John Tchicai’s Metal Poems
Gabriel Bristow

John Tchicai, Copenhagen 1970. © 2021 Jens Jørn Gjedsted

John Tchicai: A chaos with some kind of order, a biography written by the saxophonist/composer’s last wife and long-time collaborator, Margriet Naber, leaves the impression of a man as recursive as he was restless in both his music and the rhythms of his daily life. Listening to his recorded work only strengthens this impression. Often rooted in the repetition of terse melodic fragments, Tchicai’s playing and compositions nevertheless achieve an uncanny expansiveness within the bounds of their self-imposed confinement. This was reflected in the discipline and drive of Tchicai’s daily routine. The steady study of discrete musical problems in composition, the organization of tours, meditation, practice – Tchicai pursued these activities like clockwork, and, as the biography shows, with a good deal of creative and administrative support from Naber and his earlier partners. These quotidian details – of which the biography contains many – are important. They allow us to hear Tchicai’s music with clear ears as we gain a better understanding of the contours of the life that made it. Based primarily on interviews with Tchicai’s collaborators and his personal papers, Naber combines intimate reflection with research to outline the story from start to finish.

Born in Copenhagen in 1936 to a Danish mother and Congolese father, Tchicai grew up on the outskirts of Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, separated from the capital by a strip of the North Sea. Music seems to have been a minor stream running through the Tchicai family. John’s mother, Ketty Jensen, sung often and knew the “treasure of Danish folk music” and religious songs.[i] His father, Joseph Tchicai, also made music in the margins of daily life, drumming with his hands on a particularly resonant toilet door whilst working as a bathroom attendant and cigarette-seller at a restaurant in Copenhagen.[ii] Then there was his older brother, drummer Kaj Timmermann, born of a different mother, who formed a jazz outfit in 1940 called the Harlem Kiddies – the first black Danish band – witnessed live by Tchicai when he was only 8 years old.[iii] These were the familial currents feeding Tchicai’s early musical imagination.

Tchicai’s father, Joseph, was born at Pointe Noire, a village near the Congo estuary, where he learned French and German at a Belgian mission school.[iv] His aptitude for languages led him to work for German ethnologist Leo Frobenius as translator and servant.[v] (Interestingly, the latter’s work on African civilizations was championed by various figures associated with different stripes of the Négritude movement, such as Suzanne Césaire, her husband Aimé, and Léopold Sédar Senghor.[vi]) In 1906, while still a teenager, Joseph travelled to Berlin with Frobenius but soon struck out on his own due the demeaning nature of his work for the ethnologist.[vii] Travelling through Belgium and the Netherlands, he eventually settled in Denmark where he found love and employment in the face of widespread racism.[viii] As a father, Joseph was a stern and imposing disciplinarian. When he was in a good mood, however, John Tchicai’s brother recalls that “he stood up, grabbed a chair, held it in front of him and danced with it. He danced in a rhythmical, bouncing way. He never danced in European partner style with my mother.”[ix] Aspects of Congolese culture, and the history of his father’s migration to Europe, likely affected Tchicai’s outlook musically or otherwise. But aside from his piece “Frobenius Stomp,” Tchicai’s music makes little explicit reference to this inheritance. It seems rather that the young John defined himself more in opposition to this strict patriarchal figure than as his progeny. As Tchicai grew into adolescence he clashed frequently with his father, at one point running away and working on a ferry line for several months. When his father died of a stroke in 1954 he recalls: “I remember I bought a bucket of red paint, and painted the walls of my room red.”[x] This inheritance, tinged with Tchicai’s teenage rebellion, provide clues to understanding the development of the saxophonist’s distinct modernist aesthetic.

Naber’s biography takes the reader through Tchicai’s early musical experiences. First inspired to play jazz by Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” John bought a saxophone at 15 and began practicing, buying records, and listening to bebop.[xi] Talking to critic Dan Morgenstern for a Down Beat cover story in 1966, Tchicai described his earliest influences: “When I first started listening, I heard Moe Koffman playing alto on a record and was very impressed. Then I heard a Johnny Hodges record, a Lester Young record, and some things by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. But I decided what I wanted to be – a musician – when I heard Lee [Konitz] on a record with Miles Davis, Ezz-Thetic.”[xii] Konitz became a lifelong influence. Tchicai saw the latter perform with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in Copenhagen in 1953 and years later, in 1965, the two met at the Café Monmartre where they spent afternoons practicing duets together.[xiii] Charlie Parker, too, became important to him early on. With bebop as his aesthetic coordinates, he worked on his music whilst completing military service and undertaking a four-year program to become a chef. Gaining his diploma at 19 in 1955, he could not foresee how useful such a qualification would prove to be in the hungry, breadline avant-garde scenes he would later become involved in. But it was not until 1962 – after years of playing in military bands and leading bebop outfits in Aarhus and Copenhagen – that Tchicai would finally make contact with two emissaries of the diasporic avant-garde. Travelling to Helsinki to perform at an international Communist youth gathering, the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students, Tchicai met Bill Dixon and Archie Shepp.[xiv] And it was this meeting that made up his mind to move to New York. The rest, as they say, is history.




Amiri Baraka described Tchicai’s playing as “metal poems,” suggestive of a lyricism that is hard, bright, and at times even machine-like. Often, a phrase is plucked out of the air, turned around, dissected, extended, and rendered from every possible angle—ostinati repeated and restlessly probed. The result sounds something like a cubism of the saxophone. Critic and poet Anthony Barnett described how this approach was already germinating on his earliest recording, from the Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw in 1962 with the Jorgen Leth quintet: “There are moments here which show Tchicai to be unsatisfied with the common structure of these pieces [“Blue Monk” and “A Night in Tunisia”]. Already he places and holds notes unusually. He tends to economy in statement and the reworking of a single phrase – a facet of his playing which later identifies him emphatically.”[xv] By 1965, when Tchicai played on John Coltrane’s Ascension – the best-known session he ever contributed to – this hallmark was firmly in place. Tchicai opens his solo with a low siren-call – something like an alarm clock playing the blues – repeating a minor third that modulates up unexpectedly, shifting intervals and keys at will. This motif is interspersed with slippery, slanting runs. (Elsewhere Baraka wrote that Tchicai “slides away from the proposed.”[xvi]) Rather than the rhythmical attack of altoists in the Charlie Parker mould, he plays with a glissading articulation that owes something, albeit obliquely, to the enduring influence of Lee Konitz. Like the latter, Tchicai at times almost hides the breaks between notes, cloaking them by slipping from tone to tone. But the most distinctive thing about this solo is the continual reappearance of the alarm clock motif. It is either the launchpad or end-point of almost every phrase. Far from sounding contrived, each time it pops up in a new place it comes as a surprise, modulating like a siren passing you on the street: the doppler effect in musical form, waves bunching together and spreading out. This is an improvisation with a clear compositional bent. But rather than following a linear narrative arc, Tchicai’s construction is circular, circuitous. The same compositional use of repetition is heard in the shorter solo he takes on the “Edition II” take of Ascension, where he plays pairs of notes one after the other: rising intervals of varying width and pitch that tend increasingly towards the chromatic, straying further and further from the suggestion of a key. This habit of reworking a single phrase was not only what made his improvisational approach distinctive amongst New Thing practitioners; it was also what grounded his work as a composer.

Skipping over his vital and well-known work with both the New York Contemporary Five (NYC5) and the New York Art Quartet, Tchicai’s compositional ear is perhaps most fully elaborated on the recordings he made with his group Cadentia Nova Danica. Formed after he left New York and returned to Copenhagen in 1966, this large ensemble was comprised of young Danish musicians playing trombone, trumpet, two alto saxophones, two double basses, drum kit, percussion, and various other more unusual instruments, eventually expanding to include as many as 30 players.[xvii] The group’s name means “new Danish setting” in Latin, or perhaps “new Danic cadence” in Portuguese.[xviii] The musical palette is broad. Tchicai was returning to Denmark with a panoply of materials, as he explained in a 1966 article written by Jean-Louis Comolli: “In New York, we are all exposed to musical influences from all sorts of cultures: Indian, Asian, African, South American. Consequently, what we are trying to do is to realize a musical synthesis of all these sources, as well as a synthesis of the world today and of ourselves.”[xix] It seems that around 1967, John Tchicai and Don Cherry, both former members of the NYC5, were having similar thoughts and making similar musical movements. Both were expanding from their teenage years playing bebop and several years of active participation in the New York downtown avant-garde to experiment with larger ensembles, suite forms, and idioms increasingly outside of what was considered “jazz.” Both decided to do so in Scandinavia (combined with regular international travel): Tchicai in Denmark and Cherry across the border in Sweden. And both therefore became important vectors for free jazz in Europe. In many ways, the music of Cadentia Nova Danica, captured on two studio albums (Cadentia Nova Danica [1968] and Afrodisiaca [1969]) and one recently rediscovered live recording (August 1966 Jazzhus Montmartre), closely mirrors Cherry’s work of the same period. The group’s first self-titled album contains many similarities with Cherry’s recently released The Summer House Sessions, recorded the same year in 1968: expansive collectively improvised passages (not building into what the Art Ensemble called “intensity structures”[xx] but rather continuously conversing over a polyrhythmic backdrop in a manner similar to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz), haunted by fragmented melodies and ostinati that fade from foreground to background in the loose unfolding of the whole. However, Tchicai’s group and compositions – to which trumpeter, composer and co-leader Hugh Steinmetz made a significant contribution – make more use of space and break more consistently with 4/4 swing rhythms. Beautifully produced and recorded, Cadentia Nova Danica’s studio albums have a cinematic quality, many of the tracks forming miniature suites that are by turns carefully arranged and wildly improvised. Neither strictly jazz (free or otherwise) nor self-consciously “world music,” the sounds produced by this group have a transnational dimension that dissolves generic boundaries in the pursuit of line and texture.[xxi]

At the same as Cadentia Nova Danica was in full flow, Tchicai also brought his distinctive melodic ear to work with Dutch improvisers Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg on the 1968 album Instant Composers Pool (ICP002). Here the album title – which was also the name of the Dutch contingent’s label and their musical method[xxii] – distils both Tchicai’s contribution and the trio’s sound as a whole. All three musicians act as propellors; as is often the case in free jazz and improvised music, the distinction between “roles” – between rhythm section and front line – is flattened. But this album nonetheless represents a particularly early and particularly radical example of this levelling, which, rather than leading to flatness, creates music that undulates unexpectedly, removing all predictable proportions. Though the vast majority of the music is entirely improvised and avoids employing the pre-formulated musical lexicons of the day, there are some genuinely “composed” lines that Tchicai and Mengelberg weave through the otherwise “instant” compositions. But what is particularly striking about these selected cuts of improvisation is the deliberate confined concentration of the musical explorations undertaken. As Baraka said of Tchicai, so the same applies to this trio: “[Tchicai] has a knack for going inside any melodic line, and shearing away any lushness or superfluity, to get at the muscular fiber of a music that at times is so pure and deeply felt, that its very rhythmic impetus seems melodic and endlessly variable.”[xxiii] The trio’s working method is one of delimitation and distillation. On each track, it sounds as though they are digging straight down, rather than getting distracted by what they might find over there. This lends the music a moving fatalism that nonetheless remains audibly intent on its experimentation: you can hear at each instant the decision to unearth and carve out every corner of the musical space of a minute. Of that minute, of every minute (‘‘There it is. And There.”[xxiv]) In so doing, they make an expanse out of the territory they have confined themselves to. Each instant composition becomes a square meter to scrabble around in, throwing up untold debris and semi-precious stones from beneath the surface or pulling down clouds from the square meter of sky above. It’s a work of disciplined exploration – not of the “inner self,” but of small, fixed exterior plots tilled together, each one measured, ploughed, dug, sewn, consumed, razed and left exhausted or fertile in turn.[xxv] This same concentration is characteristic of much of the music Tchicai made, both alone and together with others.

Stepping back from his distinct musical aesthetic, Tchicai’s singular trajectory through the sixties is captured in the following statement from Naber’s biography: “John Tchicai is almost certainly the only musician who recorded with both John Coltrane and John Lennon.”[xxvi] His place in this trinity of Johns illuminates something of his route between the New Thing in New York and the counterculture in Europe. While other figures charted similar waters – Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, and the Art Ensemble, and others – Tchicai’s particular trajectory from Copenhagen to New York and back (and then on) draws a line that joins up different dots. Early on, in 1963, it was his Danish connection that enabled the New York Contemporary Five to travel to Europe on the promise of a residence at the Café Monmartre in Copenhagen. And when he returned to live in the Danish capital in the summer of 1966, Naber describes how – alongside other figures such as Ted Joans and Don and Moki Cherry – he brought a piece of downtown New York back with him, devising and participating in various multimedia “happenings.” He also travelled widely in Europe in this period, acting as a vector for the new music as it took root and mutated on the continent (i.e.: Instant Composers Pool). On October 1st 1967, Cadentia Nova Danica opened for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on the Copenhagen leg of their first European tour – another indicator of the obscured influence of the New Thing. Taken together and viewed alongside the work of collaborators and parallel figures, Tchicai’s musical activities in the latter half of the sixties make up some of the more molecular movements of the emergent counterculture. Moving on the edge of and underneath the mainstream rock and roll boom was this different diffusion of ideas, sounds, and sensibilities: a circuit of avant-garde black music plugging into new modes of performance and new audiences. One thing Naber’s biography does is shed light on these small but significant circuits.

There is of course a lot more to John Tchicai’s life and music: for that you will have to refer to the biography. Suffice it to say here that though billed as a “calm member of the avant-garde” in 1966 by Down Beat critic Dan Morgenstern, Tchicai’s sound is still one of steady agitation, circling determinedly around aesthetic problems to create music as unsettling as it is beautiful.[xxvii] An instant composer, a player of metal poems, his was a diasporic art that was never confined by the circuits it made for itself. To cite Baraka once again: “Tchicai carries the world-spirit in his playing, what is happening now, to all of us, whether we are sensitive enough to realize it or not.”[xxviii]



[i] Mike Trouchon, “Interview with John Tchicai, 1995”, Opprobrium, 1996. Available here:
[ii] Margriet Naber, John Tchicai: A chaos with some kind of order, pp. 19-20.
[iii] I take Val Wilmer’s word for it regarding the Harlem Kiddies precedence: For the account of Tchicai listening to the Harlem Kiddies, see Naber, John Tchicai, pp. 20-21.
[iv] Val Wilmer,
[v] Some of these details are reported by Val Wilmer: Naber’s biography corroborates this account, pp. 19-20.
[vi] See for example, Suzanne Césaire, “Leo Frobenius and the Problem of Civilisations”, in Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean (Verso, 1996), pp. 82-87.
[vii] Naber, John Tchicai, p. 19.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid., p. 20.
[x] Ibid., p. 24.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Dan Morgenstern, “John Tchicai: A Calm Member of the Avant-Garde”, Down Beat, February 10th 1966, pp. 20-21, 49-50.
[xiii] Naber, John Tchicai, p. 24; Mogenstern, “John Tchicai”, p. 20.
[xiv] A full account of this festival can be found in Sezgin Boynik and Taneli Viitahuhta (eds.), Free Jazz Communism: Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet at the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students in Helsinki 1962 (Helsinki, 2019).
[xv] Anthony Barnett, “John Tchicai... of three continents”, Jazz Monthly, October1968, p. 2-6.
[xvi] Amiri Baraka’s liner notes to Archie Shepp’s Four For Trane.
[xvii] Mike Trouchon, “Interview with John Tchicai, 1995”, Opprobrium, 1996. Available here:
[xviii] An explanation of the name must exist but I am yet to find one.
[xix] Jean-Louis Comolli, “Tchicai sans chique”, Jazz Magazine, no. 137, 1966, p. 28-31 (p. 31).
[xx] Paul Steinbeck, Message to Our Folks: The Art Ensemble of Chicago, p. 97.
[xxi] In the liner notes to Afrodisiaca, Hugh Steinmetz explains how he composed the title track using a scale derived from a balafon.
[xxii] Kevin Whitehead,
[xxiii] Amiri Baraka cited in Anthony Barnett, “John Tchicai... of three continents”, p. 5. I have not been able to trace this citation in Baraka’s Black Music (the origin indicated by Barnett), though it may have been included in an earlier edition.
[xxiv] Amiri Baraka, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall” in Home: Social Essays (New York, 1966).
[xxv] The metaphor of exploration under confinement connects to arguments about trap that are developed in Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and elaborated on in Danny Hayward’s review of that book, ‘TRADITION VS. GRID,’
[xxvi] Naber, John Tchicai, p. 66.
[xxvii] Op. cit.
[xxviii] Amiri Baraka’s liner notes to Archie Shepp’s Four For Trane.


© 2021 Gabriel Bristow

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