Saturday, July 4, 2009

Free Jazz and the Motherland.

(Dr. Nketia)

As much of the nation prepares for its annual festival of Exceptionalism with pyrotechnic ejacula across summer night skyscapes, I've been poring over statistics and chart porn and boy did I find some beauties.

I like to test assumptions with a bit of research and have been visited with some honest concern over whether all this effort to describe and summarize various inflictions on the idiom is just contributing to the perpetuation of malaise and an unproductive mythos of the artist constituents as perpetual victims.

I'm more optimistic than that and reflective as well so I just finished a search pattern, 'Avante Garde Jazz Problems'. It was surprisingly useful for a number of reasons and I gathered a fat pile of bookmarks to be used at some future time. But I didn't find much of a literature of malaise nor did I find much of any analysis that describes the collision dynamic of Boomer culture and Free Jazz. Maybe I can refine the searching patterns somehow.

The core conflation argument that did garner a number of papers and articles turns on whether it is an angry leftist political expression and I would side with those who would say no with a few qualifications.

The converging array of innovators from many corners of the nation were hardly monolithic and were of many minds but there is a general movement away from the structure stranglehold of interpreted versions of the Great American Song Book.

This was a major nuisance because ASCAP would demand royalties for anything remotely attributable to a standard. Moreover the energy given to mastery of the euro elements of music structure was not necessarily doing wonders for broader cultural acceptance.

And with the arrival of collaborators from other corners of the African Diaspora and the motherland following the creation of the UN and its location in New York, there was greater exposure to new areas for invention potential. It really began with Chano Pozo and Dizzy. The USIS State Department Jazz tours also seeded understanding and interest in the African side of African America.

There were a number of visits to Africa by these Jazz Ambassadors and the outcome led to collaborations in both directions. Art Blakey made a few recordings for Blue Note
that prefigured M'Boom after visits on his own dime in the late 1940s . The Dizzy connection is particularly significant because of his relationship to the Philadelphia community.

I first learned about all of this in U Mass classes with Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. Archie is from Philadelphia and he was brought to U Mass through the auspices of Bill Cosby, also Philadelphian, with help from Fred Tillis and Max Roach.

By the time I ended up floundering around there Profs Shepp and Brown had already prepared a fairly interesting and useful musicology that had the work of Ghanaian Kwabena Nketia as a centerpiece along with readings from social anthropologists such as Melville Herskovits and Social Historians such as Harold Cruse.

"Muntu" by the German scholar Janheinz Jahn was also an important text as was the work of John Storm Roberts.
Lee Morgan's 'Nommo' and Jemeel Moondoc's Ensemble Muntu are both acknowledgments of the value of Jahn's work.

Archie also recorded with Moroccans around the same time they came to the attention of Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones and Randy Weston had a school in Morocco.

The big picture element of African America and its music was provided by Eileen Southern.

The Nonesuch Explorer series launched in 1966 by Teresa Sterne also contributed significantly to creation of a diaspora musicology. The Lyrichord Label was another valuable source of homeland recordings. The ocarina-ish sound that is a feature of the Herbie Hancock hit "Headhunters" is derived from sounds on a Colin Turnbull recording of 'Rain Forest Pygmies'. And then there was an extensive catalog of field recordings from former jazz producer Moses Asch and his Folkways monument.

All the elements for a reconnection of diverse corners of the African Diaspora were thus readily at hand and a subject of keen interest among artists from every region of the US. This was never a secret and was hidden in plain sight from the glib corporate shill posse ever eager to market the whole thing as if it were Marshmallow fluff.

Thus a political element could best be described as an indirect outcome of renewed interest in the homelands and increasing proliferation of access and information between worlds.

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