The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
Black Music: Everybody's Still Doing It
'Trouble is, he can't play it straight.' So said Charles Mingus about Ornette Coleman. Mingus had been regarded as avant-garde in his own time, and should have known better. In fact, he later assessed the situation more carefully: 'I'm not saying everybody's going to have to play like Coleman. But they're going to have to stop playing like Bird.'
Half a century after the advent of bop it is had become revival music, and a lot youngsters were playing it without the fire of the generation of the 1940s, so that some of it sounded like wine-bar Muzak. In the 1940s bop was controversial; similarly, thirty years after the advent of free jazz one could wonder what all that fuss was about. Ornette Coleman's earliest tracks are simply and perfectly beautiful, especially to anyone who listens to contemporary classical music, to say nothing of horror-film soundtracks, where Hollywood hacks have used 'weird' sounds since the beginning of talkies.
I have defined popular music as commercial music, but what we used to call jazz has effectively become art music, confusing my definition. You will find records by Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon and George Russell in the jazz section of the record catalogue, but all three have also been academics, like most classical composers. There is not much room for art in a music industry dominated by greed, but it is no coincidence that as the mainstream music industry has concentrated on making deals, music that can be described as contemporary has had to find a specialist audience.
It may be argued that the best music has often had a small audience. The court composers of the Renaissance who developed the classical forms which later flourished in Vienna were working for a musically educated aristocracy, which did not admit riff-raff to its music rooms. San Marco in Venice, the church for which Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, uncle and nephew, composed their innovative music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, held 420 people comfortably, which was exactly the size of the Venetian government; there is no evidence that anyone else ever heard it. Opera was originally created for an audience that represented a small proportion of the total population of Italy around 1600. And it is fair to point out that some people want to leave the theatre whistling the tunes or, to put it another way, Schoenberg never wrote a comic opera. (Actually, he did, Von Heute auf Morgen in 1928, but to be honest, Schoenberg was not a funny man. On the other hand, we will wait a long time for a laugh from Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose music makes money, but is derivative and second-rate.)
Irving Berlin said that popular music is popular because a lot of people like it. But Berlin would not sanction much interpretation of his songs, and Jerome Kern's estate did not like Dizzy Gillespie's first recordings with strings (1946), which were not issued for many years (despite some extraordinary trumpet playing), nor the Platters' version of 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' (1958) until they realized how much money they would get from a number one hit.The anti-modernists among us will turn Berlin around and say that some contemporary music is not very popular because not many people like it, but that argument will not wash with me. Grandma Clarke's idea of culture was a cracked 12" 78 of Madame Schumann-Heink singing 'Stille Nacht', but that did not stop me from embarking on a lifelong voyage of discovery. We do not know how popular Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell or Braxton or the others might be, because we do not hear them on the radio, nor can we buy their records in the shopping-mall record outlets. Listeners who allow music to be pigeon-holed for them are effectively shutting their ear-holes. As one critic put it, 'People say that modern music was tried and found difficult. I think it was found difficult and not tried.'
There are many instances of the public's adopting new music more enthusiastically than the critics. ASCAP used to complain with regard to BMI that if you restrict the public's listening, the public will quite happily settle for whatever it gets. This, of course, ignored the monopoly that ASCAP and Tin Pan Alley had operated for many years, but the statement is true enough as far as it goes. Anthony Braxton has made albums of standards and of Monk's tunes, but you will not find them in the shopping-mall racks any more than you will find his spikier stuff. It is also fair to add that the music of such avant-garde rock groups as Suicide, Rapeman and Pussy Galore is not meant to be easy-listening music, and is also not heard on the radio or in the malls. But their thrashing is the sound of desperation, without any leavening of beauty. Most contemporary music still makes its point using acoustic instruments, and the musicians still listen to each other without the help of thousands of watts.In any case, jazz has not been allowed near the centre of the marketplace for decades. That is partly why several of the best-known young saxophonists of today, although they play the same instruments as Johnny Hodges, Lester Young and Ben Webster played, all sound like they are playing for television commercials. Their carefully neutral tone is like the cooked milk you get for your tea or instant coffee in British restaurants, and the shopping-mall chord changes of their jazz present a big problem. It must be admitted that the modal method offers a cop-out opportunity, like having to use only the white keys on the piano. What they call 'smooth jazz' nowadays is wrapped in cellophane, like one of those big Easter baskets full of cheap chocolate and fake grass.
In fact, the word 'jazz' does not mean much any more, so the real stuff we now call improvised music, and even that label is not good enough; some modern music is entirely improvised, and some not very much at all. Jesse Stone told Frank Driggs that he wrote out the solos for his Blues Serenaders on 'Starvation Blues' in 1927. And notwithstanding all the efforts to create a third-stream music over the years, jazz and contemporary 'classical' music have been cuddling together over in the corner while nobody was watching.
As we saw in an earlier chapter, pianist and composer Lennie Tristano was a retiring sort, whose teaching points were adventurous harmony and complex inner rhythms. Among his pupils were saxophonists Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Ted Brown, of whom Konitz is the best known. Having studied with Tristano, he was one of the few alto saxophonists who was not overwhelmed by Charlie Parker. Warne Marsh died in 1987, still in obscurity; he made twenty or so albums, most of them on tiny labels. All Music (1977) is probably one of the best: touring with Supersax, a band that played transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos, he made an album in Chicago because Chuck Nessa offered him the chance. His tone was unique, and his approach to tonality and his slightly quirky time (a matter of personal accents) made him a more interesting player than most, for those who cared to listen. Ted Brown recorded with Marsh and British-born pianist Ronnie Ball in the 1950s, but made only one album as a leader, in 1956, and did not make another for 29 years. I found Brown's trio set Free Spirit (1987), his second album for the Dutch Criss Cross label, not on the radio, not in the media, not in a record shop, but in a friend's basement. For me it was one of the discoveries of a decade: Jacques Scholes on bass provides a strong walking beat from which the piano and the saxophone can launch themselves; Hod O'Brien's agreeable, swinging piano would alone be worth the price of the album, and Brown's tone is the kind of sound your best friend would make if he or she could play saxophone. The whole thing is so mellow and so beautiful that it is astonishing to realize that Brown had not made any albums for three decades.
These people play standards: Free Spirit includes 'Body and Soul', 'Darn That Dream' and 'Lover Come Back to Me'. They play jazz classics, like Lester Young's 'Lester Leaps In' and Charlie Parker's 'Relaxin' at Camarillo', and their own tunes, such as Brown's 'Smog Eyes' and Marsh's sardonically titled 'Background Music', all of which are more or less based on the same chord structures that were used by the composers of the standards. And where else is there to go? If you want something a little more adventurous, there is the bold humour and unique tone of Von Freeman, and the 'metallic cocaine bebop' of Fred Anderson, both black Chicagoans, both available (though you have to try hard to buy good records) and neither particularly hard to take for tender ears. Or you can listen to somebody who has taken a leap and invented his own music, as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker did in the past.
Enter Ornette Coleman, and free jazz. Alto saxophonist and composer Coleman played in a school marching band with reedmen Prince Lasha and Dewey Redman, and drummer (and trumpeter) Charles Moffett. At sixteen he changed from alto to tenor for a while, inspired by local tenor saxophonist Red Connors. He had never listened to R&B as a boy, but played in R&B bands to make a living, sometimes getting fired because he was trying to find his own way; he settled in Los Angeles, working in day jobs while studying theory. He did not find sympathetic collaborators until he had been playing for a decade. He worked with trumpeter Bobby Bradford, drummer Ed Blackwell and pianist and composer Paul Bley in the mid-1950s, and then he began intensive private sessions with trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and bass player Charlie Haden, the group that became the Ornette Coleman Quartet.
After being introduced by bass player Red Mitchell to Lester Koenig, head of the Contemporary label, Coleman made his first album in early 1955, Something Else!!!, with a quintet that included Cherry and Higgins. Tomorrow is the Question! in early 1959 included Cherry, Shelly Manne and Mitchell. Mitchell then introduced Coleman to third-streamers John Lewis and Gunther Schuller, who helped him get to a summer jazz school at Lenox, Massachusetts, and a gig at the Five Spot in New York in November. He had signed with Atlantic, and made seven albums' worth of tracks between May 1959 and March 1961 (there was still unissued material, and a six-CD set of the complete Atlantic recordings was released in 1994). He played at the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals, and a recording of a Town Hall concert in late 1962 was issued on ESP, but he did not record again in the studio until mid-1965. He was composing and studying trumpet and violin, but he was also disgusted that Dave Brubeck's quartet could get much more money: Coleman demanded similar fees, and did not get any work. He was criticized for this, but he had a right to price his own work, and he has probably been a good deal more influential than Brubeck.
Coleman's appearance in New York was a great shock, much more sudden than bop had been. During the acoustic era a tin-eared A&R man at Victor would not record Bill Challis's arrangements for Jean Goldkette, and did not like Bix Beiderbecke's 'wrong' notes; in the late 1940s the boppers ran into the same problem, and in 1960 it was Coleman's turn. For a while he was famous, as fame in jazz goes, though controversy does not pay the rent. He played a white plastic alto saxophone, because he liked the sound of it, and Cherry played a pocket trumpet. The instruments looked like toys, which gave the critics something else to complain about (but perhaps led to the Coleman title 'Joy of a Toy'). Some people thought Coleman was a charlatan, but Leonard Bernstein was a fan, while George Russell, who had written a textbook on the use of modes, knew exactly what was happening: 'Ornette seems to depend on the overall tonality of the song as a point of departure for melody ... This approach liberates the improvisor to play his own song, really, without having to meet the deadline of any particular chord.' I do not know what Coleman's theory of 'harmelodics' means, but it doesn't matter; to the ordinary listener the music is aharmonic.
Writing about music is not as secure as working in the car factory, and certainly does not pay as well, but it has one big advantage. There was no music in the car factory, whereas while writing this I am listening to The Art of Improvisation, a 1970 compilation of unissued Coleman tracks from a decade earlier. 'The Fifth of Beethoven', for example, with Cherry, Haden and Blackwell, is enormous fun; it is a bright, funny, uptempo piece on which Coleman's alto sound reminds me of Eric Dolphy (who also came out of intensive private jams in Los Angeles). The influence of Charlie Parker is there, and also of Thelonious Monk, in that Coleman is first and last a composer whose time is unique -- like Monk's, a matter of phrasing and accents. As I listen, I hear Blackwell's tom-toms in a duet with Coleman, and just as I am chuckling at that, I notice that Haden's driving bass on the other channel is doubling the alto's phrases, and while my attention is away, Blackwell is up to something else. The music has the cry of the blues in it, and we are reminded once again that the blues was never a dead end in the black community in the way that rock has become a blind alley for the white. The best black music always has the blues in it.
It was called free jazz, and some people still call it that, but it is certainly hard to see now why it was controversial, or why it has not made more money for Coleman, especially since some of the shopping-mall Muzak players of today are trying feebly to imitate it. It was, of course, not free at all, not as free as those experimental tracks Tristano made in 1949, with Marsh and Konitz. Coleman's Atlantic album of late 1960, Free Jazz, was played by a double quartet of Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Blackwell, and Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Higgins and the brilliant young bass player Scott La Faro (who was killed in a car crash). The album is generally regarded as a noble failure, though Max Harrison, in his brilliant collection A Jazz Retrospect (1976), describes it as a perfectly coherent whole, its shape arising out of its language. In any case, this was not completely free either.
There is completely free music. The British guitarist Derek Bailey is an exponent of it and has written a book about it. But music seems to need a leadership factor, however much the leader may rely upon or allow a supporting cast to do its own thing. This is not to denigrate Bailey or saxophonist Evan Parker or any of the free players; many of them are loaded with talent. They know that improvisation is of enormous importance to music, and always has been; and improvisation is one of the things missing from today's rock and pop; the Grateful Dead improvised for 30 years and had an enormous following for their live gigs. It is not the public that is afraid of improvisation, but the record companies and the broadcasters. Yet the most free experiments have the smallest audience of all, for the same reasons that spaceships do not carry passengers: the air is too thin and the risk too great.
Ornette Coleman's many projects have included the Chappauqua Suite (1965), written for a quartet and a studio band, and Skies of America (1972), for the quartet and the London Symphony Orchestra. Coleman's work at the rehearsals and recording sessions earned him a standing ovation from the LSO, but the project must have been a commercial disaster. Dancing in Your Head (1973) was for sextet, two guitars and musicians in Joujouka, Morocco. In the late 1970s he formed Prime Time, whose electric sound was influenced by rock. Critics seem to have been disappointed with whatever he has done for many years; he has perhaps not been as influential as he was in those first few years, but then we do not know what he might have done had he been able to do whatever he liked. He set us all on our ears with a new kind of fire and beauty three decades ago, and Harrison believes that Coleman was the single most revolutionary musician in the history of jazz: while Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker accelerated development, Coleman opened doors.
Cecil Taylor, who has almost become celebrated, is one of the best-known international performers in this music, and has many recordings under his belt. He first recorded in 1956, with Steve Lacy on soprano and Buell Neidlinger on bass (both of whom were white and had started in dixieland) and Dennis Charles on drums. From his playing of standards, it was already obvious that Taylor was singing in his own language. A fascinating if unsuccessful session for United Artists in 1959 included John Coltrane (and was later marketed under his name); the trumpet player was Kenny Dorham, a fine bop musician who was already aware of Taylor's reputation and did not like it. (Taylor had wanted Ted Curson for the date.) Taylor soon decided to play only his own music, developing his unique keyboard sound into a musical world of tough, dancing beauty.
He and Neidlinger led sessions on Candid in 1960-61 which were not issued in full until a Mosaic box in 1989. In the early 1960s he was involved in a jazz composers' collective in New York that failed. His Blue Note recordings, Unit Structures and Conquistador (1966), were breakthroughs, his first commercial recordings for five years.
Like all the best musicians, Taylor understood and valued tradition without being bound to it and without showing any self-conscious need to be avant-garde. He has been described as using the piano as '88 tuned drums', yet again and again his sidemen and collaborators, such as Neidlinger, who once shared a flat with him and watched him practice, speak of the importance of singing and dancing in Taylor's music. We are reminded again of Dizzy Gillespie's complaining that he could dance to bop: why couldn't others?
Whitney Balliett compared Ornette Coleman with Cecil Taylor:
Taylor and Ornette Coleman are the nominal heads of the jazz avant-garde, but they are very different. Coleman refuses to record or play in public unless he is paid handsomely. Taylor until recent years often played for pennies -- when he was asked to play at all. Coleman's music is accessible, but he is loath to share it; Taylor's music is difficult, and he is delighted to share it ... The American aesthetic landscape is littered with idiosyncratic marvels -- Walt Whitman, Charles Ives, D. W. Griffith, Duke Ellington, Jackson Pollock -- and Taylor belongs with them.
But so does Coleman. Balliet warns us that Taylor's music is difficult, but he was writing about an audience that had just listened to Oscar Peterson, and walked out in droves on Taylor. It is a weird concert or festival that plans juxtapositions like that. Contemporary improvised music is sometimes loud; so are symphonies, and, like the symphonies, improvised music does not need electronics. It sometimes has everyone playing at once; so did New Orleans jazz. It is often passionate, even angry, but it is equally often about tonal beauty. The screaming avant-garde electric rock group seems to attack its roots; contemporary improvised music celebrates them, but it is tough music for people who know that music is important.
The young Miles Davis had evolved an economic style that did not require him to compete in a front line with the fiery likes of Charlie Parker; his limitations became his starting point. There had always been some danger in bop of using too many notes, which might get in the way of the rhythm; in earlier styles of jazz each note was an essential part of the story, while in bop the overall feeling of the solo and the ensemble made the individual notes less important. Bop was bound to cool off, and Davis had always been a lyricist. Over the years since 1960 the modal style of composition has sometimes produced players who sound like they are taking it easy, but Davis's combination of soul, economy and lyricism and the weight of each note made him a complete master of the style. His effect on the free movement has probably been underrated. His development was always in the direction of a stripped-down music without any unnecessary adornments (showing the influence of Monk), so that he helped to create the new freedom to use structure and harmony as tools in the musician's kit along with melody and rhythm.
By 1965 his quintet included Wayne Shorter on tenor; Ron Carter's acoustic bass and cello had been influential on Prestige albums with Eric Dolphy and pianist-composer Mal Waldron; pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams rounded out one of the most important rhythm sections of the 1960s. They would all go on to become inspirational leaders and producers in their turn. Davis's group still played standards on the bandstand, and was more adventurous in the studio; Live at the Plugged Nickel was made in the Chicago club in 1965, but not released in the USA until 1976: Shorter in particular might have been even more influential at the time if this set had been released earlier. Their studio album Nefertiti (1967) was the last album Davis made without electric instruments.
Davis's music became more controversial and left some jazz fans behind, but commercially he was the most successful jazz musician since Brubeck. Every album he ever made is still selling, and eight of them made Billboard's list of the top two hundred best-selling albums during the 1960s, four in the top hundred. Yet throughout his career he battled to squeeze out of record companies, booking agents and promoters the money to maintain the lifestyle to which he felt he was entitled. Monk had lost his cabaret card and was unable to work in jazz venues in New York; Mingus struggled through the 1960s; it is clear that very few of the best American musicians of the past thirty years have received sufficient support from the music industry to be able to do whatever they may have liked to do, in terms of writing, recording and touring with larger groups, for example. Mingus especially saw himself as a composer, his work all of a piece, yet his gigantic Epitaph was not put together and recorded by a 29-piece group directed by Gunther Schuller until 1989, a decade after his death. But he had written an appropriate chant for the black community, which adds to the flavour of his Cumbia and Jazz Fusion (1977):
Who said mama's little baby likes shortnin' bread?
As drummer Dannie Richmond joins in, the chant is 'Diamonds! Diamonds in the nose! Diamonds in the toes! Diamonds all over mama's little baby!' And 'Schools! So our kids won't be raised to act like no fools!' But America did not hear the message during Mingus's lifetime.
Cannonball Adderley was the only jazz musician to rival Davis as a commercial success, but he died young. Without a doubt the single most immediately influential jazz musician of the 1960s, spawning legions of imitators as Armstrong, Hawkins, Young, Gillespie and Parker had done before him, was John Coltrane, who sought overtly spiritual values through his music -- indeed, sought to go beyond music with his horn -- and almost single-handedly made it hip to buy jazz records in an era dominated by rock.
In 1950, playing alto in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Coltrane had been introduced to Islam by Yusef Lateef. He later studied the cabala and Sufism, the mystical branches of Judaism and Islam respectively. Coltrane had discovered the soprano saxophone in 1959; in 1960 he first played it on a one-off album for Atlantic called The Avant Garde, for which he borrowed sidemen from Coleman, and also first recorded Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'My Favorite Things' on Atlantic. His ballad 'Naima' was named after his first wife, and remained one of his own favourite tunes. He had always played long solos, as though unable to get it all in; the ballads and modal tunes began to set a pattern of an almost hypnotic function of musicmaking. Just before his death he was experimenting with the Varitone electronic device, which would have allowed him to play a duet with himself in octaves.
In 1961 he was the first artist signed to the Impulse label, a new jazz division of ABC-Paramount. Africa/Brass, on which he was backed by a large ensemble (including four French horns), offers hints of African rhythms and Indian ragas, as well as 'Greensleeves'. It was produced by Creed Taylor, but Bob Thiele then joined Impulse; Coltrane had found a label that helped make him the highest-paid black jazzman after Davis, and a producer who would let him record as much as he wanted.
His epochal quartet included Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones, a furiously polyrhythmic powerhouse of a drummer, and McCoy Tyner on piano, a still underrated player whose function was often to pour oil on turbulent waters. Among the albums in 1962 was Ballads. Coltrane's essential modesty came to the fore on the date for Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (on various tracks of which Duke and Trane swap sidemen); he had to be assured that one take was good enough. With all his passion and religious intensity, Coltrane was also always a lyricist, and named Stan Getz as one of his favourite saxophonists. In 1963 John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman featured a Chicago vocalist with a deep, beautiful voice whose career needed help at the time.
The quartet recorded A Love Supreme in 1964, perhaps Coltrane's most famous album and certainly one of his most fully realized: he said that the four-part composition came to him all at once. His albums sold twenty-five to fifty thousand copies, which was very good for jazz, but A Love Supreme made it to six figures. As Bob Thiele remarked, you did not hear Coltrane's music on the radio, but he discovered that college students and young musicians were buying it. Ascension (June 1965) was more ambitious: a single piece covers an entire album played by eleven instruments (including five reeds: Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp on tenors, John Tchicai and Marion Brown on altos). 'Vigil' and 'Welcome' were recorded by the quartet the same day, and in October 'Kulu se Mama' completed an album of that title, a strongly rhythmic African-influenced piece for octet inspired by a poem by Juno Lewis. The five-part Meditations was recorded twice: once with the quartet in September 1965, and again by a sextet a few weeks later, adding Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali.
Coltrane's soprano was compared to the sound of Indian and African oboe-like instruments (today all his imitators play soprano, and they mostly all sound the same). He closely questioned Ravi Shankar, the genius of the sitar, about Indian music (and named one of his sons after him). He was inspired by his friend the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, whose albums had been released on Columbia, but they never recorded together. He took to using two basses, because the sound reminded him of African water drums. He always valued Elvin Jones (despite Jones's volatile personality and voracious appetites) for his polyrhythmic abilities, but even Jones was not enough; Jones left after Coltrane began using two drummers. Tyner had already left, both because he wanted to pursue his own musical ideas and because Coltrane had added his second wife, Alice, on piano. (After his death she released Coltrane recordings with herself dubbed on harp, widely regarded as a questionable move.)
Coltrane was never afraid to use a certain coarseness of tone, or a squeak or an overblown note, yet none of it was ever gratuitous. The hypnotic qualities in some of his music worked perfectly, rather than sounding like hippie repetition celebrating the stoned state, of which there was plenty in that decade. Coltrane's music, sometimes incorporating chanting, and often atonal passages next to tonal ones, was a broad church. Artie Shaw was an admirer. Coltrane had fans who were jazz enthusiasts and others who were hippies, and he also had fans who didn't know much about jazz but were essentially religious people, for whom Coltrane's spiritual side was an open book. Shankar liked Coltrane's music, but was also troubled by it, for the passion in the music was troubled passion: Coltrane was a gentle, modest man who put everything he had into his vision of a world conquered by a love which transcended race, religion or nationality. Perhaps he knew that his was an unearthly vision, and that he did not have long to describe it.
After Eric Dolphy died, his parents gave his bass clarinet and his flute to Coltrane, who played them both. Expression was made in early 1967, by the quartet plus Sanders, and the music has been reduced to an emotional essence: on 'To Be' Coltrane on flute and Sanders on piccolo accompany each other, and on the rest of the album Coltrane plays tenor. Much of the music is relatively quiet and reflective, yet there is none of the tension-and-release structure normally associated with jazz: the emotional intensity is complete, unrelieved and harrowing. He died of cancer in July of that year. It would be interesting to know how sales of, say, A Love Supreme over twenty-five years compare with the total sales of, say, In-a-gadda-da-vida, by Iron Butterfly, a piece of hippie junk that was number four not long after Coltrane's death.
There are those who regret that so many tenor saxophonists have sounded like Coltrane since he died, but that is not Coltrane's fault. All the best have had large numbers of imitators. Those influenced by Ornette Coleman do not get many chances to be heard; there have been fewer places for young saxophonists to play in recent decades, and fewer chances for them to hear each other.
Pharoah Sanders formed a band that contained pianist-composer Lonnie Liston Smith and Leon Thomas, a vocalist who had sung with Count Basie and whose bag of tricks in the late 1960s included an evocative yodelling technique learned from central African music. Archie Shepp was a failed guru in that decade, a sort of safe shadow of Albert Ayler. He also recorded for Impulse. His style was described as darkly operatic, but he changed it too often and lost the thread, the theory becoming as important as the music. In 1991 Shepp seemed to have mellowed -- among the songs played at a gig in London were Ellington ballads -- yet still produced a unique sound on his horn.
Miles Davis turned to electric music in 1969 and sold records to the more stylish rock fans; from In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew onwards he lost old fans and made new ones. His sidemen from that period, electric pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, guitarist John McLaughlin and others, formed electric fusion bands, such as Weather Report and Return to Forever. Electric bass player Jaco Pastorius brought considerable artistry to this music, and was destitute when he died in 1987, not yet thirty-six years old, manic depressive and alcoholic; the music seemed to have run out of steam as well. Its most ardent fans would have to admit that the quality of the noodling was variable; other fusions were going on which were not self-consciously forced, and did not need electricity.
All these fusions, forced and unforced, are a clue to the reason why there has been no single influential figure in recent years such as Armstrong, Parker, Coleman or Coltrane. Contemporary music has become an international and collectivist endeavour, and a postmodernist one in that all music is now repertory music. Such a multiplicity of styles is played everywhere that there may never again be domination by a single individual. This is a serious inconvenience to those young artists who need somebody to copy as they start out, and this may be another reason why Coltrane has been so imitated: there has not been anyone so powerful since.
Albert Ayler might have been similarly influential, but he did not live long enough. The tenor saxophonist burst upon the public apparently using the honks and squawks of the early Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, but had more than that in mind; he was searching even more aggressively than Coleman or Coltrane for spiritual and musical freedom. John Litweiler wrote about two simultaneous solos on 'Green Dolphin Street' on one of Ayler's first albums, a tape made for Danish radio in early 1963:
One solo is inside, in observance of the bland harmonic structure (he pays dogged attention to turnbacks, chorus outline, alarming turns of phrases from free motions to inside tonality), and the other solo is outside by way of his sound (alternately gigantic, braying, slurring, or else whiny and querulous) and his occasional phrasing (fast, arhythmic, spiralling upward like fireworks from which smaller explosions shoot off). There's no doubt that in these performances Ayler's music is in great crisis; 'Summertime' ... accepts the crisis, balancing the standard setting against his ideas of sound and his drifting sense of tonality to result in a long, tragic masterpiece.
Ayler came from a middle-class background, but knew the cry of the church, and had spent two summers as a young man touring in R&B with Little Walter and his Jukes. Then he seemed to take apart the history of jazz in order to reinvent it. Soon, like Taylor, he began playing only his own music (he made eight recordings of 'Ghosts'). Musicians like drummer Sunny Murray and bass player Henry Grimes were already playing free, but under Ayler's influence they gained in authority. Murray, for example, was not a loud drummer and never used a fancy kit, yet completely liberated percussion by means of delicacy and dynamics. Ayler puzzled or irritated many; Alan Bates recorded him for an appearance on a BBC jazz programme in 1966, but the BBC wiped the tape. He changed direction, changed to alto (losing some weight in his music) and dabbled in Mexican and folk musics, and in 1968 even tried rock on an album called New Grass. Some thought he was in decline, distracted by the powerful effect the psychedelic counterculture was having at the time; perhaps Ayler, like Coltrane, was searching for something beyond music. He may have been recovering his sense of purpose in 1970, but his body was found in the East River, his death never explained. His music ultimately included everything, and for all the shortness of his career, he has been more influential than most.
African drummer Olatunji and John Coltrane had begun to form a centre for the creation of African-American music, but it was never fully realized. Musicians began to see that there was not enough room in the American commercial market for everyone, and that they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands. Trumpeter, composer and academic Bill Dixon was behind the 'October Revolution', a series of concerts at New York's Cellar Cafe in 1964, the same year in which lawyer Bernard Stollman formed ESP Records, an almost underground label that recorded Ayler, Milford Graves and others (as well as the Fugs and other New York City exotica). Dixon was a charter member of the Jazz Composers Guild, with Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Mike Mantler, Sun Ra, alto saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd and others; they gave concerts in late 1964. Then Shepp signed a contract with Impulse, foolishly regarded as a sell-out by some of the others, and, according to Valerie Wilmer, bandleader Sun Ra professed himself superstitious: like a sailor, he did not like having a woman on board. The Guild failed, but led to the creation of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association (JCOA), formed by Carla Bley and Mantler. The first fruit was a two-disc set of Mantler's thickly textured music for a large orchestra called simply JCOA (1968), with such soloists as Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, guitarist Larry Coryell, tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri and bass player Steve Swallow. Further albums by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and others were released. Carla Bley became the leader of one of the few avant-garde big bands, directly competing with Ra for the audience: in music there is no more place for misogyny than for racism. In 1970 the Jazz and People's Movement interrupted taping of the chat shows of Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett (thus hitting all three television networks), and the result of this attention-seeking device was an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show by an all-star band including Roland Kirk.
The Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five, for which Dixon wrote, never had enough work. It was clear that the music had to be taken back to the community from which it came, so that the community could demand support for it. There was always an enthusiastic response to open rehearsals and so forth, especially from young people, but there was never going to be enough commercial sponsorship. Dixon taught art history for a living; a University of the Streets was formed by Puerto Ricans in 1967 and Dixon helped form the Free Conservatory of the University of the Streets the following year, leading an orchestral rehearsal which helped to clinch one of the first federal grants for such a project. Percussionist Milford Graves was also an activist in this field, and among other, similar projects was Graves's Storefront Museum, a warehouse converted into a community project in Queens. In Harlem writer Leroi Jones (who later became Amiri Baraka) had formed the Black Arts group, which presented music in the street. The Jazzmobile was a bandstand on a truck that in 1964 began to take music from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Encouraged by the Harlem Community Council and originally sponsored by CocaCola and Ballentine beer, it took the music to several New York boroughs, often presenting it to black youngsters who had never heard it before. People emerged from their houses out of curiosity and always responded positively.
Despite all this activity, the omens were never good. The artists who recorded for ESP were irritated that it did not result in more income for them, but if the music is not widely heard and the records widely distributed, there is never going to be any money in a record label. When Roland Kirk asked Ed Sullivan in 1970, several years after John Coltrane's death, why he had never had Coltrane on his program, the most famous presenter of American talent asked, 'Does John Coltrane have any records out?' An important source for recordings of contemporary music, the New Music Distribution Service, originally connected with the JCOA, lasted until 1990 before going under.
The Black Artists Group was formed in St Louis, Strata in Detroit; but easily the most important of the collectives was the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago.
Chicago has always been a centre of musical activity. In the 1920s the scene of the thriving black culture was virtually next to the Loop (the downtown area defined by the tracks of the elevated trains). The recording of black music in Chicago was hurt by one of Petrillo's early strikes, but nothing can keep Chicago down for long. In the late 1940s and 1950s pianist and composer Andrew Hill, saxophonists Eddie Johnson and Von Freeman, multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell and many others played in Chicago clubs, and bigger names from New York also visited. Pianist Ahmad Jamal formed a trio and became a national figure, and an influence on Miles Davis.
The importance of Captain Walter Dyett cannot be overestimated. He played violin, then banjo and guitar in Erskine Tate's Vendome Theater Orchestra; he conducted an all-black US Army band, and in 1931 became an assistant to Major N. Clark Smith, musical director at Wendell Phillips High School; when DuSable High School opened in 1934, Dyett became its bandmaster. His students said that he could hear a mosquito pee on a bale of cotton. He insisted that his students study all kinds of music, not just one; he directed five high-school bands and the annual Hi-jinks show, which raised money to buy instruments (since the Board of Education would not buy them), as well as an alumni band which played in local clubs, at annual entertainments for Shriners conventions and so forth. He taught Bo Diddley violin. His students over the years included pianists Nat Cole, Dorothy Donegan and John Young, trombonists Bennie Green and Julian Priester, bass players Fred Hopkins and Richard Davis (who said, 'Maybe you weren't afraid of the cops, but you were afraid of Captain Dyett'), drummers Wilbur Campbell and Bruz Freeman, vocalist Dinah Washington, reedmen Gene 'Jug' Ammons (son of boogie-woogie pianist Albert), Eddie Harris, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, and guitarist George Freeman. (The three Freemans are brothers.) Some of them went straight off to work with Lionel Hampton or Count Basie. The names of teachers are usually obscure, but they are of the highest importance, and Captain Dyett was one of the greatest.
Sonny Blount, a young pianist and composer from Birmingham, Alabama, worked for Fletcher Henderson at Chicago's Club DeLisa in 1946-7; before long he was reincarnated as a messenger from the planet Venus called Sun Ra, whose influence and example have been priceless. 'Who knows the history of a prophet?' wrote J. B. Figi in a sleeve-note in 1967, for a reissue of Ra's first album:
July 12, 1956. Charlie Parker was but fifteen months dead. John Coltrane was barely beginning to tug ears as a sideman. No-one expected the still-distant messianic coming of Ornette Coleman. The musician usually credited with being the first of the current avant-garde to make his statement, Cecil Taylor, was gingerly putting together his first pieces, and would have to wait two months for his first recording date ... On that day, [the Transition label] was busy elsewhere, having come to Chicago to summon to a recording studio Sun Ra and his frankly far-out rehearsal band ... 'Music rushing forth like a fiery law,' Sun Ra promises in a poem, and delivers. The band moves like a big loose threshing machine through a field of heavy, sun-swollen grain. This mystic band of Chicagoans, driven by donkey-engine rhythms, roars, stomps, chugs along full of its own purpose, sounding like a Midwestern riff-jump band and a wig band at one and the same time, solos jumping out of the whole with spontaneity, yet spare and telling.
That first album, Sun Song, is now available on CD (on Delmark), and sounds as though it ought to have been a Billboard best-seller in 1957. It is impossible now to understand how those donkey-engine rhythms, like Chicago itself chunky and swinging at the same time, could ever have been called 'far out'. But we thought it was weird then.
The band left town in 1960 for a gig in Montreal: the club-owner seems to have been expecting a rock band, and the gig was not a success. They drifted to New York, and maintained a worldwide hand-to-mouth existence, staying together because nobody else could do what they did, and because big bands are important. Countless records with little in the way of documentation were issued on their own Saturn label, and finally in the 1980s the market and the listeners' ears began to catch up. Ra's music had soon admitted more abstract sounds, and later electronics, but never any effects for their own sake; the band's Buck Rogers costumes acquired an African flavour. The act included powerful percussion pieces, in which everybody in the band contributed to a multi-rhythmic sound that could make the building jump; musical melodramas with reedmen chasing each other around the stage, always with beautifully clear individual tone and never dropping a beat or a note; and a cappella chants ('Space is the place!') that could make a mob follow them into the nearest teleport chamber. Suddenly they might break into their version of a fifty-year-old arrangement by Henderson, or Ellington or Lunceford. Long before he died in 1992, Ra did not sound so weird any more; and the band's work was soon being reissued on the Evidence label.
But back in Chicago, Sun Ra's departure had left a hole in the musical scene. Pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams formed his Experimental Band to encourage creative collaboration between composers and improvisers: 'Now I can take eight measures and play a concert,' he later said to Litweiler. After several years of Abram's inspiring tuition the cooperative became official in May 1965 with the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), when thirty or so founders gathered at the home of trumpeter Phil Cohran.
Cohran ran an Afro-arts Ensemble, which included drummer Robert Crowder. Thurman Barker is a percussionist whose career as a composer and recording artist had to fight with steady demand for his skills: he had regular employment at Chicago's Schubert Theater for a dozen years, and only released his own first album, Voyage, in 1984. Fred Anderson, a distinctive tenor saxophonist and composer, ran a tavern, practicing in the back when business was slow. Anthony Braxton, an extremely bright, witty and serious composer, reedman and leader, has since become one of the leading international concert artists in contemporary music, working as a teacher to pay the bills. Reedman Henry Threadgill, bass player Fred Hopkins and percussionist Steve McCall formed Air, which became well known on the concert circuit and made superb albums, but never had enough full-time work.
McCall was replaced by Pheeroan akLaff when New Air was formed in 1983, and at about that time Threadgill also began putting together his Sextet (actually a septet, counting the leader); after three albums on the New York label About Time, Threadgill signed to Novus, a subsidiary of RCA/BMG, and the spelling changed to Sextett; they had released three more albums by 1990. Threadgill's tunes were structured tone poems, not at all 'atonal', but also used gospel voicings and collective improvisation. Like all the best music, they were unclassifiable and immediately unique, and the reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass, cello and two percussionists played them with the spirit of neighbourhood street music. In the 1990s Threadgill's new group was Very Very Circus, a septet containing two electric guitars and two tubas. It keeps changing, and Threadgill keeps writing stuff completely unlike anyone else's.
The purpose of the AACM was to seek employment among themselves instead of waiting for somebody to hire them. They began with concerts and open rehearsals of free jazz, playing original music only, and composers wrote for anyone who wanted to play. Perhaps it was the flavour of Chicago, laid back yet positive, that made it work. The AACM has remained one of the most popular and fertile collectives ever organized, despite the fact that, for example, a series of ten concerts celebrating its twentieth anniversary in 1985 had to be run on a shoestring. The collective itself has never had any money, concentrating as it does on presenting Chicago's music to Chicago's neighbourhoods.
The best-known and most successful progeny of the AACM has been the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The original members, also founder members of the AACM, were bass player Malachi Favors, trumpeter Lester Bowie and reedmen Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell; Jarman had led an informal group with Barker and others. Iowa-born Chuck Nessa, who worked in the Jazz Record Mart for peanuts in exchange for the opportunity to produce some records, recorded Abrams, Jarman and Mitchell for Delmark, then formed his own eponymous label and recorded the nucleus of what was to become the Art Ensemble.
Three albums made in 1967-8, released under the names of Bowie, Jarman and Mitchell, included trio, quartet and solo items. Old/Quartet, with Philip Wilson (who shortly after joined the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in order to make a living), was their 'basement tapes'; a good introduction to their casual brilliance, it reaches out to nourish its roots in the street. Once again Chicago was a worldbeater in music, but this time fewer were listening. Born and raised only 65 miles away, I did not hear of the AACM until it had been under way for several years, and this was at a time when there were more radio stations and the record industry was moving four or five times as much product as 25 years earlier. America can do a good job of keeping the best of itself a secret.
Mitchell's Congliptious was recorded by a quartet of Bowie, Mitchell, Favors and Robert Crowder; the other side of the record contained three solos, for Favor's bass, Mitchell's alto and Bowie's trumpet. After being asked by the journalist Dave Flexenbergstein (of Jism magazine), 'Is jazz, as we know it, dead, yet?', Bowie plays a seven-minute solo, built on what sounds like a marching-band fragment, stopping halfway through to ask Flexenbergstein to please remove his hat. Having established himself with his slurs and burnished tone as the Cootie Williams of the avant-garde, he answers at the end, 'Well, that, I guess, that all depends on, uh, how much you know.'
Pianist Christopher Gaddy and cellist and bass player Charles Clark were immensely gifted, and seemingly had brilliant futures; they both died at the age of twenty-four. They had both played on Jarman's Delmark album Song For; Gaddy died in 1968; Jarman recorded 'Song for Christopher' on his As If It Were The Seasons, on which Clark played; then Clark died in April of 1969 of a brain haemorrhage. These tragedies may have concentrated the minds of the group: Mitchell, Jarman, Bowie and Favors left for France (instead of New York, marking a change in the history and economics of modern music), became the Art Ensemble of Chicago and, from June, made about a dozen albums in less than two years, including studio sets, live concert performances and a soundtrack for the film Les Stances à Sophie, featuring Mrs Bowie, Fontella Bass, one of the best voices in the black chart in the mid-1960s. ('Rescue Me' had been a number one, on Checker.)
The soundtrack and the tone poem People in Sorrow were recorded in Boulogne for Pathé and issued in the USA on Nessa. Jean-Luc Young and Jean Georgakarakos had formed a chain of record shops in France; they also formed Actuel, a trendy paper, and, in 1967, the Byg label, for which they leased the American Savoy catalogue and made over sixty albums of new free jazz, much of it by Chicago artists. They went broke in 1975, mainly because of spending too much money on one of the biggest festivals Europe ever saw. There were accusations of carelessness with their properties, and at one point they dumped carloads of LPs in America, getting into trouble with the American owners of some of the material. Jean Karakos, as he was later known, formed Celluloid in 1976 in New York, and several offshoots, still serving experimental music. Young formed Charly in Paris in 1974 and moved it to London the next year. Charly reissues rockabilly, country and R&B and has a delightful catalogue; its managing director, Joop Visser, started Affinity in 1976 for jazz reissues, including most of the Byg recordings.
Byg recorded several of the Art Ensemble's classics. Message From Our Folks offered Charlie Parker's 'Dexterity', the percussion feature 'Rock On' and the moving, hypnotic avant-garde revival meeting of 'Old-time Religion', as well as the tone poem 'Brain for the Seine'. There's A Jackson In Your House was a wacky, swinging statement of fact: there had been a Jackson in the house for decades, and it was long past time that Robert Crumb's nervously sweating comic-book Whiteman (no relation to Paul) joined the parade.
By early 1971 they had recruited percussionist Famoudou Don Moye; in 1972 their performance at the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Blues Festival was recorded; that album and a 1973 studio set, both produced by Michael Cuscuna, were released on Atlantic. More albums were issued on Freedom, Prestige and other labels; they ended up on Manfred Eicher's high-class ECM label in the late 1970s, and recorded the mature classics Nice Guys, Full Force and Urban Bushmen.
Nessa was twenty-two years old in the mid-1960s. At first, he said, 'I honestly had no idea what they were doing ... I had to figure out how this music worked and whether it was bullshit or not ... The thing that was obvious to me was that they knew what they were doing musically. I was lost but they had such confidence in their presentation that I was drawn to it.'
[Roscoe's] idea was for each to make his own music but to have stuff happening on different levels that meshed into a full sound, where each player would play at a different tempo (say) to create a kaleidoscopic effect ... On Old/Quartet there is a piece where you have really soft drum patterns with brushes, and the bass playing a fast running line, with the saxophone and the trumpet each sounding like they are playing a different kind of music. The overall effect of the tension and release of this music is wonderful, and is really hard to sustain. I think this was the greatest creative music band that I've ever heard. They were incredibly consistent; it takes intensive rehearsal to sustain that kind of music, and keep a flow going in it.
Not long after being interviewed at length in Canada's venerable Coda jazz magazine, in 1993 Nessa issued a limited-edition five-CD set of everything in his vaults by these men, one of the releases of the decade. Working most of his life as a record distributor, he has never made a profit from his tiny record label and never will, but the twenty or so albums he made in Chicago over a period of twenty-five years are pearls without price.
The Art Ensemble that went to Paris was not Roscoe's group but a collective, and the music changed; some pieces were more Roscoe's and some Jarman's. Their 'Great Black Music' did not just practice collective improvisation, but swelled and roared with the sheer joy of it. Experiments with bassoon and bass saxophone had generated a desire for an infinite number of textures and timbres; everybody played 'little instruments', an uncountable collection of tuned and untuned percussion and horns from cowbells and woodblocks to whistles, steerhorns, bicycle horns and garbage-can lids. Yet the music is never cluttered, each timbre surprises in exactly the right place and the whole contains the entire history of black music and the black experience. A theatrical element -- warpaint, costumes and mime -- probably inspired by Jarman, enlivened the act and helped maintain the connection with community roots. Its absence took little away from the recordings, however; the music works without a video.
That the great Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman is not a household name is partly because he preferred to play at the Enterprise Lounge on the South Side rather than chase precarious fame in less friendly environments. He tossed off two albums for Nessa in one day in 1975, and anyone who owns them knows that he belongs up there with Dexter, Rollins and Coltrane. He was no doubt available to the younger generation for moral support; his son Chico Freeman was a member of the AACM in the early 1970s and became a prolific recording artist. Chico is a master of the reeds, including the bass clarinet; his touring groups and albums have employed such musicians as bass players Cecil McBee and drummers Elvin Jones, Jack DeJofinette and Fred Waits. Chico is a composer, but not an avant-gardist, and his music ought to work fine on the radio. You will not hear it on the radio, though, and the last time I talked to him he was selling computers on the side.
Anthony Braxton plays the music of Monk and has made albums of standards; he writes books about his own music, but his books make it look more difficult than it is. His quartet -- Mark Dresser on bass, Gerry Hemingway on percussion and Marilyn Crispell on piano -- set London on its ear in 1985, but Braxton did not make a living composing and playing, but had to take an academic job. When the Art Ensemble did not tour as much as it used to, Lester Bowie led a crowd-pleasing brass ensemble. Roscoe Mitchell is, in my opinion, one of today's great composers, whether he is warming up his alto saxophone until it says, 'Okay, you can play me now', or demonstrating all the timbres of which sixteen brass and woodwind instruments are capable, as in 'L-R-G', with only three musicians, or conducting 'The Maze', for eight percussionists, shot through with light, space and texture. But few have even heard of Roscoe.
How the obscure pianist and composer Joel Futterman survives is anybody's guess. He spent two years with the AACM, and released two or three albums on his own label from 1979. The loss of his frequent collaborator, the great alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, to cancer in 1986, was a terrible blow. His original, percussive and tough-minded solo pieces and his trio and quartet work with Jarman, Lyons, bass player Richard Davis and others deserve much wider exposure, available on Ear-Rational and Bellaphon, two more of the world's smaller labels.
Whitney Balliett might describe Futterman's music as difficult. If you want sheer obvious fun from the so-called avant-garde, you could have tried the white Chicagoan Hal Russell and his NRG Ensemble. Born in Detroit, Russell worked in Chicago most of his life, performing with such visiting firemen as Ellington, Miles, Rollins and Coltrane. He played drums at Newport with the free-jazz trio of saxophonist Joe Daley in 1963, began leading his own groups in the early 1970s and only discovered that the reeds were his true love around 1977. He led four younger men in a repertory of a couple of hundred original tunes whose stomping vigour and zany humour had to be heard to be believed. They made their first album in 1982; there were only two personnel changes in over a decade.
On their albums the quintet plays two trumpets, two basses, several reeds, drums, vibraphone, electric guitar, didgeridoos and anything else they fancy. After hearing them at the Moers Festival in June 1990 (their first trip to Europe), Steve Lake wrote in the Wire: 'Tales of neglect are the stuff of jazz, but I've rarely encountered a case as extreme as this one ... Trust me, one of the hottest, hippest, wittiest bands on the globe.' Russell also made a duet album, Eftsoons, with reedman Mars Williams, who had been an early member of the NRG and re-joined in the late 1980s, and a solo album (with a lot of overdubbing), Hal's Bells. Only five of Hal's NRG albums were released (on Nessa, Principally Jazz and ECM). Russell had once issued a cassette called Don't Wait Too Long Or I Could Be Dead; he died in 1992 at the age of sixty-six: the music business had waited too long. Three of the younger men were not even full-time musicians: drummer Steve Hunt worked in the family clothing firm, and one of the others rehabbed houses. Such is the best of the music business; but the NRG Ensemble carried on, with one of Chicago's most resourceful musicians, Ken Vandermark, succeeding Russell, until Vandermark and Williams got too busy with other projects. Russell never enjoyed the success he deserved, but he taught a generation of younger Chicagoans to do as they pleased and to fear nothing. CDs by Vandermark and others on labels such as Okkadisc and Atavistic represent a generation that kowtows to no one.
This chapter should be several times as long. I have not said anything about Julius Hemphill, Frank Lowe, Charles Tyler, Hamiet Bluiett, John Stevens, Leo Smith, Rory Stuart, Edward Wilkerson, Jr, John Carter, Sunny Murray, David Murray, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Charles Brackeen, Joe Locke, Phil Markowitz, Slava Ganelin, Ran Blake, Paul Bley, Kenny Wheeler or Randy Weston. Youngish people who carry on the traditions and may or may not do something original someday are Jason Rebello, Tommy Smith, Andy Sheppard, Courtney Pine, Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, Christopher Hollyday, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and a bunch of Marsalises. These people are white, black, American, British, Russian. (The Norwegian Jan Garbarek, born in 1947, plays folk styles on the saxophones, and may have been one of the most influential musicians in the world in the 1990s, for better or worse.) They are revivalists and avantgardists. Not enough of them are women, but Joanne Brackeen, Geri Allen and Marilyn Crispell, more or less in that order of 'accessibility', are pianist-composers worth any music lover's time. (Crispell's solo Vignettes on ECM in 2008 was a thing of astonishing crystalline beauty.) Bass player Richard Davis plays with post-bop revivalists and then turns in the wittiest, most zinging and precise avant-garde playing (with Futterman, for example) you have ever heard. Meanwhile, so many people are still sounding like John Coltrane, who has been gone over twenty-five years, that Scott Hamilton feels free to play in the fifty-year-old Ben Webster style; Soprano saxophonist and clarinettist Bob Wilber, who studied as a teenager with Sidney Bechet, has recreated Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington sessions, and performed as a guest on an album of Bill Challis's arrangements recorded in 1986. Not only is improvised music alive and well, but revivalism has never been in better hands.
Guitarist turned crooner George Benson, pianist Herbie Hancock and others have left jazz for high-class pop or for rock fusion, sometimes coming back again. Producer and arranger Quincy Jones seemed to have disappeared entirely into slick studio pop, celebrated for his personal and commercial success. Miles Davis played his spare phrases over disco-flavoured backing tracks in the 1980s; you could hear more Miles by listening to his old recordings. Trumpeter Donald Byrd left for academia and formed a band of students called the Blackbyrds to play what amounted to disco, but at least they were flesh-and-blood musicians instead of computers. We can call it selling out, but they call it paying the rent. Arthur Blythe, a reedman, seemed to change styles with every album; as he put it, 'I don't want to make records for posterity. I want to make records for prosperity.' Benson has a family to raise, and points out that when he recorded jazz, most of the record-buying public never heard it.
Yet a former car dealer has built a big catalogue on California's Concord Jazz label, recording mainstream jazz for an audience which had been starved of it for generations, while the major labels waste so much money chasing bubble-gum blockbusters that they cannot afford to bother with the audiences that are there. And yuppies fill their shelves full of immaculately recorded note-spinning 'New Age' dinner party music, the contemporary equivalent of Mantovani's strings. They are probably searching for chamber jazz, but they never learned how to listen. They should buy records by Stan Getz, Paul Bley, Bill Evans, Ted Brown, but the jazz bins in the shopping-mall record shops are full of the new mood music.
Will Ackerman ran a construction company and also played the guitar. When he released In Search of the Turtle's Navel in 1976 for a few fans, naming the Wyndham Hill label after his company, he effectively launched New Age, and had sales of $20 million in 1984. The artwork on the New Age records resembles that of ECM, the European label for improvised music formed by Manfred Eicher in 1970. Guitarist John Abercrombie made nine ECM albums between 1974 and 1981, and there are so many albums on that label by several people that some of them inevitably amount to note-spinning. Keith Jarrett spins out his notes across entire albums, moaning along with it, and sells many records, while the British pianist and composer Keith Tippett remains virtually unknown.
Pure New Age, sometimes confused by marketing people and by magazine critics with jazz, perhaps began with the recordings of John Fahey and Leo Kottke on acoustic guitar in the 1960s. It was sometimes called new acoustic, and indeed often sounded folkish. The Los Angeles Free Press wrote of the album Timeless (1974) by keyboard player Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette: 'You lie back, close your eyes and journey-soft ...' If we have loud narcissism in pop-rock, New Age is contemplative narcissism. The new mood music is impeccably played and recorded, but my old Percy Faith records have more musical content and less pretence. The acoustic piano album Pianissimo (1990, on Private Music) composed and played by Suzanne Ciani, was also immaculately recorded, but her piano style on her soundalike tunes sounds to me like Carole King with a muscle spasm.
Many jazz musicians are still noodling. Chick Corea strolls onstage with so many electronic keyboards around his neck it is a wonder the clatter does not drown out the music, but in 1991 an album was issued in five or six formats, including videodisc. Reedman Steve Coleman and others are playing something called M-base, combining elements of rock with jazz. What I have heard of it sounds rockist to me, but at least it is not background music. Maybe something will come of the various fusions some day; after all, most of Gunther Schuller's third-stream music over the decades has not been recorded, or even played. If contemporary musicians sign conventional deals with major labels, tin-eared lawyers and producers try to tell them what to play; perhaps it is just as well that nearly all their best work is on dinky labels that the shops do not stock, many of them live recordings from European festivals such as Moers, Willisau and Zurich.
I began by describing the popular songs of the eighteenth century as strophic -- that is, repetitious, so that the audience hears the melodic fragments over and over. It is clear that the most profitable popular music has been repetitious in nature, and that the golden age of American songwriting and the Swing Era itself were accidents of history, perhaps never to be repeated. Popular music since the invention of electrical recording has developed a spectrum that now includes kiddie music at one end and at the other music which is, to quote the title of Valerie Wilmer's book, As Serious As Your Life. But the word 'serious' in this context does not mean without joy. Our greatest artists do not strike poses for the media; the media do not pay much attention to them anyway. So why is it that everybody's doing it? If you have to ask, you are not listening. As for me, new records by Braxton, Mitchell and the others come out faster than I can afford to buy them, so as a music lover, I am happy. But what about black pop?
In his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues Nelson George points out that forty years ago black communities had their own restaurants, hotels, baseball teams and so forth. Then came improvements in civil rights. The best black players were hired by major-league baseball and the black leagues went out of business, and where are the black owners and managers in the major leagues? Similarly, when blacks could use white restaurants and hotels, their own smaller businesses went broke: thrown into the same economic meat-grinder as the rest of us but with less money in their pockets and fewer jobs, they can now vote, but their neighbourhoods have crumbled. What remained of R&B was prettified, overproduced and burdened with technology, like white pop. Bedroom crooners and often beautiful 'sweet soul' voices were heard, but for the most part, unless you were Lionel Richie, the business did not want to know about black music. And meanwhile music education in the schools disintegrated. American taxpayers will vote against anything that costs money if they get a chance, so forget frills, like libraries. Forget music. The schools in some American states almost closed in the late 1970s because there was not enough money to keep the doors open; at the same time a new generation of black kids were inventing rap.
You can draw a parallel between black music and the American economy as a whole. The tiny middle class are the composers and performers celebrated around the world: Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, Braxton and the rest, relatively poor as they are. The working class is really nowhere: if all an aspiring young black musician wants to do is play in the Hollywood studios or in a symphony orchestra, there are no jobs. And there is the underclass, which could not even afford to go to discos, and had no musical training whatever. But they had turntables and a few records. So they invented their own mixes, by switching back and forth between two copies of the same record, such as James Brown's 'Get on the Good Foot', the harder, funkier music that disco had come from. Using microphones, they chanted over their music, as in Jamaican dub, in which the DJ chants over an instrumental reggae track (one of the first in the new rap genre was Jamaican-born Kool Herc of the South Bronx). The inventiveness of the street dancers was soon called breaking, or break dancing. The amateur DJs would break into a street-lamp for electricity in the middle of the afternoon, and by two or three the next morning there would be hundreds of kids hanging out, watching the dancers, enjoying the sounds.
The fad was called hip-hop, from a Lovebug Starsky record: 'To the hip, hop, hippedy-hop.' Then it came to be called rap, itself originally from black slang, a trendy 1960s word for conversation. The chanting was supposed to be improvised, and the whole thing remained a cult for a while, until it crossed over into the commercial music business. Decades later the fad is still with us.
'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang (producer Sylvia Vanderpool again, seizing the opportunity as she had done in the early days of disco) was a freak hit in 1979. 'The Breaks' in 1980 on Mercury was regarded as a novelty. Afrika Bambaataa and his Soul Sonic Force were big in 1982; James Brown himself may be heard in a duet on 'Unity' (1984). Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Sadler) was one of the first to use 'montage' on records, adding sound effects and making rhythmic fills by 'scratching' the stylus back and forth in the groove. (He made a video with director Spike Lee.) Finally, Run DMC, a trio from Queens, had the genre's first million-selling album in 1986, Raising Hell. Using a drum machine and scratching on a double-deck turntable, the trio filled Madison Square Garden and were seen as controversial, but stronger stuff was on the way.
Many people hate rap. Considered purely as music, it is the ultimate reduction of pop to absurdity. Charles Shaar Murray claims that rap was the most exciting thing to happen in pop in the 1980s, but that's not saying much. There are, however, interesting things to be said about it, not least that it made its own way with little help from the mainstream music business. Originally it was improvised, and may have had some value as street poetry; the rappers prize words and are more literate in their own way than your average pop star: where words are found there must be a message. But the uncomfortable fact is that rap was born of musical starvation. In the late 1980s the great jazz percussionist and composer Max Roach received a foundation grant, and was widely interviewed in American newspapers. One of the subjects he talked about was music education. No matter how poor they were, no matter what kinds of backgrounds they came from, Roach's generation, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, had been able to get real musical tuition, on real musical instruments, in the schools. But that had changed. 'If you don't like rap,' Roach pointed out to the American people, 'you're getting what you paid for.'
But each generation has to make its own noise, invent its own genre; and what we paid for, or did not pay for, is rap. 'The Message' (1982), by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, had more meaningful words than most pop songs of that period; it is about the neighbourhood and its 'junkies in the alley / with a baseball bat'. The rap groups did the best they could to communicate with America about the conditions to which they were confined, and to which their brothers and sisters are still confined. That message is still being ignored.
Boo-yah TRIBE were 'Six Bad Brothas' of Samoan extraction from the Carson district of Los Angeles; 'Boo-yah' is derived from the sound of a sawn-off shotgun. Their track 'Once Upon a Drive By' tells of teenagers killing each other from the car window while driving by; 'Rated R' is about how to use the word 'motherfucker' fifty times in one song. NWA ('Niggers with Attitude'), from California, were the first successful rap group to come from outside New York; their album was called Straight Outta Compton. They too celebrate the world of drive-by killings and robbery with violence; one of their tracks urges listeners to kill and fuck the police. Public Enemy's second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, reached the top twenty in Britain. The group's 'minister of propaganda', Richard Griffin, alias Professor Griff, said in an interview, 'The Jews are evil. And we can prove this.' 2 Live Crew rap about bitches, dicks, cunts and pussies: 'Forget the salad, just eat my meat', 'I can't be pussywhipped by a dick-sucker', and so on.
Of course, this stuff has its defenders among today's college professors and literary critics -- drama critic Kenneth Tynan thought that the Beatles' Sgt Pepper was a turning point in western civilization -- but they miss the point. As David Toop noted in England, 'the concoction appealed to intellectuals, who saw rap as the supreme expression of post-modernism, creative retro, television inspired blip culture and goodness knows what else'. The New Republic remarked that the rock critics 'are regularly laughable in their nervous translations of the primal and the obscene into the polysyllabic prettifications of their trade'.
The magazine quoted Jon Pareles on the subject of rap: 'Rappers live by their wit -- their ability to rhyme, their speed of articulation and by their ability to create outsized personas with words.' But not even a New York Times critic can justify rap by himself, so Pareles called in Professor Henry Louis Gates, of Duke University, who has become a prominent black critic by embracing the intellectual con-trick of structuralism, or deconstructuralism, or post-structuralism, or whatever it is called this week. What 2 Live Crew do, Professor Gates says, is 'take the white Western culture's worst fear of black men and make a game of it'. But the fear is 2 Live Crew's fear of women in general, and black women in particular. It does not scare me, it disgusts me, and I do not think it is a game.
Gates soon got his own space in The New York Times in which he carried on the literary criticism: to understand 2 Live Crew we must become 'literate in the vernacular traditions of African Americans'. We are now so anti-elitist that we invent crackpot critical theory to justify anything as art. The New Republic again:
And so we get to the point. Rap was an illustration not just of what pop music had come to, but of what a nation had come to. We have known for years that American black males suffer more strokes and heart attacks than American white males. Murder was the leading cause of death among young black males in Washington, DC; the life expectancy of a male in Harlem was shorter than that of a male in Bangladesh. An American secretary of health warned that 'the young black American male is a species in danger'. The rappers saw Jews only as their local shopkeepers and landlords; nobody ever taught them that for generations Jews were the best friends blacks had in America, because they knew what it was like to be slaves thousands of years before the first African was taken to the New World. Nobody ever taught them that Jews as businessmen (and musicians) did more for black music in this century than any other non-black group. Nobody has ever taught them that men and women are supposed to console each other. No doubt some of them have never heard of Duke Ellington, and even more have never heard of Ralph Ellison. Nobody ever taught them anything because they had no schools to speak of. All they have is the label 'underclass', which means 'garbage'. Naturally they are angry. NWA's Easy-E 'sings':
Do I look like a motherfucking role model?
The rest of us may appear to behave ourselves, but there is little evidence that we care about anything more than Easy-E does. All the rapper knows is what he sees, and he does not see a society which is interested in any kind of justice, to say nothing of the quality of its music. He may appear to be a creep, an idiot, a moron, but he may be more honest than we are, if only out of necessity; he knows that he has no control over his life, while we pretend that we have control over ours. His anger is what we have paid for, or the result of what we have not paid for; and his warning has been wasted, for rap has been processed by the music industry.
There was soon, of course, white rap. Every black genre has been imitated so far, and not even rap could escape. The Beastie Boys were among the first off the mark, three middle-class boys whose parents are music business veterans; four million copies of their first album were sold. Their second received rave reviews in 'quality' newspapers: the one by David Sinclair in The Times was headed 'Rude, lewd and shamelessly funny': 'Paul's Boutique is strewn with foul language and lewd innuendo; it shamelessly glorifies all manner of deviant, violent and criminal behaviour and it unequivocally condones recreational drug-dabbling. It is also very funny ... Brooklyn's Beastie Boys have recaptured the essence of rock as the perfect adolescent vehicle for the flaunting of outrage.' If some of our children are murdering each other, the Beasties are just reviving the whiskered old essence of rock'n'roll, invented by the media in the first place. This is so funny I am holding my sides.
There must also be rap that is completely innocuous, which happens as soon as a genre starts making money. Some thought that Run DMC were funny in the beginning, but, having been knocked from the commercial top of the genre by newer acts, they were unintentionally amusing when they appeared on a British music magazine programme in early 1991, obviously puzzled and uncertain, these big black kids from one of the toughest neighbourhoods on earth. So what were they doing about competition from the likes of Vanilla Ice? They were in England to 'sample' Manchester bands for sounds to use in their act. (That is one way to get out of Queens; last I heard the police in Manchester still did not carry guns.) Vanilla Ice was, inevitably, white, and had impressive cheekbones; he was described by one critic as 'all mouth and trousers', but his backing tracks were very slick. M.C. Hammer was black; his 'We've Got the Power' was used in 1991 in Britain as psych-up music for people selling time-share schemes.
A few of these youngsters who grew up in the street were making money from hit records, but there were many more still in the street, still angry and still shedding each other's blood. And as rap was legitimized and joined the mainstream, it was clear that it now bore the burden of being a phoney sign of hope. As fast as its obscene cry was mistaken for mere outrageousness, it became one of the commodities which substitute for social and economic stability, no more useful than any other and less useful than most, because if it is not angry, it has no substance. Lloyd Bradley in Q got it right, reviewing Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet: 'the music is only a background for the most singleminded attack on the state of modern urban America heard on record'. Evidently that group had not been bought off yet.
Of course, some older musicians must try to make sense of rap. A year or so after his remarks on the state of the music education in America, Max Roach told Chris Parker in England that he was working with the Fab Five, and quoted them:
'The political system in the inner cities has taken out all the cultural enrichment courses, no music, no rhetoric, visuals, dance -- so we created something ... no one gave us anything, it's pure.' So they came up with a way of dealing with this world of sound and rhetoric, which is rhyme and visual, graffiti and dance ... total theatre. So I became interested from that aspect, but I have to have it explained by them.
Conventional methods of making music have 'just about been used up. So if you don't want to repeat, you have to deal with this world out there that's blessed us with electronics,' says Mr Roach. Thanks, but when all the drummers have been replaced by computers, I will stay indoors and listen to my Max Roach records.
In late 1990 a piece called Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, by composer and saxophonist Julius Hemphill, was seen at the Apollo Theatre. The interlocutor was once master of ceremonies at a Washington club, and is now a street sweeper. He shows a rap duo through black history since the 1940s: the end of the Swing Era, the beginning of rhythm and blues and bop, later modern jazz and several styles of dancing. In the end the rappers trade licks with a saxophonist. I would rather see Julius Hemphill's opera than watch Michael Jackson's movie again. Moonwalker had no story to speak of, but lots of high-tech sci-fi fireworks, to make the children happy, and good dancing. There was a wonderfully designed scene that looked like a black club of the 1940s, and in the background a suggestion of a piano and a saxophonist. Was there a piano in the soundtrack? Any reeds at all? No: just the usual pop-rock, all at the same volume and tempo. Jackson appears to be a sort of superhero in the film; he could have made himself a real hero, by exposing all our children to his rich cultural heritage, but he threw away that opportunity and opted for flash. I wonder how much his multi-talented producer Quincy Jones had to do with it, but I am reminded of James Blood Ulmer, on his album America -- Do You Remember the Love? 'I belong to the USA / I don't know if I want to stay.'
Having raped black music, today we have world music, in which there are many lovely things. The Cajun music of French-speaking white swamp dwellers in Louisiana, and zydeco, the black variant, are happy and unpretentious folk-dance musics, which may properly belong to folk roots rather than to world music. Klezmer was being rediscovered, a sort of Yiddish dance music that has things in common with jazz, from the Odessa of eighty years ago. The multipart harmony of a Bulgarian women's choir was already familiar to anyone who has heard Janacek's Glagolitic Mass. Africans play music resembling the blues on folk instruments, their time as subtle and beautiful as that of Robert Johnson or Charley Patton. Sixty years ago the janitor at my primary school played Japanese 78s for us which he had brought back from there after the war; they sounded infinitely strange and interesting. I do not know whether they represented traditional music or the Japanese pop of the period, but I do know that today the Japanese play the most banal pop-rock in the world, adopting our poverty-stricken values with perfect unselfconsciousness .
The performers of the music of the so-called Third World know that they will not be allowed into our marketplace until they have already been influenced by western pop-rock, and in any case their own pop music has already been so influenced. The songs of Thomas Mapfumo, in modern Zimbabwe, for example, although they still sound like they ought to be played on the thumb piano, are played on the electric guitar, and all at the same tempo. White and black South Africans formed Juluka (which means 'sweat' or 'work') which performed beautiful folkish songs full of poetry and African harmony, but that era is over; and Johnny Clegg has since formed Savuka ('we have awakened'), which is 'dance music', still African-flavoured, but electric and with the usual thumping beat. Rai is the music of the north African Muslim working class; it is already electric, and tacky nightclubs are similar the world over. We have not heard much lately about fado, a sort of Portuguese blues; perhaps the artists refused to be plugged in. Jamaican reggae has already had its superhero, Bob Marley, who was admitted to the pantheon by the sentimentality of the counterculture; but the biggest Jamaican influence is the dub aspect of rap.
We can hope for a liberating influence on our pop music from the Third World, but we will force our trendy values on music from anywhere. Novelist Sousa Jamba, writing for the Spectator, hoped 'that the "world music" frenzy will not be ephemeral, like most things in Western culture'. He walked into a London record shop to hear his mother tongue booming at him.
A girl called Yarima from a Stone Age tribe in the Amazon rainforest married an American, and went with him to live in televisionland. 'I did not know what music was. My people have no musical instruments. All is chanting. When I first heard your music I hated it. Then I started snapping my fingers and tapping my toes. Madonna has a good voice and I like the way Michael Jackson moves.' Never mind that the word 'chant' means 'song'; so much for music. We cultists who have money in our pockets can celebrate six centuries of music on records, but our own best musicians and composers live on handouts, and our children are encouraged to become narcissists. Our republic has failed; our Caesars have feet of clay; the barbarians are inside the gates. We have seen the enemy; he is in the mirror.
Yet as I have been predicting for many years, the biggest record companies are going broke, and if it is sad to see all the record stores going out of business, at least the Internet is a level playing field: the obscure singer-songwriter in Americana can sell his downloaded songs just as easily as the slickest popster, while the thorniest free jazz and the timeless music of the Mongolian throat-singer can be purchased through the mail whether you live in Los Angeles or rural Iowa. The music is out there, and always will be.
This book was first published in 1995; a lot of people asked me why I had called it 'The Rise and Fall' of popular music. Fourteen years later, the music industry as we had known it for a century has disappeared. Thousands of record shops have closed, leaving only a few legendary outlets like Waterloo Records in Austin and the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago; even Borders and Barnes & Noble are pushing music out of their stores: for better or worse, we all buy music online now. (Even Netflix knows that the DVD will eventually vanish, and we will all be watching movies on our computers.)
This in turn means that the major record labels have gone smash. EMI has gone broke, and all the others have slashed their A&R departments. This is largely because, as Chuck Nessa has put it, they weren't interested in selling 10,000 copies of 100 releases, or even 100,000 of ten releases; they wanted to sell a million copies of one release. This has resulted in a lot of popular music that sounds like kids playing with karaoke in their bedrooms. Terry Teachout's recent column in the Wall Street Journal called 'Can Jazz Be Saved?' opined that jazz (and classical music) will have to learn how to 'pitch' the music to younger people, but missed the point that they used to have the help of record companies and broadcasters, who have long since abdicated their cultural responsibility. Steve Knopper's Appetite For Self Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (2009) is a good book about how the majors missed the boat.
Yet there is hope. Only the industry has collapsed, not the music. Jim Fusilli's recent column, 'The Music Festival Grows Up', was about Lollapalooza:
Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird said, "A record is kind of a moment in time. Maybe you nailed it, maybe you didn't. It's far more interesting to do it differently every night." And another quote:
In fact, with the collapse of the industry, the music itself has again become the important thing. Maybe we now have a level playing field.
August 2009, West Des Moines, Iowa
Nielsen SoundScan reported that in 2009 domestic album sales in the USA, including downloads, were 373.9 million units, down 13% from 2008, falling for the eighth time in nine years. The biggest selling album of the year was Taylor Swift's Fearless, selling 3.2 million copies, compared to N Sync's No Strings Attached, which sold nearly ten million in 2000, the year that CD sales peaked, when Americans bought over 785 million albums. Music fans bought 1.16 billion individual songs from services like Apple's iTunes Store, an increase of 8.3% over 2008, but that actually represented a slowdown, because in 2008 sales of digital songs had increased 27% over 2007.
January 2010, Allentown, Pennsylvania
The Billboard chart announcement on 19 January 2011 included the number one album, Cake's sixth album, Showroom of Compassion, the worst-ever debut at number one. It sold 44,000 albums and downloads, fewer than any predecessor since 1991, when accurate weekly totals became available. The previous week's number one album, Taylor Swift's Speak Now, had sold only 52,000, but that was not a debut. It had already been on the chart for nearly three months. We might assume that January is a slow month, but the previous low for a number one album, in 2007, was the Dreamgirls soundtrack, at 60,000 copies; while a January number one album in 2004, Outkast's expensive double album Speakerboxx/Love Below, sold 97,000. Last year Americans bought 326.2 million albums on CD or download, the lowest total since Soundscan began releasing the numbers in 1993, and 58% below the peak in 2000.
January 2011, Allentown