Northern Sun/Southern Moon
Europe's Reinvention of Jazz

by
Mike Heffley
(Yale University Press; New Haven and London)
continued

Primal American Voices

Namtchylak bears a striking resemblance to my daughter's Native American (Nez Perce) mother's side of her family. The film Genghis Blues is a fascinating account of San Francisco Creole blues musician Paul Pena's love affair with Tuvan music, and visit to its Central Asian homeland. That unlikely odyssey recalls another film, Black Indians, about the relatively undocumented but widespread history of intermarriages between African and Native Americans.(4) All three (deeply personal) factoids lead me to a quick but provocative point about three pillars of American music whom I know best, all most sympathetically, one intimately.

I have been kicking around the core issue of musical time and meter throughout this study, teasing out a view of the famously elusive "swing" in jazz as something derivative of the Western down beat, as much as the juicy heart's blood that brought definition to its bloodless shell. This position made sense as a way to get to European jazz's problems with swing, and its relatively unswinging versions of free jazz. But it also rings true with the general reception and self-presentations of these three American "jazz" pillars--Charlie Parker, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton--when they first threw their hats into the ring.

Charlie Parker and his bop revolution were not hailed as the swingin'-est, most "naturally rhythmic" Negro music of their New York moment; both were rather put down by musicians and press alike as cold, academic, unemotional, and unswingingly, cerebrally weird. Parker's heritage had as much Choctaw as African in its mix, and--as I said about the music of Cecil Taylor, who also claims his Native American roots with pride--Native American music doesn't swing, it has its own damn down beat. Parker's music was so "birdlike" precisely because it flew away from and above the beat, turned it around, displaced it, shifted its phases and periodicities in a never-ending dance around its cracking bull whip.

Wolpert’s articles include two historical reprints in English. One is called "The Chili Parlor Interview," Michael Levin's and John S. Wilson's interview with Parker for Down Beat's September 9, 1949 issue. Consider from the following citations why this interview would be of such interest to a German-language retrospective of jazz history:

"Bop is no love child of jazz," says Charlie Parker..."is something entirely separate and apart...The beat in a bop band...has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. Jazz has, and that's why bop is more flexible..." He admits the music eventually may be atonal. Parker himself is a devout admirer of Paul Hindemith, the German neo-classicist, and raves about his Kammermusik and Sonata for Viola and Cello...he would like to emulate the precise, complex harmonic structures of Hindemith, but with an emotional coloring and dynamic shading that he feels modern classical lacks...Charlie himself has stayed away from a big band because the proper place for bop, he feels, is a small group. Big bands tend to get overscored, he says, and bop goes out the window...The only possibility for a big band, he feels, is to get really big, practically on a symphonic scale with loads of strings..."This has more chance than the standard jazz instrumentation," he says. "You can pull away some of the harshness with the strings and get a variety of coloration." (187-88)(5)

Are you listening, Mr. Hanslick? [See Heffley’s Chapter One to make sense of this.]

Elsewhere in the interview, Parker dismisses bop's commercial success as part of that "jazz" world that disdained him, and that he disdained:

"Some guys said, 'Here's bop,'" he explains. "Wham! They said, 'Here's something we can make money on.' Wham! 'Here's a comedian.' Wham! 'Here's a guy who talks funny talk.'" Charlie shakes his head sadly. (188)

Finally, one more of these passages ties back in with the idea of a primal-musical Urgrund shared by bop and that shamanistic culture spanning Mongolia and the Americas via the Bering Strait. Remember Chapter One's look at Curt Sachs's link between Charlie Parker and Inuit culture? I wrote, "In surveying the examples of tertial patterns in melodic construction, Sachs writes of the relatively rare pattern of quadruple thirds, 'requiring the wider range of a ninth.'" Sachs wrote:

In the two basic forms, C E G B D and D F A C E, they are conspicuously absent from the Pacific; they do not touch Asia save in Turkey [linguistic and ethnic kin to Tuva--M.H.], and reach only a few North American tribes, including the Copper Eskimo, and also American jazz. [Also interesting here: it was the Inuit people who had the most contact with the early Norse explorers and settlers of Greenland and points westward.--M.H.]

And I wrote, "In fact, it was Charlie Parker who expanded the harmonic palette into bop precisely by stacking ninths and higher thirds onto the already tertial chords used in the swing era." And, as Levin and Wilson recounted in 1949, that expansion took place on a tune called, as it happened, "Cherokee."

As for Braxton, the charges against him for not swinging, not being black enough, being too open to Europe, are a well-documented part of his career. His most recent compositions, the Ghost Trance series, stem from his fascination with Native American culture and history, and are built around the kind of variously accented quarter-note rhythm drummed under Native American chant and dance. The Native Americans were overrun and contained by Europe, but never made to "swing" their song in a strange land, as Africans were.

Back to Namtchylak. Her importance here has several reasons. Most immediately, she carries the thread of the shift toward the voice as instrument in this music--again, one pioneered mostly by women--and toward speech-and-voice-like music on the other instruments. Her particular voice is one that was, along with its throat singing and other techniques indigenous to Tuva, formally trained in the bel canto style in Moscow, and was also informed by the all-pervasive American jazz. As an improviser, she is important for voicing her part on the Eurasian musical continuum we are beginning to see connect with post-Emanzipation music in Europe, and with its American counterpart (in Butch Morris and others). Specifically, her Mongolian shamanistic roots link her to Korean and northern Japanese musicians, both groups represented in similar collaborations with European improvisers.

Speaking about her own music, Namtchylak wrote (in German, for Kowald [Heffley’s translation]):

When I learned the shamanistic and all the various singing techniques of the Siberian minority group, I noticed above all that the shamanistic rituals recorded by the early ethnological expeditions, this ancient art, that it is not simply music mixed with text and so on, but that it is more: a freedom from within. Therefore it was easy for me to be a bridge between what is called traditional music and the new improvised music, which already had the same openness. Our traditional music is not of a fixed form that one must adhere to without changing. I also discussed this in Tuva with the traditional overtone singers and singers of our other music, who convinced me that this music is not a dead or museum-bound art form that living people must not disturb. It is living, it lives with and in us, and it requires all from us to determine how we can apply it to the situations of our present. When I hear classical music, it often strikes me as missing something, because it's so fixed and rigid, and it is hard to find a freedom in it when everything is notated.

The shamanistic culture has this art of being in the here and now. My dream is that people will not come up to me after a concert and tell me what a superb singer they think I am, but rather that they found some important meaning in the music. Because I strive on the stage to get so swallowed up by the music that I no longer exist. No "I," but something that is no longer discernible from the "I" of the total ensemble. I've lived in the West for four years, and I recall how fresh and enthusiastic I was at first, and how comparatively empty I feel now. I've given my all to this Western world, and feel I have yet to get a response back from it.(6)

Peter Kowald: Strings, Woods, Women

Kowald, like Don Cherry, built much of his post-1960s career around multicultural collaborations. The complexity of being German--which is really, these days, a microcosm of the larger complexity of being a Westerner--was a prime motive behind that outreach.

"Sainkho said to me 'yes, everything is difficult now in my country, but my traditions are great.' I can say that everything is relatively wealthy in my country, but my tradition is not okay. I ask myself, and others have asked me, why I am interested in the global village idea. When I play with all these people, like the traditional Japanese shakuhachi player, I don't know if I am bringing a tradition with me in the way he is. I don't play like Bach, I don't play--well," he reverses himself, "I can show you a review by a guy of a solo bass concert I did a few years ago at this FMP festival in Chicago. I played a long solo, I think fifty-five minutes, and the guy just compared it with a long Bach piece, for the first time for me, in terms of structure. I like it myself a lot, the way he interpreted it. So maybe let's say the formal consciousness does have European roots."(7)

Kowald's "think-local-act-global" cosmopolitanism began with his youthful passion for things Greek, awakened by both positive and negative aspects of coming up German. The positive: his education at Wuppertal's "classical" high school, where he took nine years of Latin and six years of ancient Greek languages, through literature. The school had an exchange program with a sister school in Athens, and Kowald's family hosted a Greek student, whose family hosted him in turn.

"Spiros came, he's a little older than me," he recalls. "Then when I was sixteen, he invited me to his family and I fell in love with his sister. I learned Greek very quickly," he laughs, "so when I was seventeen I could speak relatively fluent modern Greek, and then I studied it after I finished high school. Then I translated rebetiko songs into German, and a lot of poetry.

Besides this amazing genre that has been called "Greek blues,"(8) the sheerly instrumental music of the improvising rural clarinetists caught the young musician's ear; he "would bring a record here and there for Peter [Brötzmann], because he liked them too, these clarinet players with the kind of low, Johnny Dodds sound." These musical affinities have led over time to an involvement with Greek musicians with whom, along with Günter Sommer, Kowald has virtually generated an improvised music scene in Greece.

Pyrichia is Kowald's collaboration with Greek traditional musicians Ilias Papadopoulos playing the lyre, with a bow, and clarinetist and flutist Floros Floridis. The sounds of this recording evoke the primal ancient base of the Dionysian aulos and the Apollonian lyre at the root of Western music history. It suggests a Greek affinity with the intensity of sound of the German free jazz, as well as with the broader spectrum of Eurasian folk and ceremonial musics.

Kowald studied Greek philology at the university in Bonn, and has translated the work of modern Greek poets for German readers, including Nobel prizewinner Odysseus Elytis and Lenin prizewinner Yannis Ritsos, both also personal friends.(9)

"What's interesting to me about this," I tell him, "is first there's the history of the European free-jazz statement, getting America out of the way, all German, all European; but then it goes on to make these connections with Africa and Japan and Greece and Siberia and so on. So what's emerging is a real concrete picture of how the global village works and how the local situation works with it; you've explained that very well.

"But... "--probing--"it seems to me that the more I look into people trying to make something that is new to them, it takes them back into the depths of time, to the old, in their own sphere. What interests me with you is your relationship with Greek culture, simply because, in a way, Greece is the source of Western culture."

"Greece is the bridge," he says. "I remember learning in school that it started in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then it went to Greece, and then it spread out to what we call Western civilization. But since the Ottoman Empire, Greece is the bridge between Europe and the Far East. Greece is from this side the bridge, and that's what I'm interested in, because it has a lot of Eastern qualities, that extend to Japan. The whole East starts in Greece, through Turkey, Persia, India, and then it goes to China and Japan--or it doesn't go to, it came from there, but from this point the East starts in Greece."

"The whole idea of a thing just standing there in the world being itself, like the music, without being manipulated or mediated so much, is still strong when you read ancient Greek philosophers," I say.(10) "Before the West started, you get this sense of that. That's what I see happening in the music a lot, here from Europe and also black American music and thinking and so on, there's this big concern with where all this came from, and what we should get back to somehow."

"I've always liked Socrates more than Plato," Kowald adds, "and I've always liked the fragments of the pre-Socratic writers I've read, like Heraclitus. So even in the ancient writers you have that dichotomy between the more Eastern and the more analytical thinkers.

"I always remembered John Cage saying that he wasn't too interested in music as a conversation. I always try to keep that in mind--but still, the way our music is... there is a lot of storytelling in it. Even so much as being a method of performance. All these questions are not conclusively answered, I think. We see that other cultures, when they talk about important questions of wisdom, a lot of them do it through telling a story. Europe, or, let's say, Western civilization, has developed this analytical mind where you don't necessarily have to tell a story in order to talk about something."(11)

Duos Europa, Duos USA, and Duos Japan came out in 1989 on one CD, originally conceived as a 3-LP set. Kowald did short duos with a wide variety of improvisers from jazz and other traditions throughout the world, all recorded between 1984-89. The array very much has the feel of a geocultural terrain being mapped out (much as his friend Günter Sommer did in his solo music, as we will shortly see), a discovery of common ground through the back door of improvisation, as it were. It also has the feel of a studio project, not least because the pieces are so short, and follow each other well within the CD's concept, which, generally, would not happen that way live. These duos are Kowald's examples, like Fuchs's work and Sommer's miniatures, of many such short statements that came out of European improvisers who had found their free voices in the open-ended, long catharses of the first hours.

Seizan Matsuda's traditional shakuhachi with Kowald's bass is probably my favorite mix in terms of sound and expressiveness. Their timbres are equally primal, wood and wind and strings in their most natural elements together. Following it, Evan Parker turns in his usual on-top-of-it performance, in the rhythm of fingers dancing out repeated phrases in a varying rhythmic flow, and breath teasing out harmonics in similar rhythms. The spontaneous stops and starts this duo executed suggest a Webern piece, or a Japanese haiku.

The duo with Greek singer Diamanda Galas is probably my next favorite, again because of the rough, dirty timbre and energy both soundings draw out of each other. This woman evokes for me and many the old stories about the ancient Greek Furies of the Dionysian cult, the raging, uncivilized side of women, which played a large part in the Orphic myths about the music inherited, along with the Apollonian side, by the West from Greece.

The German-Japanese axis is once again struck up on the common postwar ground of the American jazz vocabulary, in the duo with alto saxophonist Akira Sakata. The free-jazz frenzy follows that traditional balladry. The axis continues, with Japanese trombonist Masahiko Kono. The glissando potential and the similar range of the two instruments are exploited in this duo. The chemistry of Japanese cellist Keki Midorikawa revels in the speech-like glissando and attacks of the two sibling instruments, bowed in the finest Asian style of Zen-like moment and European technique.

Back to Japan's own tradition we then go, with koto player Tadao Sawai. The interest here is obviously in the two plucked and glissando sounds, along with the meeting of the two iconic soundings of East and West in the improvisers' immediate rapport. Japan is evoked more distinctly, as also American jazz by the pizzicato bass, in the duo with traditional biwa player Junko Handa in the next duo. Kowald evokes the latter's indigenous vocal expressions with his own Mongolian-inspired drone playing and singing, moving from that initial West-East polarized duo, to more common Eurasian ground. The polarization is reclaimed for the drama of contrast, in the end.

Putting Derek Bailey after this duo was a savvy choice, juxtaposing this English guitarist's famously pointillistic Western avant-garde sound world with the traditional one of Japan.

The next duo must have had a double charge for Kowald. Greek clarinetist Floros Floridis plays one of the instruments of Kowald's first big formative influence Peter Brötzmann, and does so out of the musical tradition of the culture that won his heart and mind from the same early age. The blues spirit and poetry of African-American vocalist Jeanne Lee, Gunter Hampel's wife, bring Kowald to the American "father" he had to "kill" before resurrecting him, along with himself, in the mainstream jazz discourse from America. (Notice the millennial content of the lyric--"In these last days...where every day is a struggle...there is great joy and unassailable strength in being on the way"--brought down from black gospel, to the Eurasian Emanzipation.)

Footnotes

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