To the editors:
Upon the reading of your book review (“Reading: It’s Really Gone, Man,” 7 May) I am quite troubled by your interpretation of the thing you call “Free Jazz.” I do not believe you gave this stage in jazz music a fair shake. Given that the two books discussed (Hobsbawm’s The Jazz Scene and Rosenthal’s Hard Bop) do not really discuss free jazz to extent, you dabbled slightly into it. For this I commend you. Although, Michael, I feel that you treated free jazz in an ugly and biased manner. Nowhere did you discuss the admiration some critics had when hearing the music of Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, or post-Bop John Coltrane to offset your own opinions. You should have.
You talk about Hobsbawm writing his book before the “traces of decay” began to appear out of Hard Bop. Nothing “decayed,” Michael. What happened in the jazz scene at that time was necessary because of the growing boredom most Bop players seemed to be going through (Coltrane, Rollins, Mingus). The degree of racism in this country needed to be addressed, and what better way than through music, especially Jazz. Albert Ayler said that his music was the life and torment of the black ghetto in America. Shepp played with the same idea, but released the ghetto in his soul as well. You should have given these men some credit for what they did, how they carried the revolution along, and yes, playing from both the heart and mind. In your review, you said that Bop was the last time performers played with these things in mind–how absurd of you. Do you think that Free Jazz had no aesthetic appeal, wasn’t powerful, not a reaction against the racial torment inflicted upon African Americans (or, Africans in America) in this country in the 60s? I do wonder.
In your review, you also mention the “cool jazz” happening on the west coast. I do not think the music of Charles Mingus embodied a cool-jazz feel. Thus, you excluded his name from your review when speaking about not only the books, but beyond the books and your interpretation of jazz music. Something deeply disturbed me in your piece when you discussed the result of the music being “immensely fruitful.” I have no idea of what you are talking about. Nothing, Michael, nothing was fruitful or rewarding as far as the performer was concerned–any way you look at it. The men and women of jazz were constantly fucked over by club owners, record execs, bar patrons, drug dealers, and sometimes even their own musicians–consistently. When Billie Holiday sang in clubs, her pay would just be enough to get her off on her Heroin habit. Night after night, she’d come back to the club to sing because she knew exactly where she could get just enough money to support her habit. The business of jazz killed Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker, among many, had to pawn his instrument often so that he could buy Heroin. He hoped that he could get it out of hock that night or afternoon so that he could play. Bop players refined their music for white audiences, for white clubs, and for record companies. Unless anyone has any recordings of Parker practicing, smoking, and playing at Minton’s in Harlem, we will perhaps never know what Charlie Parker really sounded like. What, I ask, is “fruitful” about the music. It was, and still is, a very cathartic music. All music is. But these performers were constantly meddled with in their careers. They never got their just deserts. These bop musicians, and more importantly free jazz musicians, were constantly misunderstood by critics (mainly white) that really didn’t “get it.” That act of not “getting it” cost some people their lives and livelihood.
What jazz music did was revitalize America. It made them stand on their toes. It tickled their ears. Why did these men have to live in poverty? Have drug problems that everyone could clearly see but never helped? When jazz musicians went to Europe, they were treated as royalty, the red carpet was rolled out for them. They had some respect for the art and majesty of jazz. In America, they were evicted from homes, underpaid, disrespected.
Back to Free Jazz. Michael, you seem to understand the revolt that happened out of swing and bop, but not in free jazz. Why? It seems to me that free jazz falls right into succession with the other revolutions and revelations in the music. The norm becomes passe because it is just that. When something becomes stagnant in art or culture, we latch on to or create anew. This is what free jazz exemplified. There is an evolution, a shedding of skin, a metamorphosis to everything created. Everything that free jazz stood for should have been taken in and understood in full. Still critics said noise, noise, noise. Hogwash! A noise, a disturbance, a clatter needed to be created. There was plenty of racial noise coming from cities like Watts, Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore. So why should anyone understand free jazz when they couldn’t understand these cities?! Without free jazz, people like Ayler, Shepp, and Coltrane would have never aired their grievances and musical ability–these items were married in the music of free jazz.
In your review, you also say (I believe in your opinion) that the “new thing” had “no swing, it didn’t even have a beat. Or a tune.” Well, Michael, I guess it depends on what you have been exposed to. The music of Ornette Coleman surely has a beat and wonderful melodies. Have you ever heard “Ghosts” or “Truth Is Marching In” by Albert Ayler? Have you ever heard the album Fire Music, by Archie Shepp? These recordings and many more have beautiful songs and “tunes” intertwined within the “clatter.” These men were trained. They knew exactly what they were doing. Don’t dog what you seem to not understand or what you have not fully exposed yourself to. But, Michael, over time you will understand–at least I hope so.
On a final note: you mention the “revival” of Jazz presently. And since Hard Bop, “no new style with any staying power has emerged.” There is indeed a “revival” going on. In fact, some of it is happening right here in Chicago. Free Jazz is being reborn in grand 90s style. Bands like the Ken Vandermark Quartet, NRG Ensemble, and the Flying Luttenbachers are all playing in their own “free jazz” stylings. These bands have a great 90s take on the music. They give it the freedom to flow wherever, but they also understand the importance of pulse, harmony, and melody. They also understand that music has changed since 1965, so they throw in some rock and roll riffs for good measure.
In the future, Michael, I would hope you could open yourself up to some truly expressive and mind- altering music. You don’t have to go far either. Give this thing “free jazz” another go around. You may be surprised. And hey, be brave!