In the interests of maximum latitude, inspired by the late Ed Bland’s The Cry of Jazz, the futureless future, in all its contradictions, herein represents: the ongoing struggle for racial and economic equality; the avant-garde future (and past) of Black music, a creative continuum; and the pastless past, where history goes down the Orwellian memory hole, which is often where jazzocracy dwells along with protracted atrocities like the Vietnam War, which time, corporate media, and the Beltway have reduced to a simple, fundamentally patriotic, “Thank you for your service!” So I’m having it both ways: the futureless future is both the void of a nonviable future and the galactic expanse of limitless eternal vistas. I’m not going to clarify my use of “jazzocracy” here beyond its contextual allusions. The problem of jazzocracy is the basis of much of Ka-ching, and this site is intended only to supplement the book. If you Google “jazzocracy,” however, your first return is—well, it’s not for me to go there in this space, though Ka-ching goes there and beyond. And we should all go to the invaluable beyond of UbuWeb where The Cry of Jazz can be seen in one 34-minute wail.
It’s free-jazz drum master Sunny Murray’s date, though he’s Sonny on the cover, featuring Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, and it’s a 1965 Black Arts/New Thing landmark, recorded in Brooklyn. The titles of the compositions, all credited to Murray, tell all: “Virtue,” “Justice,” “Black Art,” which is Amiri Baraka reading the incendiary poem of that title (“Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth”), and, on the 1991 DIW Records CD reissue, a bonus track, “The Lie.”
In this provocative context, the trademark rat-tat-tat of Murray’s snare sounds like nothing so much as a cop insistently knocking on his door. Or perhaps a gangster. In a strangely enthralling 2000 interview Murray, apparently a character if ever there was one, talks at some length about mob influence in the ’60s avant-garde jazz scene, though the interview comes with a disclaimer: “The editors of Paris Transatlantic would like to point out that the content of this interview does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors, their families, their children, nor their pets; but that the text that follows is a fascinating documentation of the opinions of Sunny Murray . . .” And indeed it is. Two illuminating Murray remarks from this interview, no disclaimer required:
I’d gotten to the point where, as my music changed, I didn’t want to play a lot of beats—I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat. . . . I consider what I play to be the traditional avant-garde, the roots, and I think nobody understands the difference, the generation gap in the avant-garde. Traditional avant-garde has a kind of swing. We should call it free bop.
And in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz, the expatriate Murray bitterly addressed the issue of America’s lack of support for artists:
[T]he respect and support artists should get, America has never reached that real respect for artists like Europe [has]. America’s always like “You’re wasting your time” or “Why do you play that crazy shit?” But in Europe, they are always . . . appreciative of the artist and the artist’s creativity [and] there’s no age problem. As long as you are playing creatively and with quality in your music you will always work, it’s just a whole different support system. They give an artist social security . . . I get a nice apartment [for] $46 a month, I don’t pay for my doctor or my medicine. These are all attachments in French society that they do for the artists. And that doesn’t exist . . . in America.
In addition to Sonny’s Time Now, the record, there is the 2008 documentary Sunny’s Time Now, the DVD, but as far as I can tell this is available in PAL format only, and, sadly, only its trailer is to be found on You Tube. The director, Antoine Prum, is credited with the film’s politically charged summary on IMDb, which is worth quoting in full:
Retracing the longstanding career of avant-garde drummer Sunny Murray, one of the most influential figures of the Free jazz revolution. Through a series of interviews with key time witnesses as well as historic and contemporary concert footage, it reassesses the relationship between the libertarian music movement and the political events of the 1960s, whose social claims it so intimately reflected. By doing so, it also recounts how the most radical forms of musical expression were excluded from the major production and distribution networks as the libertarian ideal went out of fashion. Beyond its historical approach, the film follows Sunny Murray on current gigs, showing his daily struggle to perpetuate a musical genre which is still widely ignored by the general public. In doing so, Sunny’s Time Now also dwells on the near-clandestine community of aficionados who continue to worship the gods of their musical coming of age, and whose unfaltering support has permitted free improvisational music—of which Sunny Murray is one of the last Mohicans—to live on.
Antoine Prum is a Luxembourger, and his use of “libertarian” here, it’s probably safe to assume, is intended in its more familiar European left-wing connotation, not the far-right brand of libertarianism that’s predominant in the U.S.
Addendum: Sunny’s Time Now can be seen in its entirety on CultureUnplugged.com—a fact I discovered most serendipitously via a post in the Albert Ayler Facebook group. At one point in this marvelous film, German musicologist Ekkehard Jost, author of Free Jazz, says, in reference presumably to European perceptions of the 1960s avant-jazz movement, or perhaps in reference only to its expatriate arm, it’s not completely clear: “The idea was that the American musician might be the avant-garde of international Communism—which was completely ridiculous.” Maybe the rest of the country just hasn’t caught up with them yet, more than half a century later.
Bernard who? Bernard Wolfe is the co-writer of Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir Really the Blues (referenced in Ka-ching’s discussion of the reactionary false binaries of jazz/classical and improvisation/”rote performance”), but that is just one of Wolfe’s several claims to what is now mostly out-of-print fame. In addition to having briefly been secretary to Trotsky in Mexico—talk about heavy left-wing credentials!—Wolfe was a novelist of some repute whose legacy includes the acclaimed Limbo, an intriguingly overwrought Freudian sci-fi phantasmagoria set—maybe a century too early, it will likely seem to a contemporary reader—in a post-World War III 1990. The war, you see, in this wildly over-the-top riff on the Cold War and the arms race, was so devastating, a young men’s mass movement developed in which guys would voluntarily have all their limbs amputated as an assurance of future peace, some replacing their losses with atomic-powered super-prosthetics (that are of course eventually used for war), and others, the really sincere ones, choosing, quite incredibly, to lie limbless as helpless adult babies. Never mind the Byzantine plot, however; I’m not looking to sort out Wolfe’s vision of future shock here but rather to note his anticipation of free jazz, perhaps in the manner of Ed Bland, made all the more piquant by Wolfe’s implicit rejection of his colleague (or client) Mezzrow’s moldy figism.
In one of his frequent flights of philosophical fancy in Limbo, Wolfe muses, on behalf of his protagonist, on the nature of time, music, and the conformity of contemporary life: “Music, the art whose medium was time itself, often expressed the pathos of this dictatorship by time, through moods of resignation (metronomic regularity) or revolt (syncopation).” This smacks of the standard jazzocratic assault on classical music, the dictatorship of the conductortariat and so on, straight out of Really the Blues and countless other such screeds, and Wolfe goes on to tie it into puritanical notions of “lofty spirit” and “lowly flesh,” adding, “Calvin had begun to preach his metronomic morality only when Geneva had become a city of watchmakers,” but then he makes what strikes me as an abrupt U-turn:
Wasn’t jazz, too, part of this time-saddled picture? In its syncopated play with time, what was jazz but a toying with the idea of disrupting schedule and smashing the metronome—a toying, a nihilistic charade, but never the complete breakthrough? The trumpets and clarinets kept promising to desert the thumping four-four rhythm section and fly off anarchically into timeless, chaotic, unmetronomic space: that was the thrill in improvisation. But the promise was never fulfilled . . . Jazz, with its abrupt orgasmic spasms and its split-second frenzies, was nothing but emotional verticality transmuted into sound, and what seemed like joy in it was really anguish. The soloist made a pretense of evading the clock-ridden musical community in a brief blast of willful subjectivity—then sank back again into the harmonic and rhythmic traps of the community.
[. . .] And so: skyscraper equates with jazz equates with mountain equates with metronome equates with metronomic instincts: Eros punching the time clock.
Limbo was published in 1952, but Wolfe is projecting a world some four decades hence—a world that for some reason had not developed a music sans time clock, though if it had, as it in fact did in the “real” world not long after Wolfe was fashioning his dystopia, Eros would have been love-punching its way to the complete breakthrough of emotional horizontality that he was apparently seeking in sound. (If Wolfe, who died in 1985, ever wrote anything about free jazz, I have yet to come across it.)
As for that Trotsky tie-in, it yielded what may be Wolfe’s greatest novel, The Great Prince Died, a fictionalized account of Trotsky’s last days (Wolfe had left Mexico before the ax fell on his boss). “Anyone who wants a quiet life should not have been born in the twentieth century,” said Trotsky, and though he apparently wasn’t referring to music, the quote has been used to great effect in a study of Jazz Age New York City that probably even Mezz Mezzrow could get behind.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013—May Day, i.e., International Workers’ Day in many countries, though not so much here in “classless” America—and, significantly, it’s the first of three nights of Ten Freedom Summers, Leo Smith’s musical odyssey of the civil rights movement, at Roulette in Brooklyn. The massive work, released in 2012 as a four-disc set, has no vocals, no lyrics, but it says everything that needs to be said in its 19 section titles, which start with “Dred Scott: 1857” and end with “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Memphis, the Prophecy.”
The opening night’s music was titled “First Collection: Defining Moments in America,” and I experienced a defining Wadada Leo Smith moment even before the piece began. I had arrived early in order to be assured of a front row-center seat (which allowed me to take the picture seen here with my trusty pocket camera). Well before the musicians took the stage, when the room was still filling up (though it would hardly be a sellout, which is typical for such music), Smith was out front on the floor talking to someone, perhaps, I don’t quite recall, when all of a sudden he was walking the floor, shaking the hand of everyone in the front row, saying hello and thanking us for coming. Although I had a general notion of Smith as an avatar of jazz enlightenment, I was still flabbergasted by this display of solidarity. Smith, 71, surely owes some of his trumpet style to Miles Davis, but I was struck by the contrast with my image of Davis, who was actually nicknamed the Prince of Darkness and permanently slapped with a (possibly undeserved) reputation for turning his back on the audience when he played, in addition to being notorious for a dangerously irascible aloofness that he wore like a hip cloak. And after the concert, which ran in the vicinity of three hours, as I recall, the indefatigable Smith launched into a 20-minute explanation—improvised, of course—of the work’s origins, covering everything from his childhood experience of segregation in Mississippi to the particularities of his compositional style.
Ten Freedom Summers is, in the context of the artistic counter-jazzocracy that inspires Ka-ching, Exhibit A—it’s actually about the very issues that jazzocracy tends to erase. And there’s a perfect term for this counter-jazzocracy, which I owe to the University of Guelph’s Daniel Fischlin and his analysis of Smith’s political project in Criticial Studies in Improvisation: the improvocracy. The improvocracy! This is primarily a political concept—as is jazzocracy, of course—that stands jazzocratic doublespeak on its not so pointy head. As Fischlin says in “Improvocracy” in reference to Smith:
The linkage between mobile forms of creative musicking that attack dominant modes of musical discourse anticipates . . . political reforms that change the structures that “handle” our lives—aesthetic change precedes political change. Improvisation lies at the heart of the drive toward aesthetic change and innovation—without it such change is impossible. . . . In the alternating waves of consonance and dissonance that emerge from the sound of improvocracies lies . . . a radical alternative to corrupt and life-destroying models for conflict resolution.
Fischlin also refers to sociologist John Brown Childs’ Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect, noting that “improvisatory contexts . . . allow for differing identities not based on ethnic difference to come together to explore musical and social meaning”—a “bridging,” according to Fischlin, that is akin to Childs’ “transcommunality.” Childs, in the introduction to his book (see the link above), explains:
In an era rushing toward mindless materialism, propelled by powerful, unfeeling economic syndicates that uproot body and soul, more and more people will seek refuge in compartmentalized forms of social identity. However, the search for safety in such sealed compartments is by itself largely illusory. Fragmented, isolated, and unknowing of, or hostile to, one another, people are more, not less vulnerable to the very forces of destruction from which they seek escape. . . . The real dilemma we face is the lack of constructive and mutually respectful interaction among those diverse settings, rather than diversity itself.
Confronted and often confounded by a crushing, globalizing monoculture that is supported by willing national elites, and imposed from the core regions of economic power, we are not becoming better-connected peoples despite “mass communications.” Instead, we are being broken down into ever more atomized elements, subordinated as mere uncommunicating parts of “mass culture.”
Transcommunality emphasizes, according to Childs,
a constant process of negotiational construction of organization among diverse participants, rather than an imposed monolithic system. Such negotiated action involves the recognition that dispute and difference, sometimes profound, must be accepted as a basic aspect of the “human condition” rather than being constrained through top-down, police-like controls.
Transcommunality, in short, is a universal identity politics. Though there’s no reference to anarchism in Fischlin’s piece or in Childs’ introduction, I think it’s worth noting that improvocracy seems to be grounded in, among other things, basic anarchist doctrine—though it can be a very elusive term, virtually any definition of anarchism in the (very positive) sense in which I’m using it will be founded on principles of voluntary association and non-hierarchical modes of cooperation, which I hope to explore further on this site in relation to free jazz. Similarly, this is hardly the first time, of course, that Smith has produced a masterpiece of improvocracy; he’s been doing this for pretty much his entire career, as will be seen in future posts.
Rarely does one see an interview with a jazz musician, even a free-jazz musician, the chief subject of which is anarchism. How refreshing to discover that Daniel Carter was interviewed by Nils Jacobson of All About Jazz—the interview, which appears to be from 1999, does not seem to be available on the AAJ Web site, though it can be found elsewhere online—whose first question was, “Tell me about anarchy.” And Carter, who has read widely, but at the same time quite candidly and disarmingly admits that he has not read deeply, proceeds to tell him about anarchy at great length, as he engages in what, in the context of this site, might be called a political discourse of improvocracy. In what I gather is the introduction to the interview, titled “Daniel Carter: Underground Anarchist”—it appears after the interview online, but it clearly is setting up the interview—Jacobson writes,
Daniel Carter is not exactly a household name. The saxophonist/trumpeter has been making improvised music for decades, but he still remains largely unknown. Obscurity did not arise because he intentionally kept a low profile. Quite the contrary: he’s worked with some of the most influential figures on the avant-garde music scene, such as Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra. In order to better understand the Carter phenomenon, one must appreciate his commitment to functional anarchism.
Some of Carter’s observations in this interview, strung together for political effect:
There’s this idea that the idea of democracy and anarchism (in its ideal sense) are not so far away from each other. . . . The idea of people freely associating, and deciding for themselves individually and collectively, what it is they want to do, rather directly . . . [this] might even be more of a democracy than democracy . . . as we know it. . . . What we need is more true decentralized grassroots democracy. . . . You wouldn’t have to look to any wild, crazy anarchist who would want to totally innovate the government. Just the majority of the people . . .
On the subject of collective improvisation and the leader/sideman binary that is endemic to mainstream jazz:
I just think that if the music is essentially people improvising—people playing spontaneously—then how could it be under somebody’s name? . . . Most of the groups I’m in are collectives. Sometimes they’ve started out otherwise, and I’ve fought for them to be under a collective name . . . some name that would be inspirational or aspirational for the whole group. . . . It seems to me that spiritually and energetically, it should work better for the group to do it that way.
On the intrinsically jazzocratic Great Man theory of jazz:
I agree with Kwami Ture, [aka] Stokely Carmichael. Like Kwami Ture, I don’t believe in the great man theory, even though I’m talking about these great guys. Because with every great man (and they don’t even hardly allow great women), they don’t seem to have gotten anywhere without thousands and thousands of the so-called “little people.”
And on the inadequacy of local government support of the arts in the cultural capital of America:
Why, in New York City, one of the world capitals of the music, and a veritable nation in itself (New York City has as large a population as some of the smaller nations of Europe) . . . why on earth can’t we get some consciousness in a city like New York, some responsibility on the part of city government, to look out for its musicians, its artists, its writers, its dancers, its painters?!
This last is part of Carter’s discussion of direct musical communication, speaking of grassroots anarchism, in which he recounts his experiences with a collective improvising quartet called Test, whose chief performance venue is the street and the subway.