Tag Archive for free jazz

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.

Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollock: Black Music, White Light

Free Jazz CoverFree jazz, the genre, owes its name to Free Jazz, the Ornette Coleman record, recorded in December 1960, whose original cover featured a 1954 work by Jackson Pollock, White Light. Coleman’s music was entirely too far-out to be included in the State Department’s jazz itinerary, but Pollock (who died in 1956) and the Abstract Expressionists were one of the antidotes to Soviet Realism, as the CIA and its secret ally the Congress of Cultural Freedom (classic Orwellian Newspeak!) saw it.

Indeed, the CIA was so deeply involved in the promotion of American culture during the Cold War, it would take a book to sort it out—a book that was even reviewed, not unfavorably, by the CIA itself. Shows like the Museum of Modern Art’s “The New American Painting,” which toured Europe to great acclaim in 1958, were covertly funded by the CIA, which clearly shared cultural apparatchik Nelson Rockefeller’s view that AbEx was “free-enterprise painting.”

On a related vanguard-art note, more than a decade earlier the State Department had organized the notorious debacle called “Advancing American Art,” intended for an extended global tour, featuring the work of, among others, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden (Lawrence and Bearden were among the few African American artists to enjoy serious recognition in the 20th century). The left-wing tendencies of some of the work and many of the artists—around half of the artists in the show turned up in HUAC records—along with Congressional and media aversion to contemporary art and particularly to its public support, resulted in the retreating of American art, the show being recalled in 1947 as if it were a faulty product. Among the choice philistine remarks of Harry Truman that are associated with the failure of “Advancing American Art” is the immortal, ”I don’t pretend to be an artist or a judge of art, but I am of the opinion that so-called modern art is merely the vaporings of half-baked, lazy people.”

But back to Coleman and Pollock. Here’s Coleman, fully baked and acutely energized, from a New York Observer piece in 2006, at a Pollock show at the Guggenheim:

Ornette Coleman stands before Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1949), one of the more poetic splatter paintings, ferociously dense yet airily light. He ponders it for several minutes, tracing his index finger over its subtler patterns. “These don’t look like strokes,” he finally says in his hushed, gentle tone. “They look like signals or messages, like a letter he’s writing in the form of art, like some advanced Braille.” He laughs and looks some more. “It’s not something that you’ve seen before that you can name. It’s something that he created as he did it. The act of creation is the creation.”

The piece goes on to point out that in the liner notes of Coleman’s Change of the Century in 1959, “he described his music as ‘something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.’ ” Then:

Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

“I paint sometimes myself,” Mr. Coleman said. “I know what’s behind wanting to paint. You want to touch something you can’t see. This term ‘abstract art’—what it means is something that causes you to see more than what you’re looking at.”

A quote drippingly good enough to eat. However, had Pollock lived, it’s quite possible he never would’ve returned the favor to Coleman. Pollock the jazz fan was a curious case of arrested development: he had no stomach whatsoever for bebop. Among the merchandising associated with the 1999 Pollock retrospective at MoMA was the compilation CD Jackson Pollock Jazz, featuring 17 of Pollock’s favorite cuts from his personal collection of 78s, which makes for a playlist about as fifties-hip as Dwight Eisenhower. As Nat Hentoff noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time of the Pollock show,

“He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records … day and night for three days running until you would climb the roof!” recalls Lee Krasner about her husband Jackson Pollock’s immersion in jazz in their Springs, Long Island, home. “The house would shake. He thought jazz was the only other creative thing happening in this country.”

Although Pollock was hardly a traditionalist in his own art, his taste in jazz was for the classic New Orleans pioneers, the quintessential swing bands, the blues bards and Billie Holiday. He had no use for such legendary modern-jazz figures as Charlie Parker, who were accused by traditionalist critics of burying the melody, splintering the rhythms and creating dissonance within dissonance.

Pollock, sadly, was apparently not interested in hearing more than what he was listening to.