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Riffs on Jazz, Improvised Music and the Remnants of Modernism
Julius Hemphill’s advice to composers is also applicable to writers: At a certain point, you have to throw out everything you know about technique, theory and history, and just go splat.
That’s exactly what I did when I wrote the summary for this talk:
Jazz and Improvised Music are intrinsically Modernist propositions, given their progressive context. More saliently, they facilitate what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” fully actualized moments that as Art Blakey said of jazz; wash away the dust of everyday life. How is this agenda faring in a postmodern, post-McLuhan media environment, where the medium ceases to be the message or even the massage, but Whatever? Is the self-determination struggle of jazz musicians and improvisers undermined by the liberation ideology of downloaders? Has the 21st Century brought progress or, to use a phrase of Roscoe Mitchell’s, a race to the bottom? Can I get a witness or merely a tweet?
Essentially, this is a talk about the decade that is beginning to set, a decade poised to be regarded as transformative not for its abundance of innovative music, but for its double-edged advents in content delivery. By “content,” I am not only referring to music itself, but documentary media, be it visual, written or spoken. Usually, the division of jazz history into neat decade-long chunks disfigures long trajectories of musical practice. For example, Cecil Taylor’s first album was recorded in 1955, yet he’s a fixture of ‘60s narratives. (Does anybody recall Gunther Schuller’s review of Jazz Advance in Jazz Review, where he criticized Buell Neidlinger for playing wrong notes in an atonal piece?). But, this decade is different from others, because of The Millennium.
In 1979, I took Anthony Braxton to WMAL AM radio in Washington to be on air with Felix Grant. Grant is one of the most consequential disc jockeys in jazz history because he was the first DJ to bring bossa nova records into the US from Brazil. It was Grant who introduced the music to Keter Betts and Charlie Byrd, who then introduced it to Stan Getz. Felix’s playlist was rooted in the mainstream; when he was first queried about the interview, he only knew about Braxton through Dave Brubeck’s All the Things We Are, a 1974 Atlantic date that also featured Lee Konitz. But, Felix had done his homework, and planned to play the swinging opening track and the march from Creative Music Orchestra 1976, after playing “All the Things You Are” from the Brubeck album. After the standard was dispensed with, Felix shifted gears to ask Braxton about his own music, which Felix referred to as “Year 2000 Music.” Braxton beamed and thanked him profusely.
So, let’s consider the ever-emblematic Mr. Braxton as a cardinal point in discussing the Millennium decade, keeping in mind that the centerpiece of his music in this decade – the massive Ghost Trance Musics series of compositions – was initiated in ’95, a few years into what is more pertinent to my assessment of the current decade, his tenure at Wesleyan University. At Wesleyan, Braxton has fully realized AACM-instilled ideals of community, which can be measured by the work of, among others, Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson and Steve Lehman, artists who are already shaping the trajectory of jazz, and will undoubtedly exert more influence in the next decade. Braxton’s enormous contributions as a composer and improviser aside, he exemplifies an increasingly vital form of 21st Century community building.
Since much of my assessment of the current decade is media-centric, I offer the 30th Anniversary Issue of JazzTimes, published in September 2000, as another cardinal point. This is time capsule stuff, and not solely because its 42-page collection of essays, “Thirty Years of Our Jazz Times,” presents diverse, even contradictory assessments of the years 1970 through 2000 – and a now resonant projection into the music’s future, or lack thereof, by conferee Greg Tate -- but because it is an artifact of what is fast becoming a bygone age. Case in point: opposite the contents page is a full-page ad prominently featuring a close-up of Miles Davis circa late ‘60s, replete with oversized shades. The product being pitched is an Oldsmobile Aurora. General Motors’ shutdown of Oldsmobile in 2004 not withstanding, the ad represents how jazz was connected with an affluent consumer demographic.
I consider the aforementioned cardinal points as proxies for the tension between consumerism and communitarianism. I want to stipulate here that my use of “communitarianism” emphasizes Robert Putnam’s idea of “social capital,” which he describes as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things with each other.” The abundant evidence of this approach to communitarianism is central to the optimistic prognosis embedded in my contribution to “Thirty Years of Our Jazz Times,” which was banally titled “Avant-Garde,” as my working title, “Out of the Avant Ghetto,” was overruled.
Cautioning that unlike Jazz, whose genealogy can be likened to a family tree with many roots and branches, the avant-garde is more like a plutonium atom, a volatile bundle and swirl of subgenres, polygenres and antigenres, I nevertheless advanced a matrix of demographic, market and media trends that adequately explained why the myriad forms of the avant-garde were then flourishing.
First and foremost among these factors was a new generation of listeners, one far more prone to associate “Rollins” with Henry rather than Sonny. Incrementally, phenomena like '80s punk-jazz and no-wave bands, the advent of the musique actuelle umbrella of free jazz, rock and post-serial composition, the resuscitation of the college circuit by Thomas Chapin and others, John Zorn's hardcore entente and his Radical Jewish Culture faction, David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp's respective tenures with indie-rock labels, and champions like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore built a growing younger audience that had little or no connection with the jazz mainstream.
Two trends in marketing and media diminished the relevance of the jazz mainstream for these listeners. Beginning with the boom in CD reissues in the ‘80s, and the '90s' plethora of repertory, anniversary and songbook-driven recording projects and touring packages, jazz was largely marketed as nostalgia and artifact. Conveniently, the figurehead of the repertory movement was Wynton Marsalis, whose overreaching rhetoric about what jazz is and is not, and his alleged cronyism as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, proved the old adage that having a good enemy is sometimes more handy than having a good friend. Despite the arrival of Vision Festival and venues like the now-defunct Tonic, these trends accelerated the erosion of New York’s hegemonic status in jazz and improvised music. Well before 2000, ground zero of the avant-garde was, on any given week, anywhere from Victoriaville, Quebec to Tampere, Finland or from Amherst, Mass. to Nlckelsdorff, Austria.
The timing could not have been more providential for a transformative communitarian tool like the Internet. A record collector could research an unmarked Saturn LP, a concert-goer could ponder the schedules for Wednesday nights at Chicago's Empty Bottle or the Time Files series at Vancouver's Western Front, and researchers could convey citations and reference materials to one another on a list serve. Coupled with the contemporaneous plunge in CD production costs, which opened the flood gates for new, often artist-administered labels in the '90s – of the more than 100 labels listed on the European Free Improvisation Pages in 2000, a full three-quarters were then less than 10 years old – the Internet closed the Information gap that anyone who waited months on end in the '70s for the new Coda or a box of FMPs knew all too well.
Almost ten years later, I now look at the continuation of most of these trends and come to a much different interpretation. Central to this is my conclusion that the tension between jazz and avant-garde jazz and improvised music has gone slack. No one pulls on either end of the line. We’re so post that. The cessation of this galvanizing and implicitly moralizing debate has contributed to the Whatever, which has, in turn, facilitated a pandemic, viral consumerism.
I’m reminded of the ill-fated Ornette Coleman Double Quartet concert in Cincinnati in 1961. In an attempt to ride a media wave caused by the notoriety of Coleman’s watershed recording, Free Jazz, the promoters used the phrase as the centerpiece of their posters, their main marketing tool. It proved to be a wildly successful tactic with disastrous effects; a throng showed up to the venue expecting free admittance, and their nearly riotous reaction to having to pay caused the police to intervene and the concert was cancelled. Unfortunately, this episode brought the nascent collaboration between Coleman and Steve Lacy to an abrupt end.
A more recent story: Peter Brötzmann recently toured in the US. Before the house opened at one stop, he sees a young man in the middle of the seats with studio mics on booms and a rack of high-end recording and processing gear. Upon learning of the young man’s intentions, Brötzmann assured him that he could not record the set. The young man lamented that Brötzmann’s fans would be deprived of this great music and, besides, Brötzmann would be able to download it, too. Brötzmann tells me this before his gig at the Windup Space in Baltimore, off to the side of the bandstand near the end of the bar. As Brötzmann goes on, a young man slips into the last stool at the bar, takes out a camcorder and starts recording. When I suggested to him that he cease and desist, he protested that he was helping Brötzmann, even though he hadn’t bothered to introduce himself and ask permission.
These anecdotes circumscribe this viral consumerism, which is propelled by the urge to get something for free regardless of the moral price, and the elevation of piracy and theft to documentation. At a time when the Revolution in Jazz is not on Impulse, but on YouTube and Rapidshare, there’s no denying the impact of this pandemic consumer behavior on the state of jazz or any of its constituent forms of experimental music. It churlishly saps the fresh energies of the Millennium.
I want to distinguish the exploitative consumption I brand as freeloading from the fair use of video and audio files on sites like YouTube and MySpace that are promotional or reference materials posted by the artists themselves. I would also make the further distinction between freeloading and the presumably unauthorized short-term posting of materials through play-only media on sites like destination OUT, which is arguably fair use for educational purposes. The cardinal sin is the unauthorized duplication and distribution of performance recordings and out of print albums through sites like Rapidshare. Many of the people who do this have the same curious missionary zeal of the fellows in the Brötzmann anecdotes. Their logic goes like this: Because a craven multi-national corporation has kept it out of print for approximately 30 years, the unauthorized distribution of Bill Dixon’s Intents and Purposes is a public service. This liberation ideology ignores one of the most basic moral equations we all learn in one form or another as children: Two wrongs don’t make a right. This is consumerism antithetical to community.
The other problematic trend on the Internet has been created by mostly younger artists, snared by the allures of what I call the Publicity Myth. The underlying thesis of publicity is that careers are made through the adept coordination of performances, recordings and media exposure. The cruel irony is that artists for whom this gambit is successful don’t really need friends on MySpace. They are not dependent on door gigs and they don’t use site-housed MP3 files to interest presenters and media. Yet, as the market continues to flood with jazz-educated musicians, products of increasingly market-conscious conservatories and universities, they continue to herd onto the Internet, where their individuality is mostly lost in the crowd, and they don’t benefit from being part of a network.
This contributes to the downward pressure on fees for performances and recordings, a process well under way before the recent financial meltdown. It is a perverse inversion of the trend the critic Hollie West identified in the late ‘70s and early 1980s; rising ticket and LP prices were then driving out jazz’s working class audience. The current syndrome is driving out jazz’s working class musicians. Soon there will only be huskers and tenured court musicians, an artist relieved to be among the latter sardonically observed recently off the record.
However mundane the idea of creating community on the Internet has been made by marketers, there is a serious need to revisit the proposition. We need to look beyond artist sites, even though many artists – Dave Douglas and Ken Vandermark are two good examples – engage a well qualified audience on an ongoing basis. Artist sites provide various degrees of proximity to the artists: Douglas offers exclusive tracks through his site; you can get tweets from Vandermark. This enfranchises the audience and acknowledges them as community members.
The most heartening example of energizing Web-based community has been the campaign to support David S. Ware, who was in dire need for a kidney transplant. Led by Aum Fidelity producer Steven Joerg, this campaign solicited funds, called for potential donors to step up, and generally educated the reading public about the complex, not always successful process of obtaining a transplanted kidney. Ware’s successful transplant on May 13th is cause for celebration; not only has a major artist has been given a new, hopefully long lease on life, but he now has an audience that a connection to him that far exceeds that of generic fandom. Still, a musician’s health crisis is only an occasional, short-term impetus for community building.
An equally profound motivation for community building through the Internet is peace and social justice advocacy, which is exemplified by Deep Tones for Peace, an action for peace in the Middle East that occurred on April 26, 2009. Instigated by Jean Claude Jones, Mark Dresser and other double bassists, this six-hour sequence of double bass performances streamed live from venues in both Jerusalem and New York. People from 20 countries on five continents logged in for the performance; preparations are already underway for a second event next year.
Projects like Deep Tones for Peace widen the context of community far beyond a fan base. In connecting jazz and improvised music networks to peace activist networks, the project exemplifies Putnam’s concept of social capital as the collective value of multiple networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things with each other. It also reiterates jazz and improvised music not simply as musical genres, but as progressive social practices.
While live performances on the Internet can globalize an audience, new contexts for live performances are also indicated to sustain local communities. The most heartening new approach is actually an old one: the house concert movement. From Baltimore to LA, and San Francisco to Atlanta, house concerts combine music and food outside the normal commercial context, attracting a mixed audience, most of who are attracted by the social context as much as to hear a specific artist. House concerts create proximity between the music and meals, the epicenter of any culture; they reassert jazz as social music.
I’d like to return to the two initial cardinal points.
Anthony Braxton is preparing his most ambitious experiment to date, a realization of his Sonic Genome. This is not a concert in the conventional sense; it is an interactive environment, a restructualist theme-park for “friendly experiencers.” For eight continuous hours, fifty-plus performers will use Ghost Trance Musics compositions as the connecting principle for the musical structure. Ensembles form and peel apart to form new combinations; likewise, the friendly experiencers become active participants, choosing what to listen to as they move about the space.
The Sonic Genome expresses Braxton’s ideals about democracy, and the relationship between individuals and groups. As Taylor Ho Bynum recently explained, “The entire body of over fifty musicians can be deemed the ‘country,’ which can be broken into 15-to-20 person ‘state’ sized ensembles, then to three-to-five person ‘city’ groups. But of course, each individual is welcome to travel about the larger country, making new artistic alliances and musical connections. The performers can pull from throughout Braxton’s rich oeuvre, from solo and duet music to operas and compositions for creative orchestra. Musicians can improvise in reaction to the sounds around them, choose to remain silent and simply listen, or walk outside to take a break from the action. But the activity in the space continues unabated.”
Like many print media concerns, JazzTimes has been buffeted by the sharp downturn of the economy. Their failure to publish their June issue suggests its demise is likely, if not imminent.