I am listening to Anthony Braxton’s 1971 recording FOR ALTO. This recording was the first of its kind; that is, of a musician making a totally solo recording on one instrument.
I do not care that I know this. What I do care about is the fact that I can listen and basically understand how Braxton is coming up with the music. It is more spontaneous, for instance, than my writing these words. Unless he edited his recording later, which is not the case, Braxton improvised on the alto sax only with his experience in the music as back-up. It is also more interesting for me if I leave history behind, appreciate what this music is in the present tense, no matter when I listen. (It is obviously not 1971.)
Braxton’s improvisation tailored the art of improvisation in a way that later became academic, not only for him, but also for others who studied his methods. In the long run though, I have to remember that Braxton’s musical experience had not only to do with his own history of music-making but also the experience of the traditions of African- Americans which shall forever be tied to those responsible for the art of improvisation.
At a music festival not long ago, while the musicians changed the stage for a new group, Khan Jamal, the vibist, asked the question of the audience, to prevent restlessness during intermission: where did the music that was being played at the festival come from? One person shouted: Philadelphia! Another shouted: Chicago! Jamal was diddling on the vibes. I sat and watched and said nothing, although I knew the answer to his question. "No", he responded to the two who had blurted out their answers and to the entire audience, "This music comes from Africa."
How do we as an audience resolve the circumstance that creative improvised music is as old as the African peoples who first made indigenous instruments and made music on them as new as that which the musicians now play. How do we as an audience resolve the circumstance that the seminal black society whose culture gave birth to this music is still segregated from the "dominant" culture. Its music is not as appreciated as much as it could be and its public reception lags, similarly to any cultural lag that exists with anything that is experimental. Is this lack of reception due to lack of awareness, discomfort generally with the ethnic basis of the music or the inability of the ‘dominant culture’ to support a music that is actually foreign to this country in origin?
Albert Murray has eloquently written about the blues and African-American music for years. Murray, in his most recent venture,which examines aesthetics in general, explicitly grapples with the argument promulgated by the two seemingly and, in fact, really, segregated dimensions of African-American culture. One aspect of the African-American culture believes in ethnic costuming, instruments of African heritage, tribal music that combines with the jazz idiom to blossom into non-mainstream improvised music ------that music which is dubbed "free" (a nomenclature often frowned upon by the musicmakers, themselves) and therefore, predestined for some listeners to be not understood and dismissed as intractable.
Avant-garde jazz/improvised music is a performance art, which has evolved & thrived over years of existence not always in this country. Those who have made recent history, broken boundaries to maintain the art , comprise a very long list. It would be a crime not to include all the musicians I know of and those about whom I have not a clue, but the following are the musicians that seem to me to be some obvious choices to begin with: Charlie Parker, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Miles Davis,Thelonious Monk, Elvin Jones, Sunny Murray, Wilbur Ware, Charlie Mingus, Fred Hopkins, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and on and on. The influence these musicians had and have had on innovation in improvised music is immeasurable. Young musicians constantly discover their contributions. Those musicians who participate in the big-label record industry and have "risen" to the Grammy arena have also assimilated the contributions that the above listed musicians have made even though that fact is not necessarily spoken outloud.
The "other" domain of African-American society, which I dare say , became identified more with the white American culture, included musicians whom we all know....Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie ...and on and on. These musicians, who performed in venues frequented by white audiences, believed themselves to be proponents of the transcendence of slavery and African-American disparagement. It is the misfortune of the demographic balance and proportions that throw everything out of wack both in terms of how both domains of African-American culture see themselves and how white American culture perceives and accepts African-American culture.
Albert Murray’s overall concept in his books indicates to me that all kinds of musics are always going to exist. All musicians who make whatever music will always have points of view. There will be points of view that override any differences within the African-American culture, coming from surprising places. Points of view that never override the differences will continue to prevail as well.
Amiri Baraka, whose views take a radical approach, in contrast to Murray’s, contends that slavery gave birth to the blues, and the blues gave birth to everything that followed in the "jazz world". Moreover, the psychology of slavery did not disappear with the "emancipation" and the psychology of slavery dominates the dominant race and puts pressure on the African-American to stay put. These radical stances are carried by many non-mainstream musicians and the people associated with them. They have become a culture unto themselves. Just recently, saxophonist Joe McPhee’s NATION TIME, originally recorded when Baraka spoke at Vassar in the 70’s, was re-released. I understood this gesture as another effort to advocate the idea of the solidarity of African-American culture, its music not to be ignored. No statement about freedom of expression is more necessary than in these or those times of uncertainty, no matter to whom it pertains. Whatever could possibly transcend difficulty more than music and the arts teeming with as much spirituality as organized religion itself could have.
The non-mainstream vanguard creative improvisers will survive any kind of cultural backlash because they dedicate themselves to the renewal of themselves that arises from their making music. Originality is spawned in every note, every juxtaposition of note to note, because the music happens in time. I cannot begin to exclaim how this originality has inspired poets, visual artists, other musicians, dancers, filmmakers.... and me. I would not, nor could I have begun to, write about the "music" unless I had been inspired by it, encouraged by it. I identify with the creativity that profoundly affects this music-making, with the mastery of musical language that is necessary to produce it and with the listening awareness of that language which must grow in order to appreciate what is being listened to.
William Parker, whose predominant instrument is the string bass, has said that no matter how the music that is being performed is described, be it avant-garde or "free" jazz, or whoever is performing , be he/she of any ethnic background, the music has to fit one mandate: to be "beautiful", because the music’s beauty is the quality that reaches our collective soul.
How can that mandate be contested? (This article is dedicated to Hamid Drake and all the musicians I know and about whom I have written.)