A few weeks back, Mark Richardson published a compelling, comprehensive Pitchfork feature titled "New York Is Killing Me: Albert Ayler's Life and Death in the Jazz Capital." Ayler's story, those few meteoric years of passionate genius followed by a still-mysterious drowning in the East River, lends itself especially well to mythologization. It is, essentially, the archetypal Jazz Myth: the ballad of an artist whose vision is too pure to survive in a cold, racist society.
Ayler's story is especially potent, both because the music he left is so heartbreakingly intense and also because he died so young (34, shockingly, the same age at which Charlie Parker died, succumbing to self-abuse, yes, but also to those same societal forces that ground down Ayler). His story ends with a tragedy straight out of darkly romantic fiction. And many jazz lovers—and especially free-jazz lovers—though we admit it or not, relish such tales because they uphold the idea of a brief, glorious flourishing that was simply too brilliant to last. (It is Coltrane's story too, in many ways.)
Zeroing in on the so-called avant-garde, we have this golden age, lasting just a few years—roughly 1964 through 1970—and famously documented in New York by ESP-Disk, in Paris by Actuel. Many of the musicians who made these treasured albums are dead, but regardless of whether or not they literally survived the period, with very few exceptions (Milford Graves, the late Paul Bley), their work is frozen—again, in the manner of myth—in that time. ESP's stark, striking black-and-white album covers form the visual pantheon, the wall of memory.
Again, though, some musicians made it out alive. Many expatriated: Sunny Murray, Steve Lacy. Some stuck it out in NYC, either with dignity (Graves) or in the shadows (Giuseppi Logan). Cecil Taylor is perhaps the great survivor of them all; his middle-class background always seemed to keep him a bit above the fray, at least in the literature, though he clearly paid his dues for decades, and also predated (and ultimately transcended) the period and scene described above. There are so many others, lesser-known. Clifford Allen and John Rogers are two journalists who have made a concerted effort to track down artists of this generation in their later years and preserve their stories. I have tried to do my part, with Cleve Pozar and others.
Denis A. Charles: an interrupted conversation from Veronique Doumbe on Vimeo.
I have all this on the brain because I just watched Denis A. Charles: An Interrupted Conversation. The film, an excellent, moving documentary by Véronique N. Doumbé, equal parts heartwarming and -breaking, tells the story of a drummer—another musician killed, in some sense, by New York—who lived through all of the above and contributed to it significantly. He appeared on Cecil Taylor's earliest recordings; he anchored Lacy and Roswell Rudd's semi-legendary "School Days" Monk repertory band. He recorded with Gil Evans and, apparently, Sonny Rollins. And then he entered the shadow zone, the realm of drugs, occasional homelessness, intermittent musical joy.
Doumbé's film tells of the story of the final chapter of his life, and what I love about it, why I think it's essential viewing for anyone who has ever derived joy from free jazz, or jazz in general, or even simply black and/or American music, is that it refuses to settle for any pat narrative. The filmmaker clearly sympathizes with Charles' plight, such as it was. She delves into his poignant backstory: Caribbean upbringing; abandoned, along with his brother, the percussionist Frank "Huss" Charles, by his father at an early age; smacked in the face, almost literally, with "that racist shit" after an idyllic, color-blind childhood. Then he's on the scene in Harlem: soaking up bebop in real time, idolizing Art Blakey, and by the mid-'50s, recording Cecil Taylor's debut album in Boston, even (according to Steve Lacy, one of many Charles contemporaries who offer fascinating commentary in the film) sitting in with Thelonious Monk. And then, drugs, not to mention a shameful robbery of an older neighborhood woman, which landed him in jail. And music, and drugs, and fatherhood, and love, and homelessness. More love, more drugs, more music, repeated and shuffled.
We see Charles the performer. Raw, sweaty, enthralling performances with Susie Ibarra, Billy Bang, Borah Bergman; Charles's stunning late trio with Thomas Borgmann and bassist Wilber Morris; Charles playing on piers, in schoolyards, in tiny clubs; Charles, playing brushes, accompanying singer-pianist Rick Dellaratta with poetic simplicity. Charles the absolute earthy master of his instrument, the prophet of WoodSkinMetal, the absolute essence of percussion, tapping out elemental rhythms on the table, explaining the affinity between Caribbean grooves and the jazz cymbal pattern, playing with an odd fist-oriented right-hand grip on a ride tilted eccentrically away from him, as he sits way high up on his stool. Charles the disciple but also peer of the great Ed Blackwell—two players who gave the (again so-called) avant-garde some of its deepest buoyance and bounce. Swing would be too reductive a term for what these men brought to the music. It's a pulse of life, really. Pure earth.
So An Interrupted Conversation gives us all this, but crucially, unlike so much Free Jazz Myth, it doesn't just give us the personal glory and tragedy of a master musician. It also gives us the other side. The feminine side, specifically, via extended interviews with women who were essentially Charles's common-law wives at various periods: Melanie MacLennan and Gabriella Sonam. Women who gave him love and shelter and support—and, in the latter's case, a beautiful daughter—and who, for various reasons, found him impossible to live with. Sonam at one point talks, matter-of-factly and without self-pity, about how her own artistic pursuits fell by the wayside when her and Charles's daughter, Arkah, was born, but how Charles's art just kept going. She questions her own devotion to her creative path and seems to exalt his, but what she's really saying, again, without the slightest sense of bitterness or harangue, is that she slowed down and took on the basically responsibilities of parenthood while Charles pursued his muse around the world, touring with Jemeel Moondoc and others, but mostly just scraping by. Doumbé's film makes you think about how many hallowed yet troubled musicians were essentially propped up by their selfless companions, whose stories have mostly gone untold. That Doumbé takes the time to tell not just Charles's story, but the story of the domestic world, the family that he wrought through his genius, yes, but also through his disease on one hand and his self-admitted immaturity on the other, is extremely commendable.
Here we get a very rare telling of the Whole Jazz Story, not just the easy myth. Denis Charles lived on. And he made great music. And he also, at times, made a mess of his life and of the lives of those close to him. In the film's many interviews with him, you see his charm and his b.s. alike.
(At one fascinating point, he brings the critics and historians into the fray, calling out Val Wilmer for calling him out as a drug addict in her crucial free-jazz chronicle As Serious as Her Life; as a fan of that book, I struggled with this, but I appreciate that complex view—did Charles have this portrayal coming? And yet, was it Wilmer's place to make these private details public?)
The contemporaries and the survivors are also here. Archie Shepp, maybe the most trenchant, witty, learned, knowing social commentator jazz has ever seen—I'm honored to have interviewed him; I need to dig up the rest of that transcript—summing up with no-bullshit flourish the complex societal forces that helped shape the NYC scene of the '60s and beyond. We get, for example, a particularly powerful Shepp diatribe against black artists and athletes who achieve fame and fortune but don't give back to their communities: "Maybe that's the whole thing with capitalism: The final solution to the Negro Problem is a certain brainwashing of the Negro, so he has no context between what's been done to him and what's going on right now." Here's Shepp on the Denis Charles / Cecil Taylor partnership:
"You have to remember, Cecil was from a middle-class neighborhood in Long Island... But Denis was from the nitty-gritty, baby... Cecil was really playing a concept that pretty much had to do with his ambience as a middle-class black. He had studied Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff; he knew the whole classical tradition. And Denis... really didn't give a fuck."And Frank Lowe, a man whose music and story, alluded to in the introduction to Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear, I need to know better:
"Sometimes I think it's a known fact that we are not paid enough money because certain forces know that we're gonna play this music whether we get money for it or not, you understand? And to some extent, we're taken complete advantage of, you dig? And to another extent, it's our gift to the world, so it don't matter."This is Frank Lowe sitting on a park bench in "modern times," not in a bygone, mythologized '60s. This is Denis Charles sleeping in a doorway in an East Village of just a few years prior to the one I would live in circa 2002. This is urgent; this is now.
This is not just a "whatever happened to..." tale about a great drummer who dropped off the scene. This is a portrait of a man who was done wrong to, and who did wrong, and who did right, and who left something beautiful and also a trail of perplexity and elegiac fondness. We, the (mostly, it must be said, white, comfortably middle-class) fans, the ones who have benefited so immeasurably from Charles' and Lowe's and all the other greats' "gift to the world" are all complicit in all of this. And I thank Véronique N. Doumbé for sitting us down and immersing us in the whole 360-degree view—as well as MacLennan and Sonam and Lowe and Shepp and Huss Charles and Joel Forrester and Didier Levallet and Roxane Butterfly and Elliott Levin and Bobby Few and on and on—and reminding us that it's not just the music. It's never just that.
Along with the outstanding School Days, one of my favorite Denis Charles recordings is the Steve Lacy album Capers, reissued (though truncated) as N.Y. Capers and Quirks. Charles' jovial bounce is the perfect match for Lacy's lovably demented, angular themes. (The Flame, another Lacy/Charles trio set, filled out by the sublime Bobby Few, is also highly recommended.)
I have Queen Mary on its way to me in the mail—shout-out to Silkheart, one of the most crucial labels of the '80s and beyond. Eremite's Captain of the Deep, released on the day Charles died, is an outstanding document of his later years. I'm dying to obtain Wilber Morris' Collective Improvisations and the jointly credited After the Demon's Leaving, which pair him, respectively, with Frank Lowe and the great Charles Tyler (with whom Charles was set to tour on the eve of Tyler's death, a sad tale recounted in the Doumbé doc), and I need to get familiar with the Borgmann trio as well, e.g., this Not Two release.
To any Denis Charles fans reading this, what are your favorite DC documents?