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Celebrating the Free Jazz Revolution, in Black and White

Buried in the afterword of Geoff Dyer’s 1991 fantasia But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz is the following: “There may be little first-rate writing on jazz, but few art forms have been better served by photographers.”

Ouch! And partially true, at least as for the latter. One of those photographers, who happens to be a first-rate writer, too, is Val Wilmer, author of the essential As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977, reprinted earlier this month by the U.K. imprint Serpent’s Tail.

Published in 1977, at the height of disco and arena rock, with hip-hop beginning to percolate, As Serious as Your Life is a reported book, a social history of the free jazz movement from its beginnings in the late 1950s — when a small group of musicians, virtually all of them African American, posed questions and issued challenges — to its evolution into the 1970s, when, as British journalist Richard Williams writes in a new foreword to this edition, “jazz was about as unfashionable as it was possible for a once-favored music to be.”

Wilmer has a good eye — she’s a photographer, after all — but she also has foresight. Some of the musicians she writes about had big reputations at the time—she does chapters on Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, nothing particularly original in that approach — but she was also determined to focus on who and what was left out of the frame, like less-celebrated mavericks such as Milford Graves, the percussionist, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who forty years on are recognized as giants. She’s not just interested in their music, but in their politics, often radically left; their relationship to money and how they fought for control of their music; how they negotiated within, and outside, the industry, and their attempts at creating self-sustaining collectives; the supportive role of women in their lives, and the female practitioners of this new music, Amina Claudine Myers, Fontella Bass, Lynda Sharrock, and Carla Bley, among them. “More Women — white and Black — are taking up instruments and really playing,” she writes, “but the prejudice against them continues. Whatever the extent of their talent, this discrimination is more pronounced in so-called jazz than in rock.” Primarily, though, she’s cncerned with race, how it’s informed the work, inspired it, and kept it from penetrating both the masses and the intelligentsia.

Guitarist George Benson in concert with the Harlem Jazzmobile, New York City, 1967.

Wilmer, born in 1941 in the north of England, writes with great directness. “Black music is, with the cinema, the most important art form of this century,” she states early on. “In terms of influence, there is scarcely anyone untouched by it.” But in her telling, this intellectual black music was largely dismissed by whites: “The so-called New Music, has been treated irresponsibly by many critics, something that could not, I suggest, have gone on for so long had the music in question been created by whites.”And this: “At times it seems as though there is a definite conspiracy afoot to inhibit the progress of the new Black music.”

And if black musicians in the “new thing” were overlooked and exploited, and they absolutely were, so, too, were whites. None other than Gary Peacock, she writes, went without food for fifteen days. Albert Ayler rode to the rescue, pulled him from his bed, and took him on tour in Europe, where free jazz musicians may not have gotten rich, but were treated with more respect then in the U.S. and taken seriously as artists, from the press attention they received on state media outlets to the venues they played, often at concert halls that hosted classical music.

Club owners slowly stopped booking the musicians, label execs claimed they couldn’t make money on it, elite cultural institutions turned their collective back, and impresario George Wein ignored them when he moved the Newport Jazz Festival to New York in 1972, which led to a counter-festival organized by black musicians. But it was largely underappreciated by black people as well. “There are always Blacks who know about the music but it’s hard to get it to them,” the saxophonist Billy Harper told Wilmer. “Some Black people do not realize the importance of this music. … They’re being brainwashed with all that stuff that’s on the radio. . . I certainly don’t think that Archie Shepp could play at the Apollo! The people who go there are programmed for a certain kind of music and that’s all they can hear, that’s all they can accept.”

Wilmer seems especially fascinated with drummers and their process. In addition to Graves, she creates finely tuned portraits of Ed Blackwell, Sunny Murray, and Rashied Ali, whose photo graces the cover of this new edition. And consider this thoughtful bit from the drummer of drummers, Elvin Jones: “The role of the drummer is primarily to keep time,” Jones tells her. “Whether you think you are or not, always in one way or another, either consciously or subconsciously — or unconsciously — the drummer is keeping time, or implied time. Regardless of how abstract it may seem, if it’s analyzed to its fullest extent, it will be ultimately a very definite repetitious rhythm.”

Also included in As Serious as Your Life — the title is taken from a McCoy Tyner quote, “Music’s not a plaything; it’s as serious as your life” — are nearly three dozen of Wilmer’s black-and-white photographs, some in the glorious pre-gentrified streets of New York City. (Her photography is in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library.) They illustrate struggle — the jazz life, to borrow a title from Nat Hentoff, is not an easy one, especially free jazz — but not only struggle. You see focus, discipline, hard work, nurturing, joy.

Max Roach (left) plays the drums in 1968

Toward the end of the book, Wilmer poses a question — and then answers it. “Will there be future generations of musicians sufficiently interested to play this music if the financial returns remain small? There is little incentive for young players who have been drawn instead into the more lucrative rock field, yet the power of the new Black music is so strong that there are many who are willing to make sacrifices in order to play it.”

Few at the time would’ve predicted that what was stirring in the Bronx would become so central to the culture. But Wilmer was right about “new Black music”: It may not be new, but it’s evolved in new and surprising and wonderful ways. And at least some of the world, and its higher institutions, have caught up to what these musicians were up to all those decades ago, and what Wilmer put into such sharp focus: Henry Threadgill, a free jazz pioneer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for music with his album In for a Penny, in for a Pound; at least one jazz musician, and one influenced by the innovations of the 1960s and ’70s, seems to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship annually; and many others who lean into free jazz territories have major posts in the nation’s top universities.

As Serious as Your Life, like so many recordings of the era on, say, ESP-Disk, Black Saint in Milan, or Strata-East — founded by the politically conscious musicians Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell in 1971 — has aged remarkably well.

During the 1960s and ’70s “counterculture,” much of which became a massive cash register, Val Wilmer fixed her strobe lights onto a musical and political landscape that really did in fact run counter to the culture. A shame so few — blacks and whites — were paying attention at the time. But her book, and the work it documented, remains as serious, and necessary, as ever.

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Gavin Russom+Traxx+Mr. BlackLauren

Gavin Russom isn’t just a former touring member of LCD Soundsystem and a synthesizer fetishist renowned for his technical acumen. He’s also a DJ. capable of marrying multifarious avant-garde inclinations with the functionality required to really tear up a dance floor, from Albert Ayler to Nguzunguzu. Russom takes a break from his ongoing Crystal Ark band project to headline this night, also featuring the hardboiled styles of Traxx.

Fri., June 20, 11:30 p.m., 2014

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Marc Ribot Trio

Ribot’s rep as a big-hearted rad fits right in with the Vanguard’s lefty aesthetic, and his insightful improv has always made plenty of room for lyricism, so this trio’s rumble can be catchy. And can someone help out with the math? Is this the first time Henry Grimes has hauled his bass down these famed stairs since he and Albert Ayler recorded there in the ’60s?

June 26-July 1, 9 & 11 p.m., 2012

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‘Vision Festival: Celebrating Joe McPhee’

Saxophonist Joe McPhee receives the festival’s lifetime achievement award this year, and three of his singular ensembles are helping celebrate: Angels, Devils, and Haints began as a nod to Albert Ayler, but this time the group tips the hat to Clifford Thornton. Next, Euro rads The Thing drop by, bending fierce rock rhythms that pick up where Last Exit left off, and finally, the saxophonist shows his commitment to fluid transitions by improvising with a dance troupe. The immediacy he brings to his abstractions has always been head-turning.

Wed., June 13, 7 p.m., 2012

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Matt Wilson’s Christmas Trio

In the last few weeks, Rudolph has guided the drummer’s sleigh from Chicago to Cambridge, and there were tidings of comfort and joy after their recent romp at the Kitano, too. That’s because saxophonist Jeff Ballard is playing the baby bejesus out of tunes such as “Winter Wonderland” (complete with strip club accents) and “Mele Kalikimaki” (Hawaiian clarinet, anyone?). Wilson’s trademark whimsy guides all the action, but his fertile imagination is the real draw. From Albert Ayler to the Grinch, his new holiday CD makes music out of both angels and devils. They also play Cornelia St Cafe on Thursday.

Wed., Dec. 22, 8 p.m., 2010

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Darius Jones

Pure power rings through the metal of his alto sax, and the frenetics that invariably erupt are often grounded in something spiritual. That’s why some cite him as a blend of Albert Ayler and Arthur Blythe. Check last year’s Man’ish Boy—Jones has a way of piercing the air with his sound. There’s no way to take your ear from him once he’s got you in his crosshairs. This three-night affair finds him splitting sessions with both trio and quartet.

Wed., July 28, 8:30 p.m.; Thu., July 29, 8:30 p.m.; Fri., July 30, 8:30 p.m., 2010

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Bill Cosby’s Badfoot Brown

Forty years ago, Bill Cosby was the closest America came to a black president, garbed as he was in I Spy tennis whites. Unfortunately, the role of ambassador is a thoroughfare, and Cosby—along with other crosstown-traffic ’60s crossovers like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier—bore a burden of both mainstream and radical expectations that would inhibit anyone’s attempt at leading a normal life. No surprise that he’s been speaking out these days, trading in Jell-O for pound cake via the multimillionaire’s relentless assaults on black materialism and hip-hop culture. (Look for his own contribution to the genre soon.) The fact that he’s been lumped in with modern-day conservatism would at first appear to echo the tragicomic descent of Charlton Heston from civil-rights marches to bloodshot libertarianism. But it says more about how our culture has changed, rather than Cosby, and that’s reflected in this semi-anonymous tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., originally released in 1971. Never at a loss for words, Cosby included more than 2,000 of them in the original liner notes, an evocative snapshot of black bourgie radicalism at the time, which is to say that Cosby reveals an anger at his former tentativeness.

Yet the music is wordless, two side-long Sun Ra–esque modal kozmik grooves that share the wooziness of Albert Ayler’s work (the Dusty Groove label has never released an album that so aptly described the sonic temperament of its appellative) as well as Ayler’s mournfulness: The bassist on “Martin’s Funeral” breaks into “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” for a stretch, while the harmonica on “Hybish, Shybish” echoes desperately. Recalling a stretched-out version of pre-sparkly Earth, Wind & Fire circa Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the record’s personnel info has been sketchy, though there’s reason to believe that Charles Wright’s Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (of “Express Yourself” fame) may be the primary players, as the album does recall the stoned, off-kilter jamming of their “High as Apple Pie” series.

Cosby has always possessed a taste for avant-jazz, and Badfoot Brown reminds us that musically and philosophically, he’s no Stanley Crouch. Then again, Crouch wasn’t always Stanley Crouch, either—the passage of time does fatten us up to protect us from our better instincts. Former guest host Cosby forgot Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s name during a recent Tonight Show appearance, and I’ve been told by Dusty Groove that they’ve hesitated checking specific details with the notably irascible Cos, as he might not wish to relive this blast from the past. But that’s why memorials like this exist, isn’t it?

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My Name Is Albert Ayler

Though he polarized critics in his prime, African-American avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler has come into favor as a cult hero and jazz pioneer long after his body was found floating in the East River in 1970. The Cleveland native was only 34, having already collected acclaim in Sweden, France, England, and New York for his animated, multiphonic skronk-fests, but his uncompromised artistry never produced much scratch; friend and acolyte John Coltrane was known to give him handouts. Swedish filmmaker Kasper Collin’s melancholy, beautiful feature debut does more than just chronicle this undervalued musician; it brings Ayler and his message of spiritual unity back to life. Standard doc techniques resonate with a curious poignancy as former bandmates react all over again to Ayler via headphones, and we learn how he brought his younger brother Don (intimately interviewed here, along with their father) onto the stage until he was institutionalized for psychosis. Demanding ex Mary Parks, thought by some to have isolated Ayler from his friends, rightly insists that being heard only in voiceover will just make her seem mysterious, though not nearly as haunting as Ayler’s soft-spoken proclamations from seven years’ worth of interviews. Matched with the rarest of performance and family footage, his well-curated oration gives the whole endeavor an impressionistic aura, as though there’s a ghost in the room who still refuses to be ignored.

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Splitting the Difference

The first two jazz albums I bought, on the same day in the summer of 1964, were Coltrane Sound and Getz/Gilberto, both new and on the radio then. So how could I resist Charles Lloyd’s Of Course, Of Course the following year? Lloyd took Coltrane and Getz and split the difference, combining harmonic fury and lyrical float while tossing in some Rollins and Coleman for good measure. It was an attractive synthesis, all right, even though I was by then deep into Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and others from what Stanley Crouch dismisses as that era’s “primitive bunch” in his liner notes to the just-reissued Of Course. When Lloyd cracked the Fillmore circuit a few years later, it was by tipping the balance in favor of Coltrane and becoming a popularizer. If to paraphrase rabble-rousing critic Frank Kofsky, Coltrane’s tenor was a fist raised in solidarity with ’60s black power, Lloyd’s opened up to reveal a flower. Lloyd has long since ripened into a commanding presence in his own right, which makes it too bad that he falls back on Coltrane again on the new Sangam, where he has only Zakir Hussain’s tabla and Eric Harland’s traps for support. Of Course remains his best recording by far, every bit as fresh and appealing as back in the day. Ron Carter and Tony Williams take liberties with meter and pulse they weren’t yet daring with Miles Davis, and this is the place to hear why there was initially such excitement about guitarist Gabor Szabo’s mix of heavy tremolo and open space—his chases with Lloyd on “The Things We Did Last Summer” and “Voice in the Night” envisioned the first new direction in jazz guitar after Wes Montgomery (who also sold out and died young). Who cares if a previously unissued “East of the Sun” and two bids for a hit single with a different rhythm team and Robbie Robertson on second guitar are neither here nor there?

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Leaving Out the Saxophone, a Tone Scientist Resurrects Albert Ayler’s Spirit

The phone rang shortly after I put on Spiritual Unity’s self-titled CD for the first time. And recognizing track two as Albert Ayler’s “Spirits” from the next room, I thought for a moment there that I was hearing a tenor saxophone—it was Marc Ribot on guitar, heavy on the tremolo. There are really only two types of jazz guitarists anymore: the chord nerds who drool over “Have You Met Miss Jones” and the tone scientists like Ribot who recognize Ayler as kin to Charlie Patton and Dock Boggs. Leaving out the saxophone works in Spiritual Unity’s favor: Ribot, trumpeter Roy Campbell, drummer Chad Taylor, and back-from-oblivion bassist Henry Grimes are going for Ayler’s essence, not his sound, and invidious comparisons are avoided. Turning cowboy on “Bells,” Ribot sounds like he’s thinking about his darling Clementine rather than Ayler’s holy ghost—a lovely, reflective moment before the crash-bang ending. More than just lending a touch of authenticity, Grimes’s powerful bowing keeps everyone on an even keel as they switch from Slug’s-era lurch to square dance to (I swear) polka. Taylor dances nimbly on his cymbals, and the criminally underrated Campbell is his usual puckish self. Spirits rejoice! Just what we needed to complete the long overdue Albert Ayler renaissance.


Spiritual Unity play Tonic June 21.