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A Love Supreme.

During a recent e-mail exchange I had with the Smithsonian Institution's Reuben Jackson, an archivist with its Ellington collection, he referred to jazz music as "moribund." I didn't argue with him. Sales of jazz CDs--including smooth jazz--represent less than 3 percent of all CD sales, this despite the success of Ken Burns's documentary on the subject.

The decline of jazz has been linked with the rise of rock and hip-hop, the end of music education in schools, and the lack of serious attention from the media. Radio play outside of public stations is really the bland leading the bland; Kenny G is not, and will never be, Charlie Parker.

But I wonder if the biggest rock weighing down jazz is the seemingly endless war between traditionalist and free jazz aesthetes.

The modern roots of the war go back to, at least, 1981. Ronald Reagan left California for the White House and Wynton Marsalis bolted from the studios of Juilliard to Art Blakey's band.

That year, Wynton was interviewed in Down Beat magazine along with his brother Branford, and though Branford kept an open mind, Wynton was already developing his well-known traditionalist chatter. It made sense, too: As Reagan was taking the country back to traditional values, so was Marsalis, the new jazz savior.

The same year Wynton Marsalis was born, 1961, Texas saxophonist Ornette Coleman released a controversial album called Free Jazz. It was a seminal moment, giving rise to a movement.

"In Free Jazz, the soloist is free to explore any area in his improvisation that his musical aesthetic takes him to; he is not bound by a harmonic, tonal, or rhythmic framework to which he must adhere rigidly," according Down Beat's review. "The performance (and his role in it) is completely fluid: rhythm usually follows the soloist's lead (though he may occasionally take his cue from it), and the remaining three horns contribute as they see fit--from complex contrapuntal patterns arrived at spontaneously and independently to accidental `harmonic' riffs of a sort."

Coleman's composition would open an era in jazz's modern history that could be the subject of its own documentary. His new wave first hit the saxophonists. John Coltrane embraced aspects of the free jazz movement, and countless other artists took their turns at deconstructing Charlie Parker's sacred bebop scripture.

Some of the musicians were Simply extraordinary, such as the late saxophonist Albert Ayler. Originally from Cleveland, Ayler recorded some of the most innovative and thought-provoking jazz albums of the 1960s. Coltrane was especially challenged by the directions Ayler took during this period, answering Ayler's call with his own remarkable work. Ayler's tragic death by drowning in 1970 was a bigger loss artistically than many critics have ever acknowledged.

Others, like Archie Shepp, were not only exceptional musicians, but were also intellectual giants. Shepp is often linked ideologically with Black Arts Movement writer Amiri Baraka. Like Baraka, Shepp wrote plays and poetry and called for black self-determination in America. Shepp has consistently recorded and performed strong music since the 1960s.

West Coast-based saxophonist David Murray came to New York City in the mid-1970s, and the free jazz/loft period flourished in the city. Murray hit town with Stanley Crouch, then a militant poet and drummer, but now known as Wynton Marsalis's intellectual svengali and the preeminent jazz critic.

Many of the artists of the period moved with the people and the streets. This wasn't necessarily new, but unlike their predecessors, they attempted to speak it and live it. And they were the antithesis of the media's notions of the jazz musician: well dressed, binge drinking, heroin abusers. Some adopted Muslim names or studied Eastern religions and took up yoga.

Free jazz unchained the drummer from the cymbal-dominated sensibilities of bop. Conga players appeared, as well; bass players were told they could improvise along with everyone else. Flutes and Third World rhythms were used, some incorporated poetry into their offerings, and others even allowed their music to appear as part of theatrical productions.

Jazz was a citizen of the world again just as it had been way back in the days of Congo Square, Buddy Bolden, and Storyville. In the December 1965 issue of Down Beat, Shepp declared, "I am an anti-fascist artist." It was a powerful moment--jazz musician as revolutionary, so to speak.

In a famous interview included in the liner notes to his album, Three for Shepp, alto saxophonist Marion Brown stated that the music was "part of what's going on in the black revolution in America." And in his book, Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest, Eric Nisenson refers to free jazz as the "soundtrack to a race riot."

It has been suggested that the musicians wanted to free the music from all European influences by eliminating melody and incorporating styles from oppressed cultures. However, this theory is extremely hard to prove on a large scale. If anything, as was the dominant theme in Black America at the time, the musicians most of all wanted to be free, or express the idea of freedom in their art.

Knowing all of this, no one should have been shocked that Ken Burns kept free jazz from being a major segment of his film. Burns has never shown a great deal of concern for the black struggle for self-determination; his films are about America coming together. He also had the Stanley Crouch-Albert Murray-Wynton Marsalis axis to keep him focused.

Yet, the attempt by jazz music's powerful traditionalists to bury the free jazz movement reminds me of the moral to the bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? Those who ignore the change will eventually live to regret it.

How tragic it is that they've combined to make jazz moribund.

Marsalis has pseudo power because he runs the Lincoln Center's jazz program in New York. Crouch and Murray have had his ear for some time now and they both expound a Reaganesque version of jazz that is more maudlin than innovative.

Bassist William Parker is part of the current jazz scene that looks to the past, present, and future. The Village Voice has called him "the most consistently brilliant free jazz bassist of all time." Parker, whose dossier includes a long stint with Cecil Taylor and sessions with Don Cherry is on the Lower East Side, what he calls the "avant-garde reservation." He's there with many other dedicated musicians, keeping jazz's flame alive with music that has power and beauty. His compositions are experimental, political, and spiritual.

As soon as I discovered that he had a song on his latest CD, Raining on the Moon (Thirsty Ear Blue Series, 2002), titled "James Baldwin to the Rescue," this literary guy was at the record store buying the album faster than you can say "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

After repeatedly listening to the album, I understood' that the work of Ayler and all the other fine musicians from the earlier era had not been in vain.

The jazz Parker presents on this disc is full of the "essential elements"--blues, passion, originality--but it also pushes the envelope with politically driven vocals and courageous diversions into the genre's alternative sounds that emerged in the '60s.

Matthew Shipp--the dynamic, multifaceted pianist who boasts a number of exploratory albums--is part of this. So is avant-garde vet David Ware, an extraordinary tenor saxophonist, who has been a mainstay on the scene like Parker and probably has the most recognition outside the confined free jazz world.

Trumpeter Roy Campbell is another musician of note producing the music honestly and consistently "in the tradition," as Arthur Blythe probably would say. Parker, however, is the key because his vision is right out of that more progressive jazz period of the 1970s.

"I knew music could change and affect the world in a more profound way than politics," Parker recently stated in the U.K. magazine, Wire, on why he decided to become a musician. "Music could change people inside out. A musician was a revolutionary."

Missing from the current wave of free jazz is the overt black consciousness element that figured strongly in the music during the '60s and '70s through artists like Shepp. This is not to say the music today isn't political. The title song from Parker's Raining on the Moon is loaded with political statements delivered passionately by lead singer Leena Conquest, but it is more of a universal statement than anything singularly Afrocentric.

But even with the many connections between free jazz and black consciousness, free jazz's most consistent strain over the years is spirituality. Pharoah Sanders recorded the album Karma that included the legendary song "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Coltrane, of course, had "A Love Supreme," and Ayler's repertoire includes "Spiritual Unity" and "Goin' Home," a history of Black America through spiritual music.

Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan" is especially legendary. A song heavily influenced by Coltrane's "Love Supreme," it pulls the best from that classic but uses more vocals and tones down the emotions to convey its peaceful message.

Today, William Parker, Ware, and the many other free jazz artists embrace this spirituality, too. Sonny Rollins introduced Ware to yoga and meditation years ago, and it shows in his music. Parker's music is full of spiritual references--"Song of Hope," "James Baldwin to the Rescue," and "Song for Jesus Christ."

I am not among the skeptics: The musicians will decide what jazz will be. One film will not be able to bury Ayler, Shepp, and all the other free jazz musicians.

Jazz should have changed in the '60s and '70s because the country itself was undergoing a radical reconstruction. The music should have screamed and shouted and protested along with the millions of rebellious voices. The music should have raged about the war and thundered about injustice.

The attempt to essentially separate free jazz from jazz reminds me of a September 1949 article in Down Beat in which Charlie Parker insisted that bop was "no love-child of jazz." Bop and traditional jazz had nothing to do with each other. Dizzy Gillespie responded to his friend's comments the following month by stating that they were "all a part of the same thing."

It is still often asserted today that jazz and free jazz are separate entities. This line of analysis is far too shallow. It accepts the compartmentalization forged by Burns's film and allows the few to try to set jazz's table.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to preserve the folk origins of jazz or its blues roots and all the major developments of traditional jazz music. But Coltrane and Coleman, and the many musicians playing today, prove that the differences between free jazz and traditional jazz are not as big as they seem. Or, as the Smithsonian's Jackson also wrote in our recent e-mail correspondence: "I think it is possible to do `free' repertoire, just as it is to replicate, say, Fletcher Henderson."

The best example of the closeness of the two forms is a performance I attended years ago in Washington, D.C., involving two well-known longtime avant-garde/free jazz trombone players: Craig Harris and Joe Bowie.

Harris, who now leads the fine group Nation Imagination, and Bowie, the younger brother of the late, great Lester Bowie, played together with a band at Howard University's Crampton Auditorium. They played only one song, but it was enough. The song was Thelonious Monk's "Straight, no chaser." They began with Monk's famous theme, but then they improvised in a way I have never heard done before, You wouldn't even recognize the song anymore once the theme had been stated, but what they played was powerful. They did not allow themselves to be boxed in by the constraints of bebop or swing; they improvised off of each other, as did the other musicians.

There were moments when the music became so unlike Monk's composition, in fact, that I thought of Coleman's Free Jazz recording. And the musicians used call and response much more frequently, feeling free to tap into patterns that harked back to jazz's early days.

It was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying live performances I had ever heard. If they had simply played "Straight, no chaser" like Monk and stuck close to the patterns of Monk's recordings, the song would have died immediately. But they didn't. It was a meeting of the blues, stride piano, hot, swing, bebop, and the free jazz avant-garde reservation music that William Parker is producing.

At the end, Bowie and Harris restated Monk's famous theme again, and took the song joyfully to the end.

Ken Burns and his film crew weren't around with cameras, and it was their loss; jazz was alive and well that day, and it wasn't 1929.

Poet and public-interest attorney Brian Gilmore is the author of two collections of poetry, including his latest, "Jungle nights and soda fountain rags: A poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (Karibu Books, 2000).
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Author:Gilmore, Brian
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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