Starting in the late 1950s, British photographer Val Vilmer became a vital part of the Jazz scene in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, capturing on film what could be called the face of Jazz. Along the way she photographed just about everyone who was important in improvised and other forms of Black Music, ranging from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Joe Harriott and Sun Ra and on to Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. This two-hour talk/interview, recorded at London's Cage Oto, guided by The Wire’s Tony Herrington, encompasses her experiences taking photographs in the Jazz community; her stories about the musicians with whom she interacted and became friendly; the mechanics of photography; and as an ardent feminist, the challenges facing women in the male-dominated worlds of photography and music.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
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That’s the situation which the Baltimore Sun’s Mary Carole McCauley investigates, following the recent acrimonious resignation of the school’s founding chairman, saxophonist Gary Thomas. Thomas, a native Baltimorean, who previously played with his own groups, the likes of trumpeter Miles Davis and many other bands, has claimed that resources for the Jazz program were consistently underfunded, and that scholarships for deserving students were less than those in the so-called Classical program. One of the three instructors who have left Peabody in the past 18 months, the saxophonist was also the first African-American department chairman in the conservatory’s history. Some students say Thomas’ on-the-job experience was the only reason they attended the school, while trumpeter Dave Ballou, who teaches at Towson University, maintains that in general there is often subtle disdain for Jazz players in many post-secondary music school environments.
Jazz history includes some players whose faith induced them to stints as Muslim or Christian clergy, but saxophonist Greg Wall is one of the few improvisers who is also a rabbi. This article by Westport News’ Justin Papp describes Wall’s present-day routine, which blends his rabbinical duties at a local synagogue with weekly Jazz gigs. Known for his co-leadership of the Hasidic New Wave band with trumpeter Frank London, and affiliation with saxophonist John Zorn’s projects, Wall, who originally studied with drummer Max Roach and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, says that it was his admiration for tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and the latter’s seminal A Love Supreme LP that a couple of decades ago re-awakened his Jewish sensibility. Soon he was mixing traditional Jewish melodies with other influences into his music, made a decision to stop gigging on the Sabbath, and eventually to begin studying for the rabbinate.
Ostensibly an interview about Bay area bassist Lisa Mezzacappa’s recent large-scale multi-media project Glorious Ravage, Point of Departure’s Troy Collins manages to range far afield in the discussion. Highlighted are the apprenticeship and acceptance of women instrumentalists in Jazz; the lifespan and particular parameters of Mezzacappa’s various projects; and the differences between live and recorded contexts for the composer/bassist. Interestingly enough, Mezzacappa who is from the eastern US finds that many of her closest collaborators – with the exception of Californian Michael Dessen – are transplants such as bassist Mark Dresser, flutist Nicole Mitchell and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, all of whom spend much time elsewhere. However Mezzacappa despairs about the immient death of physical product. “It’s not enough to have my work only live online,” she states. “I don’t like that it has to be mediated by a corporate entity and … I don’t like that people end up listening to the music in a distracted or lo-fi state.”
British bass saxophonist Tony Bevan worked steadily with American Free Jazz drummer Sunny Murray (1938-2017) in the twilight of the latter’s career, from 2002 to 2017. In this piece in The Wire he remembers the drummer as a consummate musician and improviser. Even though it had been many years since Murray made him reputation in the then-revolutionary groups of pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Albert Ayler in the 1960s, Bevan recalls that the drummer was always able to enthrall the audience at any venue in which they played – even if it was anything but a so-called Jazz crowd. With Murray connecting one-on-one, sometimes verbally, with every audience member, all Bevan, and the other musicians involved, usually bassist John Edwards, had to do, was just follow along.
Reflecting on the then-recent death of pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum tells the New Yorker’s august readership about the contributions of Abrams, acknowledged as the guiding force behind Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) from 1965 on. Besides expressing an admiration for Abrams’ seminal orchestral recordings from the 1980s and 1990s and acknowledging his “spiky yet subtle touch” on piano, Bynum commends Abrams as a community and consensus builder. The trumpeter’s experience attending an AACM concert where Abrams was selling tickets at the door, can be related to the pianist's willingness to take on even mundane tasks to strengthen the AACM, plus his skill in organizing and keeping together an association whose members, including Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, had widely different ideas on how improvised music could be interpreted.
Honesty, generosity and being in the moment are attributes of creating a successful improvisation opines Bay area bassist/composer Lisa Mezzacappa in this cerebral exchange with Köln-based tubaist Carl Ludwug Hübsch. Part of Hübsch’s ongoing series of musician-to-musician discussions about creativity, Mezzacappa also notes that while there is a “heightened sense of removing yourself as an improviser”, another important construct is connecting with other performers and the audience “and whether it sounds different in Berlin or in Berkeley”. Honesty about what is one’s life’s work is also necessary says the bassist who has played with many Free Music practitioners and composed thematic projects as well. “As improvisers there’s… the memory of everything you’ve done… heard done .. (and) seem done.” Additionally, while she insists there are “fantastic recordings of improvised music … the recorded experience really doesn’t come close for me in most instances, because of missing that being there in the moment as it’s created.”
Subsequent years have revealed shortcomings, but as Red Bull Music Academy’s Britt Robson points out, at least 12 classic Free Jazz LPs were recorded for one label in Paris between August 11 and 17 1969. Organized by the fledging BYG record cpmpany, numerous American avant-gardists then domiciled in Paris, were given free hands – and a bit of money – to plan and record their own dates, with many musicians playing on each other’s sessions. Robson runs down some of the ground-breaking records, including three headed by tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, plus important statements by, among others, pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Alan Silva, drummer Sunny Murray and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, featuring saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and trumpeter Lester Bowie. BYG however over-reached and definitely overspent itself, so that the label went bankrupt a couple of years afterwards. While a legacy of exceptional recordings remains, so do tales of unpaid royalties, unauthorized reissues and embittered musicians, especially Murray.
Composer/bandleader Sun Ra may have been on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, yet the magazine’s Brad Farberman now chronicles his legacy and the Arkestra’s continued existence because of all the pop stars who claim his influence today. Name-checking a collection of arena-fillers ranging from Solange and Lady Gaga to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Phish's Trey Anastasio, Farberman rounds up enough quotes to explain how Ra’s music continues to influence others. At least he also manages to tell part of Ra’s saga and that of the Arkestra, which continues to tour with 93-year-old alto saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm and featuring members like saxophonist Danny Ray Thompson, who joined the band in 1967. Additionally, saxophonist Scott Robinson’s Heliosonic Tone-tette CD, which salutes Ra’s Free Jazz period, is mentioned as a jazzer's response to Ra's music. Still, Allen himself appears less than impressed by the sudden Ra fascination. “When you're a little bit ahead of your time,” he notes. “those people got to take a minute to get around to understanding where you’re at.”
An appreciation as much as an obituary, London-based saxophonist Seymour Wright writes in The Wire about the recent death of exploratory tenor saxophonist Lou Gare (1939-2017), who was less acknowledged than his fellow members of the pioneering British Free Music group AMM. Perhaps it was because as a saxophonist with a Jazz background, Gare played the instrument associated with that music, from which other early AMM members – drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe, and pianist/cellist Cornelius Cardew – were trying to distance themselves. But Wright also insists that Gare's multi-layered sound and organic style of playing was as much a part of the AMM sound as the others’ contributions. Gare left the band in the late 1970s, after spending half a decade in a duo with Prévost. Additionally Wright notes he personally has spent many years since he first saw Gare play – on a rare reunion gig with the AMM drummer and guitarist in 1989 – trying to figure out the contours of Gare’s playing and how he could adapt to it.
Although Chicago-based bass clarinetist Jason Stein, 40, received media attention last year because his Locksmith Isidore trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride was actually playing Jazz as opening act for comedian Amy Schumer, he tells The Chicago Reader’s Peter Margasak he has no interest in moving into big-time show business. Schumer, who is Stein’s half sister, had been urging him to work with her for years. When he finally agreed, her shows were taking place in large arenas. Still, Stein played music no different than he would in a typical set in small clubs. Someone who only started playing the bass clarinet at 22, Stein’s proficiency soon had him gigging with multi-reedist Ken Vandermark in a band with drummer Tim Daisy, and bassist Nate McBride. Since then, with no doubling on any other reed, he’s managed to work regularly with locals such as saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bassist Joshua Abrams, pianist Paul Giallorenzo and drummers Mike Reed, adding to his income by giving private music lessons. Although the Schumer gigs allowed him to give up teaching, now that they've come to an end, he has no regret returning to club work, playing uncompromising Jazz with new and older associates.
Acquainting the readers of The New York Times magazine with any improvised music group, especially one as accomplished as the Australian trio The Necks, is something to be noted and praised. But one wishes that Geoff Dyer, described as the author of many books, would have spent more time speaking to The Necks individual band members –pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton – about their view(s) of the music and less about his own feelings and experiences. As it is, besides cursory glimpses into the group’s 30-year history, first as an Aussie unit and then getting world-wide gigs, Dyer appears more obsessed with recording the many times he saw the band and heard its CDs and how he felt each time about the music. Considering he compares the trio’s work to variously the Krautrock of Neu, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way's electric period, and asserts that he now looks as forward to each new CD from the Necks. (as) “ I felt waiting to hear London Calling by the Clash, Slow Train Coming by Bob Dylan, or, going even further back, Electric Warrior by T. Rex", perhaps someone with more knowledge of improvised music would have provided more insight into the group's appeal for the Times’ audience .
Away from his Chicago home base, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis is prodded by Lexington Kentucky’s Herald-Leader journalist Walter Tunis to define the differences between his Ballister trio and the other nine-odd groups with which the saxophonist is involved. Rempis, whose other bands include aggregations featuring drummers Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly among many others, says Ballister, featuring fellow Chicagoan, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is a free energy band that aims for mutual expression rather than just being three separate people involved in on-stage improvisations. As someone who plays about 300 concerts annually, Rempis also says this trio, like his other groups, is based on the interaction of specific personalities.
That might seem like a bland statement in 2017, especially for long-time followers of improvised music. But The Village Voice’s Michael J, Agovino appears awe-struck by the concept. Luckily he traveled to Zürich to interview Irène Schweizer on her home turf. The 76-year-old pianist, he finds out has been part of the European Free Jazz scene for more than 50 years, playing and recording with everyone from drummer Günter Sommer to bassist Joëlle Léandre. Agovino touches on her versatility and some of the problems she has faced being a woman in the macho Jazz world, but he’s most impressed that she’s actually recorded a new duet session with an American – New York drummer Joey Baron. Considering that she has for years recorded many similar CDs with percussionists like Sommer, Pierre Favre, Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille and Louis Moholo-Moholo, maybe the piece may prod more Americans to investigate her other work.
Although reporter Lauren Halligan of the (Troy, N.Y.) Beacon appears more interested in bassist Michael Bisio’s connection to his home town when previewing a recent concert there with his accordion-based quartet the Accortet, she does briefly outline his career. It’s also pretty obvious that the writer and publication would prefer to recount details about how many local relatives and friends of Bisio will be at the concert, plus his earliest musical experiences in the city’s school system where he discovered the acoustic bass, than discuss the music itself. However, Halligan mentions in passing Bisio’s close association with the likes of saxophonists Joe McPhee, Ivo Perelman and pianist Matthew Shipp, and there’s even a link provided to Bisio’s own website.
On the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, of which he has always been a member, and the release of his new small group CD, the New York Times’ Seth Colter Walls tries to position multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell as a composer in the western tradition. While Mitchell, who also teaches at Oakland Calif’s Mills College, discusses his compositions for large and small, contemporary and so-called classical music ensembles in North America and Europe, he says he actually sees this work as an extension of the sounds he’s been creating in a Jazz context for many years. Citing how associates such as his students and players experienced in both improved and notated works like percussionist William Winant and James Fei on electronics help transcribe and convert major improvisational pieces so they can be interpreted by more formal groups, he also relates his concepts back to the work of venerable Jazz masters such as saxophonist Benny Carter.
New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s may have been gritty and down at its heels, but it was involved with a lot more than the sex trade on The Deuce. University of Pittsburgh ethnomusicologist/historian Michael C. Heller tells Perfect Sound Forever’s Daniel Barbiero how at that point a variety of factors led to the growth of Jazz’s so-called Loft Movement. Heller’s book, Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s, presents a comprehensive history of the period, which has subsequently been eclipsed by the celebration New York’s more fashionable Downtown music scene. However many venues that flourished during that period – now all unfortunately defunct – run by such figures as saxophonist Sam Rivers and drummer Rashied Ali, used the ideas of community outreach and Black self-help to create a non-commercial space for experimental musicians to work. This pioneering concept allowed these players to move on to better-paying gigs and more exposure in higher-end clubs and European festivals. The lofts helped maintain the careers of veterans such as saxophonists Sonny Simmons and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and provided regular work for then-younger plays like bassist William Parker, saxophonist Arthur Blythe and violinist Billy Bang.
Although he’s managed to stay clear of Jazz’s Neo-Conservatives' mania for slavishly recreating the tunes of the music’s major figures, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, usually in the company of pianist Jesse Stacken or saxophonist Josh Stinson, has still managed to record music by many more exploratory older musicians. But as The Village Voice’s Francis Davis points out here, earlier efforts by the thirtyish, Colorado-born brass player, which dealt with the music of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler, Steve Lacy and even Misha Mengelberg, were only a prelude up to his trio’s recent recorded salute to pocket trumpeter Don Cherry. Mostly know as the Sancho Panza to alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Don Quixote, Cherry not only played with other major American Jazzers after leaving Coleman’s band, but was often overseas, helping to create a fusion with other musics and Jazz. Plus he was one of the first Yanks to regularly work with foreign musicians of the caliber of Argentinean tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri and German pianist/vibraharpist Karl Berger.
A retrospective interview with Red Bull Music Academy Daily’s Hank Steamer that took place just after percussion master Milford Graves had recorded with electric bassist Bill Laswell, the Q+A ranges over a wide variety of topics. In a career that began with an apprenticeship as an Afro-Cuban hand-drummer, continued through stints with major Jazz players as well as 30 years teaching at Bennington College, Graves, who also practices the healing arts, has always been grounded with his home base in Queens and concerned with providing for his four children. Saying that musicians must have the training of an athlete, the research skills of a scientist and be involved with spiritual meditation, Graves has never compromised his art. Veteran of one-off gigs with the likes of pianist Cecil Taylor and composer Sun Ra, among many others, as well as a career-defining stint with tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler's group, he reveals that he turned down offers from trumpeter Miles Davis to join the latter’s band because he felt his own duo with pianist Don Pullen allowed him to better express his thinking about musical culture. Graves is no super musician though. When he works with electric guitarists he asks them to turn down their amps, and reveals that the gig with Ayler was so intense that he often had to rest between sets. (Note: Page takes some seconds to load)
Although pianist Jutta Hipp was first welcomed when she arrived in the United States in the mid-1950s and soon was playing prestigious clubs and recording for Blue Note, by 1960 she had quit the scene and spent the rest of her life working in a Queens garment factory. Aaron Gilbreath in Longreads tells her story from the perspective of the Blue Note general manager, who met the then 76-year-old Hipp in 2001 to give her a cheque for $35,000 in unpaid royalties. The reticent pianist didn’t say much about quitting Jazz except that she thought she wasn’t very good. Despite some didactic detours into more general musings on racism and sexism, Gilbreath comes up with a different interpretation of her career. An East German refugee who was celebrated in post-war West Germany, Hipp’s U.S. sojourn was facilitated by a critic who was alleged to have romantic as well as well as monetary interest in her. While accepted by players such as saxophonist Zoot Sims and bassist Charles Mingus, she was resented by xenophobes for her European background and by some musicians for her race and gender. A change in her playing style once she was established in New York, plus self-admitted stage fright and lack of confidence eventually caused her to distance herself so far from the music that her 2001 visitor noted that she didn’t even own a piano. She died two years later.