Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Roswell Rudd, Louis Moholo, Finn von Eyben, John Tchicai, 1965                                           Teit Jørgensen

Roswell Rudd doesn’t recall the name of the place where he first heard John Tchicai in late 1963 on the recommendation of Don Cherry, Tchicai’s cohort in the New York Contemporary Five. The trombonist remembers the place was in mid-town Manhattan, an unusual locale for the budding New Thing, and had none of the artsy and bohemian trappings of the downtown lofts, bars and coffee shops where the music was incubating. Tchicai was then working as a cook at the Copenhagen Restaurant near Carnegie Hall; his boss referred him to a nearby restaurant where the alto saxophonist could play, but the venue and the music were not suited for each other, and the arrangement only lasted one night. While even the names of Tchicai’s bandmates now elude both men – Tchicai has a vague recollection that LeRoi Jones showed up – Rudd clearly remembers being knocked out by Tchicai’s sound, and knowing they could play together.

Rudd and Tchicai soon became the front line of New York Art Quartet, an ensemble treated somewhat parenthetically in narratives of the New Thing because of its brief, fragmented history and a slim output of recordings. Some would argue that, despite the presence of Milford Graves, cited by some as the most innovative drummer of the past half-century, Rudd and Tchicai were the core of the group. This view is reinforced by the appearance of Old Stuff (Cuneiform), a collection of Danish radio broadcasts from late 1965 that find Rudd and Tchicai playing with drummer Louis Moholo and bassist Finn von Eyben. Featuring distinctive, even catchy heads and improvisations with clear thematic linkage, the album also vouches for the rapport between Rudd and Tchicai.   

Rudd credits his close rapport with Tchicai to an initial period of improvising as a duo. “We had a good telepathy from the beginning, which was good because I was preoccupied with making a living and only had so much time to pursue music,” Rudd, who will celebrate his diamond jubilee later this year, explained recently in a telephone conversation. “We improvised for several months on an informal basis whenever we could before we got our repertoire together for New York Art Quartet, which we developed by playing free. We developed a sound that way, and then the compositions began to come. I think the reason the music was organic in the way it moved from the written material to the improvisations was because John and I had developed a type of polyphony that was our own. I was familiar with this approach from playing Dixieland, and I had developed something along these lines with Steve Lacy. But, it was different with John, because of his sound, what he emphasized, and how that inspired my playing.”

Concurring by email, Tchicai suggested that Rudd’s familiarity with ethnic music, gained through his work with folklorist Alan Lomax, was equally important to the development of their rapport and to NYAQ’s sound, generally. “He had access to lots of music that used polytonality and polyphony,” Tchicai elaborated. “My Congolese music roots have the same types of techniques interwoven, which I intuitively felt in me and my interest in modern composers that used the same techniques, people like Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Tristano, George Russell and Monk. With Milford Graves, already very advanced in playing polyrhythms, and Lewis Worrell and Reggie Workman (two very African Americans), the music could not help but become polyrhythmic. It was easier to improvise in that polyrhythmic/polyphonic style than it was to compose that kind of music on paper. But what Rudd and I composed on paper was at least geared in that direction. I will never forget the long wonderful improvisations we did at rehearsals without any written material in front of us. At concerts we did the same but perhaps with a 50/50 balance of written and improvised outpourings.”   

Once they felt ready, Rudd and Tchicai brought in Graves and eventually Worell, who was also among the bassists then playing Monk tunes with Rudd and Lacy. Tchicai took the lead in advocating the development of a repertoire; compositions like Rudd’s “Rosmosis” became staples of both the New York and European incarnations of NYAQ. Tchicai also came up with the collective moniker, Rudd recalled. Initially, Rudd wasn’t enamored with the name; in 1998, he wrote that he thought the name was “too uppity, not funky enough for a jazz band” (Rudd’s quotation marks). But, the name stuck. NYAQ had a few gigs under their belts when they took part in the October Revolution in Jazz, the 1964 Bill Dixon-produced series at the Cellar Café on the upper west side, one of the more consequential weekends in jazz history, as it resulted in the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild.

NYAQ became thoroughly enmeshed with the JCG, with arguably mixed results for NYAQ. Both Tchicai and Rudd, who was recruited by Cecil Taylor, were committed to the goals enumerated in the Guild’s statement of purpose:

  1. establish the music to its rightful place in the society,

  2. awaken the musical conscience of the masses of people to that music which is essential to their lives;

  3. protect the musicians and composers  from the existing forces of exploitation and commerciality;

  4. provide an opportunity for the audience to hear the music;

  5. provide facilities for the proper, creation, rehearsal and performance of the music.

Some early JCG meetings were held at Tchicai’s apartment, where a well-circulated photo of most of the Guild’s more prominent members was taken. Rudd is in the center of the front row; Tchicai is to his left; two artists seizing the day. Rudd took an active role in producing and promoting concerts – particularly during the four months in early ’65 that the Guild presented nightly concerts at choreographer Edith Stephens’ Contemporary Center (a distinctly triangular space two floor above the Village Vanguard). He also recognized the potential for grant support through emergent Great Society programs. It was Tchicai’s contact with Philips that eventually resulted in its Fontana label documenting in a wide swath of JCG member, creating almost instantly a catalog of historic recordings that has been largely unavailable for the past 45 years.

However, there was a split within the JCG from its inception over key issues like recording and performance venues. This was exacerbated by the Guild’s controls over how and where a member worked, using such criteria as whether the member was a leader or a side-person on the gig under review, and whether it was in town or out. The flash point was Archie Shepp’s contract with Impulse, an event that is now perceived as a measure of John Coltrane’s clout with the label, but was then trumped in the thinking of some in the Guild by the label’s corporate link to United Artists. The rub was that Shepp recorded Four For Trane with a sextet including both Rudd and Tchicaithe previous August; by mid-January, Jones had referred to its release in Down Beat.

Rudd and Tchicai found themselves in a delicate position, having recorded NYAQ’s eponymous debut barely 50 days after the October Revolution. It was released in early ’65 on ESP-Disk after the purist position had lost sway. By then, NYAQ had become somewhat better known through JCG-produced events like Four Days in December, presented at Judson Hall (they shared the billing for the series-closing New Year’s Eve concert with Le Sun-Ra Arkestra). The album did not excite the media like Albert Ayler’s ESPs (Rudd and Tchicai had recorded the soundtrack for Michael Snow’s New York Eye and Ear Control with Ayler in June ’64, which was released later in ‘65). Not only was NYAQ’s music outside the mainstream, but its compositional foundation and the inclusion of Jones reading “Black Dada Nihilismus” – a poem that’s lost none of its shock value – located the music within the realms of art and politics, instead of the spiritualism evoked by Ayler and Coltrane.  

As the JCG began to unravel in ’65, so too did NYAQ. When they weren’t ignored by the press, they were victimized by it. “The Village Voice was across the street (from the Contemporary Center),” Rudd recounted. “They were supposed to be the edgiest paper in town, but they didn’t review one concert we presented there in four months. But, that’s New York.”  NYAQ had the great misfortune of having a potential break-through July concert at the Museum of Modern Art – a double bill with the Jazz Composers Orchestra – reviewed in Down Beat by Ralph Berton. It is not Berton’s admission that he hissed and booed, or that he never identifies which ensemble was responsible for the evening’s rant-inducing “incoherent noises,” that makes the review so reprehensible; rather, it is his drooling over Carla Bley and his equally unctuous reportage of the after-party at Tchicai’s home that puts the piece in a class by itself.

NYAQ also recorded their second album, Mohawk, that July, which is arguably more subversive than the first, in that it makes the almost counter revolutionary gesture of embracing the jazz tradition with interpretations of “Everything Happens to Me” and the Charlie Parker-penned title tune. At the same time, they are also extending their unique approach to free improvisation. Their progress can be measured comparing the new versions of Tchicai’s “No. 6” and Rudd’s “Sweet V” (the “V” was omitted in the ESP’s credits, as was the second “r” in Worrell), the pieces that, respectively, opened and closed the ESP date; on these tracks, they stretch the materials noticeably further than on the then 9 month-old originals. Reggie Workman is clearly well-suited for the bass chair; he occasionally draws on his hard-boiled Philly jazz background on the standards, and he is comfortable with the group’s approach to polyphony. In a period in which many pioneering albums were recorded, few had the prescience of Mohawk. While many of their colleagues reinforced the idea of an unbridgeable divide between what was old and new in jazz, NYAQ showed how successive jazz revolutions could be connected. In doing so, NYAQ helped germinate the now almost universally accepted idea that the jazz tradition is a source of possibilities for the avant-garde, not an irrelevant canon to discard.   

Within weeks of the session, Tchicai was back in Copenhagen, lining up gigs for an autumn NYAQ tour. Once he realized only Rudd would make the trip, he enlisted Moholo and von Eyben, Moholo had only been in Europe a little more than a year; while the Blue Notes were still a going concern, he was already establishing himself as a force in his own right. von Eyben was one of the few musicians Tchicai knew in Denmark prior to his first trip to New York in ’62 who could play the new music convincingly. On Old Stuff, both Moholo and von Eyben play as if they were charter members of the band. These are among the earliest recordings of Moholo playing free jazz, predating Lacy’s seminal The Forest and The Zoo (ESP) by a full year. While Moholo’s approach to compositions like “Sweet V” and Tchicai’s “Kvintus T” (“Qunitas T” on Mohawk) overlaps Graves’ on previously recordings to a degree, Moholo’s signature approach to rhythmic propulsion is already in place, a combination of rapid-fire ride cymbal and intensity-ratcheting fills and bass drum booms. von Eyben is an adept intermediary, buttressing the compositional foundations of a given piece, tapping its potential for polyphonic improvisation and flexing some muscle when laying down a groove with Moholo.

Subsequently, Rudd and Tchicai were able to extend the trajectory established by their first two albums. Old Stuff documents this stage of their collaboration very well. The connection to the jazz tradition established on Mohawk is reinforced with their tender take on Monk’s “Pannonica.” They invoke an older tradition with direct African roots on “Rosmosis,” as Rudd and Tchicai trade phrases in a procession onto the stage at the Montmartre Jazzhus. The new facet of the music is the glints of melancholic lyricism in such Tchicai compositions as “Kirsten,” which foreshadows the coming of age in Scandinavian jazz. Tchicai never relied on American models as a composer, evidenced by pieces like “Sweet Smells,” a pensive line that takes a ride on a 3-over-2 rhythm, and “Cool Eyes,” a plaint delivered over a simmering ostinato. Still, the dominant impression NYAQ makes on Old Stuff is that this band swung mightily. Heard in tandem with Roswell Rudd, the Hilversum radio gig initially released on America without authorization – which, contrary to the misdating that persists on the Universal CD reissue, occurred in November not February of ’65 – Old Stuff supports the idea that this version of the band was as vital as the others.

Despite Tchicai’s efforts to establish NYAQ as a regular, if not permanent presence in Europe, the group dissolved at the end of ’65; their few last gigs included a New School concert with Richard Davis playing bass, and a performance at a mid-town art gallery with cellist Charlotte Moorman, notorious for her performances with Nam June Paik. “If we just could have hung on for another year,” Rudd said of both NYAQ and JCG, “things could have turned out much differently. Things were about to flip, in a good way. A lot of government programs were starting up that we could have gotten grants from. There was a change in perception about the music that was happening. People were starting to consider it as art. The music was moving out of the bars and coffee houses and into museums and concert halls. But, the Guild lasted long enough to inspire musicians to organize. The Guild laid the groundwork for similar organizations here in America and in Europe – what happened in Holland is a good example. We were just a little ahead of the times.”

Bill Shoemaker©2010

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