Henry Threadgill, Weedie Braimah and more
As live music begins to return, one of the most important figures in the history of live music has left. George Wein (pronounced ween), the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and many other events, passed away on September 13 at the age of 95.
Wein produced the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954; the lineup included vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Oscar Peterson, among others. It has barely reached the breakeven point; Wein then claimed he made a profit of $ 142.50 (roughly $ 1,450 in 2021 dollars) and this only because he waived his own fees. The following year Miles Davis gave a performance that signed him to Columbia Records – the label would have been reluctant to take a chance because of his drug addiction – and in 1958, photographer Bert Stern filmed the documentary festival Jazz on a summer day, which features performances by Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Chuck Berry, among others. Perhaps the most famous performance of all Newport festivals took place in 1956, when Duke Ellington’s band performed “Diminuendo Ad Crescendo in Blue” and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves delivered a solo of absolutely 27 choirs. breathtaking :
Over the years, Wein’s empire grew; he also directed the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan became famous for “being electric”, pissing off a lot of people and exciting a lot of others) and the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival. In the early 1970s, his company, Festival Productions, organized events and tours around the world through large-scale corporate partnerships: the JVC Jazz Festival spanned over two decades. Matthew Shipp told an interesting story on Facebook: getting the Vision Festival under him, so he asked Patricia Parker to have lunch and she asked me to join her given that he had already dealt with me and I had played in Newport – we had a great lunch and George was an extremely charming host, but of course the Vision Festival was not going to cede control.
There will never be another George Wein, and the jazz world as we know it today would not exist without him. And / but it’s important to remember that he did everything out of a genuine love for music, from refusing to collect honoraria for the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival, to bringing in corporate sponsors who made jazz flourish. throughout New York City during festival season. . Yes, some musicians, like Charles Mingus, thought his reservations were too conservative, ignoring the more avant-garde players on the scene, but come on; it is impossible to argue that having such a powerful lawyer for so many decades has not been a net benefit for jazz.
Speaking of avant-garde jazz, Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire music premiered this month in New York, Los Angeles and a few other cities. I saw an earlier and shorter cut (just over an hour) in 2018 and didn’t like it very much. Surgal jumped from subject to subject, let seemingly tangential musicians talk at length about not much, and seemed to spend as much time on Charlie Parker as he did on free jazz. This new version lasts 90 minutes and is much improved. But it still has some major flaws, which it pains me to point out, because I love this kind of music and I want to see it well served in the cinema.
The subject is far too vast to be covered in 90 minutes, let’s be clear right away. What Surgal has attempted to do is cover many important milestones in the history of free jazz in a way not unlike what Ken Burns did with his Jazz Television series in 2000. Topics covered here include: the rise of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s / early 1960s; the October Revolution in Jazz in 1964 and the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild by Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others; the massive artistic migration to Paris in 1968-71; the AACM in Chicago and the Black Artists Group in St. Louis; the loft jazz scene of the mid-1970s in New York City; the rise of free improvisation in Europe; and more. Individual artists like Don Cherry, Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy are also highlighted. (The testimony of European musicians who witnessed Dolphy’s death from undiagnosed diabetes is gruesome and tragic.)
There’s a lot of great footage here – Surgal has shot a ton of interviews, many with musicians who are now dead, like drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Noah Howard. But he has also collected videos of performances by Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra Arkestra, The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, The Globe Unity Orchestra, and many other individuals and groups. It also extracts compelling interview excerpts from other films, allowing actors like Taylor and Bill Dixon to be heard.
But just like with Jazz, there are big omissions. For example, the ESP-Disk label (for which Ayler and many others recorded crucial free jazz records in the 1960s) is never mentioned at all. Perhaps more consequent, the film seems to claim that free jazz died out in 1980, because no one makes that kind of music these days, like Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Jaimie Branch, James Brandon Lewis or Irreversible Entanglements, to name a few examples, is interviewed. There is no streak from the Vision Festival, a weeklong (or longer) event that celebrates free jazz every year.
And honestly, the music that is included is undermined by the format of the movie. A typical free jazz performance is quite long, often 15 to 20 minutes. Many of Cecil Taylor’s performances lasted an hour, never stopping from start to finish. Peter Brötzmann, seen in the film, frequently turns off for half an hour or more at a stretch. And you can’t really understand what an artist is doing in that idiom unless you roll with him from start to finish of a song. But Surgal will show Albert Ayler blowing up, or the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in the middle of a track that likely started with a thoughtful unison melody and ended with vocals, and expects that. that it reveals something meaningful about their music… and make a non-initiated listener want to hear more. It ends up giving the false impression that this music is all about screaming and moaning as loud as possible, when in fact it has real depth. The more you listen, the more you will hear.
And now, new music!