purpose, I was determined to become a studio musician as well. When I was fifteen, I learned that to be successful in the field one had to play at least the clarinet, saxophone and flute. I studied the flute and later the oboe and, by the early ‘70s, started to break into the studio scene while earning a reputation for sight reading the most difficult music—like Frank Zappa and Anton Webern—and also as a legit clarinetist who could rock out on tenor. One gig led to another and I became fairly busy as a freelancer. Especially gratifying has been the chance to work with three world-class pianists, Peter Serkin, Brenton Banks and Jerry Peters.”

While continuing to do studio work Krystall has of late become increasingly focused on his own musical adventures, specifically his new band “Mojave”.

Krystall checked out any number of people before he encountered the drummer Sinclair Lott and the bassist J.P. Maramba and knew right away that he’d found the combination for the band that he wanted. It should be noted that Krystall deliberately chose to omit a piano. “Unless you have the absolutely right pianist the piano can inhibit harmonic freedom and get in the way.” In any case, Maramba and Lott are uncommonly skilled and intuitive musicians and it’s hard to imagine Krystall coming up with more suitable partners or a more complete and perfect unit. “We played together,” Krystall says, “and it just happened. They are amazing.”

J.P. Maramba, who takes a justifiable pride in his ability to adapt to any musical situation, has worked with Willie Nelson, Adam Rudolph, L’Esprit d’ Afrique Pan-African Performance Ensemble, Gilbert Castellanos, Bennie Maupin and Ingrid Jenson. Not unlike many musicians he regards the organization of sound from a spiritual perspective and he’s earnest in his belief that “the vibration in the air we call music is, in the most practical sense of the word, magical. Music not only has a way of unifying people and cultures, and all of their nuances, but it can also affect the physical chemistry of your body.”

Maramba contributed the sweet and rhythmically infectious “We’ve Heard It All Before,” to the set and he can be a fascinating soloist, as witness his work on Krystall’s “Trini’s Blues” and Herbie Nichols’ boppish and challenging “Terpsichore” in particular.

Sinclair Lott, whose father, Sinclair Sr., was principal horn of the L.A. Philharmonic has played and/or recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Diane Reeves, Frank Zappa, Big Joe Turner, Dorothy Donegan, Otis Rusch, Tigran Hamasyan, Tierney Stafford, Billy Childs and Bob Sheppard. Lott sustains an extraordinary level of focus and concentration throughout the album and is especially mesmerizing on “Duo at Diablo,” on which Maramba lays out. The depth of his accord with Krystall on this number and the compelling results it yields might put you in mind of Cecil Taylor’s legendary duets with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Tony Oxley.

And what exactly prompted Krystall to name this band “Mojave” instead of, say, “The Marty Krystall Trio”?

“Mojave is where my roots are. In the late 19th century, my grand uncle left what’s now Poland for America and, after meeting and consulting with the man who would become Barry Goldwater’s father, decided to open a general store (the first of its kind) in the southeastern California desert town of Mojave. My grandfather, the son of a rabbi, came here when he was thirteen. He stepped off the boat, ordered a ham sandwich and, journeying to California where he took a job at the store with my grand uncle, never looked back.

“That was, of course, when Mojave was still the ‘wild west’. And my grandfather would tell me about shootouts on the street and a Chinese cook that nobody messed with because of the hatchet strapped to a shoulder holster that he carried.

“Now if Mojave gives me the connotation of a hard blowing, desolate wind, and a harsh existence, it also reflects a pristine and spiritual beauty. And this is why I call the band ‘Mojave’. It’s to represent that and also to remind me of where I want to come from when I play—a windy plain where the air is clear and all of the stars come out at night.”

Whatever location Krystall may in his mind be coming from when he plays, he is also, as I’ve indicated, coming from a large musical gift. His capacity to stir and shake the emotions is unfailing. His facility on both the tenor saxophone and the bass clarinet is never on display for its own sake, but always dedicated to the service of his fertile imagination. Moreover, his statements are pithy and cogent—there’s no meandering or repetitiveness. He says what he has to say and then it’s on to the next tune. His performances on Ben Webster’s jaunty “Ben Addiction,” where his lines and tone implicitly acknowledge his debt to Webster, Jaki Byard’s “Mrs. Parker of KC,” on which, playing bass clarinet, he honors Eric Dolphy by both emulating and taking him to new places, “Blue Dunes” (“Blue Skies,” actually, but with a new melody that he came up with on the spot), and his own immediately seductive “Renovation Blues,” are, as is true of the aforementioned tunes, all revelatory of a talent that can claim an extraordinary force and singularity.

But Krystall’s brilliance and uniqueness notwithstanding, there’s another reason this group isn’t called “The Marty Krystall Trio”. Maramba and Lott function not as Krystall’s sidemen but as his collaborators. Their artistry and controlled intensity are every bit as prominent as his own—and due in large measure to a remarkable alchemy, the trio has a much bigger sound than its number would suggest. These qualities make for a single and powerful sonic entity and a set that’s loaded with heat, exquisite interplay and wonderful tensions.

Discover the marvelous with Mojave.

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03
Jul
10

The War is Over: A Conversation About Jazz With Robert Levin

The following interview was originally published on the All About Jazz website.

by Eleanor Brietel, New York Editor of The Drill Press

(Most of this interview was conducted via email.)

BRIETEL: You’ve published fiction and you also write essays on a variety of subjects. I want, however, to confine this discussion to your thoughts about jazz, a special interest of yours that has resulted in a couple of books, a lot of liner notes and numerous articles in places like Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Metronome, Jazz and Pop Magazine (where you were the Jazz Editor) and The Village Voice (where you earned a reputation as an avid—some would say, zealous—supporter of the so-called “jazz revolution” in the ’60s). What got you into jazz in the first place? Who were your guides and teachers?

LEVIN:  Working at Sam Goody’s record store got me into it. My father, Abner Levin, a classical music critic—he wrote a much-praised book, The Disc Book, with David Hall—was Sam Goody’s partner from the early 1950s, when the Long Playing Record was introduced, into the mid-1960s. In 1954, when I was fifteen, I started working part-time at the main store (on West 49th Street, midway between the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and the Brill Building on Broadway) and it was there that I met George Sprung and Joe Goldberg. George, who was the head jazz salesman, played a recording of Bix Beiderbecke’s for me on my very first day and, upon noting my enthusiastic response, suggested that I check out albums by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Errol Garner, among others. I did and I was fully hooked in a matter of weeks. Then Joe Goldberg, who came to work as a salesman at Goody’s a year or two later, expanded the field of what I was listening to by turning me on to people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Joe—who’d later write Jazz Masters of the Fifties—was six years older than me and a big influence. He was writing plays then and Frank Perry wanted to direct one of them—a marvelously poetic three-act play called “Mexican Blues.” It got as far as a backers’ audition, which Joe invited me to. Zero Mostel, who was still unknown then, read one of the parts. (Joe was rooming with Jerry Orbach around that time and I remember Orbach joining us for coffee next door to Goody’s just moments after he’d auditioned, unsuccessfully it turned out, for “West Side Story.”) Someone else who worked at Goody’s, a trumpet player named Dick Schwartz—under the moniker Dick Sutton, he’d recorded an album with Steve Lacy called “Progressive Dixieland”—also made valuable recommendations and he played an important role in how I listened.

Other guides and teachers were visitors to the store. Goody’s location and enormous inventory (it stocked virtually every LP in existence and sold them at deep discounts) made it a kind of mecca, and besides all of the celebrities who came in—I recall an entrance by Marilyn Monroe very vividly—a lot of musicians and people in the jazz business showed up. I met Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People’s Music, Harry Lim, Harry Colomby (Monk’s manager), Martin Williams and Marshall Stearns there. And Nat Hentoff, as well. Steve Lacy, the guitarist, Ed Diehl, the saxophone player, Sahib Shihab, and the Farmer brothers, Art and Addison, were regulars and Tony Scott, known then as the “first bebop clarinetist,” would stop by often. He took a liking to me for some reason and brought me with him to a couple of his recording sessions. Lee Konitz had worked at Goody’s before I did and he’d come back to buy records from time to time.

And it was at Goody’s, where he was paying a call on Joe Goldberg, that I met Cecil Taylor.

BRIETEL: I want to ask you about Taylor, of course, but first: Are you musical yourself? Do you play an instrument?

LEVIN: No. I tried to play the saxophone when I was in my teens but I realized fairly quickly that I had no talent for it. I am on a record though. I was part of a vocal chorus on Ornette Coleman’s “Friends and Neighbors” album, which was recorded by Bob Thiele for his pre-Impulse Flying Dutchman label. On the title track, it was the chorus’s job to shout, “Friends and neighbors, that’s where it’s at!” That line (and my reading of it) notwithstanding, “Friends and Neighbors” is actually a pretty good album.

BRIETEL: Was it when you realized you weren’t going to be a musician that you decided to become a writer and critic instead?

LEVIN: Ha. Maybe that’s the way it worked. But I was never a “critic” in any true sense of the word. Martin Williams was a critic. I played at being one occasionally and—it’s been gnawing at me for forty years—I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Shorty Rogers, Shirley Scott and Mal Waldron for the unconscionable bullshit I spouted about them in that capacity. Basically I thought of myself as an advocate, particularly when the “new music” came along.

BRIETEL: For the record: You’re talking about the emergence of “free jazz” in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

LEVIN: Yeah. And if we’re going to use that term—”free jazz”—let’s make sure we’re clear about what it was intended to convey. To play “free” didn’t mean to play anything that came into your head. What “free” meant was to be working within systems—many of them highly structured and complex—that were at a remove from traditional or conventional systems; systems that, in the parlance of the time, were “liberated” from the perceived constraints and limitations of established systems.

BRIETEL: Your tone, if I may say so, is a little bit defensive.

LEVIN: I suppose that I am defensive. Too many people have said to me: “But that’s just anarchy.”

BRIETEL: OK. But not questioning its legitimacy as music, wasn’t “free jazz” ultimately destructive? Didn’t it cost jazz its audience? It definitely turned a lot of people off.

LEVIN: Yes, it did turn a lot of people off. The intention of the “free” players wasn’t to entertain but to enlighten. Animated as they were by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, a goal of many of those men, in addition to reaffirming the hegemony of jazz’s African strain, was to restore black music to its original function as a music of spiritual utility. Resurrecting, in some instances, ancient African methodologies, they wanted, in the high fevers of their self-assertion—with the sense of infinite possibility that accompanied those fevers—to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way that we lived. Those who were conservatory trained (a relatively new phenomenon) and with an intellectual bent, were also employing elements of the European avant garde, concepts and systems they felt they owned now as much as whites did. (Their avowed purpose was, of course, to incorporate them into a black aesthetic.) So if you looked to “free jazz” for familiar and agreeable harmonies and melodies you were missing the point. At its inception there was a moment, at least in certain quarters, when “free jazz” was very much welcomed. But finally the broader audience didn’t want to go where it had gone. As Eldridge Cleaver, taking stock of developments in his province, the social and political sphere, put it later in that period, “America didn’t want a revolution.” Did you know, by the way, that Cleaver went on to become a designer of mens pants? They were pants that, to more comfortably accommodate the natural inclination of one’s genitals, offered a choice of extra material on the left or right sides of the crotch. But apparently America didn’t want his pants either.

BRIETEL: I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing.

LEVIN: But there’s more to say about this—no, not about the pants. If “free jazz” cost jazz a large portion of its audience, support for jazz was also diminished by the advent of rock—the first hip white popular music. Those young and counter-cultural white people who’d always been drawn to jazz because they identified with the outsider image of blacks, gravitated to rock instead.

BRIETEL: So where has this left jazz as a music? It’s hard for me to get a handle on what’s happening right now. Is jazz finished as an evolving music? Has it become the museum music that Wynton Marsalis seems to think it is? There’ve been no major movements or innovations in almost fifty years—seventy years if you don’t count “free jazz,” which Marsalis and the Lincoln Center people apparently don’t regard as jazz.

LEVIN: Wynton Marsalis? You mean Wynton Marsalis the “jazz great,” as I heard him introduced recently? Yeah, he’s right up there with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, isn’t he?

Look, it’s entirely possible that Marsalis is right and that jazz is indeed finished as an evolving music. What I’d emphatically disagree with is the judgment that jazz culminated with bebop and that the “new thing” wasn’t really jazz. If jazz and the changes within it can be said to have served as a document of the African-American’s evolution—if that’s, in fact, one definition of jazz—then “free jazz,” as a reflection of where African-American musicians had arrived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was no less a part of the jazz continuum than bebop was. Actually, coming from this definition, and from the assumption that jazz is no longer an advancing art, you could say that “free jazz,” implicitly—and appropriately—completed jazz.

BRIETEL: Then what now?

LEVIN: We can’t know with any certainty. In the future, the underlying dynamics of American art music will be different. Changing ethnic demographics figure to engender all manner of new musics. Will jazz systems have their place in them? I can’t see how they wouldn’t. But frankly, Eleanor, I’m not as interested in issues like that as I once was—no more than I’m interested in participating in the war between jazz factions or arguments about whether or not black jazz musicians are innately superior to white jazz musicians. After years of listening to and occasionally writing about only one species of jazz, I find that I’m refocused now on musicianship and artistry on their own terms and that it makes no difference what style a musician is playing in or what color he is. If a talented musician is emotionally connecting to the discipline he’s chosen to work within, I can be moved by what he’s doing.

BRIETEL: Wait. Are you saying that, contrary to some very strong opinions you came to hold, you believe now that white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians?

LEVIN: Yes, of course white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians. And yes, they can be great jazz musicians. In the past, white musicians who wanted to play jazz had to break with certain of their own cultural precepts in order to open themselves to black perspectives and methodologies. They had to be rebels of sorts. At this point in time, given the sweep and depth of the Afro-American’s influence on American culture and the fact that most everyone has assimilated that influence, the African-derived elements of jazz have become as ingrained in white musicians as they are in black musicians. I think that any white musician who’s disposed to play jazz is now as innately qualified to play it as a black musician is.

But again, issues like that no longer preoccupy me. I’m into jazz now purely for the music. At the moment there are still a lot of people playing what we call “jazz,” and in literally every idiom, and I’m listening to as much of what’s going on as I can. In New York, representations of the entire spectrum of jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop and beyond—or in various combinations—can, on a given night, all be found within a several-mile radius. Most of these idioms are still attracting new recruits and can still claim a following. If it’s true that some of the musicians playing these musics are essentially mimics and functioning largely as custodians, others are infusing the genres they’re choosing to play in with new energy and ideas and are actually expanding those genres.

In the case of “free jazz,” the musics of a number of people have not only survived the passing of the movement in which they originated but are also wielding an influence on a significant percentage of the younger musicians. I’m thinking, for just a few examples, of the work of the recently deceased Bill Dixon (who I regarded as a great American composer), Ornette, Anthony Braxton and Cecil, of course.

BRIETEL: Taylor. You go back a long way with him.

LEVIN: Yeah. More than half a century, since right after he made his first album, “Jazz Advance.” He’s ten years ahead of me, but, it’s amazing, we both got to be senior citizens.

BRIETEL: Fifty-plus years later, how would you assess him?

LEVIN: Cecil hasn’t realized all of his ambitions. He’d wanted at one time to achieve the stature and influence of an Ellington. But I think enough people would agree that if he’s fallen short on that count he’s still taken his place alongside the masters. Certainly as a pianist.

Robert Levin and Cecil Taylor after Ornette Coleman’s funeral service at Riverside Church, June 27, 2015.

I admire Cecil for all kinds of reasons, not the least of them being his belief in himself. He had his ambivalent periods and he made his mistakes, but he held to his vision. George Wein, who’d wanted to exploit Cecil’s enormous talent for its potential commercial possibilities and whose ideas about how to do it Cecil steadfastly resisted, actually said to Cecil not too long ago: “Well, you did it, and you did it your way.” Cecil did do it his way and, initially, with very little support. But if Cecil didn’t require approval to pursue and accomplish what he has, he certainly wanted it. Wein’s remark was a source of immense satisfaction to him.

Of course the man whose approval Cecil really wanted but never got was Miles Davis. Miles had exclaimed in a Down Beat “Blindfold Test”: “Who’s that motherfucker? He can’t play shit!” And Cecil was deeply wounded by that. Cecil and Miles were on several concert bills together and they would get into verbal exchanges backstage. But Miles refused to acknowledge that what Cecil was doing had merit. I would try to cool Cecil out by telling him that it was precisely because Miles “got it” that he was so hostile to it, and that if Cecil’s aesthetic took hold it would, in Miles’s mind, diminish his accomplishment. But Cecil wouldn’t accept my argument. Achieving Miles’s validation became a minor obsession for him and when he answered Miles’s “So What” with “D Trad, That’s What,” I think he really believed that Miles would come around.

BRIETEL: I know that Miles reacted in a similar fashion to Ornette Coleman.

LEVIN: Yes, that’s true, he did. “[Coleman] must be screwed up inside to play like that,” he said. But I’ve just now reminded myself of another of Cecil’s disappointments. This one involved a nasty reaction to his music at a black bebop club on a summer night back in the early ‘60s. Don’t ask me to remember the name of the club—it was somewhere deep in the bowels of Brooklyn—or how Cecil got booked there. Cecil, [alto saxophonist] Jimmy Lyons and [drummer] Sunny Murray, none of whom had played this place before, were scheduled to do a weekend and Jeanne Phillips, a long-time friend of Cecil’s, and I went with them on opening night. Cecil was excited about working at this club. The people there were precisely the people he wanted to reach. He wanted to demonstrate to them what was possible in the music now. Well, it was a Friday night and the place was jammed—every table was occupied and people were standing three-deep at the bar. It was also very hot; what passed for air-conditioning was thoroughly neutralized by the quantity of bodies in the room. The band was assigned to a small pit behind a railing opposite the bar and things started to get seriously tense just a couple of minutes into the opening number.

If Cecil still had one leg in bebop, the other was dangling well outside of it, and what the band was playing wasn’t exactly what the folks there were expecting or ready to hear. Men at the tables began standing up, shouting obscenities and making threatening gestures. Women, too. It was quite a scene. But the band, lost in the music, was oblivious to what was going on. If they heard the noise at all they probably assumed they were being cheered. A year before a drunk had waved a gun at me in a bar, but I wasn’t nearly as alarmed by that as I was when two men approached the pit and, with their arms folded, stared at the band in a very menacing way. It didn’t help that the bartender, a giant of a man—I thought of him years later when I heard the Billy Crystal joke, “The guy was so big his crucifix had a real person on it”—looked so panicked himself. I was standing near the door with Jeanne (who, every bit as fearful as I was at that point, had grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go), when I saw him frantically motioning to us. I managed to get over to him and he said, “You need to take them out of here. And right now!” So while Jeanne was focusing on Cecil and Jimmy, I was leaning into the pit trying to get Sunny’s attention. But neither of us was having any success. Sunny, who was dripping with sweat, had his head way back and his eyes tight shut and all he was hearing was the music. Finally the bartender came out from behind the bar and yelled at the band: “That’s enough! Goddamnit, that’s enough!” That worked—or maybe it was the long and heavy shadow he’d cast over the pit that did the trick. Shortly thereafter we were on the sidewalk. Jimmy’s alto was still hanging from his neck. He’d left the case inside and no way was he going back to get it. I’d never seen Cecil quite so crestfallen.

BRIETEL: Wow! How did he handle that?

LEVIN: He absorbed the experience and went forward. And in a more determined way. Adversity doesn’t defeat Cecil, it energizes and extends him. He makes creative fuel out of adversity—adversity and the experience of an affront, real or perceived. I think he sometimes goes out of his way to place himself in situations that will result in making him angry. Being pissed off focuses and centers him. In this respect I take personal credit for a couple of his best sets.

BRIETEL: Am I correct about this? Didn’t he approach you at one point about writing his biography?

LEVIN: Where did you hear that?

BRIETEL: I don’t remember now.

LEVIN: Yeah, in 2005. I did mention it to a couple of people. I wasn’t sure that I’d made the right decision. We’d gone to hear [pianist] John Hicks at Sweet Rhythm when that came up. (John was dying—he had just months to live—and he played one of the most exquisitely beautiful sets I’ve ever heard.) I don’t want to dwell too much on why I declined to do the book. It’s still something of a sensitive issue for me that involves a lot of stuff I’d rather not get into here. What I will say is that I thought such a book needed a first-rate musicologist and that I didn’t feel qualified to do it justice. (I told Cecil this and he said he’d “take care of that part.” I said, “Yeah, you’ll write a hermetic poem that’ll only turn more people off.”) But that’s as far as I want to go about the biography.

BRIETEL: Okay. Let’s bring this into the present. Who exactly have you been listening to these days?

LEVIN: As I said, I’ve been listening to a lot of different people. I had a chance to hear the Trio 3 plus Geri Allen band, with Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman at Birdland a while back and I was blown away by it. Of course any band that has Andrew Cyrille playing drums is automatically elevated. I’ve also been making all the gigs I can by two reed players, Peter and Will Anderson. Identical twins, they’re still in their early twenties and I can’t say enough about them.

They’re Julliard graduates and continuing to do postgraduate work at Julliard, but there’s nothing studied about the way that, as instrumentalists, arrangers and composers, they make music. They’re naturals and while essentially into bebop—which they play with a passion, unpredictability and sense of discovery that can make you feel like you’re back at the beginning of it at Minton’s or Monroe’s Uptown House—they can claim an astonishing affinity for the full range of jazz forms and styles, at least up to the “new thing.” I’ve listened to them play all kinds of jazz now and have yet to hear an inauthentic note. They easily hold their own with the best of the Dixieland players. They interpret Monk compositions in a way that I’m sure Monk would have appreciated. They have a solid grip not only on what Miles and Gil Evans were after in the “Birth of the Cool” period but on the work of a John Kirby as well. Along with the depth of knowledge they demonstrate about saxophone players as diverse as Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley and Gigi Gryce, to name just a few, they understand Ellington and—they play ballads with an emotional sophistication that’s way beyond their years—they know what to do with a Billy Strayhorn song. Have I mentioned that they also command their principal instruments, the clarinet and alto and tenor saxophones, with a stunning authority? I could go on and on about the Andersons. Right now the distinctions between them as musicians are as subtle as the differences in their appearances. It will be fascinating to see how they progress, how they diverge from one another and what they make of their prodigious talents, once they’ve become centered in their individual identities. But what they’re presenting at this point in their development is already substantial and compelling enough to be worthy of preservation. I’m surprised that there’s no big-label album yet. I should think that their marketing potential—the twin thing, their age—would be considerable.

BRIETEL: I’ve got to check them out.

LEVIN: Yeah, you do.

BRIETEL: Who else?

LEVIN: Actually, a lot of traditionalists. For the past year or so I’ve been hanging a lot with traditionalists.

BRIETEL: You’ve been hanging with Republicans?!

LEVIN: I don’t think they’re all Republicans. Most of them give the appearance of being highly evolved human beings. No, what happened was that my wife, Marianne Mangan, was into this music and she got me to pay attention to it.

BRIETEL: Marianne Mangan. I’ve read some of her stuff. She’s good. I knew there was a relationship. I didn’t realize you were married.

LEVIN: Much to my irritation, Marianne chose not to take my last name. I’ve been trying to persuade her to at least take my first name, which I think is a perfectly reasonable compromise.

In any event, Marianne, who’s frighteningly knowledgeable about this music, got me to listen to it. Yeah, like a lot of people, I regarded modern manifestations of traditional and swing era jazz as reactionary and pretty much ignored them. But stripped of that extra-musical baggage there’s some extraordinary music being played in these categories by a body of serious, dedicated and very good musicians, and I regret that long-held biases prevented me from finding that out sooner.

BRIETEL: Anybody in particular you want to mention?

LEVIN: I’ve been especially impressed by the trumpeter, cornetist and flugelhornist Peter Ecklund. As we used to put it, he’s “saying something” when he plays. I’ve heard Ecklund now in a number of different contexts. He can remind you, at times, of a host of people from Armstrong to Beiderbecke to Harry James to Harry Edison to Art Farmer, but his approach, including a sound that’s multi-textured and rich with contrasts, is totally individuated. Just a few notes and you know that it’s him. His solos, consistently crafted with wit and intelligence—unerringly musical—can be powerfully dynamic and emotive, and his presence in an ensemble always serves to extend the musicians he’s working with. In his own group, Blue Suitcase, which has been playing occasionally at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Carmine Street, he draws not only on jazz but on a classical training, extensive experience with rock and pop bands, outstanding song writing and arranging skills, computer technology and a droll sense of humor, to produce music that’s inventive, edgy and immediately seductive. He’s a genuine artist. The real thing.

BRIETEL: OK! Go on.

LEVIN: I haven’t heard everyone, not nearly, but of the players and bands I’ve caught thus far I’ve been consistently dazzled by The Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, a group of shifting, but invariably first-rate personnel (the estimable trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso is frequently featured), that David Ostwald, who plays tuba, leads at Birdland on Wednesday evenings. I heard Will Anderson, on clarinet, get into an electrifying exchange with Ed Polcer, a magnificent Chicago-school cornetist, there. And the pianist Bill Dunham runs an always stirring group, the Grove Street Stompers, at Arthur’s Tavern on Monday nights with Peter Ballance on trombone, Skip Muller on bass, Giampaola Biagi on drums, revolving and stellar trumpet or cornet players like Ecklund, Polcer and John Bucher (a wonderfully subtle and lyrical musician), and Joe Licari on clarinet. Joe Licari. There are a lot of excellent clarinetists playing classic jazz—the brilliant Dan Block, of course, and Joe Muranyi and Ken Peplowski—but, and I’m talking about his unfailing exuberance, his touch with a ballad and the marvelous symmetry of his solos, no one reaches me quite the way Licari does.

Someone else I’ve come to admire is Herb Gardner. He’s an exceptional trombonist, accomplished pianist and terrific bandleader—he leads the Stan Rubin big band at Swing 46 on Wednesday nights in addition to small groups at venues like Charley O’s—and I always get a major lift when I go to hear him.

And each of them owning his own particular strengths and virtues, there are others that I’m glad I’ve gotten to hear. I’m thinking of pianists like Peter Socolow, Terry Waldo, John Halsey, Ehud Asherie, Steve Elmer, Don Edmonds, Jesse Gelber and Dick Voigt; saxophonists like Jim Perry, Tom Olin, Chuck Wilson and Bob Curtis; trumpeters like Barry Bryson, Gordon Au and John Eckert; the trombonists Dan Barrett, Vincent Gardner and Dick Dreiwitz, the guitarist/banjoist Howard Alden and the multi-instrumentalist John Gill. I’ve also discovered that along with a lot of stand-out percussionists like Biagi, Jackie Williams, Fred Stoll, Arnie Kinsella, Steve Little, Ed Bonoff and Kevin Dorn (who’s an especially bright and gifted younger drummer), more than a few superb bassists—Brian Nalepka, Mike Weatherly, Murray Wall, Steve Alcott, Dave Winograd, Muller and Andrew Hall among them—are devoting themselves to this music.

BRIETEL: Your thinking about jazz has clearly undergone a significant transformation, Robert.

LEVIN: Well, I do continue to play the hell out of my John Coltrane CDs.

BRIETEL: Still, what happened that enabled you to expand the range of what you listen to?

LEVIN: You mean besides Marianne? I got older.

BRIETEL: You got older.

LEVIN: As you get older a lot of the illusions you’ve lived with become transparent and they evaporate. You’re left with reality. I believed, back in the ‘60s, in the possibility of a fundamental change in human consciousness and behavior. Hanging tight with like-minded musicians and others, I was convinced that the “new black music” was the embodiment of that possibility. I may have smiled at the hyperbole of a remark [the “free jazz” bassist and composer] Alan Silva made to me after coming off a high energy set—“Man, in another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another”—but I have to confess that I didn’t think the remark was entirely off the wall. So I developed an agenda when I wrote about jazz that limited what I could appreciate and made me less than objective. I wanted to promote the revolution the “new black music” was leading. I didn’t understand yet that the black musicians I revered weren’t necessarily in possession of a special wisdom, or that even some of the more modest changes I envisioned were, for reasons I’ve tried to explain elsewhere, beyond the realm of the possible. [Ed. Note: See Free Jazz: The Jazz Revolution of the ‘60s]

BRIETEL: But what you said about being “left with reality.” That does sound almost…grim.

LEVIN: It’s deflating, but it’s hardly all that grim. Not when I can still be mesmerized by the interactions within a finely-tuned group, or thrilled by hearing a superior improviser challenge himself and then rise to the challenge. Not when what’s left is the gift that, each in his way, George Sprung and Joe Goldberg gave me. The treasure that jazz is in all of its expressions.

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.”

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.

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.”




Writings & Miscellaneous

Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC
Reviews

Against Mental Health: Short Stories

Cyberwit

“A writer of talent and intelligence.” — Irving Louis Horowitz

“Distinguished quality…profound emotion.” —Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agrawal

“Some real gold in here.”—B.D. Charles

 

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

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