CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Friday, December 25, 2015

CD Review: WILD BILL DAVISON, “THE JAZZ GIANTS”, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-


WILD BILL DAVISON, “THE JAZZ GIANTS”
Sackville Stereo, released by Delmark Records 2015

Wild Bill Davison, cornet
Herb Hall, clarinet
Benny Morton, trombone
Claude Hopkins, piano
Arvell Shaw, bass
Buzzy Drootin, drums

CD Review by John Pietaro

Visions of hipness, concepts of cool, are born of a moment in time on which the industry machine feeds before the next whimsy strikes us—or is engineered to do just that. And so it goes in the wrestle between jazz and popular taste. Once upon a time, the music was drenched in the blues, marching to the strain of freely contrapuntal music that tore loose the constraints of the day. Such “traditional jazz”, born most excitedly in New Orleans but really in many places, cast seedlings universally. By the 1920s some of its greatest exponents ventured northward, inspiring the so-called Chicago school. This brand of hot jazz held strong regardless of the developments in the music or the demands of popular taste.

By the time the cornetist Wild Bill Davison brought all-star septet the Jazz Giants to Toronto, it was 1968. He’d trumpeted in the tradition, so to speak, for more than four decades, braving the ire of booking agents and modernists alike. But Davison, who’d struggled to take his place at center stage, had no intention of giving it up regardless of Miles’ “Nefertitti”, the Beatles’ ‘White Album’, or other musical advances released that year. For Davison, the classic instrumental line-up was all that was necessary, and here it was comprised of woefully under-recorded clarinetist Herb Hall (brother of Edmond), celebrated trombonist Benny Morton (who’d played with big band royalty), pioneering pianist Claude Hopkins (of Wilbur Sweatman’s early 20s band, Josephine Baker), Armstrong All-Star bassist Arvel Shaw and the drummer Buzzy Drootin, a regular at Eddie Condon’s nightclub and name bands alike. 

Wild Bill called for the stage to weep, smoke, sizzle, and sometimes burn. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”, fittingly, opens the disc. The spirit of Chicago resounds but also that of the Hot 5.  Hear time-honored titles like “Them There Eyes”, “Black and Blue”, “I Surrender Dear” plus one that harkens back to a groundbreaking ‘28 Condon session, “I Found a New Baby”. The mix keeps it fresh, the features of the band members spreads the wealth. And for those squeamish about the “Dixieland” moniker, listen to the free interactions between horns out front and an ignited rhythm section--and enjoy the fact that Albert Ayler and others revolutionists rode the tradition right into New Thing fire music.

CD Review: SARA SERPA AND RAN BLAKE, “KITANO NOIR”, NYC Jazz Record

Originally published in teh NYC Jazz Record, November 2015

SARA SERPA AND RAN BLAKE, “KITANO NOIR” (Sunnyside SSC 1362)
CD Review by John Pietaro



A late night, smoke-filled room, bathed in deep textural black and white. This is the imagery that vocalist Sara Serpa and pianist Ran Blake must have sought to imbue the listener with as they recorded this brilliant album, live at Kitano to a largely silent audience. It’s night music, but one that embraces musical modernisms as readily as the rich greys within shadows.

Blake, who has long been known to fuse atonality and whole-tone runs, among other contemporary concert music devices, into lush jazz chords, is in his element here. A noted accompanist to quite a few vocalists, this particular pairing finds him taking chances that most singers might respond to with an immediate grit of the teeth. But Sara Serpa, a former Blake student, appears to revel in every turn and comfortably slides in and out of tonality with great skill. The effect is often akin to late French Impressionist works; “Pelias e’ Melesande”, perhaps, if heard from Duke Ellington’s purview. The selections even include a personalized, creeping version of “Mood Indigo” that Duke would have to be moved by.

This album is filled with gems like this and with titles such as “When Sunny Gets Blue”, “Round Midnight”, “Get Out of Town” and “Good Morning Heartache”, along with Blake originals and others, the familiar strains guide the ear through this fascinating experimental structure.
“Kitano Noir” is the soundtrack to both sleepless nights and lost bourbon-and-cigarette breakfasts. Blake’s technical abilities are matched only by his emotional output and mastery of the material; Serpa’s utterly haunting voice boldly reclaims this music as if composing it anew.

So stark, the listener can almost fill the space with the whisper of dark nights, long ago.


HELEN SUNG feature, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-



HELEN SUNG: FORAY INTO THE TRADITION
By John Pietaro

“Jazz is one of the generous art forms”, Helen Sung remarked. “It’s based on interaction, expressiveness. I came to the music late in life and had to understand the soul of jazz before I could revel in the tradition”. After years of classical training, and while preparing for a career as a concert pianist, Sung stumbled upon jazz in an odd turn of events, and then nothing was the same.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants she describes as having been “very integrated” into western culture, Helen Sung’s relationship with European classical music began in the earliest stages of childhood. “My parents played it in the house all of the time and I had this little red plastic piano I used to carry around everywhere. I was very attached to it and used to try to pick out little bits of melodies. As soon as my mother noticed this, she decided I needed to pursue the instrument. We acquired an upright and I began lessons at age 5”. Sung’s studies were, from the start, rather strict and she developed an understanding of music notation and harmony along with technique early on. Simultaneously, she became part of a Suzuki-inspired violin ensemble. While the piano lessons offered her formal musical foundation, the ensemble afforded her the first opportunity to appear onstage. “I remember feeling a sense of familiarity and comfort being on stage and I guess it just stayed with me”.

Stay with her it did. Studies brought Sung to the University of Texas. The school has a history of sporting serious jazz careers, but the budding pianist neglected to cross the hall to investigate the genre, so focused was she on classical repertoire. Until a friend brought her to a Harry Connick Jr concert. “The music seemed so free, so driving, I had to learn more about this!” The revelation led her to an almost obsessive regimen of listening to jazz pianists across the spectrum and history of the music. Quickly, she was drawn to the playing of two giants of divergent eras: McCoy Tyner (“he’s a force of nature”) and James P. Johnson, a stand-out among the stride pianists whose playing she absorbed. The influences of both Johnson and especially Tyner would remain a core aspect of her musicianship.

“I took a beginning jazz course and then had to beg the jazz piano teacher top take me on as a student. It took quite some time as I was still a classical piano major, but he finally agreed to give me lessons”. The jazz studies continued on through college, more of a secret desire, even as she completed her Masters of Music in Classical Piano.

Explorations of the art form finally led Sung to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s premier class in 1995. She became a part of a small cadre of students that kicked off the program, which was based on a master/apprentice relationship, within the New England Conservatory. Ron Carter directed the Institute and a series of top-line jazz masters came through including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Heath. “The Institute was an invaluable godsend!”, she stated, recalling the immersion of education. Sung focused on learning the techniques and feel of be-bop which she delved into with a vengeance. In addition to learning modern jazz, she also began composing it. “Ron Carter told us that if we wanted to find our own voice, we needed to write our own music”.
A final project of the inaugural class was a tour of India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. For Sung, there was no turning back. She relocated to New York City in 1999 and established her own ensemble, recording her first album as a leader within three years. As of this writing, she is working on her seventh, in between a barrage of tours not only as a leader but also in bands led by others including Clark Terry, Regina Carter, TS Monk, Steve Turre, Lonnie Plaxico and Terry Lynne Carrington. In 2011 she also became the pianist of the Mingus Dynasty Big Band.
“I’d pretty much had shelved my classical playing, attempting to remake myself, but I’m incorporating it into my music in recent years. Yes, I’d had ambitions of melding classical and jazz but then I realized that Charles Mingus had done it already---and beautifully. He was so relevant as a composer and had such a wide scope, from the blues, to Stravinsky influences, and social issues. It’s amazing to help carry on his legacy.”

Helen Sung’s 2014 album on the Concord label, “Anthem for a New Day”, was itself a statement on the growth of her art and the reckoning of the two musical worlds she has coursed through. When asked exactly where the nexus between the two musics lies for her, Sung stated “It’s still being formed”. But the breadth of this album, ranging from audacious original works, unique takes on jazz standards and a point of burning free improvisation, reaches, hydra-like, in many directions at once. Sung’s performance practice quietly demands the full attention of the listener with impeccable technique careening through emotional, swinging harmonies of an advanced nature. Her rhythmic drive, particularly in ensemble settings, drops intrepid tacits within thickets of comping and wistfully compelling leads. As much as Sung gives on stage or in studio, she always sounds like she’s keeping it all just below the rim, holding back with the learned control of the conservatory musician, patiently waiting to turn up the heat.

Another layer to the Sung canon is the project “Sung With Words”, a collaboration with celebrated poet Dana Gioia, who writes not only with literary content in mind, but the rhythmic aspects of the words. It’s poetry that cries midnight blue, refusing to be static, to sit quietly on the page. “I’ve always envied how singers can have a more direct connection to the audience, so after meeting Dana a few years ago, I conceived of this pairing. There’s a powerful depth connecting the words and the music and pieces were written largely through our interaction, growing the poems and the music together. We are prepping for the live debut featuring vocalists Carmen Lundy and Carolyn Leonhardt”.  Helen Sung will bring this latest foray to NYC jazz audiences in December.


Sung With Words occurs at the Jazz Gallery on December 17

CD review: Todd Capp’s Mystery Train, Paris Frere, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-



CD review by John Pietaro

Todd Capp’s Mystery Train, Paris Frere. Noncept Records, 2015

Though ‘Paris Frere’ was recorded in Brooklyn, the sounds captured on this disc may well have come through an artic passage by way of a lost culture. But the assemblage doesn’t do “world music”; this release casts a secret night journey into the avant heart of new music. And you’ll want to pay close attention to the content lest it envelop you like an aural haunting.

Drummer-leader Capp directs this brilliant ensemble securely from behind. His musicianship is exported often times through what he does not play. This has been written before about such rare drummers, but Capp creates boiling points at pianissimo as needed, with marked tacits to increase tension. Stinger accents via muted cymbals or atmospheric rim-shots allow the mind’s ear to fill in the rest. Or not. Capp experimented early on with prime movers of the AACM in Chicago before becoming embedded in his native NY’s downtown ‘80s hotbed. In Mystery Train, Capp’s contrapuntal drumming works in startling accord with Kurt Ralske’s yearning, adventurous cornet, Watson Jennison’s beautifully pained reeds and flute (and drums on one track), Andrew Lafkas’ driving bass, and the deep gray tapestries generated by Gao Jiafeng and Michael A Holmes, alternating spots on electronics. Add the wonderfully other-worldly voice tracks of Jiafeng and the music crosses into other places, other times.

Use of modal phrases, pedal-centered basslines, echoey cornet and timp mallets rolling across tom-toms offers this music something of an ECM vibe, yet there is an urgency here that cuts to the core of free jazz: a revolutionary declaration of sound. The restless foray of ‘Paris Frere’ may begin on the continent but quickly disappears into the highlands of the East and out. This is visceral music.
Capp and company, through five bold pieces, would deny you the opportunity to ever categorize Mystery Train.


FRANKLIN KIERMYER feature, NYC Jazz Record

Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, September 2015

FRANKLIN KIERMYER
OUTSIDE The Journey Within
By John Pietaro

Franklin Kiermyer’s tom-toms thunder across the room as metallic shimmers slice the air, at once rapturous, restless and uncompromising. His limbs dancing over the drumkit, Kiermyer becomes entranced in the music about him, playing a rolling, swinging free rhythm that speaks as much about the history of jazz drumming as it does the avant school he has become associated with.
“I have a big devotion to evolution”, Kiermyer explained. “As a kid, the first music that really affected me, that made me feel, were the old Fats Waller and Kid Ory records my father had. Certain discs I listened to over and over again. I would find myself hearing the tunes long after the record player was turned off. These records loomed large in every way: big energy, big phrasing and big time. Drummers like Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Minor Hall were the first that inspired me to play. They still do.”

Kiermyer, who hails from Canada but has lived around the world over the decades, began studies at age 12 with a Montreal percussionist and composer. By high school, timpani was added to his instrumental pallette. “Playing timpani brought me to the awareness that each drum has its own pitch, a natural resonance, a natural voice where the instrument speaks”.
Listening for the natural voice inside has become the guiding force for Kiermyer. As a teenager, the drummer was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. He has since been a life-long devotee. “This is a spiritual platform to open up and let me go where I want to go. I had an urgent need to find my own way”.

Searching for the musical conception he desired, the journey led Kiermyer to Woodstock NY to study improvisation with legendary bassist Dave Holland. Time spent upstate also brought him to a higher level of spirituality at the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.

“If you take away all of the isms—including jazzisms—there’s something deeper beneath. That’s what I want to experience and share”, Kiermyer stated, reflecting on the relationship between meditation and musical improvisation. A model for him has been John Coltrane. Kiermyer looked to albums such as ‘Sun Ship’ in finding that nexus. But while this level of the music made a profound impact on him, and drummers such as Elvin Jones left an indelible imprint on his playing, Kiermyer continued his search—within and without.  The venture included significant struggle. ”It is one thing to have feelings for the music and another to manifest those feelings to create it. The ‘a-ha’ moment and the ‘oh shit’ moment are closely related”.

Sessions with Mick Goodrick and John Abercromie followed time spent with Holland and by the 1980s Kiermyer was living in midtown Manhattan, deeply immersed in the expansive music scene. As a result of his friendship with Don Alias, he was hired to play in an ensemble led by percussionist Daniel Ponce for a special event of the 1986 Kool-Newport Jazz Festival, ‘Night of Percussion’ which featured a wealth of brilliant drummers in different ensembles. The Ponce band was stand-out due to its hip hop and downtown grooves. Ponce was one of many musicians whose discography walked the edge of experimental and commercial sounds in that fertile period when punk culture and indie arts were part of a milieu with underground jazz and composition. With this festival gig, Kiermyer imagined a major career move. But when he got to the hall he found that he was to play not on a standard drumkit but a couple of DMX electronic drum pads, creating machine-inspired rhythms for Ponce and three bata drummers to play over. He was dismayed but, true to his concept of the journey, Kiermyer found what was needed for the music. “It was all part of the experience”, he recalled. “Opportunity is omnipresent”.

On the roads inner and outer, Kiermyer became a bandleader along the way, founding a series of ensembles that leave behind a powerful discography. Skimming through the list of albums, one is struck by the individualism of the recordings, though each retains the mark of the leader. Perhaps his best known release is ‘Solomon’s Daughter’ (1994) which features another spiritual journeyman, Pharoah Sanders. The album offers Sanders’ most profound playing in decades. Here the Coltrane aura is celebrated, yet the unique urgency Sanders conjures with Kiermyer, pianist John Esposito and bassist Drew Gress is vividly evident. The music is nothing short of stirring.

The various Kiermyer bands through the years have included such stalwarts as Sam Rivers, Azar Lawrence, Juni Booth, Dewey Redman, Joe Lovano and a long list of others who traverse the eras of free music. With such a wide spectrum of experience behind him, one may think it a challenge for Kiermyer to create new inroads, but once again he is excited about a new band. Two of them, actually:

“My new ensemble with Lawrence Cook and Davis Whitfield is the closest to what I’ve been trying to do. Our debut is in August in New York. And I am starting a new British band with Nat Birchill that will play the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival in September. These musicians have allowed me to take the music further than before—but further inside, not out. Further inside myself as it reaches forward and evolves beyond”

Franklin Kiermyer will debut his new quartet at Korzo Restaurant’s ‘Konception Music Series’, 667 5th Avenue, Brooklyn on August 4, 8PM.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

STEVE LITTLE, feature, NYC Jazz Record

-This article first appeared in THE NYC JAZZ RECORD, Nov 2015-


STEVE LITTLE: Hidden Force
The Ellington Drummer That Made “Sesame Street” Cook!
By John Pietaro

“So how exactly did you dig me up?” Steve Little asks right up front”. “I’m not usually the guy the press goes after”.

Though he has performed and recorded with countless artists of note, from the bands of Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett and Lionel Hampton, to legendary vocalist Josephine Baker and fusion pioneers Weather Report, drummer-percussionist Stephen Little has rarely if ever sought the spotlight. A consummate professional, Little’s career, still going strong as he nears his 81st birthday, has been an adventure through genre and era, much of it spent in studios, well out of the public view.
Born in Brooklyn in 1935 but raised in Hartford Connecticut, Little’s creativity was strongly encouraged by his family. “We were working-class but my parents pushed us toward intellectual pursuits. For me this meant music, but in those days drummers had to contend with a lot of disrespect. I couldn’t just play, I had to study the drums”.

Drawn to jazz, yet driven to understand the full breadth of his instrument, Little became a student of Al Lepak, timpanist with the Hartford Symphony. “Al had a million students---everyone in the area went through him. Joe Porcaro and Emil Richards were there too. I studied timps mainly and some mallet percussion”. Lepak, who’d started his career as a big band drummer, also taught basic jazz drumset as well. What the lessons couldn’t provide, Little absorbed from the front row of Hartford’s State Theatre. “As a kid I would go early on a Saturday to see if I could cop licks from Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich! I saw so many bands—Dorsey, Krupa, Louis Armstrong. The band would play but then you had to sit through movies, newsreels and a comedian before the second set. I don’t know how many hours I spent there”, he said laughing.

in the Hartford Symphony, working under Fritz Mahler’s baton for a performance of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’. After a tour with Holiday on Ice, he relocated to New York and gigs came quickly. By the turn of the 1960s, Little held a regular drumset job with Sal Salvador’s band, providing him wide exposure, yet he sought out vibraphonist Phil Kraus to engage in advanced mallet studies.

Steve’s reputation as a session player also developed in this time. “My first professional studio date was for radio comic Henry Morgan. After that, I recorded with Salvador and then Terry Gibbs in 1961. Some of the guy’s in Sal’s band were writing jingles and I got more sessions”. Little came to play vibes for the soundtrack of ‘General Hospital’ as well as an array of television and film scores over the decades. “I can’t recall them all now. One went into the next”.

Live gigs continued too and in 1964 Little accompanied vocalists Eddie Fisher and Anita O’Day, then went on to sub for Louie Bellson behind Pearl Bailey. By ‘66 he was in Charlie Barnet’s band and performed with Lionel Hampton at the Newport Jazz Festival. One night while in the driver’s seat with Barnet, Duke Ellington came into the club and sat in. He contacted the drummer shortly thereafter. “I really didn’t want to join Duke I as I was focused on the studios, but how could anyone turn THIS down? Duke was God. His compositions, and especially Billy Strayhorn’s, were very complex. This was linear music, streams of colors”.

 The Ellington band was working the Rainbow Room, preparing for a tour. The stellar line-up included famed alto saxophonist Johnnie Hodges, among other star musicians. Strayhorn, however, was already very ill and passed away shortly thereafter. His crushing loss led to the celebrated album, “His Mother Called Him Bill”, still deemed one of Ellington’s most important records.

Though the position was esteemed, Little left the band by 1967 and returned to the studios as well as to college. But he wasn’t gone for long. “Duke called me back after trying out many drummers. The young guys all wanted to play like Tony Williams!” But this was now the late 1960s and public taste was changing. An appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ gave Little a sense of what was to come. “Our band had some amazing soloists, but then after us the Vanilla Fudge took the stage. I watched the kids in the audience and they were ecstatic. We couldn’t match that; it was a new day. It made me realize that we were becoming relics. I had to reinvent myself.”

Steve began to carefully listen to rock, R and B and soul music rather than reject it like many of his contemporaries.  He adapted easily to the call for “a rock feel” in the studios, particularly for soundtracks and work with several folk singers including Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie. And then there was a new PBS children’s series, “Sesame Street”.

“That was a great band”, Little recalls, “led by Joe Raposo who wrote most of the charts”. “We recorded in one take, it was very loose”. Due to the success of the series, the same ensemble scored “The Electric Company” program as well. The jobs lasted 22 years but Little made time for performances with the Joffrey Ballet, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, various Broadway shows and many recording dates including Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveler” album, on which he played timpani, tom-toms and marimba.


The pulse behind the stars, Steve Little’s career was often out of the spotlight, but fruitful. “You know it took me fifty years to be comfortable being ‘just’ a drummer. But I came to realize that playing drums is damned intellectual: it’s an abstract instrument and yet you control every aspect of the music--and make even the worst musician feel the swing, the groove. This has been a great career. Looking back, I’m glad I chose the route I did. I wouldn’t trade it”.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Brave New Sounds: Profile- ANAIS MAVIEL


BRAVE NEW SOUNDS: PROFILES by John Pietaro

ANAIS MAVIEL, The Voice of Change Has Flown In


Singers in the “downtown” purview of New Music face a formidable challenge; vocalists have been embattled in both maintaining a consistent audience and simply being heard above the fray. While some have been highly valued through the decades, this genre has largely been led by saxophonists, screaming improvisers who stand out in front of rumbling rhythm sections and, depending upon the circle and time period, perhaps a bank of electronics, a line of percussionists or multi-media collaborators. Often, it gets pretty loud as the temperature on stage rises.

But Anais Maviel seeks out the quietude between tacits. There she shines and elevates not only the moment, but the performance itself. I first encountered Anais, several years ago (in my capacity as a performing musician) when she sat in on an ABC No Rio performance of the duet I share with trumpeter Matt Lavelle. “Man, she’s from Paris, and she’s like the air, like the wind”, was his initial explanation. Like the air and wind? How could any adventurous artist resist?

Without a shred of rehearsal beforehand, Anais jumped in on “Round Midnight”, adding  a free soprano vocalization to this classic, forging something other out of whatever I may have expected. Her voice flowed over the liberties Matt and I were taking with Monk’s composition, threading through our expansions of time and tonality with an ease one doesn’t usually associate with any vocalist. Even more uniquely, Anais soared the stratosphere at pianissimo, offering vocal visualizations of the cool shadows of Thelonious’ eternal night music. And then, without warning, she slid deep into contralto, dangling over the area only Sarah Vaughn had dared to actually revel in.

Hailing from France but born of a Haitian mother, Maviel studied her craft both in Paris Diderot University (where she wrote a thesis on the very downtown Vision Festival) and on stage at family music gatherings, seeking out a new sound. Her’s is a music comprised of both the staccato pulsations and revolutionary culture of Haiti as well as the swinging, varied history and legacy of Parisian jazz.  There is something of Josephine Baker in her sleek frame and compelling voice. And yet, this would not do justice to Maviel’s avant garde spirit.

The singer champions the struggle for “utopian alternative politics of change”, whether this is featured in the lyric or heard only through the contour of her vocalizations. It’s all boundless, it all wreaks of a certain pride and pure expression. The strains of some sort of distant gospel music emerge, traversing a range from high soprano, down deep, before morphing into scat and long, lustrous lines of melody. Her voice, cutting through a line of horns or an onslaught of free jazz drumming, is a reckoning for every singer who’s been unable to secure a space onstage.

AFTER LANDING ON THESE SHORES, Maviel quickly came to the attention of some of New York’s leading jazz composers and band leaders including William Parker and his circle of Visionaries. Attention came quickly and these days she is a member of not only Parker’s projects but is the featured voice-improviser with Matt Lavelle’s 12 Houses Orchestra, in addition to an assortment of other gigs. The power of this voice in such large bands becomes clear as it sails beyond the tumult below.The Lavelle band’s debut CD, just released on Unseen Rain Records, is available through http://www.unseenrainrecords.com/?product=solidarity-matt-lavelles-12-houses-limited-edition-cd

Most recently Anais has incorporated tradition West Indian and African percussion into her solo performances and this can be heard to excellent effect on her fascinating new album, “Houle” (hear excerpts on her SoundCloud page: https://soundcloud.com/ana-s-maviel/sets/h-o-u-l-e). Here, both voice and percussion skitter, attack, flow and propel through the rich tapestry of world, perhaps multi-world sounds.
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For more information and for music videos of Anais Maviel’s brave new vocal landscape, visit her website:  http://www.anaismaviel.com/

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Gary Bartz - Musical Warrior, feature, NYC Jazz Record

Cover story, "The New York City Jazz Record", August 2015
Gary Bartz - Musical Warrior


By John Pietaro

Imagine if you will a Brooklyn coffee house and the conversation of two hipsters as it may have been heard. Williamsburg looms just beyond the doorway, listening in. The elder fellow, beaming with recent-grad vigor, is holding court. His notable topic: ’60s jazz and radical politics. He lectures on the Black Arts Movement, dropping such names as “Amiri” and “Shepp” while quizzing the other guy with quotes from the AACM playbook. His young charge sips a latte, tersely commenting, “Word”. 

Suddenly, he begins to tap out a Latin rhythm on the table and sing in a loud voice. As others in the house look up from iPads, he bellows, “Rivers I have seeeeen and rivers I have knoooooown. Ancient in the wooooorld and older than the bloooood, I’ve known rivers! I’ve known rivers!” “Yeah, dude!” jazzbo exclaims, fist-bumping his companion. “Gary Bartz!” By the time the other patrons resume web surfing, the hipster pair are toasting their muses over another round of overpriced coffees.

*****
Measures of cool are determined by public favor and the passage of time, but the artist-activist reigns eternal. Gary Bartz, a fiercely independent musician, hits 75 on Sep. 26th. For well over a half-century, he has worked with some of the greatest figures in this music. His discography, a testament to African-American arts traditions, speaks with pride and unabashed radicalism but through an immediately welcoming voice. From the adventurous, socially conscious band of drummer Max Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln to the burning hardbop of drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, from the divergent worlds of pianist McCoy Tyner and singer Phyllis Hyman to the bold paths of saxophonists Jackie McLean and Pharoah Sanders, poet Amiri Baraka, drummer Norman Connors and, of course, the groundbreaking Miles Davis band, Bartz’ alto and soprano resound. His contributions as a bandleader also march to their own musical foray, but the objective is always communication with his audience. Bartz’ experiences are embedded in the social and musical fabric of the nation. He’s known rivers and then some.

“My parents were serious listeners and we would go out as a family to see all of the bands who came through Baltimore, where I’m from. But we were close enough to New York to visit there often. There was so much going on in New York - I knew I had to move as soon as possible. For a young musician, it was the place to be.” In addition to the music, Bartz had another, more urgent reason to relocate. “Baltimore was a segregated city,” he explained. “I just couldn’t remain there.” By 1958, he’d moved to NYC’s Lower East Side. Though formal training came from classes at Juilliard, perhaps the more important tutelage was obtained during conversations with Roach, Lincoln, Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Alan Ginsberg and other revolutionary artists in his immediate purview.

“Max was like a father-figure to me. He was a great thinker. We would get into long discussions about politics, Black Nationalism and history. This was a revelation. Parties at Max’ place included not only all the great musicians, but people like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Max also sent me to check out Lewis Michaux’ [African National Memorial] Bookstore in Harlem.” Malcolm X was a frequent visitor to this noted civil rights bookstore. My friends and I would follow him around. We would see him at Michaux’ or Shabazz Restaurant or just walking around the streets. Malcolm was brilliant, an intellectual giant with a magnetic personality.”

Bartz was a regular visitor to the Five Spot after the Ornette Coleman Quartet began their now mythic residency. “From the moment he landed in town, I knew that Ornette was changing the musical landscape forever. And the horn. I view him as the only one of three musicians to completely revolutionize the saxophone. The other two were Lester Young and Charlie Parker.”

Downtown was a veritable wonderland for the young Bartz. He began playing with an early version of Charles Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, then at the Village Gate. The bassist became another important figure in Bartz’ career and philosophy. Bartz became absorbed in the concept of The New Thing as a voice, a symbol of liberation. The Mingus band played an almost entirely improvisational repertoire, guided only by the leader’s brief motifs sung quietly to various key players. Bartz’ section-mate in the band was reed player Eric Dolphy. The two became close friends and spent Wednesday afternoons at Dolphy’s loft playing the most difficult duets they could find at the nearby Carl Fischer Music store.
By 1964 Bartz had become a member of the Roach-Lincoln band and it was here that his reputation was forged. This ensemble had already achieved considerable celebrity with its release of “We Insist: Freedom Now Suite” four years prior, so significant a statement that the band continued to feature it. Bartz would go on to create music with Roach intermittently over the years, including a foreign tour that brought the band to Shah-led Iran. The performances of the suite became intense in lands held by Western imperial powers. Roach insisted that the ensemble wear tuxedos to garner respect when playing this piece. “This was a concert, not some gig, and Max wanted it to carry that weight. He gave strict orders that the musicians could not smile during the music.” The internationalist angle also featured into Bartz’ anti-war activism, with Vietnam becoming more and more in the public debate. “People were taking a stand. The world didn’t need just another musician - there were plenty of them ignoring the issues. We were living in an unjust society; I had to speak up.”

Gary moved on to the Jazz Messengers in the mid ‘60s, part of a lineup that included both Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard on trumpets. The Messengers’ 1965 LP “Soul Finger” marked Bartz’ recording debut. Within a year, however, he’d begun working with various other artists, developing particularly strong ties to McCoy Tyner. In 1970, Bartz bested every other saxophonist on the scene when he got the call to join Miles Davis’ band. After a decade of great success, offering visions of how vast a palette he could cast, Miles had truly reached a mass audience: “Bitches Brew” turned the trumpeter into a rock star. “Miles saw me playing at Slugs’ with McCoy. A week later I was in rehearsal with him and then on stage. The third gig we had was the Isle Of Wight Festival. Wow. I walked out and saw the audience of half a million go so far back that it disappeared into the horizon,” Bartz recalled. “I always wanted to be in this band - but the way it was when Coltrane was in it! Everything was so loud that I really couldn’t hear myself. I honestly didn’t think I would last too long, planning on leaving in two weeks. But I came to realize that the actual music wasn’t any different, just the instrumentation. Miles’ new sound was still based on modes, the blues.” He remained with the Davis band long enough to be featured on the legendary concert recording “Live Evil”.

During his time with Davis, Bartz also formed his own ensemble, the Ntu Troop (named for the Bantu word for unity), which explored musical genres but maintained a fervent political message. Though he’d actually recorded several albums by this point - including 1969’s “Home” - the work of the Ntu Troop was deeply personal. The ensemble offered significant output during the early ‘70s, including two volumes of “Harlem Bush Music”, but it was 1973’s “I’ve Known Rivers And Other Bodies” that is perhaps best remembered. Recorded live at Montreux, this album featured Bartz’ vocals as well as his horn. He composed the title song to Langston Hughes’ 1921 poem, “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers”. First published in the early Black revolutionary journal The Crisis, the piece was a call to arms. Hughes led the Harlem Renaissance, became celebrated as one of the great American poets, yet fell victim to the “Red scare” blacklist by the late ‘40s. The symbolism for the people’s struggle of the early ‘70s was apparent.


This period also illustrated Bartz’ musical development. Soaring improvisations reflected the strong influence of John Coltrane. Bartz infused elements of fire music with funk-derived urban rhythms, a formula that would carry him through many years. More recently, however, he has redirected his music back to the more acoustic place where he’d begun, albeit informed by the decades. Work with the all-star Heads Of State ensemble and his 2012 release “Coltrane Rules” (on his own OYO label) speak as much about where he’s been as means to go next. Through nearly 100 recordings, he remains a musical warrior.

www.nycjazzrecord.com

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Report on 2015 Dissident Arts Festival

 DISSIDENT ARTS' 10th ANNIVERSARY

By John Pietaro

Dissident Arts Festival Day 1, 8/15/15: John Pietaro, Rocco John Iacovone, Adam Cadell

The Dissident Arts Festival, the annual gathering of revolutionary creativity, feted its 10th anniversary with a special weekend-long event on Saturday August 15 and Sunday August 16 at El Taller Latino Americano (Manhattan) and ShapeShifter Lab (Brooklyn), respectively.

The event was sponsored by the Len Ragozin Foundation and the Rosenberg Fund for Children and endorsed by the National Writers Union-New York UAW Local 1981 and DooBeeDooBeeDoo world music magazine; it was dedicated to the struggle for unity and the memory of Ornette Coleman. The amalgam of the performances and addresses to the audience by guest speakers amounted to a very successful event. Festival performers offered a wide variety of progressive socio-political statements that ranged from stirring to prideful to sad and humorous. From an artistic perspective, the expanse of our reach into various arts genres with more than one truly multi-media presentation, only exemplifies the goal of breaking down barriers and forging new ground I envisioned 10 years ago.

We opened on August 15 at the brand new space occupied by El Taller Latino American--now a part of ArtSpace PS 109. An absolutely beautiful place for any performance with expert sound engineering. The enthusiasm of the Taller staff--was deeply welcoming, especially as they had barely completed the official move to the new space. After my opening remarks, the audience was treated to the  stirring spoken word by  Raymond Nat Turner, a jazz poet I have had the pleasure of working with several times over the course of a few years. The Festival's dedication was toward the struggle for unity; this in the face of a divided nation and a series of ongoing, brutal police murders by area police departments. Raymond's pieces addressed this vision and encountered the evening news head-on, but done so in the jazz tradition with his vocalized basslines and riffs filling space around his poetry.

After Raymond's set was a presentation of the "other-world art music" of Sumari: Matt Lavelle, Jack DeSalvo and Tom Cabrera. These guys had a four-star review in this month's 'Downbeat' and were also positively reviewed in "NYC Jazz Record" and "DooBeeDooBeeDoo" all at the same time. Anyone present for this gig knows why the media is becoming terribly aware of this wonderful trio.
Poet/author Sana Shabazz next took the stage with several pieces which examined contemporary mores, particularly the stealing of homes in these times of gentrification.

My own band the Red Microphone's set was a special one for me. The only people in the house who knew how anxious I was about playing vibes again after months of being caught up in both my day job and writing were Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone and Phil Sirois. But there is something magical in this band and my concerns were quelled as soon as we began the first phrase!
Steve Dalachinsky is one of the best known and most beloved jazz poets on the scene today. He was accompanied by Rocco John Iacovone (alto saxophone) and Adam Cadell, a violinist who traveled all the way up from Brisbane Australia. The set boiled over, flowed into a hush and then took off all over again. Steve is haunted by the ghost of Kerouac, Hughes, Dolphy and Henry Gibson, of this I am sure.

Bernardo Palombo presente! Another beautiful, all-encompassing set of what I call nueva nueva cancione by this man and his new ensemble. Compelling music, regardless of the language it’s sang in, will pull you in--and this set surely did.

The 12 Houses closed off the evening with an explosive set of largely improvised music threaded through the compositions of leader Matt Lavelle. The pieces were largely dedicated to the fight for social justice, offering commentary on the preponderance of firearms in this nation and the violence that grows from this. There was also a piece written for the recently deceased jazz legend Ornette Coleman.

In the spirit of any other movement cultural event, we also had some wonderful guest speakers on both days of the Festival. On Day 1 it was Peter from the National Writers Union-NY, Local 1981 of UAW, and Sohrab of Musicians for Musicians.

On Day two, August 16, we moved the event to ShapeShifter Lab, a beloved home of new music for years now. What a gift to have two spaces that have equally caring, professional and considerate staff members. We opened this day with a jaw-dropping piece of multi-media art, downtown stalwart Trudy Silver's Where's the Outrage? There was nothing missing, from both an arts and political perspective as this presentation was performed in front of a screen projecting images of generations of fight-back. The musicians, speakers and dancer had largely interchangeable roles, producing a special new music performance art to life. It made me think of the 1930s workers' theatre productions I have studied for so long but one that straddled the eras of the 30s and the late 60s.
Next was a wonderful spoken word artist, poet and actress Safiya Martinez, who offered a deeply moving piece about personal transformation.

And then next was the band I put together specifically for this event, one I called John Pietaro's Literary Warrior Project. The writer/musician tightrope I regularly walk came together in this inventive ensemble of gifted artists which interacted with my readings of John Reed, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Woody Guthrie and Bertolt Brecht excerpts over my own hand drumming. I asked Raymond Nat Turner to come up and read one of the Hughes' works and I was so moved when, at the end of the set, he presented me with a special award he called  The Dissident Arts Award, in honor of the fest's 10th anniversary.

Patricia Nicholson Parker (a founder and administrator of Arts for Art/Vision Festival but an artist in her own right) and her own multi-media group Resurrection/Revolution: post-modern dance of herself and Jason Jordon with music by two celebrated new music/improvisation masters, Jason Hwang and Michael TA Thompson. The four were “painted on” by the projected video art of Bill Mazza. An amazing presentation by artists at the top of their game that easily tied together distinct genres.

Poet Chris Butters joined our festival for the second time, having also wowed audiences at Taller last year. Chris' hard-hitting poetics speak of real-time struggles, echoing his many years of activism in the labor movement. Chris is also host of WBAI's poetry show and a leader of the Workers Film Festival.

Dissipated Face featuring Daniel Carter closed off the festival with a set of music that defied description. The five piece band with the celebrated jazz musician Carter had performed from 1981-86 and came together again only recently, with this performance being a major focal point of their reunion. We were thrilled to host such an event.

We also had guest speakers on Day 2:  Tim Sheard of the National Writers Union, Mary Lonegran of the Len Ragozin Foundation--who offered us a generous grant-- and Dawoud Kringle of Musicians for Musicians, also a journalist of  "DooBeeDooBeeDoo" magazine. Unfortunately, no one from the Rosenberg Fund for Children was available to join us (they are a Massachusetts-based organization), but these wonderful folks have in the past and again this year aided our efforts with a grant.
We are forever appreciative of each of the organizations that supported these efforts that made it possible to present such a powerful pair of concerts. I am always happy to help all with an endorsement or statement or action. In the case of the National Writers Union—my own union-- I was very proud to have such an endorsement from this body. The connection was very meaningful statement of the legacy of the Literary Left.


Many, many, many thanks.

Friday, August 28, 2015

12 Houses Orchestra album-release concert

THE 12 HOUSES LIBERATE THE BIG BAND WITH RECORD RELEASE EVENT



"SOLIDARITY" by Matt Lavelle's 12 Houses Orchestra debuts on September 13. This is not your father's big band...

See and hear the 12 Houses bold brand of free jazz conquer contemporary composition at their CD-release event: it all happens at ShapeShifter Lab, Brooklyn NY, 9/13, 7PM. The band includes special guest soloist Art Baron and features Ras Moshe, Charles Waters, Lee Odom, Tim Stocker, Ras Miguel, Stefanie Griffin, Mary Cherney, Claire De Brunner, Anais Maviel, Gil Selinger, Chris Forbes, Jack De Salvo, Francois Grillot, John Pietaro, Ryan Sawyer, Tom Cabrera and maestro Lavelle out front -plus- guest hip hop artist Brafmatic. "Solidarity", this powerhouse new CD, will be available at a special price.

And if this isn't enough, there will be an opening set by "other world art music" trio Sumari, who will celebrate their eponymous album release which earned a four-star review in "Downbeat" magazine!

In the meantime, satisfy your urge to liberate the big band with this video of the 12 Houses performing at the Dissident Arts Festival just last month. This is a burning kind of swing filled with outside invention and a stellar cast of musicians… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f04jtAcctUk

For more info: http://www.unseenrainrecords.com/?p=2702
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Press contact: NEW MASSES MEDIA RELATIONS  John Pietaro  (646) 599-0060  NewMassesMedia@gmail.com

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Argument for BERNIE SANDERS

Rampant Racism and Inequity, Summer 2015 Edition - new boundaries broken, a struggle ahead and a populace to inspire...



The humidity and stagnation of a New York summer accompanies the potential for real change in our midst, though this hope is far from assured. All about us is the reminder of inequity as street demonstrations are occurring to commemorate the anniversary of Eric Garner's brutal death. The hot air in small living quarters builds like a pressure cooker and the tumult can't help but spill over. 

The history of police corruption is long, the path of racism remains continuous and intertwining, all of it the natural fallout of flagrant capitalism. The Garner tragedy, in one way or another, has become an epidemic all over the nation and a symbol of so much gone so wrong in the nation. This nation, the one which was founded by and for the very wealthy. 

The legacy of classism, racism, sexism, xenophobia and inequality remains to further divide us as a people. The furor in the deep South caused by the removal of the confederate flag from the state house, the resurgence of KKK rallies, the continued anti-Muslim sentiment, the ongoing demonization of labor unions and civil liberties organizations, right-wing hysterics in response to marriage equality and LGBT rights and of course the debate over abortion remains the favorite cross, so to speak, for conservatives to bear. 

Presidential season picked a bad time to rear its hydra-head, but here it is. The Republican field ranges from the Christian-right to noted anti-worker candidates as well as Donald Trump, long seen as a figure of cold capitalist greed and sensationalism in the world view. But if his past statements were  cringe-worthy, these days the man seems to be doing everything he can to humiliate other high-rollers in the USA. He appears to revel in sounding absolutely foolish, senseless, angrily ignorant, yet fully justified in his rants against Mexicans and in every other point that might have a Fox potential for audience. 

For progressives and Leftists, Trumps' candidacy seemed to be a gift---not just a loose canon but a downright moronic, fully unprepared figure of conservative stupidity on the world stage. The "you're fired" guy with a God complex, not only filled with piss and vinegar but open prejudice and thoughtless violence. Twisted ramblings that should be reserved for the diagnosed mentally ill. And, yes, he even made a joke about wanting to marry his own attractive daughter. 

Many mainstream Republicans (if this phrase actually fits anyone in those ranks) are running from Trump now. So how do we explain the fact that polls consistently show that many registered in that party have stated they will vote for this man? He has been holding a steady second place and this is not only frightening, but its enough to make one wonder if there is any hope for the middle and south of the nation, as well as the pockets of ignorance and prejudice everywhere else. But if Trump is to be seen as a bizarre side-show in the long run, the rest of the Republican choices are not so easily laughed off. With so much pent-up hate for the nation's first Black president still in reserve, these guys act like anything goes now when they speak to their constituency. A constituency that needs to blame someone for the lack of prospects for their future and the astronomic cost of homes. Armed with a Bible wrapped in the flag, these angry white Americans just don't know when they've been had. And they have been had for more generations than anyone can count.

Through it all, there is a burning interest in the candidacy of socialist Bernie Sanders. His  run for the presidency on the Democratic ticket marks something truly new in US politics. Sanders openly cites the model of Eugene V Debs, the socialist union leader who ran for president multiple times including from a jail cell when he ran on an anti-war (WW1) agenda. Debs' impact on the working-class and poor was vast and as a result, reforms began to become a reality. If Debs failed to win the presidency, it wasn't for lack of trying: by the time of his Canton Ohio speech, the one that landed him in jail, he'd already become a legend and his following went deep into the center and southern parts of the country as well as the coasts. 

But Debs' period of activity was one in which many farmer-labor parties fielded candidates; his campaigns were run on the Socialist Party ticket. In the current sphere, only the two major parties will be seen in televised debates, let alone the final count of an election. So Bernie is running as a Democrat which assures him a full presence in the primary and an increasing status in the eyes of the press. He has the wonderful audacity to speak of universal healthcare, a federal education and jobs program, and peace in a time of unbridled averice. Sanders is simply unafraid and in this regard a model for every progressive. Especially when it gets too hot. 

The trick now is for we on the Left to finally be unafraid and stand by this man who offers a hope we have never known. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: JOELITO'S BIG DECISION / LA GRAN DECISION DE JOELITO

JOELITO’S BIG DECISION / LA GRAN DECISIÓN DE JOELITO   (NY: Hardball Press, 2015). Written by Ann Berlak; illustrations by Daniel Camacho   -  www.hardballpress.com



Book Review by John Pietaro

Like most children’s books built on a progressive core, ‘Joelito’s Big Decision / La Gran Decisión de Joelito ’ strives for impact. Though educational, it never loses the enjoyable, compelling quality necessary to hold youthful attention. More so, the book is enlightening on both cultural and socio-political levels, and visually enthralling.

The text—including the title—is offered in both English and Spanish, with no differentiation of the font size. The overt and underlying message of this converges in unity and equality. And the story of a boy’s recognition of the need to stand by his neighbors who are underpaid restaurant workers is nothing short of timely. The publisher, Hard Ball Press, was founded by Tim Sheard, an official of the National Writers Union with a long history in the fight for social change (as well as fine literature).

Nine year-old Joelito is part of a warm, caring family residing in an urban California locale. His parents work for a living but by all indications are making ends meet. Each Friday they eat dinner out. The weekly pilgrimage to the local burger place stands as a bonding point for Joelito, his sister Alma and their parents. The restaurant itself looms large in the kids’ sphere, literally and figuratively. But his close friend Brandon’s family is undergoing financial struggles and engage in a labor action at this same restaurant, their workplace. It is through this vehicle that Joelito comes to understand the disparity and imbalance that was always right in front of him.

Writer Berlak’s character studies are standard for a children’s book, where there is a need for expediency. However, the flow of the story is not only well-paced but lovingly told. It feels natural, as if based on conversations overheard among children. Berlak has a vivid understanding of the issue as seen through the fourth-grader’s eyes—her fifty-year career as an educator is evident.

Another character that is featured in this book is the restaurant itself: a large plastic statue of the owner’s head adorns the rooftop of each outlet and while it had previously beckoned Joelito as a positive, fun image, the enormous, bulbous fixture later appears ominous. To the low-wage employees, it represents the arrogance of the owner’s greed. The business God-complex should also be obvious to the adult reading over the children’s shoulder. But what of the plastic veneer of the burger mogul’s effigy?

The artwork by Daniel Camacho requires some note. The influence of classic Mexican folkloric art is proudly overt. The characters have large round faces, wide mouths and staring eyes, appearing all the more like papier mache masks. There is a level of surrealism to this, but never in a manner that may be off-putting to children. In fact, the creative visuals should only enhance the readers’ sense of wonder. Camacho is widely celebrated for his murals; the Mexican and Chicano tradition of political statement through murals is well-established on the Left. Many of the frames in ‘Joelito’s Big Decision / Joelito Decide’ could have climbed off the walls of Camacho’s radical visions.

The story of workers fighting for dignity and security for their families is ongoing. The heritage of struggle is well told here as Joelito, searching for a fuller understanding of this challenge, is reminded by his mother that her parents were desperately poor farm workers: “Demonstrating to be treated more fairly saved your abuelos’ lives”. The accompanying illustration of Cesar Chavez leading a march forges an indelible link between Si Se Puede! and the Fight for $15.


The striving for workers’ rights continues but the choices we make have an impact well beyond our immediate purview.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Obituary of ORNETTE COLEMAN

ORNETTE COLEMAN: 1930-2015
Loss of the Jazz Revolutionary, Not the Revolution

An obituary by John Pietaro

                                                                   Photo courtesy of SFJazz.org

Ornette Coleman, the composer and multi-instrumentalist, died on June 11th in Manhattan. He was 85. Though health challenges in recent years had been a constant struggle, Coleman’s relevance as a visionary artist kept him at the helm of the “Change of the Century”; this jazz revolution began some 60 years ago but lives far beyond his mortal years.

The challenge Ornette posed to listeners, to musicians and to the public in a period of anxious social upheaval matched the tenor of the times. With roots in Texas blues and then years spent on the road before endeavoring deeply in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Ornette’s concepts were stirring, indeed, radical on every level. His vision of a liberated melody, harmony and rhythm, aka Harmolodics, reflected the abstract expressionist movement in visual art and yet held such a visceral connection to the blues, to African American folk forms, that it was anything but abstract. A closer listen revealed the entire spectrum of the Black experience as it pushed outward.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, Coleman was raised in a poor household after his father died in a tragic accident. Searching for the means to grow beyond the cramped rural home by the railroad tracks, the young Ornette became enamored with the arts. His initial foray into music grew out of self-taught experimentation and high school band, and was heralded by the sounds on the radio and what he could pick up on the circuit. Hearing Charlie Parker affected Coleman deeply and many of the musicians who knew him back in Texas have said that he had an uncanny ability to imitate the legendary Parker’s approach to the alto saxophone. Among his cohorts on the Fort Worth music scene were drummer Charles Moffet, whom he’d perform with again in the mid-60s, clarinetist John Carter, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and flutist and multi-reeds player Prince Lasha, all of whom would go on to careers as expansive jazz artists. Coleman performed in a disparate range of arenas, from minstrel shows to bars, parties to pick-up gigs, but was wont to make enemies on many a bandstand due to his burning need for invention. Not content to perform the be-bop, jump blues or R & B he was hired for, Coleman forged new ground in this unlikeliest of places---until finally finding his way to the West Coast.

Once in LA, Coleman sought out sympathetic co-voyagers in after-hours clubs until finding cornetist Don Cherry. With the saxophonist acting in the role of guide-star, Cherry’s unique voice came to fruition, offering an indelible counter-part to Coleman’s own searching, achingly blue and yet joyous tone.  Both had a penchant for brief, simple folk-like melodies that, upon repetition, reconfigured into bold new layered pathways which overtook the rules of music theory. Just long enough to explode into seemingly unfettered forays.

Coleman’s higher form of improvisatory performance-practice, upon examination, offers clear resolutions connecting passages or movements—not the standard chordal dominant-to-tonic resolution but logical cadences summoning the return of the piece’s melody or its ending. Concurrently, Ornette Coleman’s abilities as a composer came to the forefront and he was able to draw out some of the most painfully captivating melodies from his and Cherry’s horns. Early examples such as “Lonely Woman” and “Beauty is a Rare Thing” continue to dictate the apex of jazz balladry.

To the uninitiated, the music in its formative years was akin to wild confusion. Coleman and Cherry were laughed out of performance spaces, physically threatened.  Jazz critics fought over who would get their hatchet pieces to press first. Yet, Coleman’s supporters found in his music a new way, a liberation that shunned pre-conceived notions and tore off the shackles that confined. Pianists John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Paul Bley, as well as Leonard Bernstein, celebrated the daring sounds and concepts. Even Coleman’s instrument spoke of a new dawn in the music: he played an alto saxophone made of plastic which produced a throaty wail in long-held tones. This coupled with musical memories of the Southwest begat soaring, compelling phrases that dipped and contoured, offering a cry that stirred one’s soul. This was something drastically new, yet simply timeless.

The young progressive bassist Charlie Haden joined the cause, and with the addition of the driving post-bop drummer Billy Higgins or, alternately, the New Orleans-raised Ed Blackwell (who’d define free drumming), the Ornette Coleman Quartet came to be. The four-way instrumental conversations that floated over 20th century jazz constructions advanced the legend, albeit often in negative terms. Los Angeles in the mid-later 1950s was a bitter place for an African American musical revolutionary drenched in the avant garde. Yet, Coleman, brandishing the stealth symbolism of Black liberation, persisted.

The Quartet relocated to New York and held residency at the Five Spot club on the Lower East Side for months. Through the derision of negative reviewers as well as the championing of others, Coleman was elevated to celebrity status. The Quartet’s groundbreaking recordings led the way of this musical genre, this new thing, that had no title as of yet.

Following releases such as “Something Else!” and “Change of the Century”, Coleman’s next albums continued the trend of claiming ground. The self-defining “This is Our Music” led to the breathtaking “Free Jazz” which featured a double quartet--in stereo!--that included the likes of Eric Dolphy, performing freeform works. For many at the time, this was as far as the music could go. The latter album title soon stood as the banner of the genre itself. For the next generation of social justice activists, the eponymous freedom in a free jazz was a grand symbol of, a soundtrack to, movements of liberation. This unleashing of the instrumentalist created an art form as radical as the days demanded.

The musicians of the Coleman ensembles included the aforementioned giants Cherry, Haden, Blackwell, Higgins and Moffet as well as bassists Scott LaFaro and David Izenson, saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s young son, among others. Ornette Coleman’s chameleon-like tendency toward change saw him through a variety of musical settings, testing his limits (and the audience’s) at each turn. The quartets and trios brought the leader to still wider experimentation including an expansion of his own musical arsenal, adding trumpet and violin.

Later, Coleman played in Morocco with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, he composed the epic orchestral work ‘Skies of America’, founded the space Artists House, won the Pulitzer Prize and multiple fellowships, and then realized the transformation of his Harmolodic theory as Prime Time, a band built on funk and dance grooves. Electric instruments became central and guitarist Bern Nix and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma were among the stalwarts Coleman called upon to realize this concept.
Prime Time became Coleman’s vehicle for performance through the final decades of his performing life but he also collaborated with older bandmates at various junctures, helped to found Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock NY and presented his music at Lincoln Center in a performance with the New York Philharmonic, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. He created the performance hall Caravan of Dreams in Texas, performed around the world and recorded an award-winning album with guitarist Pat Methaney. Coleman’s rather legendary battle with major labels saw him refusing huge sums of money as he sought out, as usual, his own way.

There was no one like Ornette, this brilliant musical philosopher and singular voice who forged a path of revolt in a time when racism and inequity coursed through the nation unashamed. His musical journey inspired new generations of free improvisers and experimental composers and demonstrated that undeterred vision can conquer the status quo.

The implications for the wider battle for revolutionary change should have been apparent in all Coleman did. The themes in his epic work ‘Skies of America’ speak volumes: “Foreigner in a Free Land”, “The Men Who Live in the White House”, “Native Americans”, “Soul Within Woman”, “The Military” and “The Artist in America” offer insight into the quiet man’s concerns for his nation and his people.

But Coleman’s commentary on the struggle could best be heard through his revolution of sound. Screaming and then subtle, devoid of the obvious, all was left to the listener to define the meaning for himself.

In remembering some of the Coleman theories on race relations, the trumpeter Matt Lavelle, a student of Ornette for years and a current Harmolodic protagonist, recalled the master stating:

“The major chord is white; the minor chord is black. Do you agree?”

But the question was defiantly rhetorical.

“O.C. just dropped in this sort of subversive, almost subliminal way to bring you to a higher perspective”, Lavelle explained. “To your own reality in that higher perspective”.

...And then the profound silence which followed became enveloped in a mournful song of colossal heights.

--THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN COUNTERPUNCH MAGAZINE--