Tag Archive for Sunny Murray

Jazz Masters 2015: Escalator Up

Carla Bley band flyerThe NEA has announced the 2015 Jazz Masters: Carla Bley, George Coleman, and Charles Lloyd. (Joe Segal, founder of the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, is the recipient of the A.B. Spellman Award, but I’m focusing here on the musicians.) It’s not that one wants to argue with these choices; it’s just that, as usual, many a free-jazz giant has been overlooked. Indeed, how about this quote from the always bizarrely witty Carla Bley in the NEA Jazz Masters press release: “To receive the NEA Jazz Masters award is a great and unexpected honor. I can think of many musicians who deserve this award, and won’t be getting it. Luckily, I’m not one of them.” Yes, there are many in the jazz avant-garde who deserved this award and who have passed on, which is to say they won’t be getting it. Nevertheless, from an avant-garde jazz perspective, these 2015 selections must be considered something of a triumph, since the avant-garde is present and accounted for. Tenor saxophonist George Coleman is the reliable mainstream choice, of course, but not only does fellow tenor Charles Lloyd—in a career that has been all over the place, from massive popularity to total obscurity—have one foot left of the mainstream, pianist/composer/arranger and bandleader Carla Bley, in addition to being a woman and not a singer, which already puts her in very select jazz company, boasts major a-g cred.

She’s probably best-known for Escalator Over the Hill: an ambitious, wildly eclectic 1971 three-LP jazz opera that was described by the Guardian as one of the “50 great moments in jazz” and “the Sgt Pepper of new jazz.” The work featured the a-g likes of Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Rowell Rudd, Leroy Jenkins, Karl Berger, and Charlie Haden as well as the voices of Linda Ronstadt and Warhol superstar Viva. Bley was also closely involved—along with among others Michael Mantler, her eventual husband—in the near-utopian experiments known as the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (and its related Jazz Composers Orchestra Association) and the New Music Distribution Service. The JCO grew out of Bill Dixon‘s short-lived Jazz Composers Guild and the 1964 October Revolution, one of the milestones of jazz avant-garde Bolshevism.

Incidentally, Paul Bley, the avant-garde piano giant and Carla’s previous husband, was also involved in the Jazz Composers Guild. Bley is now 81, but Jazz Masters honors are not an issue in his case—though a longtime resident of the U.S., he’s Canadian by birth, a Montrealer. In fact, he was inducted into the Order of Canada in 2008, an honor also bestowed on the late Oscar Peterson (also a Montrealer) in 1972, whose keyboard style may not be diametrically opposed to Bley’s but it’s a close call. Not that this has anything to do with the Order of Canada, which honors Canadians of all stripes, commercial success sometimes trumping artistic achievement, it would seem. For instance, Winnipegger Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive was one of Bley’s fellow inductees in 2008.

But I digress northward. To get back to Bolshevism, Charles Lloyd’s wild biography includes his 1967 tour of the Soviet Union (and subsequent live record release), not arranged by the State Department but by “invitation of the Soviet people,” as it has been Wikipedia‘d around the web. To get back to Jazz Masters, here’s the 2015 selection panel, compliments of Elizabeth Auclair, NEA public affairs specialist—the NEA knows how to do transparency: The layperson—the panel always includes an “outsider,” though I have yet to inquire how this person is chosen—was Luis Alvarez, president/CEO of the Alvarez Technology Group, Salinas, Calif. The academic/arts panelists were Laura Johnson, interim director of education/arts consultant, New York City Ballet, and Ellen Rowe, chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan. The working musicians: Ramsey Lewis, Mr. “In Crowd,” who is 79 and a 2007 Jazz Master; Tia Fuller, a saxophonist and at one time a member of Beyoncé’s all-female band, who more recently toured with jazz-pop sensation Esperanza Spalding; and, get this, Mr. “Cecil Taylor is total self-indulgent bullshit” himself (see Ken Burns’ Jazz and Ka-ching), Branford Marsalis, who is a 2011 Jazz Master, part of the Marsalis Family (male musician members only) JM general induction of that year, one of the more inscrutable moments in the history of federal jazz policy.

Perhaps the Carla Bley selection has something to do with the number of women on this panel. At any rate, it’s all well and good that the NEA is honoring these particular musicians as they approach their 80s; Lloyd is 76, Bley is 78, Coleman 79. But Sunny Murray is 77, Andrew Cyrille is 74, and Milford Graves is 72—and that’s just to name three worthy a-g drummers. Hey, maybe their Jazz Mastership is coming, they’re young yet.


Photo of Haden and Bley by Thomas Dorn

Addendum: Not long after the JM 2015 announcement, Charlie Haden, a 2012 Jazz Master, who’d been struggling for some time with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, according to Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit, passed on to that great Liberation Music Orchestra in the sky, as someone on Facebook put it. Indeed, the Haden obits usually noted Carla Bley’s essential collaborative role as Liberation Music Orchestra composer-arranger, and this is a band that lived up to its name, whose last record was pointedly titled “Not in Our Name.”

Left politics and Jazz Masters don’t cross paths all that often; in the case of Haden and Bley, these paths cross most distinctly in their names, the record title notwithstanding.

As Chinen’s obit notes,

The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.

Another addendum: On April 10, 2015, Karen Mantler, Carla Bley’s daughter, posted on Facebook a scan of the presidential Jazz Masters congratulations letter, presumably a form letter, with the announcement, “My mother just got a letter from President Obama! —  feeling proud.”

Carla Bley Obama JM letterWhile the writer of this presidential letter is presumably making an effort to be uncontroversial about jazz, the phrasing, one will note, is fundamentally jazzocratic—which, of course, in the federal policy mindset is being uncontroversial about jazz.

“A uniquely American art form that echoes across generations, jazz gives voice to our experiences as a people and continues to be a defining part of who we are. By creating complex, soulful sounds in a spirit of artistic exploration, you have played a role in expanding horizons and breaking barriers . . .”

A strange piece of boilerplate, indeed. The bit about “complex, soulful sounds,” etc., could just as easily have been written on behalf of, say, Arnold Schoenberg. Perhaps this is not the standard Jazz Masters congratulations letter but rather the standard Jazz Masters avant-garde jazz congratulations letter?

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.

Ted Joans on Albert Ayler

joans on aylerIf Albert Ayler were alive today—which is to say if he hadn’t died mysteriously in 1970 at the age of 34 (the same tragically short life as Charlie Parker, incidentally)—it’s not clear that he would be a Jazz Master. Other major jazz avant-gardists born in 1936 include Don Cherry, Sunny Murray, and Billy Higgins, and, inexplicably, only Higgins, the least significant of that trio in the history of free jazz, is a Jazz Master. At any rate, here is the late poet/musician/artist and jazz-surrealist Ted Joans on his experience of Ayler in 1964 in Copenhagen, via a 1966 piece in the U.K. underground paper International Times, in which he quotes the Aylerian reaction of the apparently very open-minded New Orleans clarinetist Albert Nicholas. Nicholas was born in 1900—only a year later than the moldy fig Mezz Mezzrow, whose inveterate marijuana consumption does not seem to have expanded his musical horizons beyond Dixieland, and who, in his memoir Really the Blues, jumped on the “symphonic music as slavery” bandwagon (see Ka-ching for more on this, which is part of a larger section on the false binary of democracy/totalitarianism re jazz/classical music and improvisation/composition):

“You know when I came into the Jazzclub it was packed, kinda quiet, you know how quiet the Danes can be, but anyway I went to the bar to order a bottle of beer, was served and got ready to pour a glass. Then they started. It was so loud, jubilant and different. I was actually scared. My hand started a-shaking. I had to stop trying to pour my beer. I just turned around and listened. I’d never heard anything like what they were doing before in my life.”

Mr. Nicholas’ experience has been shared by many. The music of Albert Ayler mentally shakes one up.

Leaving the listener shaken and stirred, I might add, not to be confused with shaken, not stirred, which was—in what may be a truly meaningless coincidence, though it has a certain cosmically significant ring to it—first uttered by Sean Connery in Goldfinger, 1964.