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Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

Fall is generally the time of year when I depend on finding some older piece to revise in order to keep the Pit Stop going. These two “epitaphs” are from 2003 or 2004. The evocation of the City in the first of the two is very much of that time. The second has been somewhat more updated. HD

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

Free jazz! Creative music! Avant-garde music! Liberation music! Et cetera!

In New York, once upon a time, it was called downtown music.

Downtown at CBGB’s 313 Gallery, they called it “freestyle,” and their Sunday night free jazz concerts “freestyle events.”

That word—freestyle—had a special resonance for me. I used to be a competitive swimmer. Everyone who swam knows what freestyle means. It means you wouldn’t get disqualified for doing something different. And that would have been fine, except the point was to win.

The 313 Gallery was not the place you would drag your out-of-town guests to, unless they shared your perversity—though I seemed to have a perverse predilection for trying to pervert the straight ones, once they’d tired of the museums, parks, and tall buildings. The next thing you knew, there we were, at CBGB’s, or Tonic, or Roulette, and they were enduring, like Bush’s freedom, squirming or angry or just plain bored.

There’s a reason these freestyle events were stuck into the cellar of CBGB’s, already music’s cellar, in the Lower East Side, one-time cellar of the City of New York. Like the Weather, the musical revolution, too, went underground. That club smelled like a cellar, goddammit. Must and damp, and behind that, and behind that

The skid mark in Dali’s underwear. Stop your ears, Wynton. We’re 20,000 leagues under Lincoln Center.

Otherwise, the basement of the 313 Gallery shared the found-object aesthetic of many contemporary art spaces, trying hard to appear as discovered and unreconstructed as the music. The ads in the Voice called the seating comfortable, though many of the chairs were of the plastic lawn variety, and the sofas were past exhaustion. Pillars stood fickly between the audience and the space for the band, like at the old Iridium, though here they were so obviously functional that they stopped being in the way. On each, a plain white sheet of paper listed bands, members, set times.

What drew my attention most, though, was a red curtain hung carelessly behind the space where the band played, sagging at its middle, exposing the broken brick behind it, a strip of tin foil, maybe the space for the boiler.

I said found-object; I could have said ascetic. It was a space of denial, as if we were gathered inside a hair shirt. Maybe the club used to be a mission, and its spirit lived on in us. Self-abnegation had driven us into each others’ arms. In a city of this size, there is a kind of immediate intimacy formed in groups this small, as if the pressure of all the millions outside were brought to bear upon us. Strangers, we were suddenly of one blood, revolutions plotted in our ears.

In a city this size, any gathering this small must be transgressive.

*

Early one Sunday evening, March of 2003. The band of the moment was called Test. A fourpiece: two multireedists, bass and drums. Daniel Carter, that downtown workhorse, was blowing long and dizzy into his tenor; tonsured, reed-thin, he swept and looped in figure-eights from squat to tiptoe. Sabir Mateen, on alto, also had his eyes closed, though his face was less placid than Carter’s, his body rigid; with each burst of sound his waist-length dreads swung. I got stuck on the bassist, Matt Heyner: the expression on his face, the reiterated thrust of his right hand across the strings. I’d seen that face, that hand, maybe, in a porn movie. Yet, in this context, it remained chaste. And it’s remarkable that this should be so. They were playing a sort of music you might have been burned for, once upon a time.

On that red curtain, the shadows of musicians leapt like the shadows of flames, the shadows of devils dancing around a fire.

Test of endurance. Test of faith. Weapons tests, and tests of emergency response systems. Experiment, rehearsal, trial-run for something yet to come, something on the verge of coming, the moment before the moment, always delayed—test-imony to the ultimate goal of free jazz, which is, which must be, presence. Writers envy music for being a language that can say “now” and mean it. Free jazz shouts it through a megaphone. Free jazz throws a tantrum over it. Free jazz wants it NOW.

If jazz is (as we’re so often told) a music hewn from the living present, then why is so much of it mesmerized by tradition to the point of turning itself to stone? Free jazz lets us imagine, if only for a moment, what it would be like to get out from under that stone, to float unmoored. The moment is a fiction, of course—not least because the avant-garde has its own well-developed tradition, “the shape of jazz to come,” long since come. But the moment is only artificial in retrospect. Experience has no memory; its faith is raw, primitive, total. What better way to understand that moment of exhilaration, of connection free jazz affords us, than that moment when doubt escapes us?

Test ended their set with a coda and yielded the stage to an all-brown band called Chocolate Nemesis, anchored by the bass of William Parker. In whatever context Parker’s bass appears, it creates an undertow, is more felt than heard, and so helps close the gap between listening and experiencing. This night was no exception. Parker likes to flirt with rhythm: as soon as he’s settled into a groove, one we can dig our toes into, he undercuts it; the groove fractures into a prolonged stumble. But there is no pratfall, no cymbal crash, no punch line. That moment before the comic’s butt hits the boards and the audience bursts out laughing is prolonged—not repeated, like in slapstick, but prolonged. Because once the comic falls, all he can do is do it over again. But in Parker, in freestyle, the music stays on the cusp of an endlessly-deferred, ever-arriving climax, until any sense of structure—verse, chorus, bridge, coda, A, B, climax, origin, end—is lost. Land hasn’t just disappeared from sight; land has just disappeared. And since there is no place to return to, there is no time we can imagine ourselves saved.

Collectively, intimately, chastely, band and audience participate in this voyage whose destination is loss. With a music that promises so much, perhaps it can’t be otherwise.

That sagging red curtain, drawing our attention to what it’s supposed to hide!

*

A couple of months later I was walking through the Lower East Side with a friend of a friend. He was lamenting the disappearance of the “dark underbelly” of New York. Maybe he had never experienced desperate poverty, as I had not. Maybe, like other people of our class and age (middle, thirtysomething), he’d fed off the spectacle of poverty to remind himself of his own reality in the fantastic surroundings of “new economy,” or doctrinally free market, New York—ever more fantastic as the economy thumped back to reality. Suffering built this city’s character, but not my suffering. So we lamented the death of a tragedy that had used to be performed nightly on these dark stoops, on Stanton or Rivington or Ludlow.

Could we be consoled? Hadn’t we attended these freestyle events, in these cellars, in this last ungentrified outpost on the Bowery?

And yet, could I really believe that these freestyle events didn’t depend on the Bowery’s gentrification? Now through January first, at the Museum of Urban Grit’s new I-MAX theater, I, too, could experience The Dark Underbelly. (In 3D, of course.) Skid row, skid mark—we have to believe it exists, that we can reach over the rope and touch it. And if that’s what the music was really about, then maybe the mystical evocation of the present was just what I wanted from it: a hold against my own slipping reality: my own freestyle, the way my body used to feel hitting the freezing cold water on summer mornings. Maybe the music was really a torch song for the Lower East Side, an invocation of past suffering, the ghosts of the penniless immigrants, homeless people, junkies, freaks. An injunction to remember.

 

2. Tonic

      Among the many criticisms leveled at free jazz, one of the most common is that it forgets its audience. It wears its esoterism as a badge; its adherents believe themselves the elect.

The assumption seems to be that, before we can expect an audience to decode “difficult” music, they require a palliative. After all, the people must be given what they want, music must delight first, instruct second. Free jazz, perennially unsweetened, bitter at the root, and real hard to understand, is thus relegated to music’s cellar—at least until some apparently ever-deferred revolution of consciousness overtakes the general populace.

If John Zorn is the best-known avant-garde musician to have emerged from New York’s “downtown” scene, maybe it’s because he believes neither that a music’s “avant” status exempts it from seeking an audience, nor that finding an audience requires sweetening the music. As a label mogul and club entrepreneur—not to mention working musician—to believe the former would be suicide. Zorn has gone out of his way to promote what he calls “creative music.” It’s a silly label, and particularly bizarre coming from somebody whose contempt for generic boundaries has been his music’s best promotion. Then again, given that Tonic, his first venture, buckled under New York’s tectonic real estate shifts back in 2007 (cf. the Himalayan condo that rose up just across its Norfolk Street home), it does make you wonder whether the branding of the avant-garde presents the only hope of a mitigated salvation.

The latter idea, though—sweetening—would be suicide of a different sort. “Sweet” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Zorn’s music. Take, for example, the first time I saw him, at 1999’s Vision Festival. He still wore his hair long then, and had on baggy pants, and he put one foot up on the monitor like Steve Harris (the bass player for Iron Maiden), and, head buried, horn braced against one thigh, and held at an angle less reminiscent of Pres than of the way those Tarantino gangsters fire their pistols, he proceeded to sonically violate me in a way that, once upon a very long time, believing my suburban white heavy metal the most transgressive music imaginable, I couldn’t have begun to fathom. And wasn’t I pleased to find out later that Zorn had recorded with Slayer’s original and only true drummer, that cocaine-infused dynamo Dave Lombardo? Didn’t I say then, “See, I told you he was a metalhead”?

Of course, Zorn’s no metalhead. Still, I like to imagine hundreds of such recognition scenes: “See, I told you he was a punk!” “See, I told he you he listened to [Stockhausen, Messiaen … fill in the blank]!” Suffice it to say Zorn’s musical universe is too elemental and too chaotic to adhere to the boundaries of any one genre for very long.

Were he to stop there, though, Zorn would fit neatly into the genre-bending that has characterized jazz for the last half-century. Nor is it enough to simply say that Zorn is at once an uncompromising musician and highly conscious of himself as a performer and promoter, or even that he knows how to market his uncompromising artistry. It’s rather how he handles—explodes, really—the “contradiction” between artist and performer that sets him apart. He wallows in it. He recognizes that only by actively invoking and manipulating the artist-entertainer binary can its conventionality be exposed, and the construct held up to ridicule.

*

       After the ’99 Vision Festival, I didn’t see Zorn again for almost four years. This was partly because I left the City half a year later to finish my doctorate, and didn’t return until the summer of 2002. In hindsight, though, I wonder if it wasn’t also to keep that Vision night’s cosmic mindfuck enshrined in my memory. There had been something so right about the church basement setting, the metal folding chairs in lieu of pews. Zorn’s partner that night was the percussion guru Milford Graves, a man for whom the word “grandstand” might have been invented. Between that set and the Anderson-Parker-Drake one that ended the night, I left feeling like some newly-minted evangelist, all ready to rush out into the wilderness and found a religion.

I guess four years was long enough, because when I saw Zorn billed with Brazilian singer-guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria for a set at Tonic, I decided the time was right measure, as Melville reckoned it, the size of god.

I got there late, but Zorn was later. The Goth-Tinkerbells who worked the door said he was having dinner, that he’d had a busy day and was running behind schedule.

The club was almost silent. Inside that halo of red Christmas lights, on the crotch-high altar Tonic called a stage, for the early-birds in the few chairs and the hipsters sitting crosslegged on the floor and the dozens shifting from one foot to the other behind them, Cantuaria thumbed bossas on his plump hollowbody, half-whispering in Portuguese. Erik Friedlander accompanied him on cello, filling the sonic near-vacuum with a restrained lyricism. After a few songs, a drummer sat in. He treated his kit like it was made of glass. Maybe it was the sound of bottles at the bar behind me.

Forty-five minutes later, Zorn trucked in, sat down on stage, and said, “That was the candy, this is the medicine.” There was no slow build into the cacophony, no time for the musicians or audience to adjust. It was like an evil clown had wandered onto a movie set right when the glamorous couple, lying on the beach in Rio, were about to kiss.

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

Wasn’t it just possible, I wondered later, that he’d planned the whole thing? It was of course so very very Zorn, just the kind of jump-cuts out of which albums like Naked City are built. And then the first piece Zorn drove into was longer, more dissonant and more wildly malevolent than anything that followed. When he finally let up (and Friedlander, too, and the drummer, both of whom had caught the wave without blinking), Cantuaria was still thumbing his bossas and whispering in Portuguese, a subdued act of resistance … or a state of shock. And Zorn lay his horn across his lap and looked wryly at the crowd, as if this Brazilian singer-guitarist had shipwrecked on a free-jazz set, and was playing the unwitting straight man in a musical comedy.

If music often finds its most nuanced accents in a blend of sweet and sour, Zorn, like some demented chemist, had separated the two—let Cantuaria give us the sugar until we choked on it, and then himself gave us the medicine until we choked on it. But far from demonstrating that each element couldn’t exist on its own, whether serendipity or plotted coup, the partitioning worked. It worked maybe because free jazz is finally not interested in musical instruction, but destruction—another kind of sugar, the kind that monkey-wrenches the culture industry, rotting the teeth of its gears, dissolving binaries—sweet-sour, instruct-delight, artist-entertainer. The show didn’t “work” in the sense of musicians playing together like good little boys and girls; according to that definition, it was a trainwreck. Later on, sure, sort of. But the minutes following Zorn’s entry were the performance’s jagged peak. There, in the unexpected moment where the performance “fails,” it finds its center as live experience. And how could that peak, or that abyss, when every expectation about the performance is torn away from us, appear, unless we had been fattened, sweetened, and kissed goodnight by Cantuaria?

It’s one thing to bend generic boundaries by bringing the free reeds of avant jazz to metal and punk—other musicians have done this, and clubs like Tonic and CBGB’s used to be around to capitalize on it. It’s quite another to descend like a roaring lion upon well-intentioned Brazilian singer-guitarists. The former marks a daring openness that has done much to expand the language of contemporary music, and to turn younger music fans onto new styles and sounds. The latter is a calculated effort to break down the perceived barrier between two conceptions of music’s role in culture—to mess with our heads at the very root of thought. It’s in the latter that Zorn really distinguishes himself. A serious and thoughtful musician, always ready with the blue note, the honk and squeal, this joker, macaw, one hand behind his back, always smiling at himself and at us. Shaman and showman, circus clown and medicine man, he is as much at home playing the ringmaster as with his head in the lion’s mouth, or swinging a hundred feet above the startled crowd without a net.

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