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.