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Jazz in Search of Itself
By LARRY KART
Yale University Press Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter One Notes and Memories of the New Music, 1969
People put all these labels on the music, but actually all it is is cats playing. -LESTER BOWIE
And cats listening, too. When Something Else, Ornette Coleman's first record, came out in early 1959, I was a seventeen-year-old high school student living in a Chicago suburb. I'd been listening to jazz for about four years.
The first jazz record I'd bought, back in the spring of 1955, was a 45 EP by Lu Watters's Yerba Buena Jazz Band, entrancing not only for the music (its calculated rusticity sounded unlike anything I'd ever heard) but also for the liner notes (which proclaimed that this was "the only real jazz band in America"). Early in the next school year, my eighth-grade homeroom teacher, hearing that I was interested in jazz (he was a fan himself), recommended that I buy a Charlie Parker record and took me and a friend to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at the Chicago Opera House that featured Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Flip Phillips, and Illinois Jacquet, among others. That was it. From then on, all the money I could spare went into records.
I found others who shared my enthusiasm-that aforementioned friend, with whom I engineered what seemed to us monumental record trades (a ten-inch Ellington LP that contained "Ko-Ko" and "Concerto for Cootie" once brought ten less desirable albums in exchange), and, later on, an astonishingly good fifteen-year-old drummer, who had practiced for two years to Max Roach records in his attic before playing in public. I'm sure that his necessarily practical approach to listening-a quest to discover in other musicians virtues that he himself could put to use-helped to deepen and ground my own understanding.
Eldridge, Young, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Roach, and Philly Joe Jones were my gods, and their records were the texts of a religion. We were still too young to hear these men in clubs unless we brought a parent along, so we went to off-night, all-ages-welcome sessions run by Joe Segal and discovered a host of local deities-multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, pianist Jodie Christian, bassists Victor Sproles and Donald Garrett, and drummer Wilbur Campbell.
Then came John Coltrane's Blue Train album, with the leader's galvanic solo on the title track. This, to me, was the first sign that the music could and would change. Perhaps because I had come to jazz during a period of musical consolidation, it hadn't occurred to me that the music might once again undergo an upheaval comparable to that of the 1940s. But Coltrane's playing made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, something new was happening. Listening to Blue Train again, I realize that, beyond Coltrane's stylistic innovations, it was his music's emotional aura of intense and unceasing search that was the clue. Today it appears that Sonny Rollins will have a deeper musical effect on the new music, but Coltrane was the herald for me.
Fortunately, at about the same time, I heard Chico Hamilton's quintet, and, amid the polite thumping, the group's reed-man picked up a strange-looking ebony horn and played a solo that sounded like Coltrane translated for the human voice. Of course this was Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, and now my belief that change was occurring had a second point of reference.
Ornette Coleman was the third, and the leap in understanding that Something Else required was more than I could manage at first. In fact, Something Else remains a weird record. Pianist Walter Norris attempts to accompany Ornette with pertinent harmonies, creating "advanced" harmonic patterns that clash with Ornette's homemade, and ultimately downhome, tonal, rhythmic, and melodic concerns. The record is a perfect example of Ornette's distance from the conventions of the forties and fifties, but the emotional tone of the music is bizarre-as though Johnny Dodds had recorded with a Red Nichols group.
The next Coleman record I heard, The Shape of Jazz to Come (with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins), had a more homogeneous atmosphere. "Peace" and "Lonely Woman" were such direct and intense emotional statements that I found myself listening to them constantly, even though I had little understanding of what Ornette was up to in purely musical terms. I felt that the music was beautiful, but my fifties-trained ears told me that it was exotic and "outside."
That barrier finally fell when I heard "R.P.D.D." from the Ornette album under rather unusual circumstances. As I played it for the second time, late one night, I drifted off to sleep and dreamed that, in a pastoral setting, I was hearing a music more warmly human and natural than any I'd heard before. I awoke to discover that Coleman's "R.P.D.D." solo was what I'd been hearing in the dream, and that the quality I'd given it there was one it actually possessed. In no emotional sense was this music "far out" or abstract. Instead, I found that I had to turn to blues and early jazz to find music that conveyed human personality as directly.
The next beneficent shock to my ears was administered by Coltrane (by this time, the summer of 1960, I was about to become a student at the University of Chicago). Ever since Blue Train, my drummer friend and I had listened to every Coltrane recording we could find. The then most recent one, Giant Steps, sounded to us like it might be the end of the musical road he had been traveling for the past several years. Still, when Coltrane came to the Sutherland Lounge in mid-August, we went expecting to hear those qualities which had marked most of Giant Steps (recorded in May 1959 and released early in 1960)-dense harmonic patterns negotiated with a brilliantly hard and even tone. Instead, we heard something quite different.
This was the group with pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Pete LaRoca (the direct predecessor of the group that would record the album My Favorite Things two months later), and the difference between Giant Steps and the manner and matter of Coltrane's current playing seemed immense. The tunes on tenor were mostly up-tempo blues with the harmonies stripped down toward modality, and the keening, granite-hard tone now exploded into growls and honks. The tunes on soprano saxophone, a horn we had some difficulty in recognizing, used harmonic change to form hypnotically circular rhythm patterns, over which Coltrane wailed like a blues-possessed snake charmer. To say the least, we were astonished and moved. As Coleman had done in his way, Coltrane unearthed a degree of passion rare in any music. [I also recall Coltrane conversing between sets with the visiting Johnny Hodges, his former boss, and passing his soprano sax on to Hodges for examination. Hodges had played the instrument himself in the late twenties and early thirties.]
From then on, Coltrane's Chicago visits were essential experiences. I remember in particular an engagement at McKie's Disc Jockey Show Lounge, during which a tune from Giant Steps, "Mr. P.C.," became a nightly challenge. "My Favorite Things" and the other soprano tunes would be dealt with in the first two sets, and by 1 a.m. he would be playing "Mr. P.C." on tenor with an intensity that seemed to demand in response all the volume Elvin Jones could muster. The tune would be played for at least forty minutes, and some performances lasted well over an hour. As novelist Jerry Figi wrote of a later Coltrane group: "What they did prove was just how hard they could try. That they could beat themselves bloody pounding at the farthest reaches of experience and come back with only their effort as an answer."
But there were other answers, or their beginnings, in the music of Coleman's Free Jazz and Cecil Taylor. I see that, so far, my memories have centered on the emotional freedom that Coltrane and Coleman won for the individual improviser. The group settings seemed basically to be springboards for their solo efforts, although the wholeness of performances like "Lonely Woman" and "Ramblin'" should have been clues that Coleman, at least, had something else in mind.
Free Jazz made it clear that the relative liberation of the soloist was only the beginning of this music. The discovery that one soloist, using emotion as a determining force to an unprecedented degree, could produce music of great power led quickly to the thought of what might come from a group of musicians who simultaneously played in this way. The musical risks in such an approach are obvious. But Free Jazz overcame them to an amazing extent. Here were four hornmen, only two of them having much in common stylistically (Coleman and Cherry), producing a collective music that multiplied the power of Ornette's playing without sacrificing its order.
I had heard Cecil Taylor's music before this, but Free Jazz made me aware that he had an alternative and personal approach to the same situation. Taylor's orchestral approach to the piano determined the nature of his groups' creations. His recordings show that, given reasonably sympathetic musicians, he could enclose and order their playing from the keyboard, in one moment overseeing both rhythm section and front line. Still, as Taylor grew in solo power, or perhaps revealed more of what was always there, his virtuosity became overwhelming, and none of the hornmen he recorded with could function on a similar level. Taylor plays more brilliantly on Live at the Café Montmartre and Unit Structures than on Looking Ahead, but the group interaction on the earlier album is more satisfying. Perhaps, like Tatum, Taylor would fare best as a solo performer.
But I seem to be getting ahead of myself, because by 1963 I had heard local musicians who were playing the new music. I've never been able to pinpoint the different effects produced by live and recorded music, but the difference is a real one. Therefore, hearing in person the bass playing of Russell Thorne with the Joe Daley Trio was a revelation. Thorne was the first bass player I know of who could create an instantaneous combination of passion and order out of the new music's materials. The quality of his arco playing has not yet been approached in jazz, and if the kind of order he created owed something to modern classical composition (he had symphony orchestra experience and knew his Boulez, Cage, and Barraqué), it never had the sterility of so-called third-stream jazz.
His music and his acquaintance also made me aware of a source for the new music that is gradually being acknowledged-the innovations of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh. I suspect that their music, with its unique rhythmic and harmonic qualities, and its emphasis on group creation, has already had an effect on a number of young musicians. Thorne no longer seems to be active as a musician (he works in a bookshop), but I doubt that music could ever be far from his mind. I hope that once again he will give some of it to us.
The second Chicago-based player of the new music I heard was Roscoe Mitchell. Coltrane was in town, and Elvin Jones was appearing at an off-night session. As Jerry Figi once put it, Elvin was laying about "with a vengeance, one of those prehistoric movie-monsters crashing through a city"-in the process wiping out a James Moody-like tenor player. Suddenly, in the middle of a tune, a young alto saxophonist climbed on the stand and played a solo that met Jones more than halfway. What he played, a version of the birdlike cries that Dolphy used, was inseparable from the way he played it. His raw, piercing sound was powerful enough to cut through the drums, and Elvin found himself playing with and against someone. When the saxophonist had finished, he climbed down and disappeared into the audience. Someone was able to answer my question with the name Roscoe Mitchell, and I filed it for future reference.
Another in-person listening experience occurred during a New York visit in the spring of 1964, when I went to a loft session featuring the Roswell Rudd-John Tchicai group, with, as I recall, bassist Louis Worrell and drummer Milford Graves. They were playing well when one of those incidents happened that helps me understand the antagonism many older musicians and listeners feel toward the new music. A tenor player sat in and played the same note, spaced out with much "significant" silence, for about ten minutes. In between notes, he screwed up his face in dramatic indecision, as though he were considering and rejecting countless musical possibilities. It would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad.
After this performance, another man borrowed the tenor player's horn, and joined Rudd and Tchicai. His remarkably broad sound bristled with overtones, and his melodies moved from a groaning, funereal lyricism to jaunty, anthemlike marches. The group fell into a joyous New Orleans polyphony (aided by Rudd's Dixieland experience), but the effect was of the 1941 Ellington band in full flight-Rudd the whole trombone section, Tchicai the trumpets, and the tenorman capturing perfectly the overtone-rich sound of the Ellington reeds. As you may have guessed, he was Albert Ayler, whom I'd read about but never heard.
That fall I returned to the University of Chicago after a two-year absence to discover that the Hyde Park-Woodlawn area in which the school is located was the scene of burgeoning new music activity. At first, my ears and my mind were in conflict, because I'd been trained to think that New York City must be the center of artistic endeavor in this country. These local musicians, both in conception and performance, seemed to be going beyond anything I'd heard before, but surely this couldn't be so. But a few months of listening to Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, et al. convinced me that my ears (and emotions) were correct.
The first Roscoe Mitchell album, Sound, was probably all the evidence I needed, for here in three performances ("Ornette," "Sound," and "The Little Suite") were the past, present, and future of the new music. "Ornette" was the new music's past, i.e., Coleman to 1966. Over a dense but swinging pulse set up by drummer Alvin Fielder and bassist Malachi Favors, the horns played excellent solos (tenor saxophonist Maurice McIntyre, at once downhome and abstract, was especially impressive). But the jolly, Coleman-like theme that began and ended the performance was phrased with a savagery that implied that this kind of enclosure was no longer sufficient. "Sound" was the present answer-a blank canvas upon which each soloist in turn was free to determine melody and rhythm for himself, without reference to a stated theme or a steady pulse. Whether it was planned that way or not, the actual performance did have a constant point of reference-an evolving mood of melancholy that each soloist extended.
While "Sound" was perhaps bolder in conception than "Ornette," the latter's mercurial leaps of energy were a more direct link to "The Little Suite" and the future. My first reaction to this piece was that it was primarily fun and games. The absence of separate solos, the use of harmonica, slide whistle, etc., and the overall tone of dramatic satire seemed unserious. After all, wasn't solo prowess the final test of a musician's worth?
But as I relaxed and let the music work on me, I heard the beginnings of a new kind of musical form. In a sense, the piece was composed (there were prearranged sections, like the little march), but how such sections would be reached and where they would lead seemed as freely determined as the playing of any soloist. The form was dramatic, for, as in "Sound," mood was the dominant force in every passage, but the shifts between moods were kaleidoscopic, and the opening theme's return seemed spontaneous rather than preordained.
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