Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: the Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton

I had known of Anthony Braxton for decades, but it’s only in the past year or so that I’ve really been able to connect to his music.  Partially, this is because I have a newfound living situation in which I can listen to what I want when I want to.  Bouncing around the internet, I read a post on the man’s work that made me realize that for most of us, digging Braxton or, really any of the avant-garde so-called, is a solitary pursuit, most often on headphones.

The single, blissfully single life affords this possibility.  That’s meant that I’ve gotten back to exploring the “free jazz“–we know the label isn’t ideal–movement of the 1960’s forward.  Lots of late Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Carter–a lot of John Carter–and Ornette of course, though especially Skies of America.  I’d heard much more of the New York school as opposed to Chicago, so opening up to Braxton was something of a revelation: there is a lot more to this music than just “energy.”  To be clear about what we’re dealing with, here you go.  Not exactly the same quartet, but the same year and 3/4 the same personnel:

Lock followed Braxton’s quartet on its 1985 tour of Britain.  The resulting book, Forces in Motion, takes the form of tour diary interspersed with interviews, primarily of Braxton but also of each of the group’s other members, followed by three postscripts on relevant topics.  Lock has other books, and one at the library here, that are more systematic overviews of the music, but this is what it is and the relatively unvarnished text preserves a spontaneity that among other things puts Braxton in a great light.  The man may have a reputation for forbidding music, but personally he’s very engaging with an enormously sweet quality to him.  He comes off as a very, very kind individual.

The takeaway from the book is very simply that it serves as what seems to me an ideal introduction to the deep significance of Braxton’s project.  It’s, for lack of a better word, a spiritual endeavor, among other things, and though he doesn’t put it in precisely these terms Braxton is trying, through sound, to turn back the world-nonsense of these last five hundred years.  As quick as he is to draw influence from white musicians–Braxton is generous even to those, like Phil Woods, who critique him viciously–Braxton demolishes the philosophical, musical, and spiritual underpinnings of white supremacy.

I took a class once in, more or less, critical theory, and the professor really wanted us to understand and engage the ideas at hand.  She assigned a fair amount of Foucault, but mostly from Power-Knowledge, a collection of, mainly, interviews.  She noted that when Foucault just talked, he said what he meant, and it made everything easier.  The same, I can glean from the excepts from Braxton’s Tri-axium Writings, would be true of Braxton.  If you want to really get everything, read the Tri-axium Writings, just like if you really want to understand Marx, you need to read Capital.  That said, Braxton can sum things up and give a person a lot to go forward with.  The book provides this.

Amiri Baraka, Black Music

Ornette Coleman

The Alpha and the Omega.  Still playing, too.

I had just read Ben Ratliff’s new book on John Coltrane, and become very, very upset.  Needing a helping hand, I next read LeRoi Jones‘–Amiri Baraka’s–Black Music.

Baraka is less concerned with market demographics than with actually saying something valuable that helps people understand the music in question.  That music, in Black Music, is New York jazz of the late 1950’s and, primarily, the 1960’s.  The latest piece in the book is dated 1967.  In any event, more than anything Baraka focuses on the New Thing, so-called, or “free jazz” once Ornette Coleman put out the album of the same name.

Baraka to be sure is not afraid to take a clear, adversarial stance in what was at the time a very brutal conflict within jazz and jazz criticism over the new music, and while I tend to be much more open to the best of the hard-boppers (and less than the best, too, I’ll say), and while I’ll look at that below, he defends music and musicians worth defending.

Jazz is, Baraka argues not quite explicitly (as my memory serves) but very clearly, a way of being, being free, now.  As circumstances change, so changes jazz.  In hindsight I wonder–surely he has written about it and if anyone knows the citation I’d appreciate it–what he thinks about jazz after Coltrane, not only fusion but the whole Marsalis conundrum as well.  I can surmise the broad strokes but it’s the details I’m after.

He clarifies his project in the first piece, “Jazz and the White Critic“:

In jazz criticism, no reliance on European tradition or theory will help and all.  Negro music, like the Negro himself, is strictly an American phenomenon, and we have got to set up standards of judgement and aesthetic excellence that depend on our native knowledge and understanding of the underlying philosophies and local cultural references that produced blues and jazz in order to produce valid critical writing or commentary about it. (20)

That about sums up my own feelings about how one ought to approach art, or anything else for that matter.  Understanding begins from local conditions and builds out, not from arbitrarily grafting foreign conceptual frameworks onto whatever happens to be the object of one’s inquiry.  Or of one’s conquest: look at the clusterf*** that has been and continues to be the Americas when European social and economic formations were grafted onto these continents after the soon-to-be syphilitic Columbus showed up.

Baraka consistently, whether dealing with true giants like Coltrane, Monk, Coleman, or Cecil Taylor, or lesser-known figures as in an absolutely wonderful piece on the drummer, Denis Charles, one of, to me, the highlights of the book, contextualizes the artists as they exist in their actual contexts, geographically, socially, economically, and culturally.  This is a beautiful, beautiful because it contains truth, stretch of prose:

He [Denis Charles] seems not to be certain, or maybe it’s just the stackup of dreary tenements and beatout folks makes any “success story” seem very very shaky.  And even when Dennis [sic] is working, he knows it’s a very brief shot, and that soon he will be sitting back up on 118th Street without even anything to play on.

But when you see and hear him play, there is no doubt in your mind.  This young man can really smoke…(90)

The liberal white critic would have only written that first paragraph.  The conservative white critic would have written about the Philharmonic and bemoaned the lack of support for “the arts,” despite having heard a publicly-funded, corporate-sponsored performance the night before.  Baraka, however, correctly contextualizes Charles, and by proxy both the New Thing and jazz generally.  Yes, it’s a tough row to hoe, above all because of the hateful context of North America, but doing so is the practice of free existence.

I said I’d touch on this earlier: Baraka has little patience for musicians he feels are stuck in the past, i.e., in formula.  Jazz is, for him, freedom in the present.  I concede the point, and it’s certainly true that we get more from Coltrane than from Cannonball Adderly, toward whom he’s fairly uncharitable.  I am not the biggest fan, either, but I will say that a) a man needs to work and Cannonball worked, and b) there’s a whole lot of hard-bop or more R&B-influenced jazz from the ’60’s that, while not precisely pointing the way forward, or more importantly being truly of the moment, is fantastic and a genuine representation of who the people were who made the music.  Witness “The Sidewinder.”  It’s the genuineness that gets me, that, and Billy Higgins.