Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b John Martin Tchicai, 28 April 1936, Copenhagen, Denmark; d 8 October 2012, Perpignon, France) Saxophones. His mother was Danish and his father Congolese. He started on violin at age 10; his half-brother played in the Harlem Kiddies, a Danish trio, and he was inspired by Duke Ellington and others who appeared in Denmark, switching to alto sax at age 15. In the 1980s the tenor sax became his main instrument; he also played bass clarinet, and vocalised in his own personal way.

After serving in the Danish navy, he played in a band at a festival in Helsinki in 1962, where he met Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon, and relocated to New York that year. He joined Shepp and Don Cherry in the New York Contemporary Five, which made four and a half LPs in 1963-4. The first album did not have Cherry on it, and the last was a sextet, on one side of a Savoy LP with a Dixon group on the other. Most of this work was issued only on European labels at the time Fontana and Sonet). Then the New York Art Quartet included Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, Lewis Worrell and then Reggie Workman on bass, and Milford Graves on drums, and made two albums. The first album, one of the first on the ESP label, had Amiri Baraka reciting on one track. All these records remained obscure then, but are regarded as classics of free jazz. In 1964 Tchicai played on Eye And Ear Control, with Cherry and Albert Ayler, and on Shepp's Four For Trane, a tribute to John Coltrane. In June 1965 he was a member of the 11-piece group that made Coltrane's landmark album Ascension, marking the beginning of Coltrane's late period. Tchicai was at home with the free players, and was influenced by the passionate Ayler, but his own saxophone sound remained musically his own, retaining a gentler aspect and even a ballad feeling.

He returned to Denmark to try to find gigs for the New York Art Quartet; only Rudd could go with him, so they recruited Danish bassist Finn von Eyben and South Arican drummer Louis Moholo for two concerts in October 1965, some of which was recorded. Tchicai was a founder member of a big band, Cadentia Nova Danica, and subsequently played with free improvisers from all over Europe. At a concert in Cambridge, England, in 1969, the bill included John Lennon and Yoko Ono; a jam session at the end of the concert appeared on the Lennon-Ono album Unfinished Music Number 2: Life With The Lions.

In the early 1970s Tchicai began to wind down towards a retreat. He led the amateur Nivå Big Band that played stock swing arrangements, and in 1972 he played bamboo flute in a trio that included Fradley Garner, an American expat journalist and amateur musician from New York, on violin and string bass, and Edwin Kammerer, a young Bavarian pianist and composer who had never played any jazz. 'It was haunting, marvelous,' Frad wrote, 'all free style. Edi would lay down a chord and away we'd go.' They played at the opening of Hørsholm Midtpunkt, the town shopping center north of Copenhagen, and privately, for fun.

Tchicai, who always practiced yoga and meditation, then came back to music full time. He played in the guitarist Pierre Dørge’s New Jungle Orchestra; a trio album Real Tchicai on Steeplechase in 1977 included Dørge and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass. He played on Cecil Taylor’s big-band album Winged Serpent '84. In 1990 he was awarded a lifetime grant by the Danish Ministry of Culture. Then he taught at the University of California in Davis for a decade; during that period, in 1999, the New York Art Quartet reconvened for some performances and a new album. He composed large works such as Hymne til Sofia (2001), for choirs, vocal soloists and percussion. From 2002 he lived in Claira, in southern France, near the Spanish border; and his later recordings included John Tchicai With Strings 2005 and In Monk’s Mood 2009.