Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Essay: SUMMER OF LOVE REDUX, All Over Again

by John Pietaro

San Francisco, June 1967 (Mercury News)

This piece, a combined essay, recollection and review, was composed in late June, 2007, as the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love had moved into public consciousness. I intended it as a piece for “Z”, a magazine I’d frequently been writing for at the time, but it was left unpublished until three years later when I established my blog The Cultural Worker and included this article within it’s archive. Somehow, with the passing of a decade and so much attention thrust upon the half-century mark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper as well as that summer in question and its West Coast festival, my thoughts drifted back to this piece.
A bit of dusting is all it took, and upon reading it in light of the nightmare going on in the White House right now, I almost found myself a bit nostalgic for the Bush years. Almost.
In the wake of late 1960s’ mass uprisings, it’s clear that we can do a lot better than George W’s—or LBJ’s--mindless guffaws. But considering the crushing blows that civil rights, women’s rights, workers, the environment and TRUTH have taken in just a few miserable Trumpian months, reaching back to a time of relentless activism as a means of inspiration can only do us a hell of a lot of good. We cannot just flash the peace sign, we must believe it. Liberation must cease to be a concept and once again take on the role of tactic. And when we speak of taking the streets, we’d better mean that we are taking them back. There’s something happening here and it is frighteningly clear.
So, onto my now 10 year old article on the happenings of 1967, ‘Summer of Love Redux’ and take a few moments to consider how far we’ve both come and fallen.

Hey, so it’s been forty years since the Summer of Love. Wasn’t that a time? An illegal war coming to a raging boil, hatred of the US in many parts of the world, an ignorant lame duck southern president flailing about the White House, and of course rising popular unrest. I read the news today, oh boy, and its déjà vu all over again.
But there’s more:  how about the struggle against racism? Though the Voting Rights Act passed the year following the Summer of Love (natch), Americans can still be counted on to seek out blame in other. Oh, and the environment has also made a return. And Labor struggles are coming back, too, but now instead of workers throwing bricks at anti-war protestors, they’re often joining up with them---if this radicalism keeps up, we may grow back the union teeth we lost during the Cold War. Corporate America envisioned world domination during the 1960s and now of course there’s Wal-Mart. And while abortion is not currently illegal, given the climate, who knows how long that may be the case. Still, peace marches go on with earnest tenacity.  And  I Spy mentality is running rampant, but this time focusing on everyone instead of just the Commies. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is reading my email. This may not exactly be COINTELPRO, but it nearly makes me feel nostalgic for it.
Speaking of nostalgia, what about the music of 1967? This summer marked the middle age, if you will, of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as well as the debut albums of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Velvet Underground, Donavan, Taj Mahal, Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees, the Buffalo Springfield, Procol Harum, Ten Years After, and the Doors. The Stones released “Their Satanic Majesties Request”. Traffic gave us “Dear Mr. Fantasy”.  The Moody Blues took over the symphony orchestra and brought forth “Days of Future Past”. The Beatles also released the singles “All You Need is Love” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” shortly beforehand, offering both a theme to the summer’s proceedings as well as a backdrop for general tripping. All this while Aretha’s 45 RPM “Respect” was burning up the airwaves. Our pocket radios would never recover.
And while ’67 also saw Brian Wilson walk out of the studio before he could finish his legendary masterwork, “Smile”, that year marked a change in popular music that would not be reversed—until we were force-fed daily Britney Spears reports on cable news shows. But I digress. Dylan began experimenting with the power of roots music in a Woodstock basement with the Band. His “John Wesley Harding” hit record stores later that year, as did the Band’s “Music from Big Pink”. And “Alice’s Restaurant” established the career of Arlo Guthrie, son of the man who made Dylan possible. All this while Dylan cohort Phil Ochs expanded his own palette by releasing “Pleasures of the Harbor”, an expansionist view of folk so different than “going electric”. This year also saw the coming of Ochs’ friend Victor Jara, the Chilean protest singer; neither Ochs nor Jara would survive the 70s or revel in the nostalgia. Neither would Otis Redding ---he was deeply relevant, making the scene in both R & B and rock venues and penning classics that do not allow for stylistic boundaries. Likewise, in ‘67 Sly and the Family Stone were preparing for their first album, offering a fusion of everything—but now it all had groove. Ooooh, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Nuff said. And Blood Sweat and Tears were in rehearsal, as was an earlier version of Chicago, then called The Big Thing, forging the jazz-rock that screamed needles off of turn-tables. 
The Electric Flag throbbed with the same vibe—edgy brass and woods laying it down for harrowing electric guitar solos--though from a more Blues-based approach. But then John Coltrane blew them all away with his “Live at the Village Vanguard Again”; jazz-rock couldn’t stand up to this. And  Miles’s “Nefertiti” drove the point home. “Disraeli Gears” by Cream then took the Blues and turned them inside out, but Janis Joplin reclaimed the music, adding a southern authenticity forged through guttural overdrive.  Primal scream therapy coming through your hi-fi.
Love beads may have lost some of their impact, but, shit, that was some great music. Recently we saw the 40th anniversary of Scott McKenzie’s hit “If You’re Going to San Francisco”, which  had actually brought so many wannabes to Haight-Ashbury that most of the originals, like the Diggers and Dead, needed to consider moving on before long. But who could think of that detail, as the anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival is all the rage? Here was the original benefit concert; a professionally organized be-in that featured some of the very best that rock and pop had to offer. Allen Ginsberg’s vision of an amorphous body of social change had been realized, for the better or worse.
The newly released fortieth anniversary edition CD makes full use of today’s technology (extra tracks and all re-mastered) while reminding us of exactly how we got here. The selections scorch their way through your speakers when they are not offering an ethereal, almost escapist means for us to relax. Hendrix, Joplin (with Big Brother), the Airplane, Mamas and the Papas, Butterfield, Simon and Garfunkel, Otis, the Flag, the Byrds, the Who! There’s Ravi Shankar’s mastery and Hugh Masakela’s multi-culti sounds. The usually mellow Association is actually kicking, while Booker T grooved us to death.
This event, and the anniversary disc, demonstrate the power of song in a period of societal transition. Monterey gets overlooked in light of Woodstock, but its time to recognize the foundation the former laid for the latter’s realization of the youth movement. The musicians may not have always known it, but that summer they were singing the soundtrack to a painful, vital graduation.

-John Pietaro is a writer and musician from New York

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Obit: BERN NIX 1947-2017, the Wire magazine

"The Wire"

BERN NIX 1947-2017 

John Pietaro recalls the Prime Time guitarist

Bern Nix, 2017. Photo by John Pietaro

Writer and musician John Pietaro on the “post-modern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition” who co-founded Ornette's Prime Time

Bern Nix, the guitarist and founding member of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, died in his Manhattan home on 31 May. His unexpected passing fell just three months short of his 70th birthday.

Nix was widely known as an original, a unique find even among the most avant of the avant garde. News of his loss spread like a firestorm among New York’s jazz community, and the grieved responses of friends and fans are legion. This veteran of Coleman’s legendary sphere contributed his singular instrumental voice to the music continuum, standing as a postmodern experimentalist embedded in the jazz tradition. Nix’s speaking voice was just as intriguing, gently urbane in defiance of an almost sphynx-like repose. His welcoming tone softly beckoned one into his line of logic: Bern enjoyed discussing the nuances not only of music, but philosophy, art, history and radically left politics. A sparkle overtook his eyes as he listened to those in his purview, then raising a finger to signal his entry into the discussion, he quietly came to own the room. As was the case with his guitar playing, when he spoke softly, the focus stayed on him. Bern’s stage whisper was most effective.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, arguably on 21 September 1947 (some bios list his birth year as 1950), Bern Nix was introduced to music in childhood and began playing the guitar at age 11. Driven toward the jazz guitarists of the time, he listened intently to Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Rainey and Barney Kessel, but while encompassing the full canon, he came upon the early electric lead guitarist Charlie Christian who remained a particular inspiration. Nix later moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music in preparation for a career in the mainstream. “I always had a penchant for straight-ahead jazz guitar playing,” he told me in 2013, “and I play that still. Before I worked with Ornette, I never thought I would be in Prime Time. But this music allows the harmony to shift, like chase-chords, moving through and beyond. It is in and it is out…”

The offer to work with the framer of free jazz was too much to pass up for the budding young guitarist. In 1975, after graduation, he came to New York and successfully auditioned for the job with Coleman, replacing James Blood Ulmer. Nix came to work closely with the master in the developing of Prime Time, Coleman’s vehicle for bringing his harmolodic theory into a funk-oriented, heavily amplified milieu. As was the case with the fervour raised by Ornette’s original quartet in 59, many audiences were critical of the new sound, claiming it to be a “sell-out”. Nix never agreed. “The ‘swing’ was always there,” he recalled. “This music is an extension of the early jazz tradition where the sense of freedom, the improvisation, was constantly creative. Here the band’s roles are never static and are always shifting, evolving…”

Nix became a core member of Prime Time, a focal point of its critically acclaimed debut LP, Dancing in Your Head, which also brandished the spectre of The Master Musicians Of Joujouka in its grooves. The album was utterly epic. Follow-ups Body Meta (1976), Of Human Feelings (1979), In All Languages (1987) and Virgin Beauty (1988) were nothing if not wonderfully controversial. New music circles everywhere paid heed to the band that begat whole schools of downtown thought. But even as he served as its first lead guitarist, Nix began working with others then populating the Lower East Side, crafting fusions of genre unique to the time and place. He toured with no waver James Chance in 1981 and performances with Sedition and Sabir Mateen followed, but the 1984 debut of The Bern Nix Trio offered the guitarist a personalised pool of creativity. The Trio also allowed Nix to maintain a public profile as Coleman embarked on a strike against the recording industry, protesting corporate stranglehold.

Nix’s band wouldn’t record until 1993’s Alarms And Excursions, by which time several changes of line-up occurred (bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Newman Baker are on the record), but its core maintained consistency: pure Bern Nix.

Though the Trio continued as a force, The Bern Nix Quartet grew from within and in recent years became Nix’s primary ensemble. Bassist Francois Grillot, multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle (trumpet, alto clarinet, flugelhorn) and drummer Reggie Sylvester cast an acoustic format that straddled the boundaries of free jazz, new composition and, yes, funk. Nix’s solos comprised of quivering single notes, barked dyads and chordal runs up and down and then across his instrument’s neck. He toyed with repetitions before tossing them aside for lines of advanced tonality. Kandinsky-esque staccato phrases and slippery runs alternated. Technique for Nix can be boiled down to legitimacy torn asunder by design.

Pertinent collaborations with poet Jayne Cortez, and downtown stalwarts Jemeel Moondoc, John Zorn, Kip Hanrahan, Elliot Sharp and Arto Lindsay kept Nix at the top of his game. But his presence was also felt in guest spots with 30 years’ worth of young lions, features in area festivals and ensembles such as The Beyond Group (led by flautist Cheryl Pyle) and those helmed by Lavelle, or saxophonists Patrick Brennan or Ras Moshe Burnett among many more.

Nix’s final performance was on 27 May, just several days prior to his passing. His set was a feature of New Music Nights, the series I curated, and by all account this was a particularly enlivened Quartet gig. Afterward, Bern spoke of the callous political climate afflicting the US since January, the weariness evident in his stance. As I folded mic stands, our discussion turned to future bookings in the series. “Of course, Bern. Any time. Any time,” I smiled as he departed.

Ever the bohemian, Nix lived a meagre life in a tiny single room Ooccupancy apartment. He struggled to make ends meet and pondered at length the loss of opportunities for creatives in these times. He played the same guitar over many decades, the carrying case of which seemed held together merely by hope. Arriving at dates with his instrument and an impossibly tiny amplifier, he could make the old instrument sing, cry, bite, bellow and swoon, with nary an effort. Leaning over its sunburst soundboard, he withheld his glance from the front row, tired eyes deep-set, pointed downward, not in a haughty manner but locked in an especially artful space all his own. His was a linear style which cut across expansive melodies, harmonies and rhythm.

While he had no opportunities in recent times to hit the major venues of the Prime Time era, Nix thrived in each performance setting he encountered. Whether on the Vision Festival main stage in 2013 or in the fleeting rooms that sprang up on New York’s Lower East Side or in Williamsburg, he offered audiences a rare, valuable and cherished glimpse into the legacy of Ornette. That giant of free jazz produced a stable of harmolodic emissaries whose work blossomed into whole other forms, still newer realms. Bern Nix stood proudly among them, a survivor, a model, a teacher, a musical adventurer and a gem. We were lucky to have been touched by his bold creativity and gentle hand.

John Pietaro is a writer, musician and cultural organiser from Brooklyn, New York. You can visit his blog at and website

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