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"Freedom Is, Freedom Ain't" by Scott Saul

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Jost's Free Jazz is simultaneously an essential historical document, an invaluable resource for a music that has too seldom been examined with any sort of technical rigor, and semi-dogmatic bullshit that furthers some profoundly dated conceptual (and, at its worst, racial) bias.

I pulled out my copy just to look at the agonized notes that 19-year-old scribbled in the margins: "Ugh." "This is an oversimplification." "Jost is really grating on me." In retrospect, the book is important in that it's a rare musicological study of early free jazz amidst a staggering glut of rote historical documentation and sociopolitical analyses. (As an aside, I'd argue that As Serious As Your Life, Mr. Litweiler's The Freedom Principle, and maybe the Kofsky and a couple of LeRoi Jones books are "essential" reading to this effect, notwithstanding the relevant bios of Ornette, Trane, Sun Ra, the AACM, etc.)

The very thing that makes Free Jazz an interesting document in and of itself is the fact that it interfaces with and comments on the historical understanding of free jazz as that genre of music was being formulated. Pertinent to our discussion of Scott's book, Free Jazz always suggested to me a dual-pronged question: (1) why don't more people think about free jazz (or much black music) in this way, and (2) does free jazz (or much black music) even need to be assessed by these standards?

The worst offenders are the AACM and Sun Ra chapters. Jost makes an effort to think about this music in an objective sense, but it's with these more mythical aesthetic systems that the author's closeness to the continuum of "Western Art Music" analysis fails him. He can't go more than two paragraphs without saying something abstractly dismissive: referring to the sophisticated use of small percussion as "undifferentiated clanking and jingling," hatchet jobbing Braxton, belittling Sun Ra's conception as beholden to an "imaginary "cosmic" force" (the word cosmic is in quotation marks in Free Jazz), and so on. In short, Jost is OK applying rigorous methods of tonal (and new music-derived) analysis to the stuff that is more quantifiable--Ornette heads, the shape of a CT improvisation, the interconnected-ness of Don Cherry's BN suites--but he shies away from confronting the (then) newer, more abstract creative principles on their own terms. You can literally see (i.e., read) the generation gap in Jost's book.

I recently had a discussion with a friend about how there's still difficulty teaching hip-hop in institutions, due in part to extra-institutional/personal biases on the part of the students--i.e., "Isn't hip-hop just frivolous, fun party music?" (well, yes, maybe it is--but the frivolity underpins some very real social and aesthetic traditions and considerations). Jost plays into this: at the veeery end of the Sun Ra chapter, he gives us this nugget: "On the one hand, there are passages that presumably could not be played by anyone but a jazz musician. The decisive criterion - as always - is the rhythmic substance..."

This is the same tired, racialized bullshit that has prevailed in jazz scholarship since time immemorial: the implication here is not just that "they're jazz musicians, so they have rhythm," but rather that Sun Ra's complex system of afrocentric futurism is in some way reducible to "well, they have natural rhythm." Uhhhh...

Going back to the Saul book, this is what I mean when I say that the music has some symbolic value that transcends its literal value. While it's both necessary and relevant to examine the music independent of its rhetoric and political pressures, it's equally important to confront the music as a composite that operates on its own terms. If Archie Shepp says that Attica Blues is about, well, Attica, well shit--then it is; it's also about the convergence of soul, rock, and jazz and the conservative turn in free jazz post-Coltrane. But Archie Shepp is not Bob James is not (even) Pharoah Sanders, so a comprehensive understanding of the guy's art has to confront the more nebulous (and charged) political-philosophical stuff.

And there's more: when I say there's some symbolic value to dealing with avant-garde jazz as a weapon of struggle, it's because the "mythical/aesthetic" stuff has real power. Some of this power is racial, and I completely understand that this turns some people off. But ask Louis Moholo-Moholo--he still thinks that the goal of the Blue Notes was to free South Africa (and he was right, in a way). Sun Ra's soupy afrofuturism set an example for Braxton's mathematical abstractions, P-Funk's apocalyptic genre convergence, and Steve Coleman's mathy fusion. The AACM and UGMAA paved the way for organizations like Asian Improv aRts (whom I work with) to empower ethnocentric creativity. You can't dismiss this stuff, just like you can't deny the contributions of the Tristano school, the innovations of the Third Stream, and the monumental artistic achievements of many white jazz musicians.

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There's always something in the air. Always. Only really noticing it when everybody else does, is, like, a win, but it still leaves you under .500 for the season.

I don't know. I'm not really a guy who "competes". I mean I can fight and all that, but it has to be for something rather than just for the sake of it. Sure winning is good - who doesn't like to win?

Most people pick up the something in the air - whatever it is that is happening at the moment - I mean people are just programmed like that. There's a kind of crowd thing that moves across. I don't really buy the "wisdom of crowds" number. I mean you can get really destructive (or self-destructive) crowds. But I think this was one time where what moved across was something positive, of Life.

 

And there's more: when I say there's some symbolic value to dealing with avant-garde jazz as a weapon of struggle, it's because the "mythical/aesthetic" stuff has real power. Some of this power is racial, and I completely understand that this turns some people off. But ask Louis Moholo-Moholo--he still thinks that the goal of the Blue Notes was to free South Africa (and he was right, in a way). Sun Ra's soupy afrofuturism set an example for Braxton's mathematical abstractions, P-Funk's apocalyptic genre convergence, and Steve Coleman's mathy fusion. The AACM and UGMAA paved the way for organizations like Asian Improv aRts (whom I work with) to empower ethnocentric creativity. You can't dismiss this stuff, just like you can't deny the contributions of the Tristano school, the innovations of the Third Stream, and the monumental artistic achievements of many white jazz musicians.

It's absolutely the case that a musician  - or let's say an artist  -  can have an agenda. And, if you're a Blue Note in SA, how can you not? OK, let's suppose your agenda doesn't get realised and "the struggle continues". But the music here strikes me as something you are kind of squeezing into a narrow box if you treat it as "the struggle continues".

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My point was just that activity is constant, somebody's always got something going somewhere, it's jsut a question of how much something, and how much air. True, there are moments when some things are going for enough people at one time that it becomes noticeable enough to become a "thing" and get noticed, it's hardly an act of keen perception to notice it, especially in retrospect, There's no small truth to the axiom that by the time something comes to broader attention, it's already over. Les so for "pop culture", because that's a sort of mutual cannibalism that will last as long as somebody's there to be eat and be eaten.

But the type of thing like political free jazz, well, yeah, it's easy to notice that, one in the win column, but how about the political strain that came together for that moment, how about the musical strains, how about the "spiritual" strains, how about the human strains? And not just how they came together, the "back-story" how about what happened to all of that going forth. The whole "moment of the movement" thing, yeah, that's legit as far as it goes, but it, unlike its subject, never really goes anywhere does it, it just stands in one place and continues to exam, and at it's soupiest, reminisce. Photography, still life, and not something be looked at, not to be in.

Because, yes - There's always something in the air. Always.

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And yes, I like "the music as struggle" because, yeah, it is, both within the music itself (the first struggle is to play, and then to play well, and then to keep playing more well than before) as well as the world outside.

But what I don't like is how that "struggle" too often if reported, or worse, assumed, in such a way that it fits a limited, pre-set, and quite often, antiquated narrative. The enemies are different now, the tools are different now, hell, the good guys are different now. In the macro, sure, things haven't changed. But if you're gonna think that fighting the old war is gonna help you in today's war, well, no, it's not, and if anything, it dooms you to failure. The concepts might be macro, but the details are micro, sometimes in the extreme, and it's the details that can get you killed.

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Well, I don't disagree with either of you guys. Reductionist analysis is dangerous at every stage--is that not what Jost is doing to an extent? The Free Jazz book is predicated on effective myth busting--i.e., yes this stuff is fire-y and dense, but there is a logic and calculation to it that cannot be denied. I imagine that this was a fresh and maybe even controversial perspective at the time that the book was initially published.

What I find invidious about Jost's argument is the notion that analysis of this kind somehow "validates" the likes of Ornette, Trane, Ayler, etc. This sort of canon baiting is self-defeating; it's like the anecdote about Monk playing complex pieces of classical piano music. Yes, but what? Is Monk reducible to a Chopin quote? Or are there other (additional) factors at play?

I definitely flinch at the talk of "fire music" and "angry black free jazz"--because it's clearly not the whole story. And I agree that if music is pigeonholed into a long and endless narrative of political struggle, it loses quite a bit of its identity--it's important (again) to note that much of this music (Ornette, Trane, Ayler, etc.) makes no explicit political arguments. But just because we're moving into an era of narrative complexity doesn't mean that we must or should lose the scope of political undercurrent (not to mention mythological esotericism) that does underpin a lot of this historical music. I mean, Skies of America is not just Ornette's big concerto grosso--it's also a bunch of his compositions strung together, and it's also an intended convergence of black rhythm and western art music methodology, and it's also a rumination on America both ugly and beautiful, etc.

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What I find invidious about Jost's argument is the notion that analysis of this kind somehow "validates" the likes of Ornette, Trane, Ayler, etc.

Yeah, the "it's valid now that I've figured it out" thing, instead of the "ok, I get it now, wow, cool!" thing, that's why the homicidal impulse never really dies, it just recedes.

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What I find invidious about Jost's argument is the notion that analysis of this kind somehow "validates" the likes of Ornette, Trane, Ayler, etc.

Yeah, the "it's valid now that I've figured it out" thing, instead of the "ok, I get it now, wow, cool!" thing, that's why the homicidal impulse never really dies, it just recedes.

As Cedric The Entertainer once said "it ain't that bad".

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No, it's not. Until it is...thankfully, most of us have a really high threshold for things like that. Unfortunately, most is not all.

It's dangerous out there, if not always in the literal sense.Sanity, I think, is more easily imitated than it is actually possessed.

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No, it's not. Until it is...thankfully, most of us have a really high threshold for things like that. Unfortunately, most is not all.

It's dangerous out there, if not always in the literal sense.Sanity, I think, is more easily imitated than it is actually possessed.

I also don't know if it matters that the Jost book is 40 years ago.

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No, it's not. Until it is...thankfully, most of us have a really high threshold for things like that. Unfortunately, most is not all.

It's dangerous out there, if not always in the literal sense.Sanity, I think, is more easily imitated than it is actually possessed.

In the UK right now, I'd say posturing rules OK. There's an awful lot of fake toughness. There's also an awful lot of delusion, despair and frustration. The frustration is why I think music like this can find an outlet if it were renewed for this age.

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Instead of replying I have a question about the First press of the 7 Inches record by coleman: MAN ON THE MOON

is it the Stateside 2C 006-90643M or 

IMPULSE! 42275

Greetings

Luciano

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want to say that reading Larry and Karl's comments is rejuvenating to me as, at the very least, I see posts like the ones on this page and I feel like a drowning man who just got his head pulled above water. Part of this is my own near-desperate circumstance, but another is wrestling with something for so many years - the aesthetic needs of creation versus the political hell of African American life and the way in which these two things interact in ways so completely foreign to my initial intellectual training, which leans toward Gilman/Beckett/Robe Grillet and which tends to regard political content in art as vulgar - and yet there I was at age 15, swept away by Mingus' politically charged and driven anger and passion, 10 feet away from me in Slugs - and remembering this years later even as I  read Beckett, of 'he has nothing to say, only a way of saying it.' Knowing Beckett was right but than so was Mingus. And then finally reading Szwed about the complex relationship of change in African American art forms to stasis and repetition - and realizing that black music creates it own frame of reference (which by the way Gilman, in his remarks about Eldridge Cleaver, I think it was, did recognize in relation to literary traditions). All this by way of me realizing that there's a reason you cannot separate the aesthetic and the political in black music, and that's because you cannot separate the aesthetic and the political in black music - just like you have to realize it is no accident that black music is both, aesthetically speaking, revolutionary yet deeply conservative - a very African attitude, according to Szwed, in that tradition is seen as accomodating to change and even revolution. And I say this as I sit on the cusp of not only escaping these dark woods but also trying to figure out what to do next. So thanks. This has been very helpful.

Edited by AllenLowe

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".... the aesthetic needs of creation versus the political hell of African American life and the way in which these two things interact in ways so completely foreign to my initial intellectual training, which leans toward Gilman/Beckett/Robe Grillet and which tends to regard political content in art as vulgar...."

I once was at an MJQ concert and, in the interval, looked at the little merchandising stall the band had set up. They were selling band T-shirts in different designs and a choice of black and white. The guy - who I assumed was their manager or something - was explaining how the white T-shirt had this complex design on the back, but the black one was plain.

I said "racially segregated T-shirts!". He looked at me daggers. I said, with a grin "The white one has it, the black one doesn't". His face cracked open in the big, horrible, gold-toothed grin of a guy used to being both black and criminal and rushed off, leaving the stall to his minion. I like to think he wanted to share his pleasure with the band.

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"...the aesthetic needs of creation versus the political hell of African American life..."

In Greek drama the truly horrible acts occur off-stage but resonate through the drama.

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