Braxton & Jazz: IN the Tradition

Kevin Whitehead

Anthony Braxton                                                        ©Jason Guthartz

[Lightly adapted from a talk given at Wesleyan University, 16 September 2005, as part of “Anthony Braxton at 60: A Celebration”]


Today I want to talk about Anthony Braxton’s relationship to the jazz tradition, a loaded topic which calls for a few disclaimers up front.

The “Braxton at 60” concert series, concentrating on his compositional output, makes it clear his interests stretch well beyond jazz, which barely figures in the programming. As Braxton once said to Steve Lake, “Jazz is only a very small part of what I do.” He prefers his music to be looked at in totality, and not separated into discrete genres.

By talking about him in a jazz context I don’t seek to discount or ignore his activities in other musical areas, or reduce him to a jazz musician only. I accept Ronald Radano’s view that Braxton has developed his music along twin paths as a jazz-oriented improviser and experimental composer, two areas that frequently overlap. Musical genres are convenient handles for talking about tendencies, but to think any music must conform to a single clear-cut category is to confuse the handle for the suitcase. As Braxton would say, don’t confuse the “isms” for the “is.”

As some jazz watchdogs have given him a frosty reception at times, let’s start by reviewing the cases of other musicians who’ve found themselves in similar predicaments, starting in 1943. Duke Ellington had premiered his suite Black, Brown and Beige on a program at Carnegie Hall, and critic John Hammond slammed the concert in the pages of Jazz magazine. A compressed version of his comments: “During the last 10 years [Duke] has... introduced complex harmonies solely for effect and has experimented with material farther and farther away from dance music. … But the more complicated his music becomes the less feeling his soloists are able to impart to their work. … It was unfortunate that Duke saw fit to tamper with the blues form in order to produce music of greater significance. … By becoming more complex he has robbed jazz of most of its basic virtue and lost contact with his audience.”

Now, it’s a bit shocking that John Hammond couldn’t hear any blues content in Black, Brown and Beige, but he wasn’t the only one to have difficulty with Ellington’s suites. Few commentators perceived any cohesion in them, and the jazz literature had to wait 30 years for Brian Priestley and Alan Cohen’s analysis of BBB which highlighted its thematic unity on several levels. (You can find their article, and Hammond’s review, in the Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, an excellent sourcebook on Ellington’s expansive art and its problematic reception. By the way that anthology also makes it clear that Duke had his critical supporters from the beginning. The myth of critics always missing the point needs deflating, but not here today.)

Ellington’s response to such criticism typically took one of two forms. The first was to sidestep the whole issue by taking jazz out of the equation: as in his famous retort, “There are only two kinds of music, good and the other kind.” Or, “I don’t write jazz, I write Negro folk music,” which is not much of an evasion.

His other response was to argue for a broader view of jazz than his critics applied. In a 1947 interview found in the Reader, Ellington calls jazz “The freest musical expression we have yet seen. To me, then, jazz means simply freedom of musical speech! And it is precisely because of this freedom that so many varied forms of jazz exist. The important thing to remember, however, is that not one of these forms represents jazz by itself. Jazz simply means the freedom to have many forms.”

This was a more constructive rejoinder, I’d argue, if only because Duke’s frequent appearances at jazz festivals and album titles like Jazz Party in Stereo make it clear he never really broke with jazz. Indeed a key part of his musical mission was to expand the resources available to jazz improvisers, and to composers seeking to harness their energy.

The jazz-watchdog files also contain cases where musicians who made a reputation in jazz are criticized just for playing other kinds of music. The way Herbie Hancock’s ‘70s funk was assailed by jazz fans as treasonous is a good example. As I’ve said before, for some folks jazz is like the mafia: once you’re in there’s no getting out, and don’t ever go against the family – as if jazz existed to restrict rather than expand a musician’s creative options.

In extreme cases, the minders of jazz purity may simply cancel the offending musician’s jazz credentials. (We’ll get back to this.) In this regard there are striking parallels between the Dixieland revival of the 1940s and the rise of neo-bop neo-conservative musicians in the 1980s. In both cases, recent developments in the music were discounted as outside the scope of the Real and True Jazz, and said musicians went back 15 or 20 years in search of appropriate stylistic models – even if ‘40s Dixieland doesn’t sound much like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Wynton Marsalis’ fine early quintet with its pre-plotted rhythmic change-ups misses the daring of the spontaneously mutating arrangements of Miles Davis’s mid-‘60s quintet.

Faced with charges of stylistic illegitimacy, some musicians retreat from the battle, just to avoid a fight. Charlie Parker told Down Beat in 1949 that “‘bop is something totally separate and apart’ from the older tradition.” Which is a funny comment from a guy who liked to quote the classic “High Society” clarinet solo all the old New Orleans players knew.


Anyone who’s followed Braxton’s reception in jazz will recognize the thumping parallels laid out here: a broad-ranging and ambitious musician is accused of being unfaithful to jazz principles or his African-American roots.

But in Braxton’s case there’s a new wrinkle. Here we have the singular case of a musician widely perceived as a driving force behind jazz in the 1970s, recognized as a leader in every sense, who a decade or so later was branded a heretic, without having changed the basic thrust of his music in the meantime. It’s a case of moving the goal posts after the receiver has spiked the ball.

As Braxton told me in 1993, and has told many others in similar terms, “I’m not a jazz musician. I could not have done my work without the great continuum of trans-African music, the restructural music, all the way up to Ornette Coleman.” But: “By 1979, or even before, I started to move away from that term, when I began to understand that they were redefining the music in a way that would not include me. So I accepted it, because I was tired of the controversy. I only wanted the right to do my music.”

Fair enough. But today I want to reintegrate Braxton into the jazz continuum. I mean, I’m a jazz person, and I want him for us. Why not? He still plays jazz when he wants to, and jazz has been enriched and influenced by his contributions, so it’s a no-brainer.

Jazz is after all a good fit for his musical appetites, for instance a strong desire to improvise with others. It’s part of what he sees as music’s function, to bring people together in a socially positive context.

Braxton is a superb free improviser, thanks in part to his ability to remember what his collaborators play and to develop it as thematic material. (Listen to his duets with German pianist Georg Graewe – Duo Amsterdam ‘91 on Okkadisk – to hear him with another musician who can play that game.) Still, Braxton’s drawn less to unstructured play than to the idea of “navigating through form,” mostly cyclical forms of his own devising. And jazz is a perfect vehicle for mediating between the impulse to improvise and to compose, on cyclical frameworks. And given that Braxton is an African-American from the south side of Chicago, where jazz musicians were handy role models for creative youngsters, you can understand the attraction.

One obvious point of departure is the album of jazz standards In the Tradition, recorded for SteepleChase in 1974 when Braxton was hastily recruited to replace Dexter Gordon on a quartet date with Gordon’s swinging rhythm section with Tete Montoliu, NHØP and Tootie Heath. It was Braxton’s decision to play standards for ease of communication – a strange thing, back then, for a musician who already had a rep for being the outest of the outcats (although he’d recorded a couple of standards already). Braxton showed it was possible to honor bebop phraseology while approaching it from a direction you didn’t expect – for example wailing (and swinging) through the Charlie Parker vehicle “Ornithology” on contrabass clarinet.

One important aspect of Braxton’s personality and musical persona is, he’s a very funny guy. His pieces, and his use of extremely low and high-pitched instruments often carry a whiff of breezy jocularity that’s easy to overlook in serious discussions of his music. (And of course that jocularity is something he shares with such American masters as Armstrong, Fats Waller and Dizzy Gillespie.)

Anyway, the album In the Tradition was a pacesetter. Its title became a catchphrase for experimental improvisers honoring and testing themselves on classic jazz material; Arthur Blythe made one such record that even had the same name. And Braxton himself has returned to standards programs often since then, including programs targeting specific composers like Monk and Andrew Hill.

“Ornithology” is credited to Bird on the LP sleeve; it’s more often credited to trumpeter Benny Harris. So like Miles Davis’s “Donna Lee” it’s one of those typical Parker tunes attributed to someone else – that is to say, built around Parker’s language as an improviser. For Bird, as for Monk, or Steve Lacy, the composition and the improvisation should make a tightly integrated package – you don’t just play the tune and ignore it when you solo over the chords. Or to put it another way, new sorts of written lines will inspire improvised responses that address those written heads on their own terms.

And Braxton has always been interested in material that spurs improvisers into new ways to be creative, and integrate the composed and improvised. You can look in vain in his five books of Composition Notes published in the late 1980s for any mention of a tune’s chord changes – the usual means of organizing improvisation on a jazz theme. Generalizing about his composing is tricky, given the hundreds of pieces he’s written, but it’s safe to say Braxton’s pieces for improvisers focus more on the shape of the line than an underlying harmonic scheme.


When commentators reach for adjectives to describe Braxton’s music, the first word that comes up is “angular,” that is to say, sharp-angled, that is to say, often characterized by quick sequences of wide intervals. A classic example is “Composition 6F” (aka “73 degrees A Kelvin”) recorded a couple of times with the Braxton/Corea/Holland/Altschul quartet Circle in 1970. As Braxton’s detractors have helpfully pointed out, this approach parallels certain tendencies in 20th century composed music; one might hear kinship with, say, the short last movement of the Webern “Concerto for Nine Instruments (Opus 24)” from 1934.

But “Composition 6F” doesn’t really sound like that, and the ear tells you why immediately. Even when Webern adopts a peppy Stravinskyian beat, there’s none of the propulsive rhythmic energy and focus that are at the root of Braxton’s piece. Indeed, as Braxton says in the Composition Notes, the akilter rhythm pattern is what really matters, not the melodic contour; he even proposed a revised version of the score that would specify the rhythms but not the pitches. And the specific function of that written line is to put the players into a unique vibrational space for improvising – in the same rhythmic zone as the composed line.

“Composition 6F” was the first piece in his Kelvin series of repetitive music structures one might roughly characterize as minimalist – minimalism being a style of composed music whose influence in jazz has been far greater than is generally acknowledged. (There’s a good doctoral thesis in that for someone.) But the particular sort of momentum “6F” has – a saw tooth rhythm, with a few quick sextuplets or other ‘tuplets thrown in to push things off kilter for a second – is typical of many Braxton pieces, including far more recent ones in the Ghost Trance sequence, like “Composition 245” as heard on Delmark’s Four Compositions (GTM) 2000.

A certain kind of hectic momentum is a major part of Braxton’s esthetic, and one not necessarily incompatible with swing. Take for example 1975’s “Composition 52,” as played by a Braxton quartet with Anthony Davis, Mark Helias and Edward Blackwell on Six Compositions Quartet (1982) (Antilles). One thing I particularly like about that record is that there are pieces like “52” where Davis on piano is clearly playing on chord changes, at least sometimes. Until I started working on this talk I underestimated the attraction of playing on chords to Braxton, and indeed one of the notable things about his many standards programs is how gleefully he enters into that particular game.

In “Composition 52,” we may note in his improvising the serrated rhythms and angles, and some of regular syncopations of ragtime amid the ‘tuplety subdivisions of the ground beat. That’s typical Braxton, and there’s no mistaking its rhythmic sophistication or drive. That he values momentum may be inferred from a few of the master drummers he’s employed or recorded with, including Blackwell, Heath, Steve McCall, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, and Victor Lewis.

When even non-wind players enter the realm of pieces like “Composition 6F” and “52,” they are apt to favor breath-like phrasing. The robotic music comes alive, which of course is the point: improvisation breathes life into formal structures. And jazz from early on has sought increasingly challenging material to test and inspire the improviser – even if it means breaking with long-established practice. (Not for nothing does Braxton cite Ornette Coleman’s example.) Braxton’s lines all but preclude a solo made of old-school licks learned at Berklee.

And his innovations go way beyond the shape or rhythm of a line. Some of his pieces call for musicians to isolate certain registers, or specific attacks or strategies at different times. Even when he uses familiar devices, he flips them on their backs or sides. A piece may emulate bop phrasing or celebrate Count Basie or evoke the good feeling he got as a kid spying his father at a Chicago street parade in the middle of a work-school day. But the source material is always transformed – as with Ellington, come to think of it. Like Duke he paints a picture of the community in action: an ideal community with room and tolerance for collective and individual initiatives.

In the Composition Notes, Braxton lays out unconventional strategies for improvisation built into many pieces: a call for drummer and bassist to play opposing rhythms, or for a soloist to play in deliberate opposition to the ensemble – encouraging you to hear the music in several layers or dimensions at once: the Charles Ives principle, as I hope it’s known in Connecticut. Even in solo saxophone pieces he’ll create the illusion of spatial distance, juxtaposing very loud and very soft passages, as if coming from different points in space: a self-contained call-and-response sequence. Or he’ll ask a soloist to improvise up to a written theme rather than away from it – so the composition seems to flower from the improvising, rather like the way Charlie Parker’s tunes sound like they began as improvisations on familiar chords. (“Ornithology” takes off from a line Bird played with Jay McShann.)

In time Braxton’s regular collaborators internalized such procedures and could apply them to any material in the band’s book. One reason why many of us cherish his 1986-1994 quartet – the one with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway – was that they really knew the rules of the game.

Incidentally around the same time, a similar process was going on independently in Holland, with Misha Mengelberg and ICP. The musicians would take procedures Misha instructed them to use on certain pieces, and then apply them on their own initiative in any appropriate spot. The whole band would then pick up on that, so the boss’s esthetic becomes a self-sustaining musical system – a perpetuum mobile. ICP really perfected this in the 1980s, but Braxton was already working toward and through such ideas in the ‘70s.


Not long after making In the Tradition Braxton signed with Arista records, a major major label at the time, for whom he made a series of nine high-profile albums, which include memorable time studies for quartets; “Composition 58,” a big band march that sounds like John Phillip Sousa having a breakdown over a skipping record which remains one of Braxton’s best-loved compositions; an even better march for quartet with George Lewis on trombone (“6C,” recorded live in Berlin in 1976); a duet with Muhal Richard Abrams on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”; a saxophone quartet for which Braxton kindly brought together three-quarters of what would soon be the World Saxophone Quartet, who never remembered to thank him for it. He also got to record “Composition 82” for four orchestras, and “95” for two pianos, so he didn’t only get to document only the jazzy stuff.

In the 1970s Braxton was also on the road a lot, playing festivals, and getting his live music documented. Beginning with his late-‘70s concert recordings you can hear his genius for assembling a set of music, using the various collage structures and multi-dimensional opposition strategies just mentioned. Say what you will about Braxton’s swing micro-timing, he’s a master of macro-timing. The way a good drummer makes a single bar swing with internal surges and hesitations, Braxton can make the overarching structure of a whole set swing like that one bar. And on the micro-level, the various layers of activity from moment to moment provide a vibrant listening experience that little in jazz can equal. With his Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet in particular, he got into complex layering of independently written pieces that fit together as aspects of one giant mega-composition, analogous perhaps to the way the seemingly disparate parts of Ellington’s suites fit together.

The composer has stressed how the multiple levels on which these performances work can help us deal with modern life in which we’re bombarded by more and more sensory input. To be able to follow a quartet performance where, say, the pianist is playing a totally notated composition, the saxophonist is improvising a solo line, perhaps off another tune, and the bass player and drummer are playing two different “pulse tracks” – dynamic, syncopated rhythmic patterns – to be able to follow that is not so different from listening to your iPod while flipping through the cable channels as you check your email while waiting for your phone to ring.

In Braxton’s (or Mengelberg’s) collage structures and constellations of events and mutable forms, one may recognize certain ideas creeping in from the classical avant-garde of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the whole big Earle Brown to Stockhausen mix. But then it’s only natural that Braxton’s varied musical influences and tastes infiltrate each other. By the late 1960s, he was already melding separate musical disciplines in open soundscapes. As Braxton points out, we all have cosmopolitan backgrounds, and are under the sway of many influences from diverse cultures, which open up new ranges of possibilities –  which is where he runs into 1943 John Hammond-type objections from certain listeners, for opening up the possibilities too much.

I speak mainly of Wynton Marsalis and his allies Stanley Crouch and Tom Piazza – not so many people, really, although they’ve certainly been diligent about trashing Braxton over the years.

You can understand the predicament Braxton’s music created for educated young musicians who’d polished the whole jazz school bop-to-Brecker skill set till it shone like the good silverware. Braxton was raising a whole other set of options that required a very different conceptual toolbox. That was bound to make people uncomfortable. I don’t think that’s grounds to vilify a musician who never sought to do anyone any harm, but if you were looking to hype a derivative composer like Wynton as modern jazz’s big thinker, you may find it necessary to brush back the competition.

So, as mentioned earlier, they raised what amounts to the old Dixieland argument against bebop: these strange new procedures are not what real jazz is about. But this position rests on an absurd premise: that jazz should be kept pure, when it had evolved and taken shape as a mutt form.

Starting around 1900 the music’s creators applied the improvisational impulse to any material within earshot: hymns, street cries, field hollers, march and social dance and blues forms, the classical themes that ragtime and jazz pianists would extemporize on, barnyard animal impressions, handclap patterns harking back to West African polyrhythms, Islamic isorhythms, modified Congolese beats arriving via Cuba – and myriad echoes of Sousa-type concert bands, with their a cappella breaks and virtuoso solos in contrasting hot and sweet styles, and said solos’ operatic high-note endings. Also the syncopated songs of Tin Pan Alley which often embedded quotes from other tunes, the exquisite vocal timing of black vaudeville comic Bert Williams, the rhythms of trains and the sounds of new technology.

Think of Jelly Roll Morton’s car horns on “Sidewalk Blues,” Armstrong faking the sound of a skipping record on “I’m Not Rough,” and the nasal speech-like brass solos on Ellington’s early classics, resembling a remote voice heard over a telephone. Braxtonian multi-dimensionalism was already part of the music by 1926 and ‘7.

That’s why I call jazz a mutt. The hound can really run, but no amount of wishful thinking or ethnic cleansing can transform a mutt into a pure breed. To suggest that jazz, to honor its heritage, limit itself to only certain specific episodes from its own past is absurd – like asking a jury to disregard a witness’s earlier remark. As Braxton put it in 2001: “Every music is still relevant – whatever the projection.”


No one has to tell Braxton about the richness of the jazz tradition – he teaches it at Wesleyan. His eight CDs of standard tunes for quartet, recorded in 2003 and released in two boxes on Leo, demonstrate his broad tastes in jazz material: tunes from the 1920s, bossa novas, and pieces by Cole Porter, Wayne Shorter, Monk, Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris – and the unfashionable Dave Brubeck, whom Braxton has long championed, a musician whose endearingly clunky timing turns some jazz fans off.

Every Braxtonian has heard the objection that he’s not the swingingest jazz musician, and I’ll concede as much. But if someone else swinging harder than you cancels your jazz credentials, there’d only be one jazz musician left: Billy Higgins? Jelly Roll Morton may not have been the swingingest cat of the 1920s, but we recognize him as a jazz master for his restructuralist tendencies. His Red Hot Peppers records of 1926 had the conceptual daring to reformulate much of what jazz was and had been constructed from, adding lowbrow humor and the sounds of the modern city.

Braxton’s compositional language began with his saxophone language, in which I’ve always heard the sharp-angled, against-the-grain improvising of Eric Dolphy, who recorded a few solo pieces in that time before Braxton made solo recitals fashionable. The leaps that bookend Dolphy’s 1963 solo take on Victor Young’s “Love Me” make the parallel explicit.

Anyone who, say, attended last night’s solo concert knows Braxton can play the heck out of the saxophone. To quote from something I wrote last year, “Like all great jazz musicians he understands that timing, timbre and note-choices are intimately connected: how slowing the rhythm ever so slightly, sputtering that note, and placing it just off center pitch, all work to give it triple impact. His tone may be aggressive or growling one moment, parched or disarmingly vulnerable the next.”

“He may stomp on the offbeat like a ragtime pianist. Sometimes his line will attack the rhythm head-on; sometimes it’ll slide backwards over the pulse, moon-walking on ice; sometimes he’ll divide a fast phrase into complex groupings ... or speed up in the middle of an already speedy phrase.” His accentual patterns are more complex than the alternating strong-weak strong-weak accents of your average sure-fire swinger.

The jittery nature of his improvising is one thing that bugs folks who like their swing nice and round all the time, but that’s no reason to ignore everything else going on, in terms of thinking on one’s feet, and improvising complex phrases while honoring the tune – all that good stuff his detractors claim to be for. The idea that jazz’s rhythmic development is already complete, and 4/4 swing is the only way to fly is ridiculous: how can the development of a living music ever be finished?

Braxton’s influence as a saxophonist since the 1970s has been much greater than the jazz folks give credit for. I was going to compile a list of saxophonists who bear his influence, but let me just mention one: in Greg Osby’s up and down beat-parsing and shifting accents, one can hear a lot of Braxton creeping through. (That’s true of Osby’s old ally Steve Coleman too.) The connection to the ‘80s M-BASE saxophonists is particularly interesting because Osby hears how those accentual patterns relate to hip-hop. (You can hear all this come together in his “Concepticus in C” from Zone.) But then jazz usually comes to grips with pop music of its time, one way or another.

You could even talk about a Dolphy-Braxton-Osby rhythmic continuum, if you like – Greg’s low opinion of Dolphy notwithstanding. Osby’s style is on one level a more limber version of the master’s angularity.

So anyway, I say, as long as Braxton has done so much to add new tools to the improviser’s and bandleader’s arsenal, since he’s such a keen student of the music and such a striking horn player, since he’s a fundamental influence on many of today’s players (not least his many successful former students from Mills and Wesleyan), let’s make it official and reaffirm his connection to the jazz fold he never really left – even as he remains free to operate outside of jazz.

There’s another reason for that reaffirmation, which we writers don’t talk about enough. The jazz wars of the early ‘90s, where the gatekeepers decided to purge Braxton from the ranks? Those guys lost that war. At Lincoln Center, they finally let in Misha Mengelberg and recently paid tribute to ‘60s Coltrane, if not Anthony Braxton. And many of the so-called young lions who were assumed to share Marsalis’ outlook have shown that their interests are considerably more broad – look, for example, to funk records by Roy Hargrove or Terence Blanchard or Branford Marsalis, or Christian McBride’s salute to Steely Dan. It sometimes appears the only jazz musicians who haven’t flirted with funk are Wynton Marsalis and Anthony Braxton.

Turning back the clock is always a loser’s game, except at the end of daylight savings. That’s how the jazz wars played out in the ‘40s, and in the ‘90s. The music will keep changing as long as it’s alive; and in the last 35 or 40 years no one has pumped more oxygen into jazz than Braxton. For that, jazz might be a little more grateful.

Nobody can really speak for jazz, but as long as some people make the attempt, and since I have the podium, Anthony Braxton, jazz welcomes you back. Like you never even left. Even if you reject it, you can’t change that. Mr. Braxton: Thank you for your music sir.

© Kevin Whitehead 2011

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