Milford Graves: The Quintessential Image

copy-Milford-Kit-Final.jpgThe first night of Vision Festival 18, June 12, 2013, was devoted to celebrating the lifetime achievement, as the festival calls it, of Milford Graves, 72, one of the seminal drummers in the history of free jazz, who retired from the faculty of Bennington College last year, where he taught since 1973. Roulette, a bastion of avant-garde music of all stripes, had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn not that long ago, and now the Vision Festival had followed, leaving its former home at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side for Roulette’s new space, a short walk from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and, as it happens, LIU’s Brooklyn campus, keeping me in academic echo-location of my thesis as I worked on the epilogue. I’d been to Roulette a fair number of times prior to this night, and, despite its incredibly reasonable ticket prices, which is not unusual for avant-garde music, it was rarely crowded and never sold out—also not unusual for avant-garde music rooms that aren’t tiny holes in the wall, in my experience.

But tonight was beyond sold out, with people standing up lining the walls, mostly young people—an amazingly inspiring sight at an avant-jazz gig, even if it’s the opening night of the Vision Festival, which traditionally gets the biggest turnout of the week. I had an aisle seat toward the back of the room, hence I couldn’t see the lower part of the stage all that well; I simply couldn’t see Graves’ drum set below the cymbals, and I confess I’d never seen Graves live before or even watched him in a video, so I simply didn’t know about the customized kit. During a break I went up to the stage and was stunned to find the drums seen in the photo—a perfect blend of the avant-garde and Africa, in which Africa, moreover, seems to be making a public address. I knew I had my homepage image.

See this video for a complete performance from this night: the highlight of the evening, the NY HeArt Ensemble, featuring Charles Gayle on tenor saxophone and piano, Roswell Rudd on trombone, William Parker on bass and the poetry of Amiri Baraka. Jon Pareles’ review of the night in The New York Times likened free-jazz drumming to the weather:

His drumming is almost always irregular, his patterns like weather patterns of wind or rain or pressure, ever fluctuating and forever in motion. His attack is light, precise and enveloping, rushing the music ahead with rumbles and taps and whooshing cymbals. His trap setup includes bongo drums for occasional pointed accents, with the bass drum supplying emphatic exclamation points as the music hurtles forward.

In this case, we can embrace climate change.

Ted Joans on Albert Ayler

joans on aylerIf Albert Ayler were alive today—which is to say if he hadn’t died mysteriously in 1970 at the age of 34 (the same tragically short life as Charlie Parker, incidentally)—it’s not clear that he would be a Jazz Master. Other major jazz avant-gardists born in 1936 include Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, and Billy Higgins, and, inexplicably, only Higgins, the least significant of that trio in the history of free jazz, is a Jazz Master. At any rate, here is the late poet/musician/artist and jazz-surrealist Ted Joans on his experience of Ayler in 1964 in Copenhagen, via a 1966 piece in the U.K. underground paper International Times, in which he quotes the Aylerian reaction of the apparently very open-minded New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas. Nicholas was born in 1900—only a year later than the moldy fig Mezz Mezzrow, whose inveterate marijuana consumption does not seem to have expanded his musical horizons beyond Dixieland, and who, in his memoir Really the Blues, jumped on the “symphonic music as slavery” bandwagon (see Ka-ching for more on this, which is part of a larger section on the false binary of democracy/totalitarianism re jazz/classical music and improvisation/composition):

“You know when I came into the Jazzclub it was packed, kinda quiet, you know how quiet the Danes can be, but anyway I went to the bar to order a bottle of beer, was served and got ready to pour a glass. Then they started. It was so loud, jubilant and different. I was actually scared. My hand started a-shaking. I had to stop trying to pour my beer. I just turned around and listened. I’d never heard anything like what they were doing before in my life.”

Mr. Nicholas’ experience has been shared by many. The music of Albert Ayler mentally shakes one up.

Leaving the listener shaken and stirred, I might add, not to be confused with shaken, not stirred, which was—in what may be a truly meaningless coincidence, though it has a certain cosmically significant ring to it—first uttered by Sean Connery in Goldfinger, 1964.


David S. Ware: In Memoriam

Ware2Ware Program-BackThe prologue and the epilogue of Ka-ching open with David S. Ware: the former marks his return to the concert stage, in 2009, at the Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side—for a solo performance, no less—after a kidney transplant; the latter marks his memorial service, in 2012, at St. Peter’s in New York (a church notable for its jazz ministry), a celebration of his life in words, music and images.

I had the honor of attending both events. Seen here is the St. Peter’s program, which itself speaks volumes. So too does this excerpt from Larry Blumenfeld’s appreciation of the service:

A big man who could produce an immense sound, Ware first gained recognition in the 1970s during Manhattan’s loft-jazz scene, flirted with more widespread attention in the 1990s, and ended up an eminence for a resurgent free-jazz community. His burly tone, his focused pursuit each time he worked a melodic figure or simple groove into something deeper, something that squealed and blurted and soared along an arc far more elusive than simple song and yet nearly always made melodic sense, the command with which he led his groups to find gloriously fractured paths toward completeness—all this was the sort of stuff that makes for sturdy faith. And freely improvised music of the meaningful sort, while being many other things too, is always an act of faith.

Ware, among the greatest of saxophonists who inherited the legacy of John Coltrane, was, like Coltrane, far more focused on the spiritual quest, the “universal, cosmic, all-inclusive Self,” as Ware calls it, than on the quotidian struggle that is politics. But politics too, and particularly collective action, may also be an act of faith striving toward the all-inclusive Self.