Tag Archive for improvocracy

Wadada Leo Smith: Ten Freedom Summers

May Day TFS RouletteWednesday, 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.  


Pulitzer Prize in Music: Jazz Notes

pulitzer-prizeA Pulitzer Prize, even outside of its traditional journalism purview, is a weighty honor indeed, conferring incalculable credibility, though, at $10,000, it doesn’t have much pecuniary punch. The Pulitzers are not federal policy, of course, but with respect to the music prizes they can be considered a form of American institutional cultural policy (in this case administered by Columbia University).

Of particular note from an improvocracy perspective, Wadada Leo Smith’s monumental Ten Freedom Summers was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music, but lost out, somewhat ironically, to a 30-year-old White woman, Caroline Shaw, who, according to The New York Times, did not consider herself a composer, but simply a musician. I haven’t heard Partita for Eight Voices, and I’m sure it’s terrific, but it’s not Ten Freedom Summers. At any rate, the Pulitzer Prize in Music goes back to 1943, but jazz-based Pulitzers are few and far between. There was a brouhaha in 1965 when the Pulitzer jury wanted to honor Duke Ellington, then 67, but the board rejected the notion, allowing Ellington to add to his collection of quotable witticisms with, “Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” In 1999, the Pulitzer committee awarded Ellington, who died in 1974, a special citation, commemorating the centennial of his birth. These posthumous jazz citations, in contrast to Jazz Masters, which awards living artists only, are a periodic Pulitzer peculiarity. Scott Joplin was so honored way back in 1976; George Gershwin in 1998; Thelonious Monk in 2006; and John Coltrane in 2007.

Gunther Schuller, who lives in both the classical and jazz worlds (and who is a Jazz Master), won in 1994 for a classical composition, “Reminiscences and Reflections,” but the first out-and-out jazz Pulitzer was awarded to Wynton Marsalis (also a Jazz Master, along with his entire family), who is one-third of what is known in Ka-ching as the Axis of Reaction, for a three-hour oratorio, Blood on the Fields. Nat Hentoff, who reported Ellington’s fury in 1965, thereby immortalizing the “too young” quote, writing of “Blood on the Fields” in 2004, said, “With respect to Wynton—and I mean that because he keeps growing not only as a musician but also as an educator and composer—that composition does not measure up to Ellington, Mingus and Monk.”

Nevertheless, the Marsalis award signaled a revision in the Pulitzer music rules, allowing more leeway for jazz and the citing of recorded works in addition to compositions. This resulted not only in the aforementioned special citations, but, in 2007, Ornette Coleman won the music prize for “Sound Grammar“—not a composition, a record, which is the first live jazz recording to win the award, notes the Pulitzer site, which goes on to point out that the prize is for “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year,” though Sound Grammar was recorded in Germany. Whatever. While singling out this particular quartet record for a Pulitzer may seem a bit bizarre in the context of Pulitzer music history, at least Coleman was alive to receive it.

Between Coleman’s win and Leo Smith’s nomination, nothing happened on the jazz front but for Don Byron’s “Seven Etudes for Solo Piano,” a finalist in 2009. Byron, who is best known as a reed player, particularly a clarinetist, wears a variety of musical hats spanning everything from the avant-garde to the traditional. His Pulitzer-nominated work would not be categorized as jazz, of course, but the composer notes, “At this point in musical history, post-Stravinsky/Schoenberg, playing complicated rhythms correctly enough to create a groove may be the new frontier for the modern classical player.” Not only was Byron a Pulitzer finalist in 2009, he created quite a groove that year, also winning a Rome Prize for music composition.



Anarchism: Daniel Carter

AnarchismRarely 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 interviewJacobson 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 improvisingpeople playing spontaneouslythen 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.