Wednesday, 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.