The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983

Mark Harvey
(Cultures of Soul; Boston; 2016)

Milford Graves: Pulseology

The Bellwethers

 

Cutting against the grain of this Boston to New York migration were two extremely talented musicians, pianist Lowell Davidson and string bassist John Voigt. Born and bred in Boston, they lived in the South End neighborhood of the city (as had McIntyre). Davidson and Voigt can arguably be credited with establishing the next phase of the avant-garde tradition in their hometown. Both were active from the 1960s forward and often played together and served as focal points for the creative improvisational scene in Boston.

 

Lowell Skinner Davidson (1941 – 1990), sometimes referred to by later commentators as LSD, was a unique character on many levels. Having graduated from the prestigious Boston Latin School, he was one of an early cadre of African Americans to attend Harvard University, where he studied biochemistry on a full scholarship. Davidson’s upbringing was strongly influenced by his family. Both parents were the ministers of the Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God in the South End. He served as organist for their church, where one of the choristers was a fledgling vocalist who would eventually earn worldwide acclaim under her stage name, Donna Summer.1

 

By the early 1960s, Davidson was playing with musicians in both Boston and New York. The most notable of these individuals was Ornette Coleman, who generally eschewed pianists in this period. It was Ornette who recommended Davidson to Bernard Stollman and his seminal ESP-Disk label. The 1965 recording Lowell Davidson Trio features Davidson accompanied by what Michael G. Nastos called “the stellar, and in this case sublime rhythm section of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Milford Graves.”2 Nastos went on to say that this was “a fascinating display of understated, purely improvised music that is eminently listenable, beautifully conceived, and flowing through past, present (circa 1965) and futureresources.”3 And the commentator, like many others, appropriately noted allusions to the pianistic approaches of Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, and Mal Waldron. However, Davidson’s style, a poetic distillation of much that was swirling around him yet presented in his own inimitable manner, was truly unique.

 

Raul D’Gama Rose gives a most insightful description of the music on the ESP recording in his review for AllAboutJazz.com: “Davidson’s songs are vocal necklaces comprising gorgeous gem-like beads of notes in elaborately decorative chains of provocative combinations. Strung together almost endlessly in hitherto unheard of designs, the music strikes the consciousness as the soft felt hammers of the piano are tapping in the nerves of the brain just as they do the myriad and perfectly tuned strings inside the body of the piano. Davidson can be elegant as on ‘L,’ elegant and majestic on ‘Stately 1,’ childlike and playful on ‘Dunce’ and ‘Ad Hoc’ and almost like a chorister on ‘Strong Tears.’” 4

 

And like many others, Rose noted that Davidson “played with such harmonic sophistication that he may be compared in this respect only to Thelonious Monk, HerbieNichols and Don Pullen.”5 Rose also commented on the intricate interplay among the trio members, which was sensitive to dynamics, tonal colors, and rhythmic textures. As someone who played with and heard Lowell Davidson over many years, I can attest to the fact that this uniquely rarified aesthetic only improved and evolved over time.

 

In the mid-to-late 1980s, Davidson created 82 Proportional Music Notation Scores, described by John Voigt as: “Strange 3 x 5 card jottings of crush staves and ambiguous notes, color smears and diseased body fluids [that] may seem to be more like visual art objects (which of course at one level they are). But they are firstly music manuscripts. As in standard musical notation there are notes – but here these notes may be tiny lines and dots, colored or gold aluminum blobs, pencil smears, even torn edges of the original paper. Musical clefts [sic] are approximated or totally deconstructed. Ledger lines veer all over the place, often collapsing and running off the page. Yet all offer hints on what pitches are required and how to play them. It is up to the performer to make music out of this seeming jumble. In Davidson’s words, ‘this music should reformulate the biochemistry of the brain for Evolution.’”6

 

The influence of Lowell Davidson on his contemporaries as well as later generations of Boston creative musicians had a profound and lasting resonance. In 2009, guitarist Joe Morris, bassist John Voigt, and trombonist Tom Plsek (all to be discussed below) performed and recorded music generated by ten of the Proportional Notation scores mentioned above. Titled MVP – LSD: The Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson (Riti CD), the music is a testament to the continuing legacy of this unique pianist/composer. As Morris says in the liner notes, the scoresoffer the player a specific guide toward randomness and imagination, a requirement that they be read as regular notation, but that the results find a balance between melodic line and pure sound.” He goes on to describe Davidson’s too-short life as “a psychedelic-like search, pondering light and darkness, the constructs of the Universe, and a way of expressing them with music.”7 Commenting on this recording, Rodger Coleman said, “With this CD, MVP has realized Davidson’s most profound, evolutionary ambitions.”8

 

One of Davidson’s key associates as a musical collaborator and friend was John Voigt, as noted above. But Voigt deserves special mention as the other major founding figure of the late 1960s/early 1970s phase of the Boston avant-garde scene, and well beyond, along with Lowell Davidson.

 

John Voigt has been called “an avatar of creative music in Boston since the late ‘50s, resolutely exploring music on the fringes,”9 and “a mainstay for the indigenous improvising community.”10 Another Bostonian through and through, his early musical experiences ranged from playing the trumpet to listening to Stan Kenton and Stan Getz on the radio. After a hitch in the Navy, he took his first gig as a bassist in the late 1950s in the backing band for the television show Captain Kangaroo, and as David Wildman wrote, this was “an omen of weird things to come.”11 Subsequent associations over the following decades would find John Voigt making music with an incredible array of creative musicians, including drummer Rashied Ali, violinist Billy Bang, bassist/multi-instrumentalist William Parker, trumpeters Roy Campbell and Bill Dixon, pianists Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Marilyn Crispell, guitarists Thurston Moore and Bern Nix, vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jeanne Lee, saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Jemeel Moondoc, and Gunter Hampel, and conductor Lawrence “Butch” Morris. Voigt also played in pit orchestras for musicals such as Hair, Hello Dolly, and My Fair Lady (with Rex Harrison), and collaborated with choreographer Bill T. Jones, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferburg, and storyteller Brother Blue.

 

The groundbreaking music of Ornette Coleman of the late 1950s/early 1960s was a major influence on Voigt’s own aesthetic, and early on he established connections with Lowell Davidson and drummer Bill Elgart, with whom he played in a trio format in 1962 at one of the Houses [living centers] at Harvard University. Elgart would become a founding member of Voigt’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s group Moonfood, which also included trumpeter Syd “Skip” Potter and vibist Ted Lagodmos. Bill Elgart was a most unusual drummer, as he was really a percussionist-poet who coaxed crystalline points-of-sonic light and timbral shadings from his drum kit, searching for just the right moment to connect with a particular part of a cymbal or drum head. Skip Potter and Ted Lagodmos could contribute similarly pointillistic-coloristic ideas or unleash cascades of bop-laden arabesques, all anchored by John Voigt’s broad-gauged approach to the string bass: walking here, darting there, pulling time and tonality into a black hole of elasticity, and then returning everyone to a moment of calm and repose.

 

A second edition of Moonfood featured John Damian on guitar and Nadyejada (Nadja) Graves on vibes. Voigt has described the music of these ensembles as a blend of Ornette Coleman’s approach with conceptual jazz, where the compositions were based on the ideas, the archetypal matrix behind the music, and often moved into dramatic scenarios.12 In fact, John Voigt may be credited as a founder of the conceptual music movement and a progenitor of what has now come to be called “meta-music.”13 As he has said, “I build cubistic scattered reference points. It’s allegorical on motivic fragments. The improvisation works on automatic reflective recalling of an emotion, or passion. Then using psychic energy with my bass I tell a story about it.”14 And as one reviewer put it, “In his hands the bass turns into a real talker, a mythical creature, a mouthpiece for thehistory of man. Voigt’s very personal musical metaphors should not be missed.”15

 

By the mid-1970s Voigt had assembled a new group, Music of the Spheres, which expanded to a large ensemble of fifteen or more players. The Moonfoodaesthetic continued, aided and abetted by further conceptual-dramatic evolution. They were occasionally joined by filmmaker/video artist Emil Tobenfeld for unique statements of multi-disciplinary artistic expression. Often playing with other ensembles as well as his own, John Voigt has held fast to principles of artistic integrity for many decades and remains dedicated to an ideal of “not labeling it, just playing it,” in the pursuit of finding the purest musical expression possible.16 In addition, he served as Librarian/Archivist at the Berklee College of Music for many decades, providing a resource for students and faculty who imagined music beyond the jazz mainstream.

 

The third Boston bellwether is Ran Blake. In 1965 Ran recorded his first solo album, Ran Blake Solo Piano. This was released the same year as Lowell Davidson’s first trio album and for the same label, ESP-Disk. In fact, both were among the first batch of releases by this small but significant recording company. As Bill Shoemaker opined, “At a time when being a jazz progressive meant spooling out expansive, explosive and ecstatic tomes, Blake achieved what was, for the times, a unique, if not contrarian introspection and intimacy.”17

 

Speaking of the same album, Steve Wilson wrote, “it’s clear that Ran Blake represented a new kind of pianism – equal parts impressionism (Satie, Debussy) Avant jazz (Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley) and (Thelonious) Monk-isms. Melodies appear as fragments more than themes, suggesting a kind of spontaneous composition ... Blake’s spontaneous shifts in feel, mood, tempi and volume are intuitive, pushing the boundaries of musicality at times. He plays as if the orthodox and stale were his first and greatest anathema.”18

 

Blake’s distinctive, idiosyncratic style garnered the attention of Gunther Schuller, who became hismost significant mentor and champion,” as Scott Menhinick observed. Schuller was appointed president of the New England Conservatory of Music in 1967, and the following year he recruited Blake to join the faculty. In 1973, Blake became the first Chair of the Third Stream Department (now called the Contemporary Improvisation Department) at NEC. Here, he could literally open the ears of several generations of students who would develop into some of our most imaginative musicians – clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron and pianists Matthew Shipp and John Medeski among them. Moreover, it was the perfect milieu from which he could expand his career “as an influential performer and wholly individual jazz artist.”19

 

Ran Blake has often performed and recorded as a solo artist or in small combinations with such luminaries as vocalist Jeanne Lee, saxophonists Anthony Braxton, Ricky Ford, Clifford Jordan, and Steve Lacy, fellow pianist and NEC faculty member Jaki Byard, and as a collaborative musical artist with many screenings of film noir classics. Through it all aural glimpses of Gospel, blues, the entire jazz tradition, and much of the modernist classical music sound and sensibility can be heard. And for decades, the entire community was treated to free, marathon-length Third Stream evenings at NEC’s Jordan Hall, programs that presented arguably the most eclectic and astonishing music heard in Boston in any given year. These performances were guided by Ran Blake, who saw these concerts as a communal expression of his far-reaching aesthetic vision.

 

The fourth Boston bellwether is The Fringe. This outstanding band was founded in 1973 by tenor and soprano saxophonist George Garzone, string bassist Richard Appleman, and drummer Bob Gullotti, as well as a trio of Berklee students who were drawn together by their fascination with the avant-garde. The group has remained together for more than four decades, playing regular Monday night sessions in a succession of area clubs – Michael’s in Boston, The Willow in Somerville, The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, and most recently, The Lily Pad, which is also in Cambridge.20 Remarkably, they have maintained a consistent personnel line-up over all that time, with the only change taking place when John Lockwood assumed the bass chair in 1985. 21 Following a post-Trane aesthetic, this band generates music that has quite literally defined “out” playing in Boston in the 1970s and beyond.

 

Ferocious and uncompromising, astonishing, and sometimes overwhelming in its explosive force, “The Fringe have always emphasized the elemental – primitive – forces that drive their music,” writes Jon Garelick. His description of their approach and appeal is exactly on point: “Despite the unparalleled mastery of their individual talents, despite the abstraction of the jazz they make – no ‘tunes,’ no funk grooves, a taste for tonal ambiguity and the obliteration of chord changes and fixed rhythms – they’re always after music that comes from the heart and the gut. Maybe that’s how they’ve managed to draw a new generation of listeners year after year to their regular Monday night sessions. Not just their students, but fellow musicians of equal mastery for whom the Fringe represent an ideal.”22Throughout the decades, some of these fellow musical masters have occasionally sat in with the trio–artists such as tenor saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi, Dave Liebman, and Joe Lovano, pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Scott Lee, and drummer Rakalam Bob Moses.

 

Claire Daly, a saxophonist, composer, and long-time Fringe enthusiast, writes apt thumbnail sketches of each of the virtuosic trio members: “Drummer Bob Gullotti lays down intricate webs of rhythmic foundation under the band in a demonstration of true effortless mastery. His steady thunder ... a driving force ... but [not] overbearing. Tenor saxophonist George Garzone ... has the most remarkable sense of melody you’ll ever hear in free jazz, coupled with a harmonic depth few have achieved. Bassist John Lockwood is at his best when his feet are to the fire and has toinvent a new path through the music.”23

 

But the single term that best describes The Fringe’s collective effort is chemistry. The interactive, intuitive sensibility that this group has evolved and refined over the years is every bit as sophisticated and awe-inspiring as that of legendary bands led by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Ultimately, it is this chemistry that has attracted audiences to Fringe performances to experience the raw power and inspired fire of their virtuosic, collective improvisational art.

 

Lowell Davidson, John Voigt, Ran Blake, and the members of The Fringe have been among the most important and influential musicians on the Boston scene. Without them, the Boston avant-garde scene would not have flowered in the ways that it has. With them, we have all been enriched, edified, and enlightened.

 


 

1. Much of this information is taken from the LSD Site curated by John Voigt. No longer operational, a printed page from the original site was provided to the author by the curator.

2. Michael G. Nastos, review of Lowell Davidson Trio, in www.allmusic.com.

3. Ibid.

4. Paul D’Gama Rose, review of Lowell Davidson Trio, http://www.allaboutjazz.com, September 12, 2008.

5. Ibid.

6. Voigt, LSD Site.

7. Liner Notes, MVP—LSD: the Graphic Scores of Lowell Skinner Davidson Riti CD 10) 2009.

8. Rodger Coleman, Joe Morris/Lowell Davidson, NuVoid Blogspot, 2009.

9. Michael Rosenstein, Review of Autumn Uprising, 1997 [a Boston avant-garde music festival], Cadence Magazine, December, 1997.

10. The Boston Phoenix, May 21, 1993.

11. David Wildman, “On the Rise: A Lifetime Spent Defying Convention,” City Weekly Section, The Boston Globe, September 19, 1999, 12.

12. Conversation with the author, August 11, 2014.

13. John Voigt, Conceptual Music, privately printed essay, n.d.

15. The Improviser, 1993.

16. Conversation, John Voigt with the author, August 11, 2014.

17. Ran Blake Solo Piano is has been reissued as a CD and in digital download format from ESP-Disk. See www.espdisk.com/official/catalog. A thumbnail sketch of Blake appears on the company website. The Shoemaker mention is from JazzTimes, quoted on the same website.

18. Steve Wilson, The Man with the Key(s): Ran Blake, Blurt Magazine, http://www.blurtonline.com/feature/man-keys-ran-blake

19. Scott Menhinick, http://ranblake.com/biography

20. It should be noted that “Boston” often means the Greater Boston area, as evinced by these three locations. Most of the artists mentioned in this essay found performance venues throughout Boston proper and its environs.

21. Founding bassist Appleman left the group as family and work responsibilities—chair of Berklee’s bass department—became more demanding.

Jon Garelick, “The Fringe at 40: Sophisticated Primitives,” The Boston Phoenix, May 15, 2012.

22. Garelick

23. Claire Daly, 40 Years of Mondays: One Saxophonist’s Addiction To The Fringe, http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2012/05/11/152521838/

Boston Creative Jazz Scene

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