What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Morgan Craft, a Tuscany-based guitarist. Craft has played with a wide spectrum of musicians, including experimental composers Butch Morris and Christian Marclay, guitarists Pete Cosey and Marc Ribot, and improvisers Daniel Carter and Ikue Mori. He founded Circle of Light Recordings in 2001, which just released his seventh solo album, Absence of Day and Night. For more information about Morgan Craft, visit: www.roughamericana.com.
Mark Lomax, a Columbus, Ohio-based drummer, composer, and bandleader. In addition to leading his Trio, Quintet and Afro-Chamber Ensemble, Lomax has worked with, among others, Marlon Jordan, Ellis Marsalis Quintet, and Azar Lawrence. Lomax has penned over 200 compositions for jazz, gospel, and classical ensembles. His arrangements of gospel songs have been played by the Nashville Symphony, the National Symphony, and the Akron Symphony. As an educator, Lomax has taught college preparatory theory classes in the Columbus Public School system, and developed general music and music history curricula for both the Martin Luther King Jr. Summer Camp program and the Directions for Youth and Families program that targets ‘at risk’ youth and teens. In addition to studies with Alvin Batiste, Lomax holds Bachelor and Masters Degrees in composition and is completing a Doctor of Music Arts degree at The Ohio State University. For additional information about Mark Lomax, consult: http://web.me.com/marklomaxii/Mark_Lomax_Official_Site/Home.html.
Matthew Shipp, a New York-based pianist, composer and bandleader. Shipp rose to prominence in the 1990s, playing with Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory and David S. Ware Quartet, as well as performing in duos with Rob Brown and William Parker. In the late ‘90s, Shipp led several influential dates for hatOLOGY that included contributions from Mat Maneri, Joe Morris and others. For the past decade, Shipp has curated the Blue Series for the Thirsty Ear label, renowned for recordings mixing jazz, electronica and hip hop. Not only has Shipp recorded various groups of his own for the label, but he has also collaborated with Antipop, El-P and Springheel Jack. His latest recording for the label is 4D, a solo piano album. More information about Matthew Shipp can be accessed through: www.matthewshipp.com.
Bill Shoemaker: Jazz is always on a cusp between generations, but the African-American avant-garde seems to be in an especially precarious position in this regard. There are an abundance of elders in their ‘70s and ‘80s, which is really inspiring. But there seems to be wanting numbers of musicians between 30 and 50 that appear really ready to be the type of leaders that, say, Muhal Richard Abrams and Horace Tapscott were in the ‘60s. Granted, those men were leaders of communities defined by locality – Chicago, LA. But, their organizational skills notwithstanding, they led primarily through their music, in which they drew clear lines of contrast and continuity between their music and that of their predecessors. This seems to be the project for each generation of the African-American avant-garde, and a prerequisite for its leaders. How do you approach it?
Matthew Shipp: By being yourself and following your muse – each of us is thrust into a unique situation where we have to deal with whatever the equation throws at us and create an adequate response to nature and that would be the music we do plus how we position ourselves in this mess. Take Sun Ra – a lot of analysis could go into all the choices he made, but he made them with a sense of humor and humanity. Make no mistake; he was telling a lot of people and institutions to go fuck themselves. He just did it in a way that we could all have fun. As far as drawing clear lines of contrast and continuity between your music and your predecessors, that is a product of the music – all the rhetoric in the world will not overcome a derivative music – and no one can create out of nothing, so continuity is guaranteed. You don’t need to shout about it with a bullhorn like the back to the tradition morons. Sun Ra, Abrams and Tapscott all come out of very unique circumstances which formed them into the leaders they where – so does William Parker, who has assumed an interesting role within his ambient. All one can do is to be themselves and to basically get up in the morning and do something and hope to inspire people.
Morgan Craft: This is the question that has lived at the center of my work for the past six years. Where is the new black American avant-garde? It's imperative that we specify an avant-garde, the advance group in a field whose works are unorthodox and experimental, and not call it jazz. I don't believe any music calling itself jazz can galvanize this generation. I don't mean to disrespect the foundation that form has laid down, but we've long since been in new terrain that will demand new approaches. To not take into consideration all of the social, technological and sonic evolutions of the last fifty years is to make a music that stands on one leg. It will not be able to withstand the gale forces blowing in. My generation has to use everything that has come before as fuel.
When I realized the extent of the problem it felt like standing over a chasm, I couldn't make out the bottom. Something happened that shifted the focus from innovation to veneration. So to paint in broad strokes for a moment I'd like to highlight two tendencies running in parallel. First, the musicians of my generation have been pampered. Our mostly middle class notions of struggle and sacrifice are tame and selfish. Those of us growing up in the post-Civil Rights era could take for granted ideas that the previous generation wouldn't even utter. We were really the first wave that could attend whatever institute of higher learning we wanted, and in fact, were encouraged to do so. But with regards to music making, I'm not convinced innovation can be allowed to flourish within walls. And what exactly is the role of the institute? Are they there to encourage the breaking of boundaries or are they entrusted with keeping the machine running smoothly, pumping out stylized technicians capable of playing anything from the past but dissuaded from pursuing a more radical, fresh approach?
But where else could we go to get the proper information and training? This brings up the second tendency. A large portion of the elders /masters with the baton to pass were no longer to be found in the usual places. The masters became professors and shifted their attention from informal, elite instruction to anyone who could afford the tuition. Traditions and the syllabus became the new watchwords of the coming era. The bandstand and jam sessions disappeared. These were the old classrooms and you had to earn the right, by getting up and proving you were worthy, to inherit the responsibility of leadership.
Of course talk and opinions are cheap; we'd do better by actually listening to the current generation's music. But keep in mind these names when doing so: Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Tony Williams, Roscoe Mitchell, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Lester Bowie, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, just to name a few. That's where the bar is set. If my generation is not confident enough and committed to standing on their shoulders and adding a rung to the ladder then I suggest they find something else to do.
It is absolutely essential for the new musicians to have the strength of character to venture into the unknown, to risk the ledge and come back with new blueprints. These new musicians must be willing to forgo the instant gratification of playing within an established style. Originality with respect to one's history must be rigorously sought out. We must be willing to step away from peer pressure and careerism. This is not an easy decision, nor is it comfortable, but very few necessary things are.
Mark Lomax: First, I think that the question is interesting in that it is posed to three musicians whom I believe to be in the vanguard of their respective musical spheres and happen to fall into the 30-50 demographic. My personal approach comes from being taught by my musical mentors and family that before anything else one must always be true to the Blues, to the great tradition of Black/African music that has come before, from the pursuit of self knowledge, and from being in tune with what’s going on in the world in order to use the power of music to affect change. The Blues is the glue that creates the bond between the musician and the listener. It allows the musicians to effectively communicate something that affects the listener in life changing ways. Go and listen to Ra, Tapscott, Abrams, Mingus, Ellington, Ayler, Cecil Taylor and the rest, and you will never be at a loss for the Blues! This is something that the music has gotten away from given that many of us in Generation X can now boast of musical degrees from this college or that university. What most fail to understand is that when you codify something that is created from a distinctly African/African American aesthetic to teach from a decidedly Eurocentric aesthetic (as is the pedagogical approach of most American colleges and universities) then the essence of that thing is always lost. Black music cannot exist without the teleological aspect of the Blues because the music has always functioned as a means of communicating something. From the talking drums of West Africa to Max Roach’s ‘We Insist: Freedom Now Suite’ and beyond, Black music speaks! That is why we can still listen to Coltrane or Booker Little and it sounds fresh today. Their music spoke from that place inside the human spirit that we all share and they shared their unique perspectives on the universe from that timeless place. You can’t learn that in some institution void of interaction with real people who know the language that you speak. I always say that cats who come outta school with degrees in jazz often know every word in the dictionary but can’t construct one sentence so every solo just sounds like the recitation of a lot of words with no content, or as James Brown would say, their “Talkin’ loud, [but] ain’t sayin’ nothin’!” Where there is no Blues, there is no communication. If you know the Blues then not only do you know what you wanna say, you know how to say it.
I believe that being truly avant-garde means to be individualized in ones expression. Thus an avant-garde ensemble is a group of individuals who have come together to form a unique collective expression. The individual sound of Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones merged to form the collective known as the ‘classic quartet’ and created a powerful expression. The same is true with the quartet Monk led with Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlap, or Rashid Ali’s quartet with Carlos Ward, Fred Simmons and Stafford James, and a host of other groups and soloists who have found themselves, and in turn, have touched us with their music. Unfortunately, we live in an age where society wants you to know, and be in touch with everything but ones self, but without this knowledge, I do not believe that one can purposely, and effectively communicate at a level significant enough to create an affect in the listener.
Lastly, I believe that it was Max Roach who once said that ‘the jazz musician is a chronicler of his times.” You have to be in tune with what’s going on in the world in order to affect change. Many who most would consider to be avant-gardist, especially from the fire music period, used their music to counteract the war and hatred that seems ever present on this planet. They knew and understood the universal power of this music to heal and to bring about change. Ancient civilizations knew this too. There is documentation that music or frequencies were used in Kemet (ancient Egypt) to change the state of physical matter. Ancient Asian cultures tuned their instruments and played at certain times of the day, and certain tunings at appropriate times of the year in order to maintain balance with the cosmos. Technology, the commoditization of art, and the lack of an understanding of the role, function, and power of music has led to a break down in its ability to affect change. Knowing what the needs are of those who might listen and being able to effectively communicate, through music, something that is uplifting and encouraging, or that critiques and admonishes when appropriate, I think is very important to draw the clear lines of contrast and continuity between our music and that of our predecessors.
Shoemaker: Jazz avant-gardes don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a larger community of artists with compatible aesthetics. When you look at The New Thing, for example, you have painters like Bob Thompson and writers like Amiri Baraka in the thick of things. What colleagues working in other mediums would you point to as having a similar relationship to you, and how does their work relate to yours?
Shipp: That is a very interesting question because I have actually worked in a void – my piano playing is a result of my own imagination and the fact that I have a brain that processes info in a certain way and I happen to have unbelievable belief in my originality – I believe I was born to articulate a particular original language on my instrument – and any peers I have who deal in similar ideas do so because certain things are in the air and we picked up on them at the same time.
Craft: Obviously roundtables like this, where the participants are separated by time, distance and the e-mail format can easily fall into squabbles and nitpicking. Before I get into the second topic that Bill put forward I would like to note that the original question got lost in the shuffle. I believe the crux of the matter pertains to the lack of a black American avant-garde under the age of fifty. From the outset I said I would be painting in broad strokes, meaning there will be generalizations, rather than analyze every single important musician's personal history. With that in mind I will say again that the present status of the black American avant-garde seems almost non-existent. This worries me.
The future doesn't just happen; it is activated by individuals concerned with the progression of their medium and the welfare of this planet. Music doesn't simply move on its own. There is still (I hope) a thinking, feeling individual behind the organization of sound. And this individual has the choice of either searching for something new, original, and unique that might assist another in growing toward their higher potential, or not. Every musician knows that this a process of study, passion, contemplation, diligence, patience, discipline and hard work. This is the responsibility all of the masters demonstrated. This is the dedication I see missing from my generation. I am absolutely willing to step out and say that we have to go further, risk more, be more truthful. There is new ground to break. I mean, look around: Are you satisfied with what you see/hear? Are you content with the state of the world? If you are, then we're coming at this from opposite directions. I'm asking my generation to get in the ring, share information without pettiness and greed, put the work on the table and feel confident enough to withstand real criticism.
To get back to the next question, I try to stay open to all the mediums of expression. I respect Suzan Lori-Parks in drama, visual artists like Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu. One person who I think stands out with respect to music literature is Kodwo Eshun. I've definitely been influenced by his writings about creative black music/sonic fiction. He seems to be one of the only writers illustrating the lineage and relationships between styles or genres and also concerned with a futurism. He shows that things will evolve sonically but the impulse or spiritual tendency remains constant. Jeff Mills is connected to Robert Johnson is connected to John Coltrane is connected to what is coming next. I just wish he would slip away from academia and write another book. We need him on the front lines.
Lomax: While I agree with Morgan that round tables in formats such as this can get bogged down, I do think it is important for us to be crystal clear in expressing ourselves. As such, let me briefly explicate the ideal that the Blues represents in my work and in my musical worldview. In full disclosure, I grew up around the Lincoln Center cats but never really fit in. This used to bother me but I had to realize that in my quest to know and understand what I can about music of the African Diaspora, I have come to see the Blues as that thing which informs or undergirds all of it not just a form or technique that could be used to “pass” for Black. I came to see it as life and life giving, as the soul/spirit of the music, the essence of expression, and the place from which that expression or that story flows. Being “true to the Blues” as an ideal then means to be connected with that which binds us to that which is, and encompasses all. I hear that in Matt’s playing, and while I’m not that familiar with Morgan’s work, I sense that I’d find it there too from what he’s talking about.
With regards to the question at hand, I, like Matt, also feel as though I have worked in a void in some respects. Acknowledging that all of my experiences inform my expression, I cannot point to any particular contemporary artists in other mediums that have inspired me but being true to my Blues is enough to push ones expression into the realm of the avant-garde! I am uniquely drawn to the work of poets and artists from the times in American history where African American artistic expression was united as much as it was individual. For instance, the expression that came out of the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts movement. Looking back to move forward is where I am right now.
Shoemaker: Accessing Africa has been a particularly vibrant thread in the African-American avant-garde for generations. Musicians who are approaching 90 like Yusef Lateef and Randy Weston have delved into not just African music but African culture since the ‘50s; throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Afrocentricity was a guiding principle for many avant-gardists; yet, now it seems that Africa is less of a touchstone for African-American avant-gardists. If this is the case, is it because Africa is so obviously embedded in the African-American avant-garde aesthetic that it needs no further mention, or is it a case of been there, done that?
Shipp: Before I answer this question just a couple things.
Lomax: Given my upbringing, my father being pastor of First Afrikan Presbyterian Church and both parents having traveled to Africa and brought back not only their experiences, but the music and the culture, add to that the fact that I am a drummer and I'd say that Africa has had a major impact on my output. I think that the absence of Afrocentricity in the music now reflects what I feel are some very negative trends in the music right now and the music is reflecting the current sentiment, generally speaking, of Black America at large. I was not born in Africa, but I feel that the pretense under which I find myself in America give those of African descent the unique position of being privy to both the African and European traditions. That said, I think that Blacks in America are inundated with Western European culture and this leaves a void in the development of a whole person. The way I handle this is to keep what I need from both and allow that to simmer and form something that reflects who I am. Sometimes it has a distinctly "African" flavor, sometimes not, but it is always Black, and by that I mean a reflection of my experience as an African American male. I can't say been there done that only because I feel that the connection to Africa is very important for African Americans, and will always remain an inexhaustible source for creativity, but I don't know that the level of consciousness is what it needs to be in a time when I think many "jazz" musicians of my generation seem to be more concerned with making money and looking hip, regardless of their stylistic preferences.
Craft: The whole cultural climate is so completely different now. The struggle for civil rights in America during those years (‘50s-‘70s) created a new thrust that saw black American progressives looking to Africa for ancient sources of inspiration, new powers, and cultural roots. At the very same time Africa was looking toward black American avant-garde forms like soul, R&B, and jazz for their own use. Pan-Africanism was in the air and cross cultural cooperation was seen as a necessary tool in order to achieve the unifying goal of liberation. Somewhere in the middle then, the commonalities between Africa and the Diaspora became much more apparent. There was, always has been, always will be, a communication between the body (Africa) and its parts.
What we’re seeing now is the result of a collapse in values. It’s the ‘me’ generation. Black Power has disappeared. Africa doesn’t offer the accolades, glory and status currently in fashion. Instead of a new structure with new motives coming out of the civil rights achievements we stepped right into the framework that for centuries has thrived on greed, destruction and persecution. We’re in the midst of a whole new challenge; one that will require each of us to reach down and uncover new and untapped possibilities.
As an artist, I made it a point to travel to Africa by myself in order to reconnect with and absorb the intangible forces at work there. Not on some grant or festival, just $5,000, cash, in my shoe, and an intuition that this was something I had to do as part of my training. But it isn’t my home. I have to be confident enough in my identity as an American to not get unbalanced when learning from other cultures. That being said, I want to see information going back and forth, across borders, extending and expanding older concepts so they might assist in the present struggle. Africa is the past / present / future.
Shipp: Well, I really like what Mark said: ''Keep what I need from both and allow that to simmer and form something that reflects who I am.'' That is the crux of the whole thing. I have studied at some point in my life everything put in front of me as far as musical language goes – Indian classical musical, West African drumming, Bach fugues – and try to learn from everything, but always with the intent of putting it through my system and it coming out as me.
Craft: I admit that when discussing the music of today it’s easy for me to swing a bit far into the negative. It’s much simpler to theorize, criticize and point fingers than offer possibilities and solutions. I think it’s time we take on the latter. We’re at the end of a particular cycle and the beginning of something unknown. I believe that a new type of musician is needed; one who will play a primary role in the shift toward a realignment of priorities. No genre, category, or name currently exists for said musician. For myself, I simply call it the “new black American avant-garde.” What will it take to bring this musician into existence?
I’ve spent the last six years almost totally isolated on a mountain in Tuscany. There is a reason for this. I felt I had to go deeper. The music in my heart demanded that I go deeper. I spent a decade in NY doing the do, but I’m not interested in that type of hustle. I think for an artist, having new experiences expands your work, and living within nature is the original well of inspiration. But that kind of decision comes with its difficulties. You find out things about yourself. Are you playing music to have friends and be fashionable or do you have a mission? Without peer support or industry acknowledgement will you continue to push forward?
I’ve said that I’m concerned for my generation, but I’m not pessimistic. I think it is possible to show another way forward. One that is spiritual, intellectual, emotional, expansive, inclusive, evolving; but completely absent from any syllabus currently being used. The clues are all around us even as certain forces labor to keep them concealed. Turn over new rocks, show another what you’ve found, risk looking foolish, don’t believe the hype, be relentless, listen to everything, be critical, continually compare yourself with the greatest, study the masters in your own way, absorb the present moment, go big. I think that when the dust finally settles there will be a new positivity and excitement, and I’m looking forward to it.
Lomax: I think it was Max Roach who said that the jazz musician is a chronicler of his times. I believe that if your expression speaks to that which is now in a substantive way then you are in the vanguard. The reasons why we do not see an influx of African American jazz musicians in the vanguard of the art form are way too numerous to speak of here but that list includes the “me-ness” that is pervasive in our society, it includes an insufficient knowledge of the vernacular tradition (the Blues/Spirituals etc…), most importantly for this conversation is what I see as the disconnect between the music and people… even between the music and musician. This music we call jazz was created out of the experience of Blacks in America. It was passed down through the oral tradition in the same way that music was passed on in Africa. I cannot site one generation that hadn’t learned this music in the social context for which it was created (i.e. clubs) until this recent phenomenon where the clubs and other venues that used to support the music are closing and young musicians are turning to university jazz programs only to learn a sterile codification of what is a living, breathing entity.
I agree with Shipp that music is this universal essence that one can consciously tap into upon the unconscious discovery of the intuitive connection between music and musician. Unfortunately, students learning in American colleges and university are taught away from this intuitive sensibility in favor of something that can be taught and measured empirically with respect to progress. How can one NOT think that he or she is a creative member of society when all the requisite criteria have been met and the degree of music conferred upon him or her? This miss-education is completely isolating good musicians from the universal source of creation. I think that is one of the more important issues confronting the lack of African American avant-gardists. I am not against education, I am against miss-education and I think that this miss-education will continue to proliferate until a more Afrocentric pedagogy is adapted to teach a music that was created from a Black cultural, spiritual, and performance aesthetic.
Morgan said, “We’re at the end of a particular cycle and the beginning of something unknown. I believe that a new type of musician is needed; one who will play a primary role in the shift toward a realignment of priorities.” I agree that we are entering a new age, but I do not think that a new type of musician is needed because I believe that musicians have been playing important roles to align social, cultural, and spiritual priorities since the time before time! If one subscribes to the notion that the essence of life is energy and that energy operates at differing frequencies, then music has always had an affect on life and the way the universe is structured. I think that we need to continue to do our part, leading by example with respect to our creative output and participating in forums such as this, to put the truth in perspective and combat the miseducation that is suffocating the creative spirit of this music. That is avant-garde!