As noted in the epilogue of Ka-ching, it was indeed quite a surprise when the ultra-avant-gardist Anthony Braxton was named a 2014 Jazz Master. Braxton is only the fifth name to be added to what I consider the Jazz Masters free-jazz pantheon—“free jazz” continuing to stand in for all iterations of the avant-garde, and the four earlier members of this select group being Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Braxton, only 68, is a professor of music at Wesleyan University and one of the most rigorously, intellectually out-there musicians on the scene, and that would be any scene, since in one way or another he’s on every scene. The quote that opens his bio on the Tri-Centric Foundation site (linked above) is interesting, to say the least: “I know I’m an African-American, and I know I play the saxophone, but I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not a classical musician, either. My music is like my life: It’s in between these areas.”
How does someone who’s not a (mainstream) jazz musician become a Jazz Master? Via a very expansive notion of what jazz is, i.e., a notion several light years beyond jazz as defined by the Axis of Reaction (Crouch, Murray, and Marsalis). At the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters ceremony, held at the potentially anti-avant-garde enemy territory of the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 14, Braxton offered an acceptance speech, which has been most helpfully transcribed, in which, right off the bat, he noted his “outsider” status. “Boy, was I surprised,” he said of his Jazz Masters acknowledgment. “I mean, for the last fifty years, my work has been viewed as not jazz, not black, not contemporary classical music, [and] my work doesn’t swing.” And yet he’s a Jazz Master, and precisely the same can be said of Cecil Taylor, who was named a Jazz Master way back in 1990. Some particularly relevant remarks from Braxton’s speech:
The award of the Jazz Masters is a profound honor. It’s understood that the men and women of the Jazz Masters group— their work has provided a vibrational factor that has helped define present-day reality. What an honor to go from the spy who’s out in the cold to a guy whose work can be brought back into the family, whose work can be brought back into the community.
Wow, this was a surprise. And I’d like to hope that inside of this surprise is a reconcilement. We need to have a reconcilement, not just in the music but in our country. We find ourselves in this time period as a country in a complex kind of way.
In his acceptance speech, Braxton, quite understandably, didn’t go into detail on the “complexities” of what ails America, nor did he raise the issue of race, but I think his comments speak directly to the sometimes subversive federal policy implications of Jazz Masters and the NEA, even if those implications ultimately carry little or no weight in “present-day reality.”