Shameless plug time, and why not? My band STATS, formerly Stay Fucked, returns to the stage this coming Friday, 5/31, playing The Charleston in the company of our esteemed colleagues Yukon, Maw and Liturgy. This marks the end of a partially untintentional four-month hiatus resulting from major wrist/hand wear 'n' tear sustained by our bassist, A.V. Gedrich, on a recent tour with the mighty Extra Life. If we're to trust the man himself, he's homing in on full strength, and in tribute I offer you this video of him in action with Archaeopteryx, performing his suitelike original composition "You Want Prefilled Healthcare Product on This Internet." Unbiased I'll never not be, but neither are you likely to find a more sustained instance of freedom in discipline or a more striking example of un-B.S. heavy-metal futurism:
And check out the Times's Ben Ratliff reviewing Thrones/Ocrilim--Liturgy also played, for the record, and would've only given more credence to his argument on behalf of the one-man avant-metal powerhouse--the show I would've been at, had I not been at this insane powwow, which I'll be reviewing for The Wire. Enjoyed all sets, but Rammellzee (at left) in particular peeled back my scalp and visited my skull--I recognized this dude's name from Stranger than Paradise and knew a tad about him, but was largely unprepared for the Gothic Futurist onslaught. Kudos to Ratliff for making the DBA scene; have never been much of a Thrones fan, but he makes a good case for Preston, and I love that he's been so attentive to Mick Barr in recent years.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Walt Dickerson memorial broadcast continues today on WKCR, courtesy of my friend Russell Baker. Tune in from noon to 3pm EST here.
Another thought... I've bitched a fair amount about Pitchfork on this blog, specifically about how much it bums me out when they dabble in non-indie-rock genres they seem to know little about.
So you can imagine how wary I've been of the some-months-old metal column Show No Mercy by Brandon Stosuy. After having followed it for a while, though, I've got to say: It's an outstanding accomplishment. Four to five lengthy interviews per installment, copious MP3s, just a very no-B.S. approach that demonstrates intense enthusiasm for extreme metal and a sincere devotion to its scholarship. After keeping up with this column I realize that although I've been an avowed metalhead since about age 12, I'm completely clueless when it comes to the really cutting-edge stuff, i.e., experimental black metal, etc. It's extremely rare that the column covers an artist I've heard of, let alone actually heard. Anyway, dig the latest edition. My favorite parts are the talk with Indianapolis doom outfit Gates of Slumber (on the finer points of fantasy author Robert E. Howard: "Also, the character of Kull is very different than Conan. He's a philosopher first, in his heart-- more a victim of circumstance."), and the interview w/ Arlington, VA, black-metallist Wrnlrd, who likens his genre to American roots music:
"I see ghosts of American music everywhere. I hear Dock Boggs in black metal, the droning banjo, voice like an earthquake. I hear Blind Lemon pounding his feet on the floor, and I know he is my cousin."
Let me just say that if I got a response like that to an interview question, I would feel that I could just quit right then and there. Anyway, excellent work over there, let me tell you.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The great vibraphonist Walt Dickerson has passed away, according to the following message circulated by drummer Andrew Cyrille, an important collaborator of Dickerson's:
"To all concerned:
I was asked to inform you of the regrettable death of vibraphonist,
Walt Dickerson, by his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Walt passed away on May 15
from cardiac arrest. He was 80 years of age and lived in Willow Grove, PA.
As some readers might remember, I've been fascinated with Dickerson's music for some time, and I was lucky enough to to spend an amazing afternoon with him back in '03. Here you can find the full transcript of our conversation:
Walt Dickerson interview - 6/29/03
My JazzTimes piece that resulted from this interview can be read here.
Strangely, just last night I came across a download of Dickerson's Tell Us Only the Beautiful Things LP. This was the only Walt album I was unable to track down back when I was researching the story; can't wait to dig into it.
It's very, very sad that Dickerson never emerged from his silence to record again. When I spoke with him, he told me he was still playing every day...
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Mixed feelings have I re: seeing Phil Schaap immortalized in this New Yorker profile by David Remnick. I'm happy he's getting that broad of a platform, but a little wary about the quality of the exposure.
As with many NYer profiles, this one exposes its subject to equal amounts of reverence and ridicule. And maybe that's inevitable. It's easy to make fun of Phil. I myself remember tuning in when he was discussing that whole "okiedoke" issue that Remnick recounts (i.e., he spent like 30 minutes on "Bird Flight" one recent morning trying to archaeologically suss out the way Charlie Parker might have prounounced that throwaway term) and being somewhat freaked out. So yes, Phil's "crazy," an egghead, what have you, right?
But he's also been hugely inspiring to me and a ton of others that have either listened to him over the years or worked under him at WKCR. I learned a ton during my time at WKCR (I'm still there when I can get there, but I guess I'd have to consider myself more of an alum than anything else), and not just about music, but about journalism in general, mainly the importance of being thorough in what you do and not to talk out your ass, as it were.
I can't say that I've always honored that credo over my subsequent years of writing, but I hold Phil's insane thoroughness (shared by his colleague and my longtime friend Ben Young) up as a gold standard, something to strive for, even if I can rarely go as deep as they do in my work.
As far as the shaming that Remnick mentions, the "pointless" embarrassment of students, I can definitely say I experienced that firsthand. I remember talking with Phil during a "Bird Flight" music break one morning (I had the show before him, and I'd often hang around in the studio), and I mentioned that I had played a Modern Jazz Quartet record. I can't remember exactly what I said about it, but it was something to the effect of it not really sounding like a bebop record. Whatever the observation was, I was just spouting, rambling, etc. Phil looked me right in the eye and said, "KC Hank [that's what he always called me], dig this so you can dig yourself: Talking about bebop drumming without talking about [MJQ drummer] Kenny Clarke is like talking about English literature without Shakespeare." The conversation pretty much ended there. I was stunned, shamed, etc. But you know what? I watched my mouth from then on. Before that I would always take these rambling, digressive mike breaks on air, but after, I just did my job: Played the freakin' records.
I think that's a really important lesson for any journalist to learn, i.e., watch your mouth. Just because you have a public forum doesn't mean you deserve it. You've got to know your shit and be ready to be called on it, harshly, if you don't. That's all Phil is really saying. And in terms of Charlie Parker, or jazz in general, Stanley Crouch is right when he says in the piece that "There is no person in America more dedicated to any art form than Phil is to jazz."
In other news, this book has become my Bible.
And I found the AACM concert/panel discussion (previewed in my last post) to be really something special. I'm publishing a review in an upcoming issue of "The Wire," so I'll leave it at that for now.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Long post ahead. Sorry, it's how it must play out...
So the AACM is getting ready to party, and with good reason. George E. Lewis's mammoth and quite wonderful history of the organization, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, drops at the end of the month. This Friday, May 9th, there's going to be an awesome book release event at the Community Church of New York on E 35th St. Lewis, AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams and Wadada Leo Smith are playing as a trio, and Greg Tate hosts a panel discussion on the AACM. Wonderful times ahead, I hope; read more info on the event from the source here.
I had the good fortune to interview both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Abrams--two incredibly warm, engaging and thoughtful individuals--for a Time Out New York feature on the book and the AACM in general. Please check that out here, and I hope you enjoy. (One tiny nitpicky note: Since the photo was cropped differently in print and online, note that Abrams is actually third from left in the picture, not second from left; he's the one kneeling down with the clarinet, right above the child in the foreground.)
Since so much of my conversations with these great men was left unused in the published piece, I wanted to share the complete transcripts here. Before we started talking, Abrams requested that we leave the discussion of the book to Lewis, so he and I mostly covered the organization in general. Lewis and I got much more into the nitty-gritty aspects of his book, and when he found out that I was a musician, he even began to throw a few questions my way. I want to extend a huge thanks to both men for allowing me to post these transcripts here, and I hope you enjoy checking them out! (I've done my best to clean up the files, but since they're way long, there may still be typos floating around. Please leave a comment if you see anything fishy. And please excuse inconsistencies in punctuation, especially dashes, which are sometimes rendered as "--" and sometimes as unbroken lines; my word processing software is in sorry, sorry shape.)
"The fruits of observing one another": An interview with Muhal Richard Abrams
Monday, 4/21/08 - Lenny's sandwich shop
HS: I know you were mainly self-taught as a musician and tended to figure things out on your own—
MRA: I studied.
HS: You did go to school for a little bit—
MRA: Yeah, but my studies have been self-taught studies. I got the same information—I sought the same information that they had in school and studied it by myself.
HS: What led you towards teaching yourself rather than studying in institutions?
MRA: Just an innate feeling that I should do it that way.
HS: Was there an example that you followed?
MRA: No, I just always felt that even when I didn’t realize the basis of it, I always felt that I should seek out things and analyze things. I’ve always been that way, and so as a result of that kind of feeling, I felt that I could teach myself anything.
HS: And was this the case as a child too?
MRA: Yeah, I suspect I’ve always approached in that matter, even when I didn’t realize what it was. I didn’t even think about it—it’s just a natural, innate feeling to doing things that way. That’s all.
HS: Going along with that, I know that you were a mentor figure for a lot of musicians.
MRA: Well, I don’t subscribe to the mentorship idea. I don’t subscribe to that. I think they were more or less collaborations, although quite a few of the people were younger and less experienced than myself. But it finally evened itself as really collaborations. I don’t subscribe to it, although I realize that people view me in that way and some of the musicians also, but I just don’t subscribe to it.
HS: In other words, you’d rather not take credit for anyone’s development?
MRA: No, because when one is impressed with the idea of being one’s self, the possibilities become limitless. And I think most of the people that I’ve associated with proved that to be true.
HS: Now a lot of the musicians that you did collaborate with have gone on to do a lot of great things. And a lot of them would consider you to be a mentor even if you don’t—
MRA: I understand—I understand.
HS: So when you hear names like, say, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Henry Threadgill or the Art Ensemble of Chicago—this long list of illustrious figures—do you feel a sense of pride in being a part of their development, or just in being associated with them?
MRA: A great pride in being associated with them—I certainly do.
HS: But it’s not an issue of wanting to take credit for their development.
MRA: No, I don’t subscribe to that at all.
HS: Let’s move on to another important idea that I know was there at the beginning of the AACM which is the idea of original music exclusively. Can you tell me when you realized that it was important to focus on that as a principle, rather than standards or something else?
MRA: Well, it wasn’t a question of “rather than,” you see. Look at it this way: There was a substantial forum for playing standard music, but there was no forum for playing original music--nonstandard music, let’s say that, because “original” could mean a lot of things. We’ll use “original” in this way: original creations from the individuals. Say for instance I compose a piece strictly from my basis, rather than from a standard song basis. So in that sense, that’s what I mean by original.
So the thing is again—as when we started out speaking—I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always had that inclination to do things on my own, to explore and experiment to find out things. So it all, in terms of personally, it came from that basis. And when I organized the Experimental Band, then my requirement for the Experimental Band, first of all for myself, was to only have original music composed and performed. And as the other musicians that you speak of—some of the names you speak of, or most of the names you speak of—as they began to realize their innate abilities to compose, then they started to add music to the Experimental Band process.
And so when the idea of the AACM came along, after the Experimental Band, then the idea of original music proceeded on into that form. Now the AACM was an expansion of the Experimental Band idea, follow me? And we met with, well, quite a few musicians in Chicago, originally, to find out who was interested in having a group of that type—of performing and presenting original music. But outside of the AACM, they were free to perform whatever they wanted to play—it wasn’t against anything. It was just that we isolated in order to concentrate in this matter because there was no forum for it. So that was the idea, we developed a forum for performing and composing original music, you see? That’s the basic idea of the AACM.
And also in that forum, it included—because of its nature—it included respect for individualism, because of that kind of forum. Hence [?], the musicians you spoke of, the reason that they could grow as individuals was because of an atmosphere like that. You know, and it proved itself out.
HS: Do you feel that for a musician to develop that they have to compose their own music?
MRA: No, but I do feel that for a musician to develop, they have to look inside to find out how they want to proceed with what they do. Even in standard-type music, musicians have to distinguish themselves as individuals, but perhaps they don’t prefer to distinguish themselves by playing music other than standard music, you know what I mean? But they distinguish themselves there. But I think it’s necessary, for me, for a musician to grow—Well, let me say this: I can’t speak for other people so I want that understood, but I think it’s healthy for a musician to find out about him- or herself, whatever that takes and whatever the outcome is, they should find that. Because through the years as you practice in music, it comes about anyway. You have to decide how you’re gonna approach.
A lot of people play, for instance, “Body and Soul,” but each has his own approach to playing “Body and Soul,”and that’s what I’m talking about—it’s just basic. And most of the great musicians we know—and take just the mainstream—most of the great musicians we know in the mainstream have distinguished themselves in that way. You can put on one of your CDs or something of some mainstream musician who’s been around a while, you know what I mean, and right away you know who it is. You can tell by the sound. So that’s what I’m talking about.
Now when we transfer that same idea of individualism into an association like the AACM, then we’ll get these original compositions, nonstandard things, but from the same basis.
HS: As a way to move into to talking about the organization more specifically, off the top of your head, when I say “AACM,” what is the first thing that comes to mind?
MRA: I think about all the people I’ve associated with. [Laughs] That’s what I think about, and the things that they’ve achieved as individuals. Back to the same basis that we’re talking about. And I feel proud to have been associated with entities of that type, because I think we’ve all learned a great deal from each other. It brings to mind those kind of thoughts. Yeah.
HS: So, people.
HS: I know that there were four of you that came together and started the AACM, but do you remember a moment when you said to yourself, “We have to do this. We have to start this thing”?
MRA: Well, we were always talking about self-realization and taking care of ourselves because we were all on the South Side of Chicago together, whether they were AACM members or not, we were all musicians together; we’d known each other a long time, but the four of us got together to explore the idea, It just came upon us [?]. We were talking about it a lot, so we decided to meet and talk about organizing a formal [?] ... to not only deal with the music but also to deal with the business of music. So it came about like that: We started to look at those things that we felt that were necessary to further self-realize or take care of ourselves and that’s the way it came about. But it had been like sort of on the grapevine being talked about all the time by lots of musicians, but the four of us decided to, like, hone it in and take a step to try to do something about it.
HS: Tell me about the environment on the South Side of Chicago at that time. Were there factors that were making self-realization for musicians difficult?
MRA: No, in fact Chicago—I don’t know about other places—but Chicago was an ideal place for forming an organization like that, because in Chicago, the musicians in general were very individualistic, very much so. You take Sun Ra, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman and a host of others—just many, all very distinct individuals in their approach. So they were, like, quite encouraging; they weren’t against anything like that. We were very fortunate in Chicago, whereas musicians didn’t oppose each others’ approach. Because you couldn’t have had a Sun Ra or an AACM. It just wouldn’t have happened—it wouldn’t have happened, see. Everybody was just really inspired by the fact that the other person was creating a situation that was unique to his or her own. There was never any problem with that in Chicago.
HS: Were you taking inspiration from Chicago blues as well?
MRA: Oh yeah, of course, of course. The whole thing. The whole thing. The whole thing. The whole thing, y’know. Just because we formed the AACM, that doesn’t mean we don't play the blues; we do. Because that came before the AACM; we were doing that before the AACM.
HS: Yeah, I remember seeing a dedication to Howlin Wolf and some other blues players on your record View from Within.
MRA: Yeah, yeah, yeah; sure, sure. But, let me say, before the Experimental Band, I learned playing music, playing standard music—you know, jazz music. That’s where I learned. That discipline is, like, invaluable in terms of my musicianship, because that’s what it did, it gave me a musical discipline about myself. So by the time I got to the AACM and the Experimental Band, I took that same discipline into the idea of composing and performing original things.
HS: Do think that was a problem for a lot of avant-garde musicians, that they didn’t have that grounding?
MRA: Well, first of all, let’s take the word “avant-garde” away. I don’t subscribe to that word. They're musicians using their own original approach. Now I realize that there has been a need in different circles, including journalistic circles, to label things. But I don’t subscribe to those labels, so what I’m talking about is not the idea of the avant-garde, because I think now the word is, like—how can you be avant-garde after 30 or 40 years? How?!? I mean, you know, the true word of “avant-garde” should be applied to somebody else at this time, in terms of that.
But, getting back to your question, my feeling is this: that a musician should function in his or her time, you see? Function in his or her time. But when you respect music, then it’s reasonable that you might research and investigate things that came before you, you know what I mean? That’s personal. But I don’t think it’s necessary, if you’re not going to play that. You function in your own time, you know. I think younger people should function in their own time, because they have contemporaries that are creating things around them that they have to stay abreast of. And that’s important. I don’t think that there’s anything missing from their arsenal, except for that which they may not care to include, and then I wouldn’t say that that’s a bad thing. If it’s good for them to not include certain things, then that’s what they should do.
I hear young people today that are getting pretty good situations and there’s no evidence of the past in the sense of being obvious in what they do.
HS: And that doesn’t bother you?
MRA: Noooo. I mean, when we did what we did, then it certainly probably disturbed a lot of people somewhere. [Laughs] But the thing is, we were in our time. But let me say this now: I don’t mean that our time has passed; there’s no time to pass with musicians. As long as you practice music, you’re in it. It doesn’t matter, you’re in it. In terms of experimenting and researching and observing all types of music, I do it just as vigorously today as I did 40 years ago.
HS: Actually that reminds me: I was going to ask you to describe your regular practice routine.
MRA: There’s no routine. Noooo. I might hear some music from some other country, and I say, Oh, I get [???]—I’m gonna look into that. Just take it wherever it goes, ‘cause I’m just wide open. Now, I practice the piano everyday; that’s a constant.
HS: What do you practice?
MRA: All sorts of things: classical music, just sit down and improvise things. But the reason I practice classical piano is because the piano has a requirement [Laughs], you understand, if you’re gonna play it. It has a requirement. And it’s a requirement that’s musical and muscular [Grasps hands to illustrate]. So in terms of the muscular aspect of it, you must keep these digits developed. So the most difficult pieces technically and scales and whatnot, those are the devices and properties that keep your digits strong so you can play them. Because the piano has a requirement [Laughs]. It has a requirement that is, I think, fair. All instruments do. But certainly in order to play that piano, I’ve got to practice. So for me, I’ve got to practice every day. But other than that, I’m experimenting and researching according to that which may occur to me or that which I may discover at any different time. Because I can take in different directions and I more or less try to stay wide open, except for the constancy of practicing and just listening, you know what I mean. I still listen diligently to certain things that people do in mainstream in jazz.
HS: Who are some of the artists?
MRA: Just anything that might hit my fancy, young or old.
HS: Getting back to forming the AACM, what do you think a collective can achieve that an individual artist can’t?
MRA: Oh, they can achieve the—Well, let me say this, they can receive the fruits of observing one another. It can be said in a different way, but in other words, the education they get from observing each other is invaluable, see. That’s the real strong basis or reward that comes from a grouping of that sort, when it’s respectful. When it’s respectful, with individuals respecting each other. And also, let me add this: In terms of the AACM, our cohesiveness has been kept strong because we agree to agree and then sometimes we agree not to agree. But we never lose the idea of staying together in order to produce the music. Like any other humans, we agree to agree and sometimes we agree not to agree and you know that’s important to say, because we’re no different from any other individuals, so we had to make an effort to stay together. We’re human beings. So we agree to agree sometimes and then we agree not to agree, but that has been one of the strongest factors, that we could do that and continue.
HS: Along with that, is there such a thing as the AACM aesthetic?
MRA: No, not unless you consider it as a conglomerate sound, including how each individual sounds and just smash it all together—that’s it. Because there are no clichés or anything to glean from the situation. Like in mainstream jazz, there are a lot of clichés. And that’s not an indictment of it. That’s the nature of it; it has to be like that, because people copy other people’s things that they play and then they take and use it in their way for their stuff. But you hear it as a cliché because you hear the same type thing or the same type approach. Which is not a bad thing; it has to be like that. The nature of it has to be like that.
Of course, I think—Let me say this: There have been mainstream musicians who have departed from that—Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and many others. So you can still achieve your own individualism; it depends on how far you’re gonna take it. And I think some people limit how far they wanna take their individualism. I think that’s what happens. But that’s not a bad thing because it’s personal, and that’s all they need, so that’s good.
HS: When you were forming the organization, was a shared African-American identity important?
MRA: Oh sure, because we were African-American. [Laughs] We were African-American in Chicago, on the Chicago South Side, so naturally we were thinking about being proud as black musicians. Sure, of course, yeah. Just being proud of yourself and proud of what you achieve, and being a good example for younger kids coming behind us. Because that’s always important. However, not--let me say this: Being proud as a black musician extends to the world because I think other people should be proud of whoever they are. And it makes a better communication between groups. If you’re proud of who you are and I’m proud of who I am and we meet, we don’t have any problem with each other, you know what I mean? Sure, sure. But strictly being proud of what we were doing and who we were and why we were doing it. Because we certainly needed to come together to do those things and we were certainly proud, and we still are.
HS: Banding together as African-Americans, was there an aspect of racism you were trying to confront?
MRA: No, no, no—we weren’t trying to confront racism. We were certainly trying to self-realize. It had a lot of spiritual content in it to, you see, in terms of how one would think of one’s self. No, we never had to use racism, because after all, our audiences were black and white. So it had nothing to do with that. This music was developed to give to the world, and we’ve been all over the world in all sorts of countries. I have people, I know friends all over the world in all sorts of races. So that was never a factor. Well, when you say racism, it makes me think of trying to separate from something—no, no, we never had that. No.
HS: You were talking about setting an example for young people and I know that one of the early principles of the AACM was setting a high moral standard and “uplifting the public image of the musician.” Why was that important?
MRA: It was very important, because we realized the power of music. The attractive power of music, let me say it that way: The attractive power. So therefore, when you attract people like that, you have a responsibility. We believed we had a responsibility to exude respect, albeit that was our effort. I’m not talking about perfection, I’m talking about a practiced effort.
HS: Were drugs and those kinds of things a problem?
MRA: No, we never had that problem in the AACM.
HS: But it was a principle of the AACM to abstain from those things?
MRA: Oh, of course. That definitely wasn’t allowed. [Laughs] You know, because the mental concentration that was required to do or to practice what we set out to practice, you had to be really sober. I mean, you can hear the music that’s come out; you had to be really sober. Now let me say this: Individuals within the AACM or any other group, when they’re in the privacy of whatever they do, or whatever that is, we weren’t responsible for that. But within the AACM, no.
HS: Did you ever have any resistance to that?
MRA: Within the AACM? No, no. Noooooo, no, no. [Laughs] We were fortunate to attract people who really wanted to deal with that idea. We were very fortunate, very fortunate. I understand your question, but we were very fortunate to attract people who wanted to deal with that idea. And most of the people you named were very young then; they were young people. And their minds was on music; that’s where they were. And so we never had that problem. And within the AACM, we don’t have it today. Whatever anyone’s personal persuasions outside the AACM, they don’t bring that—no, no. We can’t use it, you know. Like I said, the whole process of concentration to achieve the type of works that have come out of the AACM—again, you had to be quite sober. [Laughs] I’m serious, you had to be quite sober. That couldn’t have come out of—not in the way that it did—it couldn’t have come out of some intoxicated process.
HS: You were expressing a discomfort with “avant-garde jazz” and—
MRA: No, no, no, only the label.
HS: Right, the terminology. But are you comfortable with “Great Black Music” being applied to the organization as a whole?
MRA: Well, that’s the Art Ensemble that coined that phrase. There are some musicians in the AACM who like that slogan, and so they use it. But let me say this: I agree with the Art Ensemble and what they meant. The Art Ensemble was expressing a pride for their heritage, see, that not only included the AACM, but also the blues on back when they said that—that’s what they meant. It wasn’t a slogan, because music doesn’t have a color. Music does not have a color. We all know that. Music does not have a color, understand? If it does, it takes on the color of the person producing it. If a green person produces it, you say it’s green music. ‘Cause music doesn’t have a color. No, that was a statement of pride for the work done by black musicians in the past, and they were proud of that, so they said, “Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future.” And it’s still not, but the thing is, it’s okay with me if some of the musicians want to use it as long as they understand what they’re saying. They’re not talking about black music, because there’s no such thing—music has no color, you follow me? Music is an organized form of sound, and sound is raw material. You get the raw material and you put it together in some kind of form and then we start calling it music then, when you see some rhythmic form, or melodic form or harmonic form, then we could say that’s music. But you never call the car horns out there music, or those chairs falling on the floor, you don’t say that’s music; you say that’s noise. But that’s sound. Any of it could be put together. I could take the car horn, and the chair falling and, say, a glass breaking and I could make a recording. I could drop the chair, drop the glass and make it break and hit the car horn. That’s a conversation, so when you hear it in a concise form and perhaps I’d play a couple of notes together, you’d say, “Hm, that’s a strange piece.” I’ve just organized sound. So music being a universal situation—it’s in every race, it’s in every community in some form or another in the world—and now they have their approach, there are stylistic approaches, of course. And that inspires groups or individuals, but mainly about groups—you get stylistic approaches from particular groups, or ethnic approaches, or however you want to say it. But “Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future” is a pride statement, not a statement about music being black or white, because that doesn’t exist.
HS: Looking back on this organization that you started 40 years ago, do you feel like you accomplished the goals that you initially set forth?
MRA: Well, the goal was to practice what you preach. There’s no goal in terms of reaching something where you realize that you’ve gotten there—that doesn’t exist. The idea was to practice the idea of producing original music, and having an awareness of the business surrounding the process. And a hands-on awareness of the business surrounding the producing of the music. And that’s a constant. It wasn’t a goal—it was just you get in a position to practice music in a certain way. But let me say this: The process seems to have produced some well-known individuals around the world. But we weren’t thinking about that at all—that just happened as a byproduct of our activities. We couldn’t have been concentrated on that when we started because we had no idea of anything like that. But we had the idea of what we wanted to do. Now I’m still with your question about goals. Not goals, but the thing is there have been things achieved, and rightly so, in terms of the individuals who worked so hard to produce this process from their own individual point of view that they should be heard and known by people in the world. Because the world has to be our target. That’s our target—the world.
HS: What are you most proud of in terms of anything that has been a byproduct of the organization?
MRA: Like I said, the achievements of the people I’ve associated with—that’s it. I can’t think of anything that would be placed before that.
HS: Do you think that there’s a strong base in place to keep the AACM alive for future generations?
HS: Who are some of the musicians or the people involved?
MRA: Well, I won’t name them because I couldn’t name them all. But let me say this: There are quite a few younger people in Chicago, quite a few that really makes one feel that the future is in pretty good hands. Let me say that. [Laughs] Sure, sure. See here in New York, we function as a performing wing of the AACM, this chapter, and we also more or less constitute the first wave of the AACM. So we function more as a performing wing, you know what I mean. And that’s what we do here. Well, we’ve made a lot of records and things—our names were all around the world on the records even before we traveled. So therefore, we had to come and represent ourselves in person, you see. And New York being the great place it is in terms of a musical melting pot, we had to represent ourselves in this area among the other great musicians in this area. Not that there weren’t great musicians in Chicago, because there always was and always will be, but through the years people would look to New York to find out who was doing what. So sort of everybody converges on New York—you’re among your peers, and really among your peers.
HS: As far as the book, do you think it was important that the history was written by someone inside the organization like George Lewis?
MRA: Well, I never thought about it, but when it came up, I thought it was a great idea, because usually there’s someone outside doing the writing. I thought it was a great idea, because he has insight that an outside writer wouldn’t have. Now, I just thought it was a great idea, and he’s shaped the book in a sense how he would shape it as a writer.
HS: Do you feel like it’s important for the organization to have a physical history like that?
MRA: I think so. After 40 years, I think so. That’s a version—now when you talk to musicians, you get other kinds of versions. Because we’re all individuals; even in the book you’ll hear accounts from different people and you have to put all that together the way it is, you know what I mean? Because different people remember things differently, you know what I mean? But the thing is, certainly it’s important for people to have a document like that by this time. We’re very fortunate to get to a place where a book could come out about the AACM, and we’re doubly fortunate that one of our members, who’s quite capable, could write it.
HS: It’s interesting that you were talking about agreeing to disagree because there’s a lot of that in the book. It’s not always the most harmonious picture of the organization.
MRA: Oh yeah. It’s all there.
HS: So you’re comfortable with that?
MRA: Well, it’s not the point of being comfortable. He has to take his approach. And I wouldn’t argue with that. He has to have his approach, and everybody’s not going to agree with everything in the book. That’s reasonable because you have a lot of people talking and people remember things differently than others. But it’s okay, because whether one would like some part or not, it’s the same process I’m saying: Agreeing to agree, and agreeing sometimes to disagree. That’s very important. And you see that expressed in the book in terms of the conglomeration of the situation, and you know, how can one argue with that? Whether you agree or not, you have to respect the fact that an individual has to express him- or herself in the way that they need to. Yeah. And anyway, we’re human, so it’s best that it look human. [Laughs] No, I’m serious. But the music—in the final analysis, you have to look at the music. This music came from human beings! [Laughs]
"Let's go further into the smoke": An interview with George E. Lewis
Tuesday, 4.22.08 – Dodge Hall, Columbia University
HS: A big theme in the book is the idea that Muhal and the AACM had a large role in “opening up” or awakening a lot of important musicians to their creative power. Being one of those musicians, do you see the book as a way of giving thanks to Muhal and the organization in general?
GL: Well, yes, you’d have to say that. It’s a funny thing—Last week I had an event at the Chicago Cultural Center, and the book was there. I hadn’t seen it, but somehow they had actual real copies of the actual book. And they were available for signing, and I signed them. And one of the founders, Phil Cohran, was there. And so first, I think the book is a tribute to them, because I think that they were all engaged in this process of waking people up to their own possibilities. For instance, I don’t know if you saw the part where Phil Cohran is engaged in autodidactic exploration of aspects of food, dress, history, culture—coming out of his work with Sun Ra. Many people were engaged in these projects of awakening at that time, the artists being at the forefront, but also the political structures of the time, awakening to the realities of their condition.
So I think it goes a little further for me. “Waking up” seems to be a theme throughout the entire book. Becoming alive to one’s possibility is sort of what the AACM is about, really.
HS: Considering that the organization is about self-sufficiency, do you think that having someone within the organization writing the history is sort of an AACM-like statement?
GL: Well, the funny thing about is that since I’ve started writing, other people have started writing. And one person, for example, Alexander Pierrepont, I was on his dissertation committee at Universite Rene Descartes in Paris. I had to fly there and read this 1600-page French dissertation on the AACM. So I was looking at my work as not the history, the biopic—those awful things where no one else can say how to make a movie about Malcolm X because one person did that. This is not really the kind of thing I’m looking for. I want to encourage--Look, I’m a professor at a university. I have a student right now who is writing his dissertation on the Art Ensemble. My job is to encourage debate, dialogue, discussion, and the book is designed to do that, not to provide [in mock-serious tone] the Definitive Story, or something.
Now let me address the insider aspect. The insider aspect is a blessing and a curse—not a curse, but certainly, there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The temporary advantage is that people kind of know you. But that wasn’t even true because some of the first generation of the AACM, I hadn’t really met them, so I talked to them for the first time in doing this book. And I only came to them late-after,you know, I had to call people and they had to call somebody else. I’m sure people called Muhal and said, “Who is this guy? He says he knows you.” [Laughs] This kind of thing. So that’s the story about generations. Something that’s gone on for 40 years, not everybody has met everybody else. It’s not like a band where they all play together. It’s like a 40-plus-year history where generations have come along and everyone had their connections and disconnections.
So because of that—let me slow down for a moment—I found that the advantage there was that once I was properly vetted, I could go in and ask people questions. But then after that, it was sort of up to me to ask the questions that really counted. And this is the thing that the previous—I found that a lot of the people who talked to me were critical of people who had talked to them, and they were anxious to go beyond what they saw as the limited subset of issues that could be addressed in the interviews that they had been part of.
So I felt in a way part of my advantage as an outsider was to be able to expand upon those issues to address areas that perhaps not even the people who were—In other words, not all the forces to which people are subject are known to people who are involved in these things. And so it was up to me to do a lot of other research into the public record on the AACM, and also the historical, socioeconomic and cultural context of the times. And that’s a pretty broad sweep--that’s about most of the century—to sort of bring that to bear on the results. And so in the end, I would expect any really serious scholar to do the same. So I guess that’s the outsider part, the responsibility that any scholar would take in engaging a group, whether they were inside of it or not.
HS: There are a lot of different strains of writing in the book. Some it’s anthropological or oral history, and some of it’s engaging various critical articles that have been written. Was it difficult to balance all these approaches?
GL: I think so, yeah. [Laughs] But it kind of has to be done. In the contemporary scholarly landscape you are going to have these mixes of ethnographic and historical work, so that’s a question of method, really. I think that in the last part of the book, I tried something kind of different—that is to say, I wanted to speak more, almost novelistically. The last parts of the book are much more personal reflections, sort of extended field notes, if you will. And also a section where I just sort of put together an imagined dialogue. So all those modes of writing, I felt differentially able to master. But in the end they all seemed necessary to the project. And my thoughts about the method of writing kind of evolved, though from the beginning I thought I wanted to position it more a work of scholarship than anything else.
HS: You have a really interesting set of credentials, as an academic, and having performed with the AACM for so long. It seems like you’re uniquely qualified within the organization to write this book. Do you think there’s anyone else in the organization who could have done this quite the way that you did?
GL: Well, no, because what I’ve seen is that since this time, I’ve come across a number of students who are doing this work better than I could. Jason Stanyek at NYU—he was my student—Michael Dessen at the University of California at Irvine, Dana Reason Myers, she was a student of mine. There are a few others who are just coming out now. Once again, it's more of a question of method than of being an insider. But the thing is, whether you have membership or citizenship in these communities or not, you’re responsible for engaging their issues. One of the things that I guess I found myself somewhat disappointed with, and I express that in the book, was that the commentators on the AACM or other groups were kind of limited by the range of musical discourses with which they were able to engage. For example, let's take--as I do--Braxton's Creative Orchestra Music session as an example. So you've got the crew surrounding contemporary or so-called "new" music, downtown music--Frederic Rzewski and Garrett List in there; you've got the AACM people; you've got the people who have sort of been doing more sort of studio-oriented jazz projects, like Jack Jeffers; and then you've got other people in there. So if you don't have a sense of what all those people have been doing, you can't really write that history. So you've got to go there and find out--whether you do it by playing with them or by reading about them, or whatever method you use to conduct your research, and I try to do as many as possible. [Laughs]
So I felt lucky, for example, in engaging the sort-of post-Cage people, to do it from the standpoint of being someone who actually performed with that community--doing the Merce Cunningham events, or performing with Musica Elettronica Viva. And so it seemed to me that to the extent that that touches upon what the AACM is doing, if you are not equipped to address those histories, then that's a part of the AACM you won't be able to write about. So what I started to find in looking at people who had written about things, was that it's not a question so much of being some unique hero or something, but it's just a matter of being thorough, and finding what you find, and really engaging with what you find, and following up all the trajectories that you can.
HS: Yeah, the book really pinpoints a lot of the blindspots of critics who covered the AACM. Like there was that section on the "Music" and "Riffs" sections in The Village Voice [i.e., the paper's columns covering, respectively, new music and jazz in the TK'80s]--
GL: Yeah, yeah.
HS: Just how they were separating jazz from classical and everything else, and it was like the critics weren't equipped to deal with the AACM's exploration of composition or electronic music.
GL: I think they were equipped--Intellectually, they were certainly equipped. But for some reason, maybe, people just get bogged down in their individual areas. Maybe, I don't know, maybe people are afraid to just walk across the aisle and talk to someone else. [Laughs] Maybe that's a part of it. And you have to say also that the AACM, even to speak of an entity like the AACM, there were some people who were engaged with these discourses and some people who weren't. You know it all comes down to a composite. If you're trying to account for the composite nature of the group, you sort of have to start with the individuals, as Muhal would say, and from there construct something, rather than go from the top down and say, "This is what I expect to find," and then people who don't fit that mold, you just toss them out as being outliers or something. Now that's part of the reason why the book is so darn long, is that there are just so many people--there's no single prototype.
HS: Yeah, I thought it was interesting that you really followed it up. In the first part of the book, I recognized most of the names, but as you got to some of the members who had stayed in Chicago, there were a lot of musicians and groups that I had never heard of. It seems like that was a real point of pride for you.
GL: Well, the thing is that even if particular individuals haven't heard of this one or that one, somebody else has. So that's part of what I was talking about in the book, that is, let's say if someone on this or that side of the aisle weren't familiar with someone's music on the other side of the aisle, that's sort of their issue. Me, there's certainly music I'm not familiar with, but if I intend to discuss it, then I have to kind of get familiar with it. And I guess a lot of those people you were talking about, some of them, I didn't know their music very well either. And so I have to do a kind of fieldwork to find out what they've been doing and the issues that they felt were important in their lives. And the extent to which they changed or created their own version of what the AACM was, rather than relying on prior models. That's something that you should be able to do as a creative person and as a member of a group that's supposed to be about whatever creative music is. You should certainly be able to create your own version of it: your version of the history, your own version of those times. So it points to certain fluidities that I think--I didn't find myself constrained by any notions of fame, fortune or notoriety. That didn't influence my notion of who to write about at all.
HS: But a lot of that stuff comes up, and I think it's interesting in the book that you don't shy away from the controversies that arose in the group along those lines, like if the Art Ensemble got to Europe first and overshadowed the Creative Construction Company, or the musicians that stayed behind in Chicago. There were a lot of frictions in the group that you address very straightforwardly.
GL: Yeah, you would hope. I mean every community that I've been associated with has had similar friction. I don't see them written about much. Maybe sometimes after the people are dead [Laughs], people could try to approach it. One of the things that complicates that whole question is this sort of tendency on the part of a certain generation of African-Americans--and with good reason--to depend upon the notion of, "Well, we'll paper over these differences and present a unified front of solidarity and unity." The "positive image" context; you have this and that positive-image award and that sort of thing. Historians really shouldn't get taken in by that. But you start to find that there's more to it even than that, because some musicians, for example, don't want it known if they're not well, because they might not get a gig next week, like, "Oh, he's gonna be dead" or "He's sick--he can't play," Or just because they have some prejudice against people who have some chronic illness. Anything like that. So those kinds of things have to be handled carefully, especially when living people are involved. But in something that goes on for such a long time, it would be hard to wait until people were dead, because then first of all, they wouldn't see the outcome, which I really wanted people to see—what they had managed to achieve despite all these adversities. At some point, this tangible evidence of that had to be brought home to the community. And I guess that what I would like to see in future histories of other communities contemporaneous to those of the AACM, who were engaged in parallel experimental pursuits, is that perhaps the historians of those communities would try to engage the full complexities of those relationships as well. I think that'll be interesting for us, in the community of scholars. And I think the major outcome of these things is that in the end, you fought among yourselves, you did all this stuff, but you managed to produce all this stuff anyway, so you did pretty well through it all, didn't you?
HS: I think that in a way, [those discussions] distinguish the book--I think it's very clear from the outset that this book is in no way the "party line." There might be the idea that if it's coming from someone within the organization, that you might be the mouthpiece of the organization. But I think there's this interesting way that some of it's insider, some of it's outsider. And some of it's addressing those issues that can be uncomfortable at times.
GL: Yeah, well I had to resist people who--You know, certainly there are some people who kind of felt that now that I was doing this, I should take that role, that mouthpiece role. And I had to convince them that that would hurt the book if I were to do that. And I think I was able to convince people that it was better to let as much of it hang out as they were comfortable with letting happen, and it would help them in the end. And already I think that opinion was borne out.
HS: Was that a problem in interviews? Were people guarded about the conflicts?
GL: Sure, sure people are guarded. First of all, there is the question of method. This is something that's not really interesting--People aren't going to be interested in this, but I'll just tell you. There are kind of standard ethical guidelines for these kinds of things, and you know them as a writer. People have to be able to say, "Turn off the tape and I'll tell you this but you can't print it," or things of that sort, and you have to respect those things. I found, however, in the main there was a remarkable openness on the part of most people. Some people, of course, told me wildly fanciful tales that I printed as the truth. Because the thing is, in the end, that was their story. I didn't feel that I needed to undermine--it was clear to me as they were telling me this story, they knew that I didn't believe it, and they knew that I shouldn't believe it. [Laughs] But it was so bound up with their self-image. And the point of these books is not to destroy people; people are already experiencing enough in their lives. So there are the odd moments in the book where things were, you know, at variance with what I could've actually found out had I chosen to follow it up. It was clearly not a real story. But it was sort of in the tradition of those kinds of tall tales that have a larger truth that I felt compelled to place in the book. And I won't tell you who those people are, but if you think about it, you'll see who they are. [Laughs]
HS: The first thing that comes to mind is that section where Amina Claudine Myers wrote that diary sort of thing, which I thought was really cool in that it seemed fictionalized, but also like a day in the life.
GL: I thought that was something that I would say was almost like--there's a term for that in the literary world; you know, a fictionalization of a reality that she experienced on a daily basis. It was something that I wished I had experienced in the AACM: those early days of extreme optimism; I mean you could feel it. Certainly I experienced something similar. I mean, by the time I joined the AACM, we didn't have this house that we could occupy 24 hours a day and do stuff. But I could see certain people who did have that saying these very optimistic things. No, I found what Amina said pretty plausible, I have to say. There are some highly implausible things in in there, though--you'll see. [Laughs]
HS: One thing I wanted to talk about was that you did a lot of your own interviews, but you also had some pretty special documentary evidence in terms of the tapes from the early AACM meetings. How did you feel when you first came across that stuff? It seems pretty amazing that we actually have a record of that.
GL: Well, I talked to George Lipsitz, the historian, about this, because it was sort of a find. Anytime you find some evidence of that kind--Or think about it this way: Martin Luther King, the various biographies of him are greatly enhanced by the FBI's surveillance tapes, which catch him in all manner of issues. And that's one of the things that's sort of gripping about the story--you realize that you're hearing the actual words of these people rather than something the author is making up. That's part of it. So when I listened to these tapes, I kind of felt that they would--I didn't know what I would--Well I'm still learning things from them. Let me give you an example, and this is a simple one. I guess one of the things I didn't really realize was that these tapes were really just the tip of an iceberg. That is to say that what they were talking about in this one meeting was certainly being talked about in other meetings. Certainly it was being talked about in various communities in the musical world, and probably not just in Chicago. In other words, we were getting a glimpse into a set of viewpoints that were probably circulating all around the musical community in the United States, but which, in some cases, hadn't been brought to light. The zeal with--Once again, you don't want to make too much of this particular encounter and say, "Here's the heroic group who had the special insight." No, it's more that these were people who were expressing themselves, and they had been thinking about these things for obviously quite a long time. Evidently, I could say at least, I could trace these few meetings back to let's say what Eddie Harris and Marshall Thompson were doing around the Experimental Band in '59, '60 and '61. And that means that a lot of these issues were probably being discussed considerably earlier. We don't know how far they got discussed.
Certainly if you think about the turn of the 20th century, Bob Cole and those people in the theater and their attempts to take control of their own theatrical productions, you have to say this is an ongoing theme. No tape recorders to record the conversations, but I can't imagine they were so dissimilar. So I guess what I got out of the tapes was a glimpse into a set of viewpoints that I hadn't quite seen before in the history of black music. Beyond that--and that's what I don't say; I'm trying to say things that aren't in the book--but beyond that, just to say what is in the book more or less, just the fact that they didn't seem terribly interested in that standard--the tapes put paid to the standard accounts of the AACM as having been created to reform or revise jazz. This was obviously not their intent, at least based upon everything that I heard and that I printed. They seemed to have a larger agenda surrounding, at least at the very beginning, something that we start to see only in the late '90s, when Courtney Love makes her declaration that she doesn't want to work with record companies anymore. [Laughs] Thirty years before, these people are sitting in a little room saying, "Well, maybe we should take steps toward revising our business relationship. We're obviously being exploited," and this, that and the other. So we're seeing something that--How can I put this? It's a much larger agenda than the standard heroic accounts of, well here's a group of people who sought to change the face of this or that. You know, these books you see: "How this person or that fish..."--what's the book about cod changing the world? [Laughs]--changed the scope or the nature of humanity. No, no, no, people seemed much more interested in changing their particular situation, and they weren't in dialogue with these overall accounts of--I can't imagine those guys saying, [Adopts nerdy, overserious tone] "You know, Muhal, we have to change everything about what jazz is about." That's Hollywood. You know, it's great, but it didn't happen. [Laughs] So I was happy in a way to see that it didn't happen, because first of all I couldn't imagine it happening, but on the other hand, I could imagine this: people who read that it happened would then go into a corner and try to make it happen, because they had read that it happened, and so they said, "Well, if they did it, we could do it." Sort of like the people who read that Cage, Tudor and the others were doing spontaneous music when in fact they weren't. And they said, "Hey, if they could do spontaneous music, we could do spontaneous music"--they just start doing it. And they go to the people and they say, "Hey, well how do you like our spontaneous music? It's just like what you guys are doing," and they say, "Oh no, we weren't doing that." [Laughs]
Or Ornette Coleman or somebody. There was a guy who wrote this article, Eric Charry, an ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan, who wrote a very important article, I think, about how research shows that Ornette's early music, a lot of it was based on forms that he had put together. It wasn't totally spontaneous, and so on, and there were these forms that were recurring, very much in the fashion of the earlier bebop music. And he transcribed this music and pointed out the forms and so on and brought his research out, and all these musicians were saying, "That's not the way it happened!" And I'm thinking, well, okay, it's not the way it happened, but at least on this record, that was the way it happened, and the guy showed you that it was, so I have to accept it. But on the other hand, they were right: That's not the way it happened because those people, the people who were there at the time, thought that this was the way it was happening, and so they went out and made it really happen. [Laughs] Based on misconception, a misreading, you know, and that's sort of something if anyone remembers their Harold Bloom, the idea of the poetic misprision, the creative misreading, is a pretty strong creator of new perspectives. You know, you look at something and you think, Oh, this must've meant this, and then you create something based on what you thought it was.
HS: There's something you talk about in the preface, the "black experimentalist" paradox, how some people would say some art is black on one hand and experimental on the other. If there''s an overall goal of the book, would it be to overturn that idea?
GL: Well, you know, I 'm always interested in--African-Americans are very interested in history, always, because the idea of being erased from history. History and education sort of go together: the idea of not having a history, or having history stolen from one, or the postslavery experience of having been wrenched from a particular reality, and over hundreds of years, having this new reality kind of imposed and then having to develop a new history. And then going back and having to recover, vindicate--all of that, okay? So, with that in mind, I'm looking at the experimental music landscape, and what I'm seeing is there are a lot of people running around experimenting in a very conscious way, and saying that what they're doing is experimental music. But then when I see the literature, in other words, the historiographical questions that are being asked about music and experimentalism, I only see certain people being talked about as having asked those questions. So what you generally have to do as a historian, you sort of have to go in there and say, "Well, no. Let's ask some new questions. Let's try to redress some imbalances. Let's put some new actors onstage," those sorts of things. So that's what I found myself doing in this case.
You know, the black thing of course is a big part of it. But you know it's sort of like what Roscoe Mitchell says in the book about Great Black Music. "Well why did you make this term up?" And he says, "Well, nobody was really calling this music great. "Well, what about the black part?" [Laughs] That's what I was focusing on, like most people, and it's obvious that Roscoe wasn't. And so in the same way, I'm focusing on the experimental part. And what I'm saying here is the black experimentalist, a temporarily important concept to bring into consciousness the fact that those people existed. But once the existence is established, you move ahead. You move ahead with a composite notion of American experimental music, which I think is basically one that I can preserve and protect and defend and all that. I think the book does make a case for establishing that. And I think of somebody like Ron Radano as having made that case in terms of the Braxton example. And I think I kind of expand upon his work and in a way, both expanding upon and revising his work in a way by saying that it wasn't just one or two people who were doing it. In fact we can easily fold an entire generation into that, and we can also show, particularly in the case of the AACM that those were not hermetically sealed units with no connections, but that in fact there was considerable dialogue between different sectors of the experimental community. And it's sort of my task to bring that dialogue to the fore, simply because I didn't see it in the literature. And if there's an advantage to being an insider, that's it. Which is to say, well, "Hmmm, how come they didn't talk about that?" [Laughs]
For example, let me show you a funny thing I found the other day, and I mean, this gives you an example. [To tape recorder] You can't see this, but I'll just show you this. This is a funny little thing here. You know I've been going over some old pictures for my dad's funeral. And one of the pictures I came across was this; it's a very nice little picture. I don't know where this was taken, but there we are, let's see if I can bring that in there.[Pointing to picture on laptop] So, maybe you recognize these guys, or at least two of them anyway... So anyway, this is Jacques Bekaert from Belgium, that's Frederic Rzewski and this is me. So who's taking our picture, I have no idea, and the date is clearly marked, that's '92 and so on and so forth. So the thing is that that's a simple example. I mean, if you were doing archival research, you're going to go into people's houses and find pictures like that, and you're going to ask that question, if you're writing about Rzewski, "So, who's that other guy? Who are those other two people in the pictures?" [Laughs] If you're writing about me, or writing about Jacques--and then at a certain point, you're going to be able to say, "That person knew that one and that one." You're establishing the social network.
What I started to find was that a lot of the literature, particularly on the sort of--You see, the problem, the part I didn't want to do, but felt compelled to do methodologically was, in order to establish a black experimentalism, I also had to establish a white experimentalism. And I don't like doing these things, but I have to say in my defense, I didn't start it, it's just I named it. In other words the assumption was always that experimentalism was white, and so basically I had to name it as being white. And by naming it, what happens is you limit it historically. "Experimentalism" was a historical term. So in pointing out the implicit racializing of the historical term, then you prepare the ground for breaking it up. So first you have to say, well, "It's here, you need to fix it." You point out the problem, more or less, you make a diagnosis. So my diagnosis of the histories surrounding experimental music was that they tended to always snip away the same people. So to take the example of the picture I showed you, you'd just snip my picture off and then you'd have Jacques and Frederic in there, and they'd say, "Oh yeah, those are the people we're interested in." [Laughs] And so, as I say in the book, if they write you out, you just write yourself back in. And so that's part of what I try to do here. And it's just something that, once again, as a historian, you just have to do. You have to do it. You're irresponsible not to do it. And so you start to wonder, why would responsible people not do these things? . And then you get into agendas, conspiracy theories, all the rest of the stuff I'm not really interested in. My part of it is just that I want to point out that for some reason, I didn't see this and this was a very obvious thing that was sitting there, and I just put it there.
HS: Aside from wanting to correct--I think the word you use is "interventionist”--the historical record, I think it's interesting that for you as a performer, you've dealt with this kind of stuff. Because there's a section on electronics, how it wasn't acceptable if Muhal wanted to use echo effects or reverb and then moving later on to you being criticized for using electronics. So it seems like this problem is personal for you in an interesting way.
GL: The interesting thing about is that one often generalizes from one's own experience. For example, I have a student, Harald Kisiedu, who's working on black electronic music in the '60s, and that's a very interesting subject which I don't see a lot of work on. So why don't I see a lot of work on that? It's not just me and Muhal, it's the Herbie Hancocks of the world, the famous people, who are also similarly--or even Miles Davis. I see a lot of popular histories, but I don't see that kind of sustained work that I would see going into, let's say, Stockhausen's electronic music. So we have to use whatever resources we have to bring those things to the table. Or, say, I talk a bit about Eddie Harris in the book, and those ideas, and the extent to which, well, let's say if we look at Eddie Harris, we have to account for Charles Stepney and Minnie Riperton, and then we have to account for their interest in Henry Cowell, and then there are all these other connections. So in the end it goes beyond the personal, but to the extent that it is personal, I think the purpose is to establish one's self as part of multiple histories, to provide a base for which one can move forward--you know, the mycelium out of which something grows, the basis for it. If you don't do this, you don't have any theory for why Muhal started using electronics. You don't have any notion other than, "Oh, just one day it was a cool thing to do." Or you're stuck with--All you can do is sort of parrot what Sun Ra says about himself, and that seems to be enough for some people. If it was me, I'd say, well, look, and maybe he wouldn't answer me, but I'd certainly ask him, "Well, this Moog thing, what was it all about? What were you doing? And who were you checking out there?" And if you listen to the music, it becomes evident that he was listening to everything! Not just, you know, emissions from Saturn, but more earthly stuff, too. But you know, I guess it's easier for people to be metaphorical about it, but at some point, a hard question yields some interesting results.
HS: The book ends up seeming kind of hard on John Cage and people like that.
GL: [Laughs] Well, I guess the funny thing about that is that people who know my work know that this has been going on for at least a decade. In fact, you know--Go ahead with what you were saying: "Poor John"-- [Laughs] Am I really that hard on the guy?
HS: Well one thing I thought was funny was the part about how "indeterminacy" was just putting a name to something that black musicians had been doing for a long time. Like they were improvising, but they were calling it this cool new thing, so they invented it.
GL: Well, the funny thing about that is that that comes out of an earlier essay from--what's it, 1996, in which a lot of these issues are sort of first explored. And I guess what happened--the funny thing about that essay, which is called "Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives." And this turns out to be quite a controversial little article in the scholarly literature, and I guess what happens is that people--I read at least one comment on the book, I guess, for which those controversies were new surrounding Cage and his work when in fact they've been kicking around the community for some time. And I felt--Put it this way, since that time--and it turns out that that little article is one of the articles that gets around the most, gets on required reading lists and things like that, in experimental music classes. It's been reprinted a couple times in various books and all this kind of thing. And part of that thesis is kind of reproduced in this book with more historical underpinnings.
I don't think I'm saying in the book--although some people do; I think Braxton at one point says, "Indeterminism and improvisation." This may be a longer answer than you'd like, but let me try to go into it. If you read standard texts--That article which I could send you does an analysis of the standard texts regarding indeterminacy. And the first thing you notice right away is they're all connected with improvisation, even though the indeterminacy people deny that they're involved with improvisation. So the curious thing is, if you're denying it, then just have a separate chapter. So what connects you guys up? So there's a little smoke there. So I just found myself saying, "Let's go further into the smoke." Then you start to see, to summarize quickly, a sort of "Thou dost protest too much" aspect in a lot of the commentary: "We're not improvising, we have these very strong structures; it's just at a certain point, we have this leap into the unknown." Well, what the hell is a leap into the unknown? [Laughs] Or, "We're feeling our way." Even in book like Silence, there are synonyms for improvisation all throughout the book. And so the denial thing was unconvincing for me, coming at it in hindsight and also having played with a lot of the people who came after Cage who did admit freely that they were improvising, who put it in the name of their group, things of this sort, the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza [Laughs]. People who weren't very hard on Cage and felt that their work came out of Cage, and who lionized Cage. And I feel that my work in part comes out of Cage; Muhal doesn't, he doesn't feel his work comes out of Cage. And that's one of the differences there. And so in a way, for me, that article and that whole commentary is--you may not realize--I'm not being hard on Cage; I'm being hard on Cage's historians. And I'm actually defending Cage from his supporters, who I think are in some sense mystifying his work in the wrong way. And at the same time--I met Cage only once and never having been seduced by--[Tape cuts off]...
I guess that when he would disabuse himself of ideas about how the civil-rights protestors were doing the wrong thing and shouldn't have done all that protesting and demonstrating and marching. You know, I started to think, We don't have to take Cage as a social theorist or political commentator. Clearly, the Freedom Rides and other activities were things that needed to be done. And from his subject position of being a white male, I could see where those things might not have been of very much importance to him. [Laughs] And it was important to actually, by identifying and circumscribing, temporarily, the purview of the conversation, then we can get a clearer sense of what was really great about him, without drinking the Kool-Aid, anymore. So that's what I do there in a certain way. And it's unfortunate about--I guess there are some people who aren't used to critical commentary about Cage, but I guess they should go back and read Here Comes Everybody, David Bernstein's anthology. Or if they had been present at the 1995 Cage conference at Mills College at which these ideas were bruited about for the first time and on the final day of the conference caused no end of controversy just because people who had been his strongest supporters had never considered that other people might think differently. Not about him, but about the need to have new histories that recontextualize him for future generations, in ways that, really, end up enhancing his stature in very important ways. So I guess that's what I try to do: I don't look at critique as necessarily being trying to tear the guy up, or something. But at the same time, one has to look at issues of privilege and power, race and class and one can't pretend that these things are not germane to the musical experience. And it's as true when talking about Cage and the New York School as when you talk about the AACM.
HS: A lot of ideas in the book brought up this idea that Anthony Braxton brought up when I interviewed him of "Yes, I'm black and yes, I play the saxophone, but I'm not a jazz musician." And the idea of at this late date, him still having to say that. It seems that a lot of the book is about this idea that if you're black, there are these regions that you're supposed to be exploring and if you go outside of it, then it gets critically slammed. And it seems like a lot of the way the organization interacted with the outside world was about that idea of "Yes, I'm a black musician but I'm also exploring this other stuff" and that being considered not to be okay.
GL: Yeah, I guess the idea that black music is heavily policed comes up quite a bit. You know commodification, policing, two sides of the same coin... And it's not just black musicians. I had an interesting conversation with Evan Parker--and one of the things I explore in the book is "Is Evan Parker doing black music? Possibly."--maybe on a certain day and time, why not? He certainly knows as much about John Coltrane as anybody I've ever talked to. So anyway, I had this conversation--I'm trying to remember this. Oh, I remember, yeah: He was watching some guy on television talking about jazz, which I guess Evan is still sort of connected with. I mean, when the history of jazz is written, somehow Evan will be in it, even though that group also strove to distance themselves from jazz. Some did, some didn't. Alex Schlippenbach told me once, well, "We're not not doing free improvisation, we're doing free jazz." Derek Bailey, he wasn't interested in dealing with jazz, although he did deal with jazz and could play it very well. So the whole jazz thing in Europe and in the U.S.--these two parallel communities of experimentalism and improvisation--is a point of serious contention. For some, like, let's say AMM and the [Kunzas Means???] it becomes this ideological foil that they can use to establish their own identity, or their own nonjazz identity. Or it becomes that for Lukas Foss, the experiments surrounding free improvisation, or even with Cage. Jazz is something that he feels the need to distance himself from. So why can't Anthony Braxton do the same thing? Why the hell not? So I found it funny that Evan was experiencing this too--He was watching this guy on television saying, "We have to get away from the image of the longhaired, bearded saxophonist." [Laughs] And so, poor Evan--the longhaired, bearded saxophonist par excellence being told that he has to be erased and his image has to be erased in order to create the jazz of the future. So it seems that that problem is endemic, but I think that the black and white part is only a little bit of it.
I mean, look, I'm the director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. So what does that mean to me? Actually, when I first took the job, I said to myself, "Well, what this really means is I have a better relationship with jazz than I've ever had," which in a way is true. But what it also means, finally, is that, more recently, and you saw these things [i.e., flyers] on my door, where a study of improvisation becomes the means through which jazz, as an object of scholarly study, can embrace any field whatsoever. So I think what Anthony is talking about in the quotes that you identify from him really concern this major issue in the book of mobility. You know, if you have a PDF of this manuscript and you type in the word "mobility," you'd get like 100 hits. Mobility is all about movement with agency, the idea that one can define one's self.
The thing I think that at least your account of this conversation implies is that composers feel that their self-definition should be the one the world accepts, but nobody is under any compulsion to accept your definition of yourself. There's an air of unreality about that that one should've learned by now, after generations and generations of people of all races distancing themselves from jazz and coming home to find the jazz flowerpot in front of their door. [Laughs] So it's not really about that anymore. What you start to find is that is that if jazz becomes a node in the network that I use to establish my own identity and my own associations, then that's kind of good enough for me. And I can use that. I don't have to become a denier. I can use jazz as part of the enabling context of my own identity. And then jazz becomes helpful at that point, because it's not just the single leg that you have to stand on that someone kicks away and then you have to hobble around. I would look at it that way. So when we at the Center for Jazz Studies pose conversations about improvisation and philosophy as we do, or the one we had last week about improvisation and the business world, which was attended by a lot of people and there were some very lively conversations by a lot of major scholars working in the field of management and business on how they think about improvisation. So those people use jazz, but suddenly, they've taken jazz into a new area for many people, one that even some people in the business world didn't think about. So as I think about the role of jazz in, say, neuroscience, which is considerable, I find myself thinking that jazz is this really very important thing that people get inspired by, even if they don't know what it is or if your idea about it is different than someone else's idea about it. Somehow jazz is this huge big ball of dreams that there should be really no need to distance one's self from, except when it becomes hegemonic and overdetermining. Then you have to hack at it until it gets cut back down to size and then you can live with it--"Living with Jazz," but not like Ralph Ellison's version. [Laughs]
HS: Since you have a lot of experience teaching and mentoring younger musicians, what do you see as the influence of the AACM on younger players?
GL: I think that the composite activity of the AACM has entered into, dare I say it, the experimental vernacular. People use it without thinking about it; they draw upon those codes even if they don't know about it. Even people that call themselves AACM members do it unconsciously or consciously. It's gone too far to be forgotten, and the public record is not erasable. And once again, even people who don't know what it is can read about it and they've never heard it and say, "Well, they did that? I could do that." And so, it's not just the sounds that inspire people; it's the attitude; it's the sense of exploration and atmosphere; it's the optimism, the sense that anything is possible; the sense that identities are fluid. It's the best kind of postmodernism. It's kind of a realization of what was supposed to be liberatory about all that, and not sort of--well, there's the ugly side, of course, Jameson, the highest stage of capitalism and what have you. But the sense that--I mean someone might not be able to name this one or that one. And that's an artifact of the extreme fragmentation of the musical landscape. Even with the Internet, which is at the same time something that allows extreme multigeographical concentration and also contributes to--you know there are areas of the Internet that only a few people access; there are secret areas, areas where you can stay in your own little world. But your world is composed of one from this part of the world, one from that part of the world, and you all get together at this one little IP address and share things. So in that landscape it's hard to say that there are these musical movements anymore that influence, quote, everybody, or have this overall purview.
But what you do start to find, when I listen to a lot of younger people, is that the lessons have been absorbed from at least the previous generation. What the AACM produces in the future, I'm not that kind of person, I can't really say. And even for me, I can't say what I'm going to do in the future. I'm still alive, I'm still a part of the AACM and I'm going to produce more books and more music and try some new ideas out and produce more scholars and have a great time, that's what I plan to do.
HS: Well, I feel like that pretty much covers what I wanted to discuss.
GL: Yeah, man, that was a hell of an interview--send me a copy sometime. [Laughs]
HS: Yeah, the story will come out with some excerpts, but I have a site where I'm hoping to publish the whole thing.
GL: Oh great, great. You have it now?
HS: Well I have a blog where I do everything that doesn't fit into my work at Time Out.
GL: That sounds great. Don't you find yourself in a landscape where as a reviewer you're listening to all different kinds of stuff and don't you feel you'd like to invite them all to the same party but they might fight? You could do it on your blog.
HS: Well, yeah, I grew up very interested in rock music, and I'm also a musician--I play drums--so I'm constantly moving in between listening to AACM stuff from the '70s and listening to underground rock from today, and I think even just by posting consecutively about, like, going to an Ornette Coleman show and going to a rock show, I think it's just a statement in and of itself.
GL: Well, playing the drums--I think it's critical to this really. I mean, I don't know if you've thought about it in this way, you probably have. But in fact, everybody needs a drummer at some time in their lives. So by being a drummer, you can play with everybody. You can get all kinds of ideas from everywhere, and so if you're a drummer and a writer--see, you'd be one of the people where I'd say, "Could we get this guy to come to Columbia?" [Laughs] "We can turn him to the dark side, make him an artist-scholar." It's the standard line I tell everyone: Don't stop playing, [Laughs] but we're gonna do this other thing too, and what's going to happen from that is your unique standpoint as a person that plays and thinks reflectively about the experience of playing and where that takes you can be the powerful thing we need in this next generation of people thinking about new music.
HS: I think the player-writer thing can be strange and uncomfortable, as I'm sure you know. Sometimes you just find that the people on the playing don't really get or want to understand people on the writing side and vice versa. You kind of have to be either over here or over there.
GL: Well, that's the shuttle diplomacy you have to do. I agree with that. I guess in a way that's one of the things the book is about. Because what I'm hoping is first of all, that people who made the AACM will receive it well. I have a feeling they will, because most of it have seen most of it anyway. What I'm also hoping that it will not be something that's perceived as being--Well, one of the problems is that if you try to do both, people see writers just as people that "If you're writing about me, or if you're writing favorably about me, then you're cool, and if you're not, the hell with you." No, no, no. So as a person doing both, sure, you've got to do some diplomacy there. But then it's also the kind of writing you're doing too, which is also a part of it. I guess what I'm doing, it's like what you said about having to be a mouthpiece. If that's all I were doing, then--So a lot of musicians feel that writers should just be mouthpieces for what they're trying to do at the moment. So obviously you can't do that, no matter what kind of writing you're doing, and you don't want to do it. But the other thing is because of that, the people who get bad reviews or the people who feel that they're not understood, or the people who feel even justly that the writers of a certain type are falsifying what they do, are hostile to all writing. So you have to sort of convince them that there's a kind of writing out there that can really--it doesn't have to valorize you and bow down to you, but it can enhance your project as an artist. And so you being a player, you are equipped to discover that kind of writing. And then your task is to get your fellow players to realize that kind of writing is out there, and to get your fellow writers to maybe--maybe there are some reforms that should be made in that area too.
Look I became a card-carrying American Musicological Society person for that reason, really. I feel like it's important for us to have a voice there. When I went to my first AMS conference in 1994, who should I run into? [composer-scholar] Fred Lerdahl, who I now work with. So, we both said the same thing, "What are you doing here?" [Laughs] Me, I was naive, I didn't realize that Fred had already published this great work of theory. I thought of him as like a composer, and I thought, What would a composer be doing at a musicology conference? But thinking also of myself, Hey, I'm a composer too; what am I doing here? So it's very complicated, but in fact we were both playing this dual role. And I hope to do that dual role, among others, for a very long time, and maybe you're doing it too--I don't know.
HS: Yeah, I feel like most people who play music are very interested in listening to it and thinking about it and have like critical-type thoughts whether they write them down or publish them.
GL: Well, Arthur Taylor, he was a drummer. That was a great book. Who were the other drummers who wrote good books? See, Max said he was gonna write a book, but he didn't get around to it. Too bad. There's gotta be somebody. Who knows? It'll come to me.
HS: Anyway, thanks a lot.
GL: I guess we're pretty cool. Thanks very much for coming over. I really appreciate it.
HS: Yeah, I thought the book was really fascinating and I wish you luck with it.
GL: Well, thanks.
HS: It comes out at the end of May, right?
GL: Well, there are advance copies floating around now. It's totally published. This is a real copy [Hands me book]. I'm gonna take it to my class today, because I have a thing from it I want to read to my class about--this part of my jazz class--about jazz, home, and death. But they brought this to the cultural center in Chicago, the University of Chicago Press did, because we were doing a panel discussion and performance there. And it just so happened that the day before I was supposed to go, they said, "We have a few copies of the book we could bring and you could sign 'em." I said, "Well, that sounds pretty good. I'll do it." And I was signing the book and people had tears in their eyes, holding this book. It was weird. I didn't realize it: They were original members of the AACM, but they were also original members of the audience. And I didn't realize how long they had been waiting for tangible evidence that their obsession, if you will, somehow bore fruit in this way.
HS: Not that the AACM is ending, or anything, but it's a closure. It gives a sense of validation to have something in the store on a shelf.
GL: Yeah, that you can go to library and read or that you can have on your shelf and someone comes to you and says, "That weird music you're listening to...." "Oh yeah, well lemme show you this!" [Mimes throwing heavy book on table] Plop! [In mock-serious tone] So you see, this is the University of Chicago, bah! [Laughs] It's a kind of media strategy, if you will.
[I look at pictures and we discuss them.]
HS: I just found out that you still could order records from Chuck Nessa.
GL: That's funny, I'll show you this one other thing that's very curious. I spent months and months trying to find out who had taken this picture [Points to pic of Fred Anderson group]. Then I realized that I did it: It was a collage. I made it with, not Photoshop, this was 1974, but I pasted it in. I made it as a poster for the group that we advertised with. It's pretty well done; I couldn't tell it wasn't a real picture. Douglas said it wasn't real; he said, "Either you did it or I did it." We were into making weird collages as part of the advertisements.
GL: See the European improvisers were very smart because in a way they dealt with their problem--You see in the American context--yeah, it's good to tape this; I think you should have this [Laughs]. See this is where, in jazz as a socio-cultural-economic phenomenon, there's a legacy and tradition of a set of things you do in order to get notoriety and make a living. One of those things is selling yourself and your product to record companies, basically giving it to them in return for temporary notoriety and some money. And we all know the thing by now: You sign these horrible contracts and then your record comes out on [Mock serious] a Major Label, or a not-so-major label. And then it comes out and that's great, and you get some money and then they have a huge catalogue that they own of the music.
So what happens then is that that's the thing about a lot of the recordings in the discography [included with the book] is that you can't get 'em because they're owned by other people and they're not in print. And if I were to just digitize them and put them out myself, it'd be technically illegal. They own it, you know. So I have to say maybe I even encourage people to do it secretly. Maybe I'd even do it secretly. I'd just digitize everything I have and put it on the Internet.
HS: It's already being done.
GL: I think it's being done because it's absurd to have dead music that no one can listen to just because a bunch of jerks decide that they wanna have control over you. So there was a moment in the '70s where--and maybe later for some people or even now, though the situation has changed greatly--where that was possible for the AACM and other people. It was never so possible for the European improvisers, who put out their products immediately and as a result they own them and put them out whenever they like. Incus Records or FMP, which technically belongs to the people there, so I imagine that Brötzmann or somebody--you can hear Machine Gun whenever you like. And that's great because they have control over the product, because there wasn't some record company running around saying, "We wanna record, we wanna record." And so if they want to record, they did it themselves, and so they have this independent, self-controlled legacy, and that's one of the things I think now that maybe younger generations of the AACM did arguably better than the older generation. Although the older generation did do some interesting things.
But even today, there's this sense that if it's a real recording, someone else should do it. And that's maybe a holdover from the idea of self-publication in the literary world, vanity press, or whatever you call it. But I think those distinctions in music have largely eroded. No one cares where it comes from; they just wanna hear the sound. I'm just happy that it comes out.
HS: Speaking of record companies, I'm wondering why you didn't interview people like, say, Bob Koester from Delmark. Was there a place for that in this book?
GL: Oh, I'm sure there was. And there's a place for it in the next book, which'll be written by someone else. The thing is, no matter how big the book is, there's a place where you can't do everything you'd like to do. You've just identified one of the avenues of research that I didn't follow, but maybe I should have. And maybe some other individual will do in the future, and I hope they do. Otherwise, it becomes the weird biopic, that no one feels they can touch. And there are people right now who are working on their things like I said. But it'd be a good point to talk to those people and see. I mean what would you ask them?
HS: Well, I guess I just of Delmark, because their documentation of the AACM is very avid and thorough and it also is in print. And it seems like there was a good relationship with the artists as far as I know.
GL: Well, it's not like they're not discussed. They certainly are discussed. There's the interview from Silverstein in which he talks with Chuck about how he came to record the Delmark people and there are actually quotes from Koester in there about what he thought about the music.
HS: Right, there was the account of recording Sound.
GL: Yeah, so in a way, you wonder--it might've been nice to go in there and talk to him. But one thing you learn about doing this kind of work, as I did, is that it's like wrestling an octopus. You interview around 100 people. Then you realize you could've interviewed all their friends, all their associates. Have you ever seen Namebase on the Internet? Namebase is like, you type in someone's name and you get this network of associations. Like you type in Richard Nixon and they you get Bebe Rebozo and Spiro Agnew and all these people [Laughs], and it's this huge network of people, all of whom you really should talk if you wanted to feel like you'd done all your work. So I freely admit that there's more work to do.