Waking Up to Alvin Curran

The connections are there

FRANK J. OTERI: To get down to the other side of this equation: the capitol “I,” the improvisational world. What was your exposure to jazz early on? What was its impact on the directions you took later on?

ALVIN CURRAN: Well, I think it’s like the history of so many American musicians, which is grounded and founded in American popular music of whatever era. I grew up in a musical family. My father was a part-time professional with his own dance band, sang in the synagogue and in community choirs. So from a very early age I was playing dance band music, and then with my friends we were playing jazz—first forming Dixieland bands, then West Coast/Gerry Mulligan-style type bands, and then later into Miles Davis and Coltrane and so on. As a kid I was a very avid follower of all of the new directions, especially around Miles and Monk. I would come down from Providence, or New Haven, or wherever and go to clubs here in New York, or in Boston. I saw all of these great artists many, many times live.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you ever make any contact with them?

ALVIN CURRAN: No, my contact came with the second or third-generation—people like Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, and George Lewis—it became a community of musicians that we all worked together with.

In any case, I came from the fundamentals of structured and codified forms of improvisation in the jazz world or in the popular music world, which made it easy for me to become an improviser in general. Even back when I was 15 or 16 years old, somehow this cell of making music spontaneously was already in me. I just had it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you talked about Cage not being invited to Yale, being the equivalent of bacteria in a can being let loose. As radical as it would have been to invite Cage to Yale at that point, what about inviting Thelonious Monk to Yale at that point?

ALVIN CURRAN: Oh my God, that would have been unthinkable.

FRANK J. OTERI: And what’s weird about that being unthinkable is that Mel Powell was there, and Mel Powell was a jazz pianist.

ALVIN CURRAN: Yeah, he was a jazz pianist, but he renounced that and all that went with it. He somehow re-whitened himself. Mel was a loving, beautiful, admirable person. I used to love his stride jazz playing with Benny Goodman. But somehow there was a point when he turned his back on it, at least in the persona that he presented as a teacher at Yale in those days. And furthermore, even though Monk comes right out of the great stride piano tradition, I don’t think Mel would have been interested. Maybe if you said Earl Hines or Oscar Peterson. Maybe. I think Monk was too far out, strangely enough, for someone who had gone from that world to the world of Milton Babbitt. It’s really unusual.

FRANK J. OTERI: But now you can hear a connection between these things. You can hear the connection between Monk and Babbitt and Sun Ra and Cage.

ALVIN CURRAN: Oh, it’s there. I think Babbitt is completely grounded in American popular music, the music of Broadway, jazz, blues and so on. I’ve always said of Arnold Schoenberg: you scratch beneath any page of Arnold Schoenberg, and you find a Viennese waltz. I think the same is true of Milton Babbitt, Don Martino, any of these composers. It’s in their blood. [laughs]