Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium

One day last fall I spent an afternoon in Seattle with Wayne Horvitz. We talked about many things, over lunch, then poking around the Royal Room, a bar he co-owns in a small, fashionable neighborhood in the southeast part of the city. He said something then that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.


I’d arrived in the middle of the Earshot festival, on the eve of a concert series to mark his 60th birthday. Inevitably, the idea of his legacy came up. After all these years, I wondered, what had his peers, those players who’d come up on New York’s downtown scene in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, ultimately brought to the music? His answer seemed to veer off straight away.


“You know, if you read George Lewis’s book about the AACM they all talk about all their influences,” he said. “But Joseph Jarman mentions hippies at some point, and not in a pejorative way. I think he’s talking about the counterculture movement of the ‘60s as being an element – as well as all the other elements, including free jazz and of course a sense of having African heritage and the whole sense of world music, and all the things that were important to them.


Gradually, Horvitz looped back. “People love to hate the ‘60s. It’s a big thing: to love to hate the ‘60s. I was young at that time. But I’m so grateful that I caught a glimpse of that.”


His generation, he said, from Bobby Previte on the one hand to Butch Morris on the other, was shaped by that spirit – that spirit of eclecticism, of complete open-mindedness. The classic cliché was the 1960s radio station. “You’d listen to it in those days and they’d play Hendrix and then they’d play The Rite of Spring and then they’d play John Lee Hooker,” he remembered. “The cliché about the downtown scene was the kind of Naked City version of that, the genre slashing, which was really Zorn’s interest. And God bless him; it was a blast to do. But I think you can clearly tell with people like Bill [Frisell] and I, we didn’t continue to make music like that. We absorbed those elements in other ways.”


The interview was coming to an end. But Horvitz had said something that I just couldn’t shake: the image of Joseph Jarman and the hippies. When I got home, I pulled A Power Stronger Than Itself down from the shelf. There it was in the index, near the bottom of a long list of entries for Jarman, Joseph – “relation to hippie culture, 211–12.” I remembered the passage, and began to read it again, as if it were new.


“Some of my peers would never admit that they were into the hippie culture – the flower children, free living, the awareness of LSD and what it did to people’s consciousness,” Jarman told George Lewis in 1998. “That’s not a part of the illusionary black history orientation that they want to be identified with. I knew all the Beatles songs at that time. The Art Ensemble in Europe would perform opposite very famous rock stars from that era. We used to go to the Detroit Artists Workshop, which was the home of the MC5. We used to rehearse in the same place in Chicago as Mike Bloomfield. We had the Black Panther Party, the hippies had the White Panther Party.”


It still feels like a remarkable admission. Set aside the politics of it for a moment. If John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s example was real, this was a revelatory (and revolutionary) moment – as a way of being, as a way of art-making, as a way of breaking down all kinds of predetermined limits. It was a powerful reminder of the mystery of influence – the millions of minute strands that any artist draws on, even when they seem inconsequential or entirely unexpected. But the most bracing aspect of Jarman and the hippies was how wildly anachronistic it felt. I’m not sure the larger, popular culture would ever have this kind of impact on creative music again.


Jump to the present. If a jazz musician were ever as in-sync with the times, what would it look (and sound) like? To be clear, I’m not referring to, among other things, the grafting on of contemporary pop songs or up-to-the-moment grooves or the addition of electronics, turntables, or other devices. Jarman is talking about a complete cultural immersion; this isn’t window-dressing. Jazz in its most widely disseminated form – the so-called mainstream – has never been farther away from the center of culture than it is right now. That Jarman (b. 1937) and Horvitz (b. 1955) would find something fertile in the center, no matter how daring their work might be, is still exhilarating.




When Horvitz and I met I had only recently come across Kamasi Washington (b. 1981). By the end of 2015, a jazz musician – this jazz musician, a man who was practically unknown the year before — was being championed as the instrumental artist for our times, a resounding contemporary figure. Greg Tate called Washington the “jazz voice of Black Lives Matter,” the African-American activist movement created in 2012. Washington himself told Adam Shatz, “Music is an expression of who you are, and – at least in that sense – I think I epitomize Black Lives Matter.”


The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015), his three-disc debut, is a terrific record, joyful and wonderfully alive. Still, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. If it’s found a place alongside other art associated with the movement – Washington played a large role in shaping the sound of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – the music itself mirrors (in the best possible way) sizeable swaths of black history, spurred by ‘60s Coltrane, early ‘70s West Coast jazz, and the hashtagged cultural renaissance. Unlike Jarman and the hippies, however, Washington’s notion of now takes us back – gloriously, bathing us in another time and place.


In the late aughts, composer-bandleader Darcy James Argue (b. 1975) patented his own notion of now – not so dissimilar, musically, from Washington’s. In the chatter surrounding his 2009 debut, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam), Argue explained his group’s name, Secret Society – something he’d borrowed from Alan Moore’s classic comic-book series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This was Argue’s self-proclaimed “steampunk” big band – playing, as it did, with the idea of history, technology, and time travel, an essentially old-fashioned big band dropped into the first decade of the 21st century.


In hindsight, Argue’s conceit feels a little too clever, a tag as wedded to marketing as it is to artistic playfulness. (Google this – “darcy james argue” + “steampunk” – and you’ll see what I mean: the web as echo chamber, for better and for worse.) The record itself is intelligent, agreeable, and, despite its affection for the new (Tortoise is a notable signpost), absorbed in its own reckoning with the past (Bob Brookmeyer’s influence looms large).


Yet, I must admit: there is something wise in Argue’s basic insight. He’s getting at something inescapable – and true – about how musicians think, and how we’ve come to listen, too. In a way, we’re all steampunk characters now.


Keep following this thread and you’ll begin to reconsider the idea of history itself. In a way, the idea of then, and now – the basic logic of historical thinking – has disappeared for good. All art is now part of a transnational culture living forever in a perpetual present. History cannot matter a whit when the World Wide Web allows anyone to toggle back and forth across time and space. This circumstance is the spirit of our time; complete cultural immersion is inevitable. Out of this, today’s art will come to be.




Kamasi Washington and Darcy James Argue came to mind only because their stories were especially instructive; these are men of this moment. Wondering whether their work will last – as Joseph Jarman’s and Wayne Horvitz’s have (so far) – is a fool’s errand. But exploring how their art came to be: this tells us a great deal about where we are now.


Of course, it would be naïve of me to suggest we’re somewhere entirely new. As I meditated on steampunk big bands and Jarman and the hippies, I was led back to my own early 21st century encounter with the 1960s: Bob Dylan’s remarkable and endlessly re-readable 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Here, Dylan is often bizarrely in, and out of, step with his times – preoccupied, as he tells it, with Barry Goldwater, Ricky Nelson, Frank Sinatra Jr., and Sinclair Lewis, among many others.


In one of the book’s most extraordinary moments, he talks about his early days in New York, discovering and hanging out at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street.


Izzy had a back room with a potbellied wood-burning stove, crooked pictures and rickety chairs – old patriots and heroes on the wall, pottery with crossed-stitch design, lacquered black candlesticks ... lots of things having to do with craft. The little room was filled with American records and a phonograph. Izzy would let me stay back there and listen to them. I listened to as many as I could, even thumbed through a lot of his antediluvian folk scrolls. The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in. It had no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it. What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry driving steel, John Hardy shooting a man on the West Virginia line. All this was current, played out and in the open. This was news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.


To me, this is the keenest insight into Dylan’s art that I’ve ever read, full stop. What happened when he went down the rabbit hole in Izzy Young’s backroom? He sure didn’t come back sounding like a folk-music Marsalis. Dylan resurfaced and refashioned everything we once knew about how poetry and popular music could live together. And this is where much of it began: in a fantasy, the past and the present living side by side, somewhere deep down in Dylan, a conversation transformed. Out of a musty old Greenwich Village shop and the imaginings of a young man from Hibbing, Minnesota came the sacred music of the time, for all time.


Online, any artist can recreate their own Folklore Center, if they want to. Eventually, another Dylan will come along – or Bird or Monk or Trane or Ornette – and change everything. So we wait. But in the meantime, our enjoyment – the listener’s enjoyment – is to follow artists down these rabbit holes: to watch (and hear) them bend time, to see, in the very best art we have today, musicians who are alive to the tiniest relics, and their own fantastic visions, immune to time and place.


So with pleasure, we follow. Just think of some of the masterworks in recent memory – from Alexander von Schlippenbach’s exquisite quintet recital, Monk’s Casino (Intakt, 2005), to the Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet’s searing Victoriaville improvisations, Seven (Victo, 2015), two drastically different models of this kind of magical thinking. That’s why the ICP Orchestra was mandatory listening for so many years: no group was better at bending time. So, too, are its many offshoots, be it Tobias Delius’s quartet (try any one of their four ICP discs) or Michael Moore’s eclectic and extensive Ramboy catalog. On the American scene, I still keep coming back to Kris Davis’s Aeriol Piano (Clean Feed, 2011), a wonderful instance of an individual at work, inside her own private mythmaking (Paul Bley, Morton Feldman, Thelonious Monk, etc.) and in-the-moment invention. Late last year the Tomeka Reid Quartet’s self-titled debut (on Thirsty Ear) felt like something especially fresh – quietly drawing a line back to, yes, Joseph Jarman and the hippies, but, above all, finding a powerful collective sense of action. With this configuration – cello (Reid), guitar (Mary Halvorson), bass (Jason Roebke), and drums (Thomas Fujiwara) – you wonder where their natural terrain will be.


And the list continues. No matter where you start, every record has its own story. Every musician has his or her own journey to Izzy Young’s lair. Gradually, the music inches forward.

©2016 Greg Buium

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