July 30th, 2004, 10:21 PM
tulip or turnip?
Ken Vandermark was born on September 22, 1964 in Warwick, Rhode Island and began playing trumpet in the fourth grade, switching to the tenor saxophone at age 16. Since 1982 he has been seriously exploring the possibilities of improvised music.
During the years 1983-1986 Ken led the group Fourth Stream in Montreal, where he studied and graduated with a B.A. in Film and Communications from McGill University. During that time he also took saxophone lessons with George Garzone in Boston.
From 1986-1989 he lived in Boston and was the leader of the trio Lombard Street. During this period he also began studying the bass clarinet.
In the Fall of 1989 Ken moved to Chicago and is now working with a variety of improvising ensembles, including the Vandermark Five, FME, the Territory Band, the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet and Reed Trio (with Mats Gustafsson), the Nilssen-Love/Vandermark Duo, Free Fall, the DKV Trio, Spaceways Inc., the Sound In Action Trio, School Days, and solo performances. He added to Bb clarinet to his instrumental arsenal during 1992. Ken was selected as one of the "Chicagoans of the Year in the Arts: 1994" by the Chicago Tribune (Jan. 1, 1995) for his work with the Vandermark Quartet.
His group the Vandermark 5 was selected for inclusion the "Art In Chicago: 1945-1995" exhibition held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in that city from Nov. 16, 1996 to Mar. 23, 1997.
In addition to the regularly working groups mentioned above, Ken has been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the most highly respected national and international improvising musicians in the world (see discography below).
Aside from the schools of music influenced by the history of jazz, his music has been greatly impacted by sources like Mississippi Fred McDowell, James Brown, John Cage, the Ex, Gyorgy Ligeti, Sly and the Family Stone, Morton Feldman, Lee Perry, and various traditional musics from around the world.
Since the beginning of 1996 he and the writer John Corbett have been co-organizers of the Empty Bottle "Wednesday Night Jazz Series," concerts that continue to bring improvisers from Chicago, North America, and Europe to audiences on a weekly basis. Starting in January of 2002, Ken became the head curator of these performances, and he began directing the "Chicago Improvisers Series" held on Tuesday nights at that venue. In conjunction with this programming he and John have organized seven international jazz festivals (May of 1997-2000, April 2001-2003), all presented at the Empty Bottle and Chicago Cultural Center.
New City has selected Ken as one of its Music 45, a list of 45 Chicagoans having the greatest impact on the nation’s music industry, since 1998. He placed first in the January, 1999 Cadence Reader's Poll as the musician receiving the greatest number of individual nominations for best recordings released in 1998, and was picked by Down Beat magazine in June of that year as one of the 25 For The Future, the most significant improvising musicians under the age of 40 performing today.
Also in 1999, Ken became a committee member for the "New Music-New Millennium Series" put together by Michael Orlove of the Chicago Cultural Center. In the summer of 1999 he was the only musician, and the youngest ever, to be selected as a MacArthur Fellow. He placed first in Downbeat Magazine's Critics' Poll for 2000 as the Jazz Artist Of The Year Most Deserving Wider Recognition and has placed highly in that category every year since; in 2002 and 2003 Ken was selected by the same poll for inclusion in the Composer, Acoustic Group (for the Vandermark 5), and Tenor Sax categories During the spring of 2001 he began to work with the baritone saxophone.
Since the middle 1990s, Ken has toured extensively in the United States and Europe, performing at many internationally renowned music festivals.
July 30th, 2004, 10:22 PM
tulip or turnip?
Elements of Style, Exercises In Surprise
AAJ CD Reviews
Elements of Surprise...Exercises In Surprise - The Vandermark Five [Atavistic] by Mark Corroto
Furniture Music - Ken Vandermark [Okka Disk] by Derek Taylor
Airports for Light - Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Nils Jacobson
Dual Pleasure - Paal Nilssen-Love/Ken Vandermark [Smalltown Supersound] By Mark Corroto
Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 - The Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Frank Rubolino
Free Jazz Classics Vol. 1 & 2 - Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Nils JacobsonFree Jazz Classics: Live at the Empty Bottle - Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Todd R. Brown
Acoustic Machine - The Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Mark Corroto
English Suites - Paul Lytton and Ken Vandermark [Wobbly Rail] by Micah Holmquist
Burn The Incline - Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Nils Jacobson
Burn the Incline - Vandermark 5 [Atavistic] by Derek Taylor
Thirteen Cosmic Standards - Spaceways Incorporated [Atavistic] by Mark Corroto
Design In Time - Sound In Action Trio [Delmark Records] by Derek Taylor
AAJ Concert Reviews
Vandermark 5 Columbus, Ohio October 6, 2000 by Mark Corroto
The Vandermark 5 Take LA by Rex Butters
A Fireside Chat With Ken Vandermark by Fred Jung
July 30th, 2004, 10:25 PM
tulip or turnip?
Ken recently returned from touring Europe and expects to make his first “Catching Up With…” appearance during the first week of August.
July 31st, 2004, 08:08 AM
AAJ's Barrel Roller
I posted this interview with the Vandermark 5 yesterday.
August 5th, 2004, 09:24 PM
Defining Terms (part 1)
DEFINING TERMS (part 1)
I’ve been asked by All About Jazz to participate in their music forum during August, 2004. For this month I would like to address what I feel are a number of problematic issues related to the contemporary improvised music scene. I hope that this will open a dialog about ideas and definitions concerning the music, and help move the current discussion towards a clearer distinction between what is, and isn’t, being dealt with in today’s music environment.
If you are familiar with me and my music you already know that I am at odds with most of the criticism currently being written about improvised music. This is not because I have received some negative reviews, however. It is because I believe there are too many journalists whose writing is based on ignorance. A number of critics have stated that they feel my statements on this subject are biased, unfair and unconstructive, at best, and driven by self promotion, at worst. In an attempt to see things from the their point of view, to better understand how it might be possible to improve the jazz and improvised music media’s coverage of the scene (and to hopefully better the insight and understanding of the music by audiences, writers, and programmers), it has become quite clear that many of the basic problems found in the contemporary criticism of improvised music are due to the lack of clearly defined terminology used to discuss what is being heard. Several years ago the writer, Kevin Whitehead, tried to address this issue in an article for the Village Voice. Unfortunately, it is clear that few took up his challenge for finding new and better ways to define contemporary jazz/improvised music. Maybe now’s the time.
Here are a few simple examples of terms I see used all the time that no longer have a clear definition.
1. Free Jazz. Does this refer to a specific approach to American jazz developed during the late 1950’s and 1960’s that broke away from standard chord changes? Or is it an international style of jazz being played today that has it’s source and foundation based in that music? Or does it mean jazz played today by musicians that are free to take their inspiration from whatever sources they choose? Am I a Free Jazz musician? If the third statement is the way that term is defined, then yes. If it’s one of the previous two, then no.
2. Free Improvised Music. Is this a category of music developed in England during the late 1960’s? Or is it a style of improvisation that refuses to allow “American jazz conventions” within it’s parameters? If that’s the case, is it still actually free? Is this language a style defined completely by European innovations, or is it a method of improvisation that, simply put, doesn’t use predetermined materials?
3. Experimental Music. A reference to the composed music written after War Two? Music that just sounds “strange and different?” Music where the outcome, whether using written materials or improvisation, cannot be predetermined?
This list is just a starting point, but I think the gist is clear: many of the terms often being used in today’s music criticism aren’t truly defined. When employed they obfuscate the reader, they don’t help the illuminate the music or the listener. Part of the problem, too, is that we cannot continue to use terminology developed decades ago to describe the music of today, the language of the past cannot continue to explain the present. It is time for new and clear terms to be developed to help communicate the art with words.
CRISIS OF RECORDINGS
Due to a complex series of changes that have negatively affected the possibilities to perform live improvised music, recordings have gained a dangerous level of importance in the supposed understanding of jazz and improvised music. I am frequently on the road, both in North America and in Europe, and it is fair to say that the bands I work with will pretty much play anywhere they can. Many of the journalists who write about my music have never seen me and the ensembles I belong to perform live. In some cases this is because they live in places where I can’t get to a gig. In some cases they may have seen me play once or twice and don’t come to a concert because they might be busy, or perhaps they think that they already understand what our different groups are doing. In most circumstances the criticism written about the music I, and most other improvisers, play is based on what journalists hear on recordings. Maybe they get paid more to do this than to preview or review concerts, I’m not sure, and writers have to pay the rent like the rest of us. The end result, however, is that recordings have begun to define the music, not concerts, and this situation is very problematic.
Improvised music is a process art form, one recording or one concert does not define a musician or a band’s work. It has become harder and harder for groups to play more than one night in a city, frequently the only people who hear the developments in the music on a daily basis are the members of the ensemble. The real musicians who play improvised music search for something new to say during every performance, whether on stage or in the studio, but it seems that only a small percentage of the audience is willing to regularly participate in that evolving creative process.
Instead, many listeners and critics seek the “defining album” of an artist, or feel that they “know” an improviser’s work after hearing a few recordings. This approach to understanding an artist’s music is highly misleading, as an example take the work of Peter Brotzmann. How many people define his career with the album, Machine Gun? To do so, while ignoring the music of long term working bands (like his trio with Fred Van Hove and Han Bennink, the group Die Like A Dog, his solo music, the Chicago Tentet, never mind the countless other projects that he’s performed and recorded with), would be to miss the real range of his art. Another example, which record should be chosen as the ultimate album of Miles Davis’ career? Birth Of The Cool? Miles Ahead? Something by the quintet with John Coltrane? Or maybe when Cannonball Adderly made that group a sextet? Miles Smiles? Bitches Brew? Any real improvising musician cannot be defined by one day in the studio, or one night on stage. To truly understand the art form of jazz and improvised music, whether as a player or listener, you must participate in the process as often as possible because like life, it is always changing.
LACK OF FUNDAMENTAL KNOWLEDGE
One of the more highly respected journals covering improvised music in the English language is the magazine, Wire. In it’s most recent issue one of their writers described the drummer, Hamid Drake, as a “young lion.” I have always understood the term to mean a new, up and coming jazz musician. Hamid is in his late 40’s, and has been playing this music at the highest level for more than two and a half decades, working with musicians like Don Cherry, Peter Brotzmann, Fred Anderson, and David Murray on a regular basis. Maybe the critic who wrote that statement was unaware of this? Perhaps his or her editor was unaware of this? Yet Wire has been writing reviews of Hamid’s recordings for years...
There have been a number of occasions where a writer has asked me to list the solo order on my releases. It didn’t seem to be necessary to do so on many of the albums made in the 40‚s, 50‚s and 60‚s. Was it that writers during those years could tell the difference between the way one trumpet player and another sounded? It definitely seems that critics 40-50 years ago could tell the difference between a tenor and alto sax, and certainly between a Bb clarinet and a soprano. Today, even if the instrumental details are included on my recordings, certain writers will still get that information wrong.
If the critic, Ekkehard Jost, could analyze the compositional and improvisational elements in the work of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, late John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, the AACM, and Sun Ra in his book, Free Jazz, in 1974, not long after these musicians were first breaking new ground, why isn’t it possible for more critics to hear and define the difference between similar compositional and improvised elements 30 years later? I think it is fair to expect the critics of improvised music to do their jobs, to write informed and insightful texts, just as it is fair to expect the musicians to do their jobs, to work as improvisers and composers playing the best best music possible in the performance circumstances they are provided with. Countless writers have walked up to me after a performance to inform me that they’ve heard me sound better on another occasion, that they don’t like my new material, or that the band sounded terrific, that the concert was brilliant. The same holds true for written reviews. They rate my work either to my face, or on paper. It’s fair, it’s part of their job. By the same token, I think it is fair for me to question why the standard of improvised music criticism is frequently so low, to ask why some of them don’t cover journalistic basics (like checking facts), in other words, to indicate when they aren’t doing their job.
In my next installment of Defining Terms, I would like to point out what I believe has been the positive work done in the field of improvised music criticism, by giving a list of what I feel are some of the great books on the subject written since 1970- they do exist and they set a solid standard!
Chicago, August 5, 2004.
August 6th, 2004, 08:39 AM
AAJ's Barrel Roller
Thanks for these thoughtful & poignant opening remarks—they’ve certainly opened my eyes to a few issues facing jazz/improvised music.
I couldn’t agree more.
The end result, however, is that recordings have begun to define the music, not concerts, and this situation is very problematic.
I look forward to your next installment.
August 6th, 2004, 03:31 PM
I'm disappointed. I was hoping you would discuss music-making and the creative process rather than your reactions to critics' reactions to your creative process.
Originally Posted by Ken Vandermark
I have to wonder when this was NOT the case for those of us who do not happen to live in very large urban areas. I don't live in a Big 10 city. I've never gotten to see any particular major jazz artist play more than once a year if that -- and by never, I mean over thirty years' involvement as a "jazz fan and player" (and for the moment, let's please not chew over what that means). In short, for most "jazz fans" exposure to live music at the highest level is highly sporadic.
Originally Posted by Ken V
Yep! I had a similar reaction to seeing Bobby Watson described several months ago as a "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition." Here's a guy who, FWIW, was DownBeat Artist of the Year in 1992. It just goes to show how little people retain, and how little some critics know. Yessir!
LACK OF FUNDAMENTAL KNOWLEDGE: . . . Wire . . . described the drummer, Hamid Drake, as a “young lion.” . . . Maybe the critic who wrote that statement was unaware of this? Perhaps his or her editor was unaware of this?
Play on, sir.
August 6th, 2004, 05:01 PM
tulip or turnip?
Sam, if I may say so; give the man a chance!
Originally Posted by Sam
Ken clearly put a lot of thought into his initial post, and did so without knowing what would interest board members. Actually, I think it’s a rather timely subject since examining critical methods and motivations recently appeared elsewhere on these boards.
Be that as it may, sit tight. I expect Ken will have plenty to say on various topics as they come up.
Don’t know if anybody’s noticed, but okkadisk.com is hosting a couple provocative articles that, if memory serves, dovetail with some of Ken’s points:
Recording Jazz: A Questionable Practice? (or, A Call for Re-examination) by Stu Vandermark
Why many records are very bad—and a few are good by Kevin Whitehead
And for those not familiar with Okkadisk, go here.
August 6th, 2004, 05:36 PM
Hi and welcome to our site, hope you enjoy your visit, hope you stick around in the future.
Just one thought about one point you made.
Jazz has always been about improvising. Every solo I ever heard of note was improvisional, every great jazz tune I ever heard was improvised to a point. It was the art of imporvising that brought the tune to fruition, made it the musician, or musicians own, as in the case of the classics being played. A recognizable tune, filled with improvised melody's. Me, I love the improvisional aspect of jazz, either in little bits and pieces or in whole performances. Done well, it's a joy to hear, and experience.
August 6th, 2004, 06:01 PM
Hmmmm, interesting reading.
Ken, I have a question for you.
I am a major league music nut. I have been writing about it, reviewing it and interviewing its makers since the early '70s.
In the past 10 years, that writing has been almost exclusively about jazz and other improvised sounds.
I write a weekly review for the newspaper for which I work, a major Australian metropolitan Sunday rag (circulation 600,000 plus), and do other stories occasionally. The reviews are very short, with a star rating system and "in short" precis of a few words being foisted on us by higher-ups a few years ago. (I am also overall CD Reviews Editor for the paper.)
At my instigation, we have been a corporate sponsor of the Melbounre International Jazz Festival for the past five years.
For the past 15 years I have produced and presented a weekly two-hour radio show on community radio station PBS, easily Australia's leading presenter of jazz.
I present these facts not to big-note myself, but simply to explain that I am very passionate, if untutored, about The Music and have happily grabbed whatever opportunities to promote it that have come my way.
My interests run from early stuff such as Jelly Roll Morton to whatever's going around today, and I take special interest, naturally, in Australian music. (There's an Australian Jazz Korner right here on the AAJ BB if you wanna take a look.) If I lived, say, in NY I might be able to "go" conservative and spend all my time at joints such as the Village Vanguard. But, thankfully, I live in Melbourne, and sheer necessity means getting eclectic for both performers and audiences. I love it!
A couple of months ago, Inertia, the company that distributes Atavistic in Australia, sent me a copy of the latest KV5 album, Elements Of Style. It was sent to me unbidden; I didn't request it.
I have read much about you and you music, always with great interest; but this is the first time I have heard any of it. And obviously, my chances to see you perform live to date have been zero.
Having said that, there is nothing that is too "hard" for me on Elements Of Style for the simple reason that its music sounds - in approach, philosophy and even configuration - generally of a piece with so much of the great new Australian improvised music/jazz I am hearing all the time.
I like the album, and have played various tracks - including the long one, Six Of One - several times on the radio.
So, my question is: Should I review your album?
August 6th, 2004, 06:09 PM
Thought provoking start. A couple of quick questions.
1. Have you come up with any "definitions" that you feel accurately describe what you do, or other musicians similiar to you?
2. As a follow up to one of the other responses, I agree that recordings probably define the music for the majority of jazz listeners, but when has that not been the case? Also, in an ideal world I would love to be able to participate in the evolving creative process of some of my favorite musicians by hearing them live whenever possible and owning all of their recorded output, but how practical is it to expect the majority of the audience to be able to do this? Finances and other life obligations seem to make this a difficult prospect.
August 6th, 2004, 06:23 PM
It strikes me that there are two quite distinct audiences for jazz - a small audience that lives close to the places where jazz is regularly performed (New York, Paris, London etc) and has the option to hear a band or performer frequently and thus get a rounder picture; and the rest of us who have to travel a fair way to hear live music, especially live music of a national or international level.
This is the reason why jazz gets defined by recordings rather than by its live performance; those who are in a privileged position to live somewhere like Chicago or London and follow the development of a performer are few and far between.
And wasn't it ever thus? How many people were in a position in the past to follow Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Miles or Coltrane in a live situation regularly? Again those near the centre of city life (and in those cases American city life...I can't imagine there are many European jazz enthusiasts from the 50s and 60s who saw Coltrane more than a handful of times). The vast majority of people heard this music on record.
This is no-ones fault. Pure economics. I'd love to see the Schooldays/Atomic agglomeration do a twice yearly two week residency in Worksop, UK so I could follow their development. I somehow suspect that the next time they hit the UK it will be one off concerts in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh etc for the obvious economical reasons. Fortunately we do get to hear the odd recording of these gigs on the BBC - the Schooldays performance from last years London Jazz Festival was marvellous. As is the recently released Schooldays/Atomic album.
There is another way of looking at this. If it's regular live performance that counts rather than recordings maybe we should go out to see the people we can see regularly - the local jazz musicians - and just give the international bands with record contracts a miss!
August 7th, 2004, 09:21 PM
Maybe your'e right Bev, go see the locals more, build up a jazz following, that will excite and promote jazz the best, a grass roots movement. We can't all run to a huge venue, pay the ticket, or be hustled out for the next set, it's the small club settings that create jazz fans, the neighbor hood bar, and the close by fancy club, yet not so fancy as to out price an audience. Jazz club owners need to involve themselves in local and state govennments to keep regulations and restrictions down in a realistic place. Going off subject with government, but it is involved also, as everyone on this board says it is economics as much as anything that has put jazz where it is today.
I still enjoy the local clubs that have music, even not so hot music, it is just the mood of the place when music is played and when it is good it is even better, and when you get the talent like I used to see at the Lighthouse and a few other places around the area, it just couldnt' be topped, it makes fans, how could it not. It's a draw, it's a money maker for the whole community, and the perk is the great sounds you learn intimately, it becomes a part of your life, you feel every beat, you notice every bead of sweat, every half smile, every look of amazement on the musicians faces at one of their own's virtuosity, it just has you loving the music, a fan forever.
I don't need a critic to tell me what to like and what not to like, I don't want someone pointing out to me the intriciate points of a performance, I don't want them telling me someones meter was off, I don't want them telling me that drugs took their toll and that they aren't what they could be, or used to be, I don't want a critic telling me anything, so I don't read any of them. If I wanted to know music theory and such, I would have studdied it. I just want to be entertained. I want to enjoy it all my own way. What is good for one, isn't always anothers way of wanting to see or hear things. My friends can tell me or you can tell me you enjoyed it, how great to see him play, enjoyed his choice of tunes, or the opposite, but to go out and read what a critic has to say, just doesn't interest me in the least.
August 7th, 2004, 10:51 PM
Well, if you're talking "audience" and "critics", I would think you're dealing with two separate groups, with different responsibilities. Certainly, those who can't get to live shows shouldn't be faulted for getting their exposure solely through recordings. Even the music fan can see live jazz but for some reason prefers recordings is entitled to his opinion. But a music critic? Would anyone seriously consider reporting on NASA, for example by residing in Saskatchewan? Or choose to cover Broadway plays from Billings, Montana? Isn't it incumbent upon a person who wishes to be taken seriously as a professional music writer to acutally go where the music is being played? I would expect a music writer to be more familiar with the artists and the music scene than I, or there really isn't much point...
August 9th, 2004, 04:19 PM
Defining Terms Pt. 2
DEFINING TERMS PT. 2
In my last posting I reviewed some preliminary issues I feel need to be addressed in the contemporary improvised music scene, with particular focus on some problems I feel exist with the way the “jazz media” represents this music: unclear terminology, overemphasis of recordings over live performance, and a lack of fundamental knowledge about the art they’re reporting about. A number of writers have told me they feel my frustration about the current state of jazz criticism has been expressed in unproductive way, based on cheap shots and undue negativity. I feel that I’ve tried my best to be honest and straightforward about the reasons I feel that many critics are failing at their job, using examples based on personal experience and suggesting simple ways that things could be easily improved. It is true that, up to now, I haven’t given many examples of what I believe have been solid journalism related to this field, and I’d like to change that with this posting.
Here is a list of what I think are some of the best books written about jazz and improvised music in the last 30 years. It is complete only in that it is subjective. I am sure there are a number of books in English that I’m unaware of, it would be fantastic to hear about them. In addition, it is important to know that I generally prefer to hear the ideas of musicians expressed in their words, my favorite texts tend to be aural histories or interviews or based heavily on that kind of research, so there are also a number of critical studies that are less interesting to me personally because of the theoretical approach they use, based more on the writer’s viewpoint than the musician’s. With that disclaimer in mind, here’s a short list of what I think are great books, and the reason that I feel this way about them. The texts are listed in no particular order.
FORCES IN MOTION, by Graham Lock. This is a very thorough discussion of Anthony Braxton’s work. It is quite interesting in that Lock admits at the beginning of the book that there is much about Braxton’s music that he didn’t understand when he started the project. I respect the fact that he was honest about this, and that his discovery of how parts of the music worked is a major thread of the narrative. I also respect the fact that he followed the full tour in England with the Braxton’s Quartet (with Marilyn Crispell, Gerry Hemingway, and Mark Dresser) at the time he was writing the book. He saw the band at work every night, dealt with their travel issues, and had a chance to discuss the music with all the musicians involved, and did so.
JOHN COLTRANE, by Lewis Porter. Sometimes technical, but always balanced, this incredible book about Coltrane was suggested to me by Joe Morris. Porter deals with many aspects of Coltrane’s life, but never looses perspective on the importance of the music, and he has real appreciation for all the periods of Coltrane’s work.
DANCE OF THE INFIDELS, A PORTRAIT OF BUD POWELL, by Francis Paudras. Though I was aware of Powell’s work since I was a child, and heard his music at home growing up, my real appreciation for his music was instigated by a fan of mine in Chicago. He handed me a cassette tape of a bunch of Powell’s music and suggested I read DANCE OF THE INFIDELS. Both completely blew me away, and this was a great example of how reciprocal the music can be, everyone learning from everyone. This text focuses most on the end of Powell’s life, and Paudras is very subjective in his approach, but it’s a complete experience. Much of the film ROUND MIDNIGHT was based on this book, and though that movie is a fictionalized account and combination of the personalities and experiences of Bud Powell, Lester Young, and Dexter Gordon it is not nearly as romanticized as some viewers seem to think it was, as is made clear by reading Paudras’ biography.
THE DUKE ELLINGTON READER, edited by Mark Tucker. I believe this is possibly the best book concerning Ellington. The overview of his career and and the various perspectives towards what it was are the most thorough expression of Ellington’s complex personality and music that I’ve seen. It’s very interesting to see the attacks on Ellington’s abilities as a composer that occurred throughout his life, particularly concerning the long form works, and to consider how often these same criticisms have been leveled at other innovators in jazz, often using the same terminology and reasoning in their misled arguments.
PEE WEE RUSSELL, THE LIFE OF A JAZZMAN, by Robert Hilbert. Russell is one of my favorite musicians and improvisers in the history of jazz. His legendary personality and music is captured here through meticulous research including letters and interviews from a variety of people who knew and worked with him.
LUSH LIFE, by David Hajdu. I learned quite a lot from this text. Hajdu presents the various aspects of Billy Strayhorn’s life straightforwardly and with great detail, showing that Strayhorn was much, much more than just Duke Ellington’s right hand man. His creative interaction with the New York art scene is completely fascinating. For anyone interested in Ellington, this book is also important because it provides further insight into the way he worked and interacted with the people in his life, and from a perspective that doesn’t place Ellington in the role as the central character.
FREE JAZZ, by Ekkehard Jost. This book was mentioned in my first posting. Though it was written about three decades ago, it’s still possibly the best discussion of the cutting edge American jazz scene of the 1960’s I’ve come across so far. Each chapter focuses on different musician’s work and covers some of the most significant artists of that period: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, the AACM, and Sun Ra. It goes into musical detail and analysis without becoming too technical for the lay reader.
IMPROVISATION, by Derek Bailey. A text written by one of the master improvisers. It’s surprisingly even handed, and unlike most of the books written about this subject, IMPROVISATION examines a large range of musical styles, not just “jazz history,” showing how improvisation has affected their creative development.
NEW DUTCH SWING, by Kevin Whitehead. I think this is one of the best books ever written on improvised music. Whitehead puts the large and complex scene in Holland into a context that helps explain the different creative forces that shaped it, helping to make clear the many interrelationships that have existed there to someone who is not from that country. There are a number of demands that are made of the reader, you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re reading or it’s possible to lose the thread of some of Whitehead’s ideas. Like the music the book is written about, however, a person’s attention and commitment to the subject is well rewarded, it makes you think.
STRAIGHT LIFE, by Art and Laurie Pepper. This story is quite famous, but Art Pepper’s honesty about his life will still surprise anyone who reads this autobiography. Unlike Mingus’, BENEATH THE UNDERDOG, there is quite a lot of discussion about the music scene Pepper intersected with, and his ideas about jazz and its players. There is a short “scene” he relates about playing at a concert with Sonny Stitt that is one of the best descriptions I’ve read about how it actually feels to perform with great improvisers, and how the level of music is positively impacted by creative competition.
SPACE IS THE PLACE, by John Szwed. The amount of research that must have gone into the first half of this biography on Sun Ra is pretty mind blowing. Getting background on Ra’s formative years and his period spent in Chicago really helps put all of his music into a historical context, making a clear argument for Ra being considered as one of the most significant artists of the second half of the 20th century.
EXTENDED PLAY, by John Corbett. Unlike many of the other books listed here, Corbett’s text is a collection of articles linked by common themes rather than an exploration of a single artist (FORCES IN MOTION), or scene (NEW DUTCH SWING). I think Corbett is one of the best interviewers writing about improvised music today, and EXTENDED PLAY several fascinating discussions between him and some of the leading musicians of this period. Like Bailey’s book, it also looks at the possible connections that exist between many different kinds of music, something that is going to become more and more necessary in the critical analysis of today’s international improvising scene.
In conclusion I would like to suggest three excellent books that deal with a similar topic: Bebop. I mention these texts because though each of them is well worth reading in its own right, looking at the three of them in combination creates what is possibly an accurate account of what was happening that caused the formation of Bebop in America during the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The books are BIRD LIVES by Ross Russell, GROOVIN’ HIGH, THE LIFE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE by Alyn Shipton, and THE BIRTH OF BEBOP by Scott Deveaux. All of these books purport to be accurate representations of what occurred during these years in regards to the musicians and the music, yet there are contradictory facts. This makes sense considering how much of the information about improvised music comes from aural histories, people remember different details at different times, even if they’re not trying to color the facts. Personal history is subjective. By looking at all the information discussed in these volumes it is possible to assimilate what seems to be an reasonable understanding of what may have actually occurred in this period. Ideally, a similar situation would exist for each great artist, scene, and artistic movement. There wouldn’t be one book on Pee Wee Russell, and there would be several on the AACM.
On my next posting I will review what I feel are some more possibilities for the critical representation of improvised music, and for the economic development of the art. Until then-
Ken Vandermark, August 9, 2004.
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