A Tribute to Charles Hamm—Composer, Historian, Educator

[Excerpted from Chapter 17 “The Golden Age of Jazz,” from pp. 544-547, reprinted from Music in the New World by Charles Hamm. Copyright © 1983 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

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Music in the New World

The most determined, imaginative, uncompromising, and productive advocate of free jazz has been Cecil Taylor. Born in New York in 1933, classically trained at New England Conservatory, leader of small improvising chamber ensembles since 1965, he has pursued his own dialect of music without being distracted by the ebb and flow of musical events around him. His first recordings, from 1955, revealed him to be an imaginative adapter of the melodies and chord changes of popular songs, conforming to the general technique of the day. Little by little he moved away from dependence on tonal harmony or metrical patterns. He drew his ideas from a wide range of music, both classical and vernacular: “Everything I’ve lived, I am. I’m not afraid of European influences. The point is to use them—as Ellington did—as part of my life as an American Negro.”1 Working alone or with a small ensemble, he built fluid structures from small motifs, bits of precomposed material which took on a shape and a life of their own in the process of performance:

There is little talking at his rehearsals, and minimal dependence on the extensive notation. Taylor plays a melody; the other musicians pick it up and work with it; and he and his players proceed to the next. In performance, the duration of a piece will depend on the chemistry between the musicians at the moment. The amalgamation of influences-the sonorous images that multiply and clash-in a Taylor presentation combine in a folklorism of the musical past: depending on the background one brings to the music, one may hear Brahms, Liszt, Stravinsky, Bartók, Mahler, Cowell, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and who knows how many others. But they are all transsubstantiated, and the result is never a pastiche. The islets of musical thought are joined in an immense, radiant landscape. 2

Perhaps the nearest equivalent to Taylor’s style in classical music is to be found in certain passages of the Fourth Symphony or the Second String Quartet of Charles Ives, in which fragments of various pieces rush along with incredible energy in patterns quite out of touch with traditional metrical or harmonic practice.

His first distinctive ensemble was the Cecil Taylor Unit, made up of himself (piano), Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone) and Sonny Murray (drums). Expanding the group to include trumpet, saxophone, two basses, drums, and piano, Taylor recorded Unit Structures (1966), the first full realization of his mature style, usually ranked with Coleman’s Free Jazz as a monument of avant-garde jazz.

All later products, including the recent Idut, Serdab, and Holiday en Masque (all of 1978) and 3 Phasis of 1979, have grown out of extensions and enrichments of these working methods and aesthetics. At first hearing his music may strike one as chaotic, out of touch with any earlier style of jazz, perhaps indistinguishable in sound from certain contemporary classical pieces. But once one penetrates the external obstacle of a dissonant, asymmetrical, uncompromising general vocabulary, individual lines and improvised solos may be heard to unfold according to the same intuitively musical logic that has always characterized the best jazz performance.

Jazz was a dynamic and evolutionary art progressing through a series of stylistic changes until the 1950s. Older performers either adapted to the latest style or dropped out of sight; younger players were not interested in older repertories and styles.

However, jazz began to turn back on itself. There was the New Orleans Revival: older players such as Bunk Johnson and George Lewis were rediscovered and recorded; some younger players, unsympathetic to modern jazz, took up playing in this way. The big-band era seemed to die a natural death, giving way to a new style of small-ensemble playing; yet some of the big bands lingered on, finding audiences still receptive to their repertory, unwilling to adjust their ears to newer sounds. Bebop and then free jazz seemed to be logical evolutions and the best players went along with these newer trends; yet a number of jazz musicians clung to older ways of playing and found many people happy to listen to what they were doing.

Jazz, like classical music in the twentieth century, began living with and competing against its own past. It has been almost a quarter-century since the last major stylistic breakthrough. Jazz, like virtually all music in America, has reached a stylistic plateau, reshaping and refining older elements, marking time until the next, inevitable, stylistic revolution.

1Liner notes to Looking Ahead, Contemporary Records S-7562.

2Gary Giddins, liner notes to 3 Phasis, New World Records 303.

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