Writing as a white musician… jazz, Black music, and the tradition of honored guests

•June 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

There is something special about being a guest. To be welcomed into someone’s home is to receive an act of giving, to accept an act of kindness. Hosting is a form of love. Being welcomed on any level means that someone is willing to make space in their lives for you, to share something that is theirs to give. When one receives a guest, the giver makes her or himself larger to make space for others. And that too is a gift. As Buckminster Fuller used to say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (a phenomenon he referred to as “synergy”).

Do forms of music have their own culturally specific homes? I have written on this topic in the past, and my answer continues to be yes they do. By this I do not mean that participation and even innovation is not open to everybody. Certainly these days, people have unprecedented access to all sorts of music, as listeners and as players. Just as there are (Indonesian) gamelan ensembles consisting of Euro-American musicians so too are there (Jewish) klezmer bands whose members are all Polish Christians. In both cases, the participants are surely aware that they perform music whose cultural homes are, respectively, Indonesian and Jewish.

So why is there such contention when the question arises about whether jazz has a culturally specific home?

Indeed, counted within the history of jazz are Black and white musicians. It is beyond contest that Lennie Tristano and Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, Pat Metheny and Matt Wilson are among the significant, original players of jazz history. All of them are white. They stand in the same room as the great Black jazz musicians Count Basie and Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams. Each has been welcomed with honor by Black musical colleagues; yet does this change what most players know: that at its core, the musical roots and musical values of jazz are culturally formed and rooted within the history of Black America? *

In 2014, trumpeter Nicholas Payton urged that a distinction be made between the term “jazz” and the umbrella he refers to as “Black American Music” (aka BAM) **. To be clear, Payton is not using the word “jazz” to describe a musical heritage and genealogy (as most historians and many but not all musicians do) but to point to the use of the term as pejorative. He refers to “[all that serves] to ensure Black cultural expression is depreciated and undervalued.” This is achieved by “the forces that control the system under which it’s sold.” Payton is not really criticizing musicians but, rather, institutions, periodicals and other commercial enterprises that he understands as functioning as musical agents of white supremacy. Payton is not saying that the music we have come to call jazz is the exclusive province of Black people. His contention is in fact that unlike the product called “jazz,” “Black music” is simply all music that is “informed by the Black tradition.” Certainly there is much music associated with “jazz” that Payton would likely identify as “Black music.”

I resonate with Payton’s understanding that the term “jazz” operates within the context of white supremacy. This helps us interpret the oft assertion that “music has no color” as similar to the provocative response to “Black lives matter”: “all lives matter.” Surely every life matters, yet the emphasis on “Black” is corrective, reflecting the importance of shining a spotlight on how little Black lives are valued within the United States. Often, the universalized word “all” refers not to everyone and everything, but to just that which this society actually values. White supremacy masks how racism operates: white becomes the universal and Black the exception. Thus, privileging “Black” in the “lives matter” declaration finds a parallel in the term “Black music” in that it points to the falsity of the level playing field.

Here is what I’m suggesting: to assert that jazz was raised within and depends upon the cultural values of “everyone’s” home is not constructive. It is, of course, partially true. But within a society where “everyone” who is valued actually means “white”, why not simply turn the table and treat “Black” as normative and inclusive? Just as people increasingly recognize that the male pronoun is not gender inclusive and thus correctively use “she” to mean “we”, why not refer to this music that we—Black, white and other—musicians play as, in its essence, “Black music”? ***

When I refer to jazz as “Black music” I place myself, a white musician, as an honored guest in a home that is not mine. Doing so takes the energy out of the defensive posture assumed by some white musicians and critics; one does not have to own something to belong within it. One can be welcomed, hosted, treated with the love that results from the expansive act of being an invited guest. Yes, there will be times where one is not welcomed or simply not selected. Yet to refer to this as “reverse racism” is inaccurate; there is no systematic, societal infrastructure that privileges Black people for choosing a fellow Black musician for a gig. ****

At the same time, most musicians know the sting of not finding the support we desire and need to do our work. Music in general and, in particular, music that lives outside “music industry”-sponsored commerce is highly undervalued. Most musicians take a hit as they struggle to create given a lack of essential support and resources, places to play, and public exposure.

No doubt, some may resist my suggestion that white musicians (like myself) embrace the idea of being guests and affirm that we play music whose historical home is in Black America. Surely, this may mean experiencing a sense of dislocation that is part of the daily Black experience. But why should the present not be a good moment for, at very least, a musicians’ thought experiment? Naming what we call “our” music is always an inherently political act. Maybe letting go of the “feeling” that white musicians lose something by enthusiastically affirming Black music is a concrete step to disengage ourselves from white supremacy. And doing so lifts all boats.

One further thought, and maybe the most crucial: let’s talk about priorities. Musicians, irrespective of what they play, and particularly if they play music informed by Black culture, must first care deeply about Black America. Cherishing African American society, showing concern about its welfare, knowing its history, acting with commitment in response to its struggles… in short, showing devotion to Black people, that must be the strongest priority. The idea that affirming the humanity of any person could be viewed as revolutionary (rather than ordinary) is sad, but such is the nature of a society that devalues Black lives. Devotion to people comes first and engagement in music second.


* To some degree, any discussion on this topic is a response to the assertion that jazz is either “America’s Music” or, as Billy Taylor posited, “America’s Classical Music” (or even “Black America’s Classical Music”). There is truth to the first contention, for indeed it was on American soil that this music was nurtured (despite the racial violence staining that soil). And there is a positive intention within the second and third contentions, reflecting the desire to legitimate the music as equal in cultural capital to European classical music. But at the same time, there is no value in offering equations between music that is different in kind; why compare music that thrives on improvisation with music that is grounded in repertory performance? Is it not better to simply assert that each is inherently valuable in of itself?

** https://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/black-american-music-and-the-jazz-tradition/

*** In fact, most American musicians today engage, in some manner, traditions of Black music. American music, after all, is substantially influenced by Black music. What, for instance, is rock music without The Blues or R&B? What popular music today is not in some way impacted by hip hop?

**** I am referencing Randy Sandke’s 2010 book Where the Dark and Light Folks Meet: Race and Mythology, Politics, and Business of Jazz, that includes the contention that white jazz musicians are victimized by racially-driven exclusion.


Thinking about Cecil Taylor

•April 24, 2016 • 3 Comments

It was 1996, maybe July. Cecil Taylor and Min Tanaka were giving an afternoon performance at Jacob’s Pillow dance center. We were living in the region and so of course I went. The performance was terrific, remarkably spare for what I had come to expect from CT. Tanaka’s dance was quite minimal and quiet, he generally moved quite slowly, at times holding a still pose.

I found myself thinking back to his event the morning after an afternoon visit to the Cecil Taylor retrospective at The Whitney Museum in New York City. A large space along the walls and in display cases of an entire museum level was filled with Taylor album covers, concert posters, poetry drafts, and memorabilia. Concert films could be viewed on small monitors and on a large projection, behind which was a performance space. A small room to the side was dedicated to listening sessions, such as the two I attended, guided by Ben Young. Ben explored Taylor’s evolution from playing “tunes” for which he developed his own musical approach, to the small and large ensemble, and solo works populated by Taylor’s “unit structures.” That methodology, of drawing upon a vocabulary of brief modular musical gestures to build larger, intuitively unfolding forms, has been Taylor’s trademark for decades. This approach offers enormous transparency to Taylor’s playing and to the nature of the interactions between musicians within his ensembles. A 1965 Newport Jazz Festival trio sound example (with Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes) provided a terrific example of an entry point into Taylor’s body of work. I hear Taylor’s music quite visually, like keenly shaped shapes etched into wood blocks or in metallic squares, endlessly spinning in variations and combinations. The solo and small group recordings allow the listener to easily observe each musician articulating these shapes as well as the dazzling interplay that results of their intersections, juxtapositions, and parallel activities.

Thinking back to 1996, I’m reminded that Jacob’s Pillow is a dance center; thus, the official focus on that occasion was Min Tanaka. There was (oddly to me) little fanfare around the presence of Cecil Taylor. After the performance, the audience walked around the beautiful grounds, finding places to picnic. I found Taylor relaxing at a nearby table. I introduced myself and asked if I could say hello. He welcomed me and we began to chat. I thanked him for coming to Massachusetts and I told him how important his work had been to me over the years. He was charming, relaxed, and charming. I told him that I was a rabbi in the area who had been a pianist, but in recent years only very occasionally played. He responded that everybody needs to find their own path but that I should not give up on being a musician. Maybe it would happen in its due time. We spoke about the challenges of being private people who functioned in the public sphere. He said that this isn’t really how he thinks of himself but that he understood. We spoke about the experience of playing solo piano (“Indent,” recorded at Antioch had a particularly strong impact on my playing. Recently, I have come to use it as a college teaching example). After a while, we shook hands and said farewell.

I walked to my car that afternoon appreciating – more than anything – my experience of Cecil Taylor’s sweetness and, surprising to me, humility. I appreciated the opportunity to witness, minutes apart, the intensity of his performing self and the relaxed qualities of his private self. I was struck by Taylor’s willingness to speak with a complete stranger in such a personal manner. Clearly I was not your typical passerby, but one with an obvious sympathy for and comprehension of his music. It would be another decade before I returned to playing the piano, but in a sense, it was this encounter that helped make that decision possible.

Cecil Taylor recently celebrated his 87th birthday. While he has provided us with a huge recorded legacy, may we have many more years of his physical presence among us.

Some thoughts about improvisation, group process, and communication

•December 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

If improvising involves mining one’s emotional interior, as many would suggest, how does a musician achieve something so intimate, collaboratively, in public? Musicians enter into a process of externalizing inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds. The player projects a trial balloon beyond oneself, as if tossing something against a wall and seeing what returns. Does it bounce back in tact, is it altered through the engagement, does it change form entirely? It is as if one generates a hypothesis and tests it by means of experiments, except that the feedback is instantaneous and the target is moving. The act of creation and response to new information creates a complex feedback loop. The ears of listeners are part of this system. Little of this is obvious because we musicians, even good listeners, pay so much attention to what we ourselves are playing. We want to get it right. We want to sound good. We listen to the sounds we make, we get lost in our playing habits, we sometimes chatter to ourselves. In short, we become caught up in ourselves. A musical performance is after all, a performance, not a therapy session.

Listening while playing is not easy. Schooled musicians are often taught to focus on detail: on notes, on harmonic theory, on accurate execution, on technique. There, the goal is to translate information about a limited number of things—what note, how loud, what chord, what duration… and hopefully also articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually, and does it end by slowly tapering, abruptly ceasing, or something in between. All musicians, at least the better ones, compensate to adjust to one another’s timing and range of volume. To some degree this extends to the actual sounds being made. In a large portion of improvised music, the musicians must listen to a more expansive collection of information, information that is outside of themselves.

Listening is actually a far more detailed and subtle skill than what is implied by definitions of musical technique offered by music educators. Here are some other factors I think about regarding how to listen better:

Learning: flexibility, adjustment & openness to change; how does the sound, articulation, concept, structures and direction of others impact or influence mine?

Empathy: how to show others that you are listening? Knowing something about what one’s own distinctive sound is like; what is it that one’s musical partners are hearing when I play–and then noticing what are the features of the distinct sound of the other people.

Perception: being open to potential multiple perspectives and possibilities of meaning. How can I recognize and affirm the identities of other group members and the group as a whole; above all notice what others may be perceiving from their perspective rather than yours.

Structural concerns to listen for: noticing what are emerging larger musical structures, but also the small details within larger structures (without losing “the forest for the trees,” getting overly caught up in the details). Noticing repeated patterns, variations, musical references, silences as spaces to leave alone—or alternately–fill, invitations to join—or alternately—cues to lay-out, detecting something new, deciding to inject something new.

Surprises: noticing unexpected musical events, opening one’s perceptions wider to inexplicable meanings—momentarily if not permanently remaining unsure of what they represent yet continuing to listen without losing oneself.

Broadening one’s musical vocabulary: treating melodic contour as abstract patterns (1960s Coltrane is a great guide here: up/down, smooth/angular, steps/leaps). Pay attention to details of dynamics within individual notes and phrases, variations of articulation. Exploring how time passes: note or phrase duration; remember that pulse and a-rhythmic treatments of time are not opposed to one another.

Belonging: merging into a group sound, maintaining one’s identity in the group, sticking out/contrariness, “me and them,” isolation-separate from the group; where to assert oneself, join with others, allow space for others. What are some of the myriad ways one become part of a larger whole: is it about sound, shape, texture, pulse, or something else entirely? Creating consonance vs. pushing back or playing against the grain. How to inform rather than impose?

Dialog & Response: call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing and adjusting or responding. There are many options: exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly (Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory addresses this, for instance playing the same line but not starting on the same note). Is there such a thing as quasi-unison; ignoring line entirely but aiming for periodic pitch matching; imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.

Going for the ride. Having fun, making mistakes–adjusting to them and building upon them. Being intentional can imply both concentration and abandon. Focus and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Getting out of one’s own way – what can you notice only by paying very close attention? Remembering that the world doesn’t revolve around me.

Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

•December 5, 2015 • 2 Comments

Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

“It was playing with Herbie that I found myself.” With those words, jazz master drummer Billy Hart described his three years performing in pianist Herbie Hancock’s formative Sextet during the early 1970s. The band Hart referenced was at the center of my first book, You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Hart and I were chatting in November 2014, contemplating the possibility of re-recording some of the band’s repertoire. Jump seven months ahead and the recording engineer cued us to begin, as we played with Hart and his fellow original band member, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and another colleague, bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan. That my work on the book could lead to such a session had been previously unimaginable to me, and it was a great privilege to have this opportunity. We were all delighted with the fruits of the session.

The nature of the resulting CD is embedded in the title: Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band (FMR Records, release date: January 15, 2016). The goal was to “revisit” in the sense of taking an entirely new look at the music. What was retained of its origins is a flexibly treated framework consisting of the musical forms and melodies, but more important, the band’s exploratory, improvisatory spirit. Also revisited was the band’s blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. The latter were composed by me in advance of the session and could be heard in our headphones as we performed. The quartet of improvisers thus dynamically responded to each other’s playing and also to the pre-recorded musical tracks that were included in the mix.

It is my hope that the results of this “revisit” will be enjoyed by a wide variety of listeners; jazz lovers, and those who appreciate a beat that is simultaneously complex and in a groove. It will be of particular interest to lovers of the musically adventuresome combination of offbeat funk, abstraction, electronic timbres, and empathetic ensemble playing that characterized the original Mwandishi band.

What Ornette Coleman teaches us about civic engagement

•September 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

As I have come to better understand the music of Ornette Coleman, I teach it as an idealized model of the democratic process.

It’s really a civics lesson; in a way not all that different from the one we are taught in kindergarten: be yourself but simultaneously see yourself as part of the greater whole. This is the model of American democracy we learn throughout our school, however imperfect is its realization throughout our history.

As we grow, our task as individuals is to develop our own distinct voice. One thing I love about jazz is the value placed upon one’s individual sound. But this is a useless effort unless we acknowledge that we are interconnected with everyone around us. The notion that any one of us can create things in isolation from society is a folly. We all depend upon the traditions we inherit, the lessons we learn from our elders and peers, the infrastructure (be they paved roads or musical forms like The Blues or song forms) that has been bequeathed to us.

A comment I once heard from drummer Billy Hart continuously resounds within me: Jabali told me that every time he goes out, he hopes to learn something that can enable him to steadily improve. One might respond that Billy Hart already knows more than most of us, so what is there for him to learn. But what he meant is that every moment of playing is an opportunity to take in something we do not yet know – no matter who it is from – without which we operate in a vacuum. Playing within a collective is, to use Hart’s term, co-composing. While we grow from playing with others, so it is our responsibility to help shape the overall effort. Yet our ability to contribute more depends upon our willingness to connect dynamically and musically with our peers.

The best bands are the ones where people listen intently to one another. This is particularly true of bands not grounded in conventional cyclical chord structures such as those I’ve written about: Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet (and his Quintet of the 1960s) the Revolutionary Ensemble, Circle, and others. Lacking internalized harmonic conventions upon which we can all depend, or to some degree anticipate, players must place a premium on listening, on collaboratively building something together. Without that level of empathetic regard, the whole structure collapses.

Some have claimed that Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is too complex or confusing to understand. But it really is quite simple. It’s the democratic principle in action. I’ll be fully me and I’ll be fully part of us. Both of these unfold at the very same time. The recorded composition “Free Jazz” was not the unstructured free-for-all that some held back in the day. Its conception was composed in advance and each musician must think structurally throughout. From the opening – which can be mistakenly heard as a cacophony – the close listener can notice that each player is actually articulating the same musical gesture/phrase. But each person is doing so in his (all eight players were men) own distinct way, at his own pace; the starting moment is set, the gesture has been prepared, the finishing moment awaits, but it is up to each individual to determine how each personal version will sound. Unison no longer means the group acting in lock step, nor does it imply individuals going their entirely separate ways. Rather, each member of the collective can play her or his own version of the same idea; a new light shines on concerted, unified behavior.

During the improvisational sections that follow, something quite remarkable unfolds: as individuals solo, their peers are periodically free to comment and intersect with the soloist individually and collectively; to imitate, craft variations, thicken textures – or to desist. Coleman’s conception allows for and encourages moments of intersection, where the individual ceases to operate as a soloist “just” with accompaniment, but expresses oneself in the context of interdependent peers. The individual becomes social. This is a high wire version of Henry Louis Gates’s term “signifying” The solo voice is joined in conversation. Sometimes polite but more often filled with interjections, redirection, additions, calls and response, “parody,” comments, disruption, elaboration, giving gifts and making contributions.

A useful term to describe “Free Jazz,” is “heterophony.” The heterophonic idea implies multiple voices, intertwined, simultaneously individual and collective. Each individual create his or her own version of the same or related ideas, but does so within an engaged, social context. Were each version thought of as being in isolation, its meaning would become diminished when extracted from the whole. This is because the individual voice emerges from within the collective, even as it reflects what the individual may think of as fully her own.

We musicians operate only to a limited degree in cognitive, atomized ways while playing with others; beyond that, our minds dig into the subconscious or we think too quickly to really detect individual thoughts. What we do is equally a reflection of the group mind and the product of unplanned events. This is why playing improvised music can feel so magical.

Collective improvisation shares something in common with the innocent parallel play of young children, where the growing sense of self seemingly emerges in isolation. This unfolding occurs not within individualized boxes but within a collective space. Collective improvisation among adults is far more conversational, like communication between intimate friends, where trust allows the unpredictable to happen. It is in that place where, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term “synergy,” the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I no longer really know the origin of my personal expression because it roots draw – at least in part – upon the collective. At the same time, I learn to assert my own voice in the thicket of others who are equally assertive and self-searching.

During both the solo improvisational sections of “Free Jazz” – and the massed individualized statements of Coleman’s composed phrases – we can view history coming full circle. “Heterophony” brings us back to the earliest recorded jazz of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Harden, and others, in which the individual and the collective were intertwined. Who exactly was playing the melody? Which version of the melody as it simultaneously unfolds –these are multiple – is the actual melody? There is no foreground vs. background as the development of jazz calls for in the following decades – solos and melodies accompanied by rhythm sections, each soloist taking her turn. Hints of the earlier freewheeling democratic spirit reassert itself periodically, most strongly during the late 1930s and early 1940s (“bebop,” even as the solo imagination increasingly takes flight), but most fully within the work of Ornette Coleman. Is Coleman a conservative or an “avant-gardist?” Well, the answer is yes to each.

There is surely a democratic element within all small group improvisatory jazz ensembles. But its fullest expression appears within the creative work of Ornette “and his children,” as I think of all who were influenced by Coleman (and I believe that to be a very expansive group of musicians; maybe everybody). Therein lies a civics lesson that this country sorely needs today. Our individual expressive voices deeply matter; we may even die to sustain them; yet they exist in dynamic tension with our civic engagement. During “Free Jazz,” members of the collective intersect with each soloist, alternating between actively contributing and desisting as they choose to play or not play. We are nothing without the collective, yet the collective is nothing without our distinct voices.

A thriving democracy depends upon the delicate balance between “us” and “me.” We give and we take. Our benefits are tied to our contributions. Our freedoms are connected to our obligations and responsibilities to one another. Truly this is a lesson for our time, as American democracy faces threats of xenophobia and the hegemony of the rich and powerful.

Fingers and arms as improvisational guides

•August 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

One of the most fascinating conversations had between improvising musicians is the balance act between one’s own “vocabulary” (one’s phrasing, sound, ways one develops motifs or other musical materials) and the musical ideas that we inherit (“traditions,” what one has learned from teachers, previous players, originators of a musical approach).

Less often discussed is another question of balance: between thought, and memory—during the present performance by oneself and by others, references to compositional elements, to history—and muscle memory.

We improvisers prefer to consider what we do as intentional translations of thoughts into sounds. And there is something to that. This year, for instance, I have been thinking more in terms of harmonic structures when I play at home, just for myself. And there are people who imagine, conceptually, what they will play, doing what some have called composing in real time. Previously in these blog postings, I’ve discussed the dynamic of active, close listening between improvising partners. The interplay between those dynamics and issues of the body, our muscles, is worthy of discussion. But its not today’s topic.

Honestly, I think that much of what we improvisers do is unconscious. Often, we play before we are even really cognizant of what we’ve played. Among the modes of improvisatory cognition is muscle memory. Some may define this as “habit,” and sometimes it is. But there’s an element to playing, at least for me, that is substantially physical. It arises in the ways we shape or move our fingers, our lips, mouths, feet, doing so in ways that our body knows are right. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as habit; it is simply another way of intuiting and knowing. I find that what I play is more often what my body wants to do than is usually acknowledged by musicians (including me).

Placing trust in my fingers and arms does not come easily since I was rigorously trained to trust only in sheet music. So much so, that it was hard for me to even trust my memorization of sheet music. Only in mid-adulthood did I rediscover my early childhood free abandon at the keyboard, before ever starting lessons.

One of the gifts I discover when trusting my body’s judgment is that I allow great latitude to making mistakes. By mistakes I mean places where my fingers or hands go when I had intended them to do something other than what they’ve chosen. This can be akin to jumping from rock to rock while walking in the woods, but missing and finding myself on a different rock than I had intended. The results requires me to change how I balance my body, to lean in a different direction, and sometimes, to tread a different path entirely. This is improvisation based upon a chance occurrence. Herbie Hancock often tells the story of how Miles Davis made something musically meaningful from a “wrong chord” that he (HH) played early in his time with the Quintet. The “error,” rather than leading to a disastrous mess, was allowed to lead the way and suggest new possibilities. Such is where my hands sometimes lead me and I am learning to treat these representatives of my body as a guide and teacher.

Where does muscle memory – as guide – diverge in a positive way, from muscle memory-as-habit? Habit can lead one to combining and recombining the same overly-tread motifs. There are musical traditions (for instance, with many rock guitarists) where improvisation is defined as recombining a favorite collection of motifs. I place this on one end of a spectrum, across town from constant invention and non-repetition. But everyone has their vocabulary, their favorite ways to shape lines, to build textures, to craft rhythmic constructions. This is true however freely we understand ourselves as playing. This realization leads me to better appreciate (on good days; feel compassion on bad days) recombination.

It is my body and its, sometimes, unknowable wisdom that leads me away from overly wearing my favorite habits. These are the instincts akin to editing a composition, where our favorite parts can be what most needs paring for the music to really “work.” Isn’t it ironic that the same body can enforce musical habits through muscle memory – that also generates mistakes, leading me to take notice and break those habits? I’ve built versions of software-based improvising partners that operate on various levels of chance. But none of them ever made quite such surprising mistakes as human beings can do, causing me to listen as deeply as my arms demand when they go their own way.

Again, these thoughts sidestep the multitude of fascinating questions about listening to fellow ensemble members. One of the joys of my life is having opportunities to play with terrific listeners. Imagine sitting in a room, playing with abandon while listening closely, realizing that each of the musicians is following their own bodies, leading them to musical gestures they never cognitively intended.

Conversing with Jerome Cooper (1946-2015)

•May 8, 2015 • 4 Comments

Jerome Cooper, wonderful drummer and a totally unique human being, passed away on Wednesday, May 6. The last surviving member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, and not quite 70 years old, Jerome died of cancer. I first saw him play in the early-70s when he was playing with the Revolutionary Ensemble and had the chance to meet him for the first time following a solo concert he gave in New York. Decades later, in late 2011-early 2012, I recorded a series of conversations we had in New York City. Here are some excerpts. Many more excerpts will appear in my forthcoming book “The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and other Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, to be published in late 2015 or early 2016). I hope you appreciate the transparency of the book title. Since these are excerpts, the conversation topics skip around a bit. Jerome was a total delight and will be sorely missed by many.

Jerome Cooper: In Chicago I was working my ass off. I was doing TV shows, I was working with Chad Mitchell at the Happy Medium [Theater], I was working with Oscar Brown Jr. at the Plugged Nickel. I worked all the time. And I just got tired of it, so I moved to Europe.

Bob Gluck: This is the late ’60s? When was this?

JC: I went to Europe in 1968. And I went to Copenhagen.

BG: To Copenhagen?

JC: I don’t know why! [Laughter] The only reason I can think of is, I used to read Downbeat Magazine and they would talk about all these jazz clubs in Copenhagen. You know, Montmartre, Jimmy Drew and Lester Gordon, and all these people.

BG: People were making a living there.

JC: Well what happened when I got there, I saw it was different, then I went up to a place called Aarhus, which is in northern Jutland (Peninsula, Denmark), and I started at the university there. I was just hanging out and luckily Roscoe Mitchell came to town, and he asked me to go to Finland with him, and I went to Finland and did a concert with him, and he said, “Why don’t you just tour with me?” and I did a tour with Roscoe and part of this tour we played Paris, and at that time everybody was in Paris. And so…

BG: Everybody from Chicago, especially, right?

JC: Everybody from Chicago, New York—everybody was there. It was really beautiful. Paris was really happening. And Roscoe said: “When you finish the tour, why don’t you come to Paris? I’ll find you an apartment,” and that’s what I did. I got to Paris, and I’m living with these French students, Maoists; in those days, they were having all these riots in Paris. Roscoe’s gig in Paris was with Clifford Jordan.

BG: So let me just go back to something: you describe yourself as a drummer, as opposed to a percussionist.

JC: That’s my own thing. The reason I say that is this: to me, a percussionist is kind of timid. I know theoretically, a percussionist is a musician who plays different instruments that you hit. But my experience with percussionists is that they were very timid in how they played their instruments. I’m not doubting that, I’m just saying that basically I’m a drummer and I like intensity.

BG: Is part of what you’re saying that a percussionist is somebody who plays certain instruments, and that a drummer is somebody who does something that’s not about playing a certain instrument but it’s about a whole tradition about communication and about things that are beyond…

JC: It’s more mystical. A drummer is more mystical…

BG: Anthony [Braxton] has really strong feelings about not wanting to be called a jazz musician. Obviously, you don’t share that—or do you? Or do you care? [Laughs]

JC: Well, I don’t care. Right now I call myself a multi-dimensional drummer. That’s how I deal. People hear me play they might hear a horn player, a piano player. You know, it’s multi-dimensional. Jazz—it’s all the same. I came up playing rhythm and blues. It was all the same. Music is music. One of the greatest blues musicians to me was Sergei Rachmaninoff. Because his music has so much feeling. And that’s what it’s about—the feeling, and getting the feeling across.

BG: Were there particular drummers who mattered to you when you were coming up?

JC: The only drummer who mattered to me was Art Blakey. That was my drummer. What I loved about Blakey was his spirit. That’s what I hear in drummers—I don’t hear to how fast they can do all this shit, or how loud. You know, really rudimentary stuff. I listen to their spirit, and I listen for the soul. And Blakey had that, and he was my main man. I got a chance to hang out with Art when I came to New York…

BG: So one of the things about Blakey that always struck me, ’cause I’m not a drummer, was that he was like the gasoline that gets the stove going. It seemed that a lot of his drumming was in service of making the band cook.

JC: And the band cooked. He knew what musicians to get. I mean the cat—you got your shit together with Blakey. I loved Blakey’s spirit; his spirit on the drums. I loved his spirit. That’s all I can say, man. I came up listening to Blakey and he was my favorite drummer, although I liked Tony Williams, I liked Max Roach, I liked Baby Dodds, a lot of drummers. Now the only people I play with is drummers.

[About Sam Rivers and Studio Rivbea]

JC: Sam’s house was total love. I used to go at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sam would always be up. I went back into their living area, saw where they lived. I really believed it was the love between him and Bea and their children. The children were really courteous and nice. That’s why the place was so hi

Learning more about music and communication from an unexpected source

•December 3, 2014 • 4 Comments


Two brief stories: what I have learned from our dog Max
(February 7, 1999-November 21, 2014)

One day, maybe three or four years ago, Max and I were walking on our block. I noticed quite how attuned he was to my stride, as dogs often are, but also how little interest he had in “heeling,” Although we attended his graduation, Max had not been a successful alumnus of dog training academy. His pace was essentially his own, filled with bursts of energy and enjoying to pull and tug. But the closer I paid attention on this particular day, the more I realized how cognizant Max was of the space around him, and of our respective walking paces. What I noticed was that while to me his patterns were seemingly random, they were in fact not that at all. Max closely perceived where I was, where he was, how fast we were each going, and taking all that into account, decided how he wished to proceed. This calculation was constantly changing. What struck me more than anything was that his use of space and time was substantially relational and all I needed to do to relate to him with mutuality was pay attention. From that point I began to listen to musical groups differently, becoming more conscious of how non-verbal and not even obviously musical features played a role in how the players perceived and responded to one another. I began to analyze and describe music in fundamentally relational terms. I noticed how people unconsciously perceive the movement of other people coming up behind them, even when their sounds cannot be heard. There was far more to perceive relationally than what we human beings think that we think about. But dogs know this well. Thanks to Max, that remains my project as a teacher and writer.

More than a decade ago, when Max was sprite and I was recovering from knee surgery, he and I drove to the Adirondacks and hiked Mt. Jo. This favorite spot of mine overlooks Heart Lake. Max walked and climbed by himself when the terrain allowed it, at times running way ahead on flatter spaces and rushing back to be by my side. When the rocks were too steep, he waited for me to lift and carry him up to the next level surface. We reached the top and came back down, returning to our car. I began to drive back towards the highway and suddenly forgetting that Max was a dog, turned towards him to ask how the hike was for him. He looked exhausted but he looked up at me, but of course not saying a word. But what I realized was that Max actually had the capacities to communicate in all the ways that he needed as a dog. He didn’t need anything more than that. Ok, this seems obvious. But what was not obvious was the idea that Max was quite fully communicating throughout the day in his own way, even as we departed from Heart Lake. The adjustment to be made was mine, not his, and I finally and rather fully understood that the line between human beings and other animals is far less distinct or significant than I have always insisted. Hiking with Max has been, over the years, a regular part of my family’s life, in various combinations of Max, Pamela, Allison, and I.

The Rite of Bitches Brew: Miles Davis’s BB in light of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I was introduced to Bitches Brew and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) around the same time, at the same place–at my rabbi’s house. People are surprised when they hear this, but Chaim Stern was one musically and culturally forward-thinking rabbi, and his older son, a guitarist/composer and I played together in a rock band. I sometimes find myself conflating these two musical works. This might have happened because of the juxtaposition in time and place, but the chance experience allowed me to hear some striking resonances.

First there’s the sound of the bass clarinet. Bennie Maupin’s evocative, serpentine lines on this low register instrument are part of what gives Pharaoh’s Dance its distinctive flavor. Often used in orchestral music for textural and sonic contrast and spice, Maupin heard Eric Dolphy playing it as a solo instrument in John Coltrane’s band when ‘Trane came to Detroit, Maupin’s hometown. Bennie Maupin began playing the instrument in 1965-1966 and “was working on it all the time.” Although he saw himself as a saxophonist, he was playing bass clarinet with McCoy Tyner at Slugs in New York’s East Village, when Miles Davis came in to listen to the band. Maupin recalls: “I never did play the saxophone with Miles, only bass clarinet. That was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened to me because what it did for me was set me apart from all the other saxophone players. A lot of people don’t even think of me as a saxophone player, they think about the bass clarinet.[1]

While it is the opening lyrical bassoon passage and the heavily—and asymmetrically–accented strings that Le Sacre calls to mind for most, for me the distinguishing feature was the bass clarinet. The bassoon is what we first hear, as the voice intoning the haunting, opening Armenian folk melody. Eventually a flute picks up the tune and the ensemble becomes multilayered. Melodic variants are tossed between instruments and send it back to the bassoon. The clarinet subtly plays a repeated note figure, and this becomes the grist for that sound – the gravel-like timbre of the bass clarinet, which borrows the clarinet’s stuttered notes, out of which sweep ornamental flourishes, up and down. The bass clarinet returns moments later, its line spiraling melodically downward to cut short a march-like four-note ostinato played by pizzicato strings, right before the first appearance of the heavily accented rhythmic, pulsing motif.

Before either of these musical events, another passage intervenes. Two different textures alternate, back and forth almost like a call and response pattern. One is thinner—fewer things happening at once (and the oboe is prominent)–and the other has a higher density of musical events. The more densely packed moments are where I noticed that Le Sacre, like Bitches Brew, had a “brew” of its own. By this I mean a passage where various instruments are layered, each playing its own line, interweaving or simply juxtaposed with the others. The texture is transparent, so that each individual instrument can be heard with clarity, yet what matters most is the overall sound of the ensemble. And isn’t this exactly a defining feature of Pharaoh’s Dance, most notably its multilayered electric pianos, but also the two basses, and multiple-percussion. All together, they create a distinct but ever-changing overall sound.[2]

The suggestion that Miles Davis or Teo Macero might have been influenced by Le Sacre isn’t all that wild. During his brief period of study at The Julliard School of Music, Davis became acquainted with the work of Stravinsky, Berg, and Prokofiev. In his autobiography he noted: “I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.”[3] Might he have explored this particular score? When in his Autobiography, Davis observes: “I had been experimenting with writing a few simple chord changes for three pianos. Simple shit, and it was funny because I used to think when I was doing them how Stravinsky went back to simple forms,” The reference “went back to simple forms” seems to refer to Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works. In works from the 1920s, Les Noces, L’histoire du Soldat, Duo Concertante, and others, Stravinsky treated short motifs as building blocks. However, Le Sacre also reflects a process of repeating and expanding small bits of melodic or rhythmic material.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre has certainly captivated other jazz musicians. Only two years after Bitches Brew was recorded, flutist Hubert Laws crafted his own nine-minute interpretation.[4] Others, most recently, The Bad Plus, conductor Butch Morris’s The Rites (with Burnt Sugar and Pete Cosey), and the Mobtown Modern Big Band,[5] have done so on a larger scale. Certainly, while Stravinsky himself showed an interest in jazz during the 1940s, as well as with, ragtime only five years after completing Le Sacre, the early date of the rhythmically driven Le Sacre could not have reflected a relationship with jazz.[6] Pianist Ethan Iverson has noted its “earthy groove.”[7] If Miles Davis might have found inspiration in Le Sacre while composing “Bitches Brew,” the connection would likely have been its textures and sonic palate, not its syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms.



[1] Butters, Rex. 2006. “Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond.” All About Jazz, September 12. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=22723. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[2] There is another “Brew” moment in Le Sacre, at the opening of Part Two, where a dense haze of interlocking phrases in the strings and high woodwinds emerges, out of which a melody flows. This melody will figure throughout the ensuing minutes. This second “Brew” differentiates itself because of the intended lack of clarity. It is an effect akin to looking at a flower garden through a strip of gauze.

[3] Davis, Miles with Troupe, Quincy. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, 61.

[4] Hubert Laws 1971.

[5] For a discussion by the arranger see Brenzel, Darryl. 2010. “More 2nd Clarinet, Please,” Stravinsky For Jazz Ensemble [Blog], Thursday, September 2. http://stravinskyforjazzensemble.blogspot.com. Accessed July 9, 2013; Bill T. Jones and theater director Ann Bogart utilize segments of this big band musical interpretation within their dance/theater work “A Rite.” See Macaulay, Alastair. 2013. “Bodies and Voices Riff on ‘Rite of Spring’: ‘A Rite’ Riffs on Stravinsky at Chapel Hill, N.C.,” January 27. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/arts/dance/a-rite-riffs-on-stravinsky-at-chapel-hill-nc.html?_r=0. Accessed July 9, 2013. Also see Iverson, Ethan 2011. “Mixed Meter Mysterium,” A Blog Supreme. March 21. http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/mixed-meter-mysterium.html. Accessed July 9, 2013. For a more general discussion, see Jarenwattananon, Patrick. 2013. “Why Jazz Musicians Love ‘The Rite Of Spring,’” National Public Radio blog, May 26. http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/05/26/186486269/why-jazz-musicians-love-the-rite-of-spring. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[6] While Stravinsky’s melodic and harmonic conceptions have been closely scrutinized in depth by Richard Taruskin and others, the same has not been done for his rhythmic ideas. Taruskin 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, Volume I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 881-966.

[7] ibid.



The Bad Plus. 2014. The Rite of Spring. Sony, audio compact disc.

Brenzel, Darryl. 2012. “The Re-(w)Rite of Spring,” performed by the Mobtown Modern Big Band. Innova Records, audio compact disc.

Davis, Miles. (1970) 2010. Bitches Brew. [Columbia Records] Sony Legacy, audio compact disc.

Laws, Hubert. (1971) 2009. The Rite of Spring, CTI, audio compact disc.

Stravinsky, Igor. 1995. Petrushka, Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps). Pierre Boulez (conductor), Cleveland Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. Sony, audio compact disc.


Reconsidering Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East (1970) in light of Miles at the Fillmore (2014)

•May 13, 2014 • 2 Comments

The release of unedited live recordings by Miles Davis’s 1960s Quintet and more recently, his first electric “Lost” Quintet has reopened the discussion about his landmark studio recording “Bitches Brew.” My upcoming book treats the evolving history of that latter ensemble and places the studio recording in that context (as opposed to treating the band in light of the studio recording). Sony’s release of the unedited recordings from the June 1970 Fillmore East shows (of what was by that point the MD Septet) is a treasure trove for people interested in the topic. It also sheds much light on Teo Macero’s methods in addressing the concert recording. What I hear in the new release, particularly in contrast with the original “live” recording confirms my thesis that much can be learned by placing the work of that band in the context of the highly exploratory musical world spawned in part by Ornette Coleman, which includes Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble.

In the 1970 release Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East Teo Macero sought to craft a four-sided double LP from four nights of sets. Within the available twenty- to twenty-five minutes per side, Macero offers a cross section of the compositions performed during the stand. “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles” begin with the usual set-openers, the rapid-paced “Directions,” the slower tempo, “The Mask,” and then “It’s About That Time,” which was a vehicle for freely combining vamp-based playing and open improvisation. Most of the sets conclude with “Bitches Brew” and “The Theme.” “Thursday Miles” includes just the first three tunes. “Friday Miles” and “Saturday Miles” focus on the second portion of the nightly sets, beginning with “It’s About That Time” the only constant across all four LP sides (“Bitches Brew” appears on three) and continuing with the ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary”, concluding on “Bitches Brew,” plus on “Saturday Miles,” “Willie Nelson.” The brief “The Theme” forms a coda to conclude every evening’s set, as was Miles Davis’s general practice.

With the March 2014 release of the complete unedited recordings of the four shows, Miles at the Fillmore, it is now possible to closely examine Macero’s choices and assess the nature of his enterprise as editor and producer. From this point, Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (1970) will be abbreviated LFE1970, and Miles at the Fillmore (2014) MF2014.

In assembling LFE1970, Macero placed at the center of each set an extensive, albeit shortened version of two tunes per evening, using short clips of the other tunes to offer contrast or provide segues between the lengthier segments. The only full tracks are “The Mask” on “Thursday Miles” and “Bitches Brew” and “Sanctuary” on “Friday Miles.” In contrast, “Directions” is shortened from its original ten-plus minutes to 2 ½ and 5 ½ minutes. Thursday night’s “Spanish Key,” unusual in its presence on the road and as a rare encore, doesn’t appear in Macero’s edited version. Miles used the brief ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary,” slightly compacted by Macero, as a change of pace between tunes that were improvisationally free-wheeling and often faster (with the exception of “The Mask” and when Miles slowed it down midstream, “Directions”). A recent addition to the set list, “Willie Nelson” closes out the unedited recording (plus “The Theme” forming a coda), with a shortened version ending “Saturday Miles.”

Steve Grossman’s saxophone solos are retained on “Directions,” “The Mask” and “It’s About That Time” (“Wednesday Miles” and “Friday Miles”), “The Mask” (“Friday Miles”), and “Willie Nelson (“Saturday Miles”), with just ten seconds of his solo retained in Thursday’s “Its About That Time.” Grossman’s saxophone solos are removed entirely from “Bitches Brew” on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and from “Directions” and “The Mask” on Thursday (with the slice trace noted remaining in “Its About That Time”). His most extensive presence is his solo on “The Mask” on Friday and “Willie Nelson” on Saturday, both of which are unedited. Grossman also appears on flute as part of a collective improvisation on “It’s About That Time” on “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

Macero’s focus is on beat-driven performances (although if this were his sole focal point, the inclusion of Friday’s “Directions” would have pushed the balance further in this direction; the same would be true of Saturday’s version, also not included, although the dual keyboard solos from 6:26-9:10 display parallel play as much as soloing within a strict meter). Miles Davis’s own solos, changes of pace between tunes, with some (but limited) allowance for the open improvisation that increasingly dominated the band’s appearances. These sonic excursions extended what had become a regular feature of the nightly Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette free-for-alls, now with the addition of Keith Jarrett on electronically processed electric organ. The improvisations often appeared in the midst of a tune, with Miles Davis off stage. They were generally highly textural, moving in and out of tempo and intonation, speeding up and slowing down in tempo, and featuring rapid-fire cascading runs and intricate interconnectivity between players. The extent of the band’s inclination towards open improvisation and changing tempos was more limited on Macero’s splicing block than in the actual live performances, generally retained but abridged in “It’s About That Time” and “Bitches Brew.” Had Macero decided to include “The Mask” (Friday, only on the unedited recordings) it would have provided additional support for the flexibility with which the band moves between open and more conventionally structured improvisation (the keyboard solos tend towards the former).

Macero’s approach to the band’s proclivity on stage to suddenly change tempo or to substantially depart from strict tempo is paradoxical. While he limits what he retains of these features from the unedited performances, he recreates semblances of them in his most heavily edited—or maybe one could say most compositionally-shaped—versions of the shows, “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

One of the biggest surprises, comparing Macero’s edits with the newly released full sets, is the similarities in approach between the studio version of “Bitches Brew” and its appearance closing out “Friday Miles.” In both cases, an opening section is constructed in post-production by repeating a small unit of material, deleting short segments of the performance, and then repeating the entire constructed section. The result is a whole with a more clearly discernable form yet one that no longer represents the ad hoc spontaneity of the band’s live performances. Listeners have long come to expect the use of post-production as a compositional device for studio recordings, yet there is much dissonance in the idea of its use in something labeled a live performance.

The single performance of the four nights that would best present Miles Davis as a beat-driven, funk-vamp focused, or maybe even jazz-rock pioneer, is “Spanish Key,” played as a Friday night encore. It is not included in LFE1970. It is a rocking, buoyant performance. If there was a single danceable work during these Fillmore East concerts this would have been it (despite the metric and tonal breakdown at the end of Grossman’s solo at 4:42 and continuing through the seven-minute mark with an even more abstract dual keyboard plus Moreira trio). The open improvisation is met with strong audience applause.

More details? I’m hoping to include comparative detailed descriptions of each track in the appendix to my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, anticipated 2015)