Tag Archive for Ornette Coleman

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.

 

 

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.

 

Anthony Braxton: Vibrational Jazz Master

Braxton NEA speechAs 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.”