The Jazz Composers Collective on Creating and Performing
Jazz Composers Collective: Clip #1
FRANK J. OTERI: I think you guys are the future of jazz right now, the present and future of jazz, both with what you’re doing as a collective and your various individual projects. And I think the cross-section that you represent, and the fact that you’re able to come together with each other as leaders and sidemen in each other’s groups is a remarkable model for jazz, for music in general, and for society at large. So… how did this all begin?
BEN ALLISON: It started back in the summer of 1992, a horrible summer for me musically. I think this whole organization was born out of frustration, the sense of feeling a little bit disconnected with the scene, with what was happening in New York. I mean, there were all these kind of different cliques of musicians and we had all played with many different people, and we continue to play with many different people, you know, different groups and stuff, but, I personally felt like I didn’t really fit into one particular scene. I liked playing uptown at Augie’s, where there was a kind of a real strong neo-bebop movement happening, and I liked to play down at the Knitting Factory, where there was all kinds of other stuff happening. But I didn’t feel particular allegiance to either one solely. So rather than sit around and bitch about feeling a little bit disconnected, I had the thought of taking things into our own hands and seeing what we could do together to create our own scene. So that was the initial inspiration. And the first few guys that were involved… It actually came out of conversations that I had been having with a good friend of mine, John Schroeder, who has since moved out to the west coast, but at that point he was living in New York, a great saxophone player and composer, and we were just talking about this stuff all the time. We had been getting together on a weekly basis in the basement of a school where I taught, Third Street Music School, over here in the Village…
FRANK J. OTERI: On 11th Street!
BEN ALLISON: We got together every week and worked on each other’s music. And we’d struggle through it, no matter how bizarre. Some of it was great, some of it sucked, but the point was that we got together and just saw what would happen.
FRANK J. OTERI: In a gig setting, or just rehearsing?
BEN ALLISON: No, no, just in the basement of the school. It’s about that time that I met Frank… probably I’d met Frank already. But, within a year or two of us meeting, and we hit it off immediately musically, we all got involved in playing together. And when inspiration hit for the collective, I asked John and Frank how they felt about it, and we decided the first thing we ought to do is bring what we’d been doing down in the basement outside, and so we just put, I don’t know, 400 bucks or something in a shoe box.
FRANK KIMBROUGH: I think it was 75 bucks.
BEN ALLISON: 75 bucks apiece [laughs] in a shoebox, and we rented a little hall in the West Village, which was part of the Greenwich House Music School. And just put on a concert. And at that point I’d been reading a biography of Alban Berg and they were talking about a similar problem that they were having, feeling kind of, feeling disconnected with what was happening, you know. And the way their music was being programmed in a set, they would have, you know, Brahms, Bach, Webern, and more Brahms… And so by the time they got to the Webern part, the audience would be either apathetic or angered. And so they kind of felt that their music was out of place and they wanted to find their own scene. So they started something called the Society for Private Musical Performances, I think, which was basically a loft scene.
FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of precedents, I’m also thinking of the AACM in Chicago…
BEN ALLISON: Actually, yeah, I was actually ignorant of a lot of that scene. I certainly knew those musicians, but I didn’t really know the history behind it. But, to briefly get back to the Society for Private Musical Performances… One of the things they did was issue a newsletter in advance of each of their concerts written by the composers who were going to be performed. And it was really written in an attempt to bridge the gap between themselves and the audience, recognizing that what they were doing was maybe not the common fodder, and, you know, what’s wrong with talking about it a little bit or giving some people some insight into what they were doing? Anyway, when we first put the collective together, that’s why we had our newsletter as part of our initial concept, too. But then once the word got out about that, and we started our regular series, I was contacted by a lot of people from these scenes, like Dave Liebman, and I was talking to Billy Hart about the Composers’ Guild and all these different organizations and it just struck me how each generation has kind of hit upon a basic truth. You know, each generation has found a certain hole and wanted to fill it with their own things.