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Thread: The Artist Formerly Known as Avant-Garde!

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  1. #1
    AAJ's Barrel Roller xricci's Avatar
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    The Artist Formerly Known as Avant-Garde!



    I posted this article on behalf of trombonist Roswell Rudd.

    http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=983

    Please post your comments re: the article or your definition of avant-garde...

  2. #2
    Beyond Category gdogus's Avatar
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    Nice article, Roswell. I think you're dead-on right, unfortunately.

    Avant garde does denote innovation. It should suggest, in the case of jazz, a musician or composer who is out in front of the front, ahead of the times, one who's trying to find the next stage of the music's evolution. When writers or critics use the term they can mean all of that, or something less positive. More crucial is what most readers understand from the term. Intention is one thing, but reception is another; I think most readers understand avant garde to mean, simply, "you're gonna hear some weird-ass shit, possibly something you won't recognize as jazz, or even music." Now, that doesn't bring people in large numbers.

  3. #3
    Just play your ass off!
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    But also some musicians think that avantgarde means it has to sound very modern or oblique.

    That's not right. Bill Evans, for instance, with his legendary trio, was avantgarde around 1960! Although the music is "harmonic" and listenable for many people.

    In later times, he wasn't avantgarde anymore - precisely because he continued to play in his 1960's way and didn't really develop further. And in the meantime many other musicians played his way - he had become mainstream.

    Miles, with his jazz-rock things around 1970, was avantgarde. His 80's things weren't avantgarde.

    Best Wishes,
    Monk
    "When you don't know what to do, then do nothin'" (Miles Davis)

  4. #4
    Registered User Brownian Movement's Avatar
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    The writer who referred to Roswell Rudd as "avante garde" is a lazy slop whose credentials as a journalist should be revoked. Uniqueness of or eccentricity of style does not an avante gardist make; there must also be disciples operating within a larger musical context at least partially defined by the avante garde musician. Thus Bix was avante garde; Pee Wee Russell was not. Lester Young was avante garde; Chu Berry and Ben Webster were not. Fletcher Henderson was avante garde; Benny Goodman was not. Bird was; Sonny Stitt wasn't.

    And of course Louis Armstrong was the first jazz avante gardest , but even Louis, as profound as his innovations were (someone once said the swing era was a celebration of Louis' contributions), had stopped functioning on jazz's cutting edge by 1930. This brings up another point. True avante garde musicians do not remain avante garde throughout their careers--unless their careers are very brief. To expect an endless stream of invention from any creative person in the arts is to expect the super-human. Even genius has limits.
    The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise

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    I always understood avant-garde to mean 'advanced guard' i.e. those forging the way forward in a direction which the mass of us would ultimately follow. Sort of like those tank crews who punch holes in the enemy lines and cause havoc and a breakdown of enemy morale, thereby allowing the infantry to sweep through more easily later on.

    So in this sense 'avant-garde' has generally been a marketing or publicity label. Listen to this - it's the future, it's ahead of the game. No-one knows what direction the future of any music will taken - suggesting that X, Y or Z are the people who have anticipated the future is partially wish-fulfilment; and partially a desire to justify a liking for the wierd (or a liking for being seen to like the wierd) by claiming it as the future.

    Interestingly much that was 'avant-garde' in 60s jazz, although it has had followers and created a rich tributary of its own, has otherwise been marginally followed and supported; its influence on the broad area of jazz seems to have been as just one of many influences - a colouristic device rather than the raison d'etre of the new musical age.

    Which would...using my definition above...leave a question as to whether, looked at historically, it really was 'avant garde' at all. More an interesting and distinctive side-step.

    I'd also suggest it makes the Coltrane of 1960-65 far more 'avant-garde' than the Coltrane of 1966-7.

    Unless, of course, you take the view that these people (the 60s avant-garde) were so avant-garde that we still havn't got it and that at some point in the future jazz will shape up like Ayler or the Art Ensemble.

    Rudd's point is well taken - his music seems far too diverse to be imprisoned by a label like 'avant-garde'.

    [No comment on the quality of that music intended - some I like, some leaves me cold.]

  6. #6
    Rahsaanaholic
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    A very interesting, informative and frequently very funny article! Thanks for posting this. Roswell Rudd was, is and will continue to be one of my very favorite musicians, at least in part because he doesn't fit comfortably into those neat little pigeonholes of era and/or style that writers, commentators and fans seem obsessed with. I guess it comes with the territory. To talk about these things you almost need some sort of category, but musicians generally reject categories in my experience.

    The point made about "advanced guard" is provocative but ultimately beside the point. Bix was avant-garde because he had "followers" and Pee Wee wasn't because he didn't? We're too caught up in dictionary definitions here IMHO. Pee Wee Russell is a perfect example of someone who was "avant-garde" regardless of the context in which he performed and/or recorded. But then, of course, I'm falling into the same trap we all have and do and will likely continue to do by even saying that. Pee Wee was Pee Wee. Period.

    Rudd is Rudd, regardless of whether he is playing Dixieland, working with Steve Lacy, playing some resort in the Catskills (read the delightfully titled "White Anglo-Saxon Pythagorean" segment of Bebop and Nothingness by Francis Davis for an account), recording the CD he refers to in the article or interacting with the members of Sonic Youth on another of his own projects.

    Musicians or other artists in any media define their own parameters by simply doing what they do. Let's all hope that they continue doing just that regardless of what "we" say, think or write.

    By the way, this thread title ranks up there in the "All Time Top Ten!"

  7. #7
    Just play your ass off!
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    Hello Brownian Movement,

    at least 2 musicians come to my mind who were avantgarde over a long time of their lives resp. were avantgarde multiple times:

    1) Arnold Schoenberg - he again and again changed his cutting edge style until he reached his 12 tone system at an age of 47.

    2) Miles Davis: "Birth Of The Cool"; "Kind Of Blue" - modal playing; 60's quintet; around 70: "Fusion". All these points in his life were avantgardistic.

    Best Wishes,
    Monk
    "When you don't know what to do, then do nothin'" (Miles Davis)

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    Originally posted by monk
    1) Arnold Schoenberg - he again and again changed his cutting edge style until he reached his 12 tone system at an age of 47.
    And yet how much influence did he really have? Certainly on a generation or two of classical composers, most of whom are hardly listend to apart from in academic circles. His method was sometimes adopted by more tonal composers as a colouristic device - Britten, Stravinsky, Shostakovich come to mind - but not as central to their output. Perhaps as an influence on movie music.

    Undoubtedly highly original and ground-breaking. But at the start of the 21st century hardly avant-garde as the direction of much classical music seems to have headed back towards tonality.

    In fact you could put a fascinating argument together that the real 'avant-garde' of the early 20thC were the likes of Korngold who were sidelined by the serial orthodoxy of the mid-20thC but have come into their own in the last 20 years. They were the ones who prepared the way for what is actually happening today.

  9. #9
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    Very interesting article! IMHO, the term “avant-garde” is relative to the moment in which the recording or performance was made.

    As stated earlier, even Satchmo was avant-garde in his day. By comparing an artist’s work in the context of what was popular at the time, we can clearly define who was forging into new ground, who the pioneers were.

    To say that someone had to have followed an avant-garde artist to make the leader avant-garde, assumes that one can only be avant-garde in a historical context which doesn’t make sense to me.

    Jazz, by definition, is an artist’s musical interpretation of their emotional response to the moment. If that interpretation takes that artist to a place where no other artist has gone before then, in that moment, they are avant-garde.

    Once the direction becomes accepted and others take a similar path then future interpretations can no longer be considered avant-garde, even when done by the originating artist. As Joe Strummer once said “if you’ve been playing for years, then we’ve already heard your song.”

    This is not to say that once an artist discovers their sound that they become redundant. There are thousands of tributaries to go down and we as fans love to be taken along for the ride.

  10. #10
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    I'm being very strict in my use of the term 'avant-garde'; I suspect it's current use has become divorced from the actual meaning of the words. Today it tends to be used for anything that goes off in directions that are against the norm.

    As a label I've always found it a bit irritating, terribly self-regarding. I wonder how many performers really regard/ed themselves as 'avant-garde'? I suspect it's a label which is of more importance to a certain type of fan who likes to think of themselves as an admirer of the 'avant-garde.'

    Look at the people who have broken through barriers or pointed the way for the future or just gone down a side-path where no-one else has really tried to follow - your Armstrongs and Bergs and Ellingtons and Ives and Parkers etc etc - and what in the end really counts about them? Is it that they were 'avant garde'? Not at all. It's because they created an utterly distinctive musical world which makes them enthralling years afterwards.

    But the thing is...and this is where I really fall out with the 'avant-garde' luvvies...there are also plenty of musicians who work well within the bounds of the musical convention of their day who also create utterly distinctive musical worlds - your Vaughan Williams and Malcolm Arnolds - who have gone through periods of neglect because they were perceived to be yesterday's men. The 'avant-garde' can become a very powerful clique controlling what can get broadcast or recorded (as happened in the 50s and 60s in the UK with classical music) or what is deemed 'worthwhile' amongst the critics. You only have to look at the world of contemporary 'Art' (as in painting) to see that at work.

    As Traned says there are thousands of musical tributaries - some will be familiar and some will be very odd and go through unfamiliar territory. Those who insist that only the groundbreaking is significant are as wrong-headed as those who dismiss the unfamilar out of hand.

  11. #11
    The Tao of Whiskey
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    The trap that Roswell Rudd and musicians like him have fallen into is that they play jazz that does not fit neatly into a category. After free and fusion (two other terms that have worn out their welcome), critics ran out of categories and became lazy. Rather than just saying that Rudd was a jazz musician, they felt obligated to put another adjective in front of jazz to save themselves from having to explain the music he was making. Genre names are abstractions and are sometimes handy for generalizing what a musician is doing. Unfortunately, once you use a term experimental or avant garde or modern, you've backed yourself into a corner. If you don't come up with a new genre name quickly, you end up with the sort of nonsense that Rudd has to deal with.

    The nice thing about bop and swing and cool, is there was an imaginary demarcation of time in which innovative musicians no longer played those kinds of music. Musicians that crossed those era demarcation lines (like Miles, for instance), weren't saddled with being just bop or cool musicians. Unfortunately, avant garde is a term that is always with you. It has no era demarcation. Once you've been tagged an avant garde musician, you have no place to go but down.
    Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. - Philip K Dick

  12. #12
    AAJ's Birdologist clifton's Avatar
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    The use of the term "avant garde" was essentially a catch-all, a term affixed by the jazz critics of the 1960's to describe the multitude of musical developments of that decade. "Avant garde" was used to describe the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Sunny Murray, and a host of other musicians whose music departed from hard bop orthodoxy. As Rudd's article said, back then, the term avant garde connoted free improvisation. But in reality, the term was so loosely applied as to represent a serious lapse in judgment and critical thinking skills, an inability to investigate or analyze the disciplines and rigors that constituted the musics of so-called "free" players. Archie Shepp was lumped into the avant garde even as he played the blues. Ornette Coleman was labelled avant garde even as he composed hummable melodies and swung the living daylights out of them. In the end, "avant garde" has become a meaningless label, even a stigma, as it follows Roswell Rudd around and diverts attention from what he's really about.

  13. #13
    Rahsaanaholic
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    Originally posted by todda
    The trap that Roswell Rudd and musicians like him have fallen into is that they play jazz that does not fit neatly into a category...
    He hasn't fallen into a trap. Musicians "like him" haven't fallen into any trap either. It's you and/or I who have fallen into the trap. And a whole bunch of folks are more snared than we are.

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