Sunny Murray: Sonny’s Time Now

Sonny's Time Now CD Cover 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.