Academic Overtures

This month’s Institute of Jazz Studies Round Table discussion was titled “Three Paths in the Formation of an Avant Garde in Jazz (1956-61): Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman: A comparative tale of three cities, receptions, repertories, influences, approaches, and musical styles and techniques with musical examples and visual images. A book in progress by ethnomusicologist Eric Charry, Wesleyan University Music Department,” which perfectly described Dr. Charry’s selected presentation of his research for two books-in-progress: The Emergence of an Avant Garde in Jazz, 1956-1965 and Music as a Cultural Force: Downtown New York in the 1950s and 60s. I missed the opening 5-10 minutes of the discussion because of a delay in getting to the IJS from Professor John Howland’s big band class that I’m auditing at Rutgers University (a necessary detour for pizza was in order), so I’m not sure when his books will become available; but, I was told by another attendee, it should be sometime next year.

The gist of what I heard is that the decade between the middle of the 1950s and 1960s saw a dramatic change in how the cutting edge of the jazz community approached making music; that there was a gradual, but marked shift from relying on formal structures for improvisational unity to more “free” situations where individual performers could perform the music as they saw fit—starting in soloists’ improvisations and eventually extending into composed themes. Charry made a point that during this time frame his three subjects, all considered seminal figures in the emerging avant-garde, codified their very different approaches in disparate geographical locales—Coleman in Los Angeles, Ra in Chicago, and Taylor in New York—and, while their musical identities were very different (you’d never confuse the three from their output), they presaged a trend towards open-ended improvisation that mirrored counter-cultural philosophies of their time. Several interesting points came up in the discussion, which eventually became somewhat heated. I won’t identify any attendees for obvious reasons, but will try to accurately describe the events.

Charry played various examples of Sun Ra’s music including what is one of the earliest, if not the earliest recording of an electric piano (Wurlitzer) that sounded quite a bit like what Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were doing with Miles Davis (one attendee commented that it was reminiscent of Corea’s work in Return to Forever), but the possibility of a direct influence was not taken up in any detail. Hopefully, more pre-publication research on that is forthcoming. There was quite a bit of discussion about Sun Ra’s sidemen, especially tenor saxophonist John Gilmore (who was, arguably, to Sun Ra what Johnny Hodges was to Duke Ellington) and examples from live recordings and rehearsal tapes were played. One of the things about these recordings that struck me was just how good a pianist Sun Ra was. As “far out” as he would play (at one point he was comping in layered hemiolas), he was extremely controlled and always rooted in jazz’s traditional African American vernacular. I was somewhat surprised to hear some of the attendees be dismissive of Ra’s pianistic virtuosity, while virtually applauding the examples of Cecil Taylor that displayed his mastery of playing over independent rhythmic structures, but with (as Taylor admitted) no dedication to the jazz vernacular. Unfortunately, no examples of Ornette’s music were offered, at least not that I remember.

This was followed by a comparison of each of the subjects’ critical reception. Readers’ polls and critics’ polls were parsed and converted into tables that showed how Coleman and Taylor were consistently better received than Ra, although he played more in the African American community and across a broader range of situations. (It’s worth mentioning that he was a pianist and arranger for Fletcher Henderson and, during the time being discussed, regularly accompanied the likes of Dakota Staton with his Arkestra.) An interesting feature mentioned by Charry was that the critics were ahead of the readers in terms of recognizing Taylor, Coleman and Ra, although the last mentioned was continuously under discussed, despite his broader palette, more tangible connection to the jazz tradition, and more experimental nature. It was when the discussion about Sun Ra’s use of space-age terminology, starting around 1958, was compared to Ornette Coleman’s describing his own music as “human” and “natural” that I recognized the trend towards primitivism in critical reception rearing it’s well-weathered head. Of course, I had just come from a class where it was pointed out that the music of Raymond Scott, with it’s repetitive bass lines and use of electronic technology, was considered as “not jazz” while the “jungle” music of Duke Ellington was hailed as “true jazz.” What chance did Sun Ra—with his ostinato bass figures, use of electronic keyboards, and talk about space-flight—stand?

The heat came on when one attendee suggested it was a travesty that the music of these artists aren’t offered as models for performance pedagogy in higher education jazz programs (although they certainly are in jazz history programs). I tried to point out that composer/pianist Diane Moser was teaching a composition class at the New School for Social Research that relied heavily on non-song-form constructed music making, which comes about as close to teaching the music of the avant-garde as one can get without getting into repertory ensembles, something that one of the panel’s elder statesmen pointed out was a salient feature of the avant-garde jazz scene: that no one voice was dictating what everyone else would sound like (also—to piggy-back on last week’s observation of the performance from The Stone—is eerily similar to the ideology behind the various “Occupy the [?]” movements we see in the news). Sadly, this attendee debunked my defense-of-the-academy overture, by pointing out that Moser is now only teaching private piano lessons at the New School for Jazz. Oh, well.

I’m still revving up for my presentation to the class that I briefly described last week. Compiling lists and organizing tables of Thelonious Monk’s recording sessions showing how many times he recorded each of 189 titles in his discography, constructing a score that includes both versions of the piece being analyzed (the measure content of the form is different in each, which is testing my patience with computer notation programs-I might do it by hand!), transcribing iconoclastic piano and tenor saxophone solos, researching critical reception, contacting musicians to interview. It’s not like playing music at all, although it does offer better understanding of what I hear being played. So, seeing the results of Charry’s intimate relationship with back issues of trade magazines, album liner notes, public and private records, and the like made me feel a little less out-of-touch with music performance.

Still, I found myself needing to go hear some live music after the panel presentation. I wound up going to a jam session in Manhattan and all was good again! Tonight – Da Nona Rosa in Brooklyn!

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