Jazz has been described by observers as astute as guitarist Derek Bailey as the most romantic of music with its inbred myths. One of the longest lasting is that the music spread northwards from New Orleans after the Secretary of the U.S. Navy ordered the closing the of Storyville right-light district in 1917. That’s pretty far from the truth as Bruce Raeburn, director of Tulane University's Hogan Jazz Archive tells The Times-Picayune’s Alison Fensterstock, Not only were there few gigs for anyone but pianists in the sporting houses, but by that time major figures such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet, cornetist King Oliver, trombonist Kid Ory and pianist Jelly Roll Morton were already performing the music on the vaudeville circuit.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
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For more than 35 years, in different locations, the Roulette artist’s space has been a major centre of experimental music in New York City. Roulette’s trombonist/curator Jim Staley tells New Music Box’s Frank J. Oteri that his programming has been so open because his aesthetic was focused on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. That means that since he opened his loft to performance in the late 1970s, when Manhattan rents were less-expensive and foundation and government grants easier to obtain, he’s been as interested in presenting programs featuring avant-garde Jazz as those involving the Downtown minimalist scene. Staley, who early on played regularly with improvisers such as saxophonist John Zorn and guitarist Fred Frith as well as with committed notated and contemporary music composers, was as apt to feature and play with outside jazzers like pianist Borah Bergman or harpist Zeena Parkins as through-composed works. Sky-rocketing Manhattan rents drove Roulette to larger premises in Brooklyn a few years ago, but Staley's commitment to younger improv-influenced music creators such as Peter Evans and Nate Wooley remains.
Looking through her newspaper’s morgue, the Daily Star’s Johanna Eubank found a fascinating interview from 1922 with then-famous American bandleader John Philip Sousa, who dismissed what he called Jazz. Sousa (1854-1932), composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and numerous other marches, says Jazz “could never be permanent any more than the Gavotte, the rag time or the cake walk ... It will die as they have done.” Considering the interview predated the soon to be created historic work of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, not to mention later advances of Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor, it looks like Sousa should have stuck to conducting.
Jazz’s long-time fusion with other musics appears to be a novel topic for Philadelphia Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns. But he tries to properly understand the new oratorio by Philly-born, New York-based pianist Uri Caine. Commissioned by the Freedom Festival Community Choir, it’s based on the life and martyrdom of Philadelphia-based Civil War era leader Octavius Catto. Stearns, who draws parallels between mid-19th Century and contemporary race relations, notes that Caine’s father headed the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia during the turbulent 1970s. However the critic is obviously more knowledgeable about Caine’s improvisations on themes by so-called classical composers like Mahler and Hayden rather than the pianist’s more Jazz-centric work.
While his musical history goes back over 50 years, while working with major Jazz players such as alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist McCoy Tyner and bandleader Sun Ra, among many others, sometime-Buffalo, N.Y.-based Juni Booth is as little know as a Free Jazz player can be. On the occasion of a Booth gig in the city, The Buffalo News' Jeff Simon tries to rectify the situation by highlighting his achievements. Simon’s recounting of Booth’s eccentricities may be one reason for the bassist’s obscurity. He has frequently spelled his first name as Joony, Jooney, Junnieh or Juini and often gives fictional names when approached by impressed fans.
American born and educated in European classical music, Miya Masaoka first began to stretch tradition when she began playing koto in a gagaku ensemble. But as she tells New Music Box’s Frank J. Oteri it was improvising with saxophonists such as Pharaoh Sanders and Larry Ochs, which opened up the Jazz tradition to her. After recording a CD of Thelonious Monk tunes with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille – “Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs” –she has since extended her musical reach by working in other situations with improvisers, composing graphic scores and orchestral pieces plus performing site-specific koto-centred works featuring bees and Madagascan cockroaches.
Well they do have elaborate rites and special costumes, but who knew that so many prominent jazz musicians were free masons? The Guardian’s John Lewis that’s who. In this wide-ranging piece on free masonry, which counted creative types like Mozart among its adherents – the order famously paid for his funeral – Lewis outlines the particular history of Black masonry. Stressing its fraternal connections, he reveals that musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to Nat King Cole were enthusiasts. Of course the Jazz composer who most made use of Masonic iconography and costumes was Sun Ra. But it’s never been proven that he was actually a mason.
London Review of Books’ Adam Shatz can’t seem to free himself from hyperbole or using every cliché he can about Free Jazz, but his article does provide a useful introduction to The New York Art Quartet (NYAQ). Using as his hooks the UK release of The Breath Courses Through Us, a film about the NYAQ, plus Call It Art, a boxed set of unreleased NYAQ LPs, Shatz tries to recreate the time in the early 1960s that brought together saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, drummer Milford Graves and several rotating bassists, to make music still remembered today. However, once he starts outlining the players' subsequent careers, political myths plus the band’s short affiliation with radical poet Amiri Baraka detract from the significance of the sounds.
One of the oddest and most heartening aspects of Free Music is the establishment of adroit improvising ensembles far from major population centres. One of the most notable instances of this trend, says Point of Departure’s Stuart Broomer, is the establishment of GGRIL or Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée. Located in Rimouski, Quebec, a rural town of about 46,000, 330 miles northeast of Montreal, the 15-piece GGRIL and its leader, bassist Éric Normand, not only organize weekly improvisations, but have also played and recorded with better-known improvisers such as bassist Joëlle Léandre, saxophonists Evan Parker and Jean Derome and violinist Malcolm Goldstein. Now GGRIL's CDs are being distributed world-wide and it is giving well-received concerts far from its home base.
Although reams of words have been written about the influences and influence band leader Sun Ra experienced and propagated when he lived in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, his experiences in Birmingham, Ala. are little known. Little-known that is until this series of articles written by Burgin Mathews for the publication Weld for Birmingham. Mathews painstakingly reconstructed history by speaking to some of the few living musicians who knew Ra in Alabama and going through the archives. It turns out that from his "arrival date" in 1914, until he left for Chicago in 1946, Mathew notes that Ra, then Sonny Blount, was part of the burgeoning Birmingham music scene. Thoroughly trained in big band Swing, which he would later celebrate with the Arkestra, Ra was also experimenting with early electronic keyboards at the time. In the north not only would Ra sometimes compose pieces related to Birmingham, like the Magic City, but over the years a few Alabama musicians such as his old friend, trumpeter Walter Miller, saxophonist Arthur Doyle, who had played with Miller, and trumpeter Jothan Callins were featured in the band.
Seems that every jazz fan in the world loves to make some kind of “best-of” list and the San Jose Mercury News’ Richard Scheinin is no different. His list of “Jazz's 12 most important musicians” provides a pretty accurate picture of how the music’s practitioners are viewed by Americans only attuned to the pop music industry. There are some signs of hope though. Among the usual suspects of Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis [!] and Robert Glasper [!!], he does find room for a few experimenting players such as Jason Moran, Joe Lovano and … right at the very end William Parker.
With all the (belated) interest in pianist/bandleader Sun Ra during the 100th anniversary of his arrival date, many forget to mention that his Arkestra is still extant, constantly working under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, 89, who has been a major contributor to the band sounds from the early 1950s. Electronic Beats' editors Andre Vida and Max Dax conducted an extensive interview with Allen touching on his own experiences, his years with Ra, a glimpse into Ra’s unique futuristic musical philosophy, and how commited Jazzman Allen doesn’t mind playing with other musicians – even rockers and those involved in electronics.
Stepping into the quagmire of defining a music that has long had its fanatical partisans with exclusive points of view, is Sound American’s editor, trumpeter Nate Wooley. He dares to ask 50 contemporary improvisers to come up with their personal definitions of “Jazz”. Carefully outlining his methodology and strictures in the introduction and admitting he plays devil’s advocate throughout, Wooley elicits thought-provoking and sometimes unexpected replies from a group of committed players in Europe and North America who range from British saxophonist John Butcher and American reedist Darius Jones to German pianist Magda Mayas and Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstaedt.
Although his thesis seems to be that guitarist Nels Cline, now a 10-year veteran of the pop band Wilco, doesn’t fit the profile of a usual rock guitarist, The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Baryon tries to define him as an experimenter who happens to also play Rock among other sounds. Outlining the apprenticeship the guitarist and his twin brother, drummer Alex Cline followed in Los Angeles’ Free Jazz circles with the likes of violinist Jeff Gauthier and alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill, the guitarist’s non-Rock affiliations are also highlighted. There’s even mention of Cline’s own Avant-Jazz band with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola.
One of the busiest double bassists in Free Jazz, London’s John Edwards tells Something Else’s Sammy Stein that Free Music is hated by so many because it’s the antithesis of political power: it lets people play as they wish without fear of making mistakes. Edwards isn’t afraid of staying away from commercial considerations either. Self-taught and someone who left school at 18, Edwards was a member of pop-punk-jazz bands like the Pointy Birds and B Sharps for the Poor, before committing himself to the group dynamics and social change implicit in Free Jazz. Today he works with everyone from saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist John Russell to saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and drummer Steve Noble. And, as he realizes he can still help change situations, he doesn’t even mind playing door gigs.
Cerebral and committed, British double bassist Barry Guy is celebrated for his playing, leadership of large Improv ensembles and his composing. This interview with Music and Literature’s Benjamin Dwyer mostly deals with Guy’s approach to composing, the teaching of improvisation, and notated composers' view of improvisation. As well Guy tells of the time he performed one of Iannis Xenakis' compositions for the composer himself. Along the way, the double bassist discusses his evolution from a Skiffle-style one-stringed tea-chest bassist, to after hearing Charles Mingus and further study, becoming a stylist equally at home playing Bach as well as improvisations with the likes of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and drummer Paul Lytton.
During the past half-century some discussion about so-called Free Jazz is that it’s an overly intellectual sham foisted on the roots Jazz community. Saxophonist Ras Moshe, who comes from East New York, dismisses this supposition in this interview with Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley. Moshe, who has been curating a music series in New York since 2000, points out that while he was growing up in East New York exploratory musicians such as bassist Reggie Workman and tenor saxophonist Bill Barron were teaching at a music school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, while innovators like trumpeter Lester Bowie and violinist Leroy Jenkins lived in the neighborhood. Moshe, whose musical background includes Reggae as well as Jazz, says that playing Free Jazz was no stretch for someone from his background. Today he works with a shifting group of collaborators from around the city including trumpeter Matt Lavelle, bassist Matt Heyner guitarist Tor Snyder and many others without any sort of tension.
No gunslinger, but an art lover, bassist Damon Smith has made his presence felt on the scene since he moved to Houston four years ago. Writing on the occasion of a visit to his former home town, the East Bay (California) Express’ Andrew Gilbert discusses the influences that shaped Smith’s career, ranging from the Minutemen's Mike Watt to pioneering German Free Jazz bassist Peter Kowald. A valued presence as a collaborator, the article underlines Smith’s versatility that allows him to play alongside Punk-Jazzers such as drummer Weasel Walter as well as sophisticated composer/saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell with equal ease.
Playing up the musician’s Lone Star State background, The Houston Chronicle’s Andrew Dansby chronicles the long, productive career of Dallas-Fort Worth-area born trumpeter Bobby Bradford. A long-time Los Angeles resident and educator, Bradford has worked with fellow ex-Texans who advanced the music, such as alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and clarinetist John Carter. Unfortunately army service meant that Don Cherry, rather than Bradford was featured on Coleman’s revolutionary recordings of the early 1960s. Recently though, his prominence in bands with his former student, tenor saxophonist David Murray and now with Norwegian alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, shows that at nearly 80 Bradford is playing as well as he ever did.
Trying to find a way to build Jazz audiences by having more women appreciate the music, is a topic that gets New Music Box’s Willard Jenkins tied into some rhetorical knots. His thesis seems to be that if more women instrumentalists played Jazz, then more women would attend Jazz concerts as self-identification. Although he cites example of women players who have inspired others from trombonist Melba Liston to pianist Gerri Allen to bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding as well as educators who propose this concept, something rings false. Others speak about Jazz’s universal appeal and the danger of creating women’s-only ghettos within the music and still not increasing the audience.