“The good side of my brain is good. The bad side is bad.”
“I’ve lost sight of the horizon. The money of dreams. The money of happiness.”
—from the film Pirogue
“Sound turns to texture turns to melody seen.”
A now-retired New York Times music critic once described me as a free-jazz cultist, and a famous downtown saxophonist/composer once called me a JAZZ SNOB. Both are true to varying degrees, and I wear these banners proudly. But anyone who knows me well knows that besides being a chatty little Brooklynite, I love most forms of arts, but I have definite preferences.
My first musical love was doo-wop, which, as a teenager, I sang in front of the pizza place on Avenue J on hot nights (they also had the hottest juke box in town) with a group called the J-Tones. My nickname was Little Dilly Dally, and I was the lead singer. You should have heard me belt out “I Wonder Why” by Dion and the Belmonts.
My interest in jazz began when I saw Gene Krupa on TV at about age ten. “Wow,” I thought, “I wanna do that.” And I tried. But due to a bad teacher and the fact that I couldn’t afford a drum kit, I gave up. Then I did a six-month stint on trumpet with that same teacher, with the same results. Jumping ahead five years, a friend handed me Horace Silver’s Silver’s Blue, Ornette’s Free Jazz, Trane’s My Favorite Things, and Oscar Brown Jr’s Sin and Soul,along with some good weed, transporting me from doo-wop to hard bop and beyond, with a big dose of the blues thrown in. I gave up singing doo-wop and started singing “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Rags and Old Iron” on Minetta Lane with a joint in one hand and a bottle of Ballantine ale in the other.
At night, if I didn’t hang out in Greenwich Village I sat up listening to the Richter Scale on WRVR, a radio station out of Riverside Church, and the tail end of Symphony Sid (before he went completely Latin), furthering my education. I started buying blues and jazz vinyl like crazy, already having accrued a wide range of soul and doo-wop 45s. A couple of great early finds were Bessie Lynn and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and Inside Hi-Fi by Lee Konitz, still two of my favorites. In fact, I’m listening to Lee right now.
There were also afternoon TV shows covering jazz; an episode that always stuck in my mind was one where Monk, when he was asked how he did what he did, simply answered, “I don’t know. I just do it.” That statement profoundly influenced and helped change me—so much so, in fact, that I suppose you could say that’s how I’ve felt about my work and my life ever since.
One day at about age 15, while walking down St. Marks Place in the late afternoon with a friend, I heard wild music coming from a place that I later learned was the Five Spot. I stuck my head through a crack in the door and saw this amazing pianist tearing up the keys. (I was told afterward that he was banned from many clubs due to his rep for breaking pianos.) The music went right inside me, and my addiction to free jazz began full-steam. It turned out the pianist was Cecil Taylor.
A couple of years later, when I was already deep into Trane, Mingus, Dolphy (who I first heard on the Candid LP Mingus! that I had swiped from a drug store), and Cecil, a guy stopped me on MacDougal Street and said, “Hey, Steve, I know you love Cecil Taylor. There’s this guy you should listen to named Albert Ayler. He’s the Cecil Taylor of the saxophone, and his new record is called Bells.” I immediately went to Dayton’s record store on West Eighth Street, picked up my clear-vinyl, hand-silkscreened, one-sided copy, took it home, and played it over and over. (Though Spiritual Unity has since become my favorite Ayler LP, I still listen to Bells some fifty years later.)
As soon as I could, I started hanging out at Slugs, the Village Vanguard, and Rivbea, and got to see such greats as Ayler, Monk, Mingus, Kirk, Blakey, Max, and J-Mac. But sadly I missed Dolphy, who had already left the country, as did many jazz greats, for both economic and racial reasons, conditions that still exist in America today. And I just missed Trane. He died when I was on my way to see him at that now-famous Monterey Jazz Festival of 1967, the one that produced Charles Lloyd’s live Forest Flower LP and more or less introduced jazz to the hippies. So, stoned, broke, and broken-hearted, I made an about-face, never made it to the festival, but returned to Berkeley and wrote one of my earliest so-called jazz poems for Trane at age 19.
Little has changed since Dolphy’s time when it comes to jazz, particularly free jazz. There’s the political façade of Jazz at Lincoln Center or George Wein’s Fiasco-fest, which primarily caters to big business, big name brands, and inside stuff, but at least we now have Fire in the Kitchen and the Vision Festival (Arts for Art). And there are many great improvisers and festivals around the world that keep this music alive. The Vision folks take the music from where it was born to countries where Dolphy and others went, though now not as exiles but as ambassadors of this neglected form that’s always gotten more acceptance outside its birth place. And throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan, just like in the ’60s loft-jazz scene, there are more and more independent venues, many musician-owned, that support this music: Douglas Street Collective, Shapeshifter, Roulette, Jack, Brecht Forum, Barbès, Goodbye Blue Monday, the Stone, Spectrum.
I started listening to music as soon as I could hear, and writing poetry as soon as I could write, so it was inevitable that the two at some point would meet. But instead of singing along with the music, for almost 30 years I’ve been writing along.
Keep your ears peeled for Devin “Brahja” Waldman, the nephew of esteemed poet Anne Waldman, an alto player with a warm post–Paul Desmond tone. He moves notes around in a smooth and beautifully artful way, and has inside and outside facilities for playing and hearing. His efforts include Brahja Waldman’s Quartet!, on Juenes Volontaires, and a soon-to-be-released CD with some of my favorite New York players: Daniel Levin, Satoshi Takeishi, and the inimitable Daniel Carter. Devin’s cousin Ambrose Bye (Anne’s son) has been playing and producing music for Anne and other poets. A recent release he mixed, produced, and plays on is Harry’s House, a tribute to Harry Smith that includes Edwin Torres, Anne, Lewis Warsh, Bob Holman, Eileen Myles, and Thurston Moore.
Forget 79-year-old Wayne Shorter’s attempt at the classical crossover thing, which sounded more like a pastiche of heard-before ideas. His Pegasus, Three Marias, and Prometheus Unbound, performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra earlier this year at Carnegie Hall on a program with Ives and Beethoven, should have remained bound and gagged. Shorter barely played during what were ridiculously melodic, overly self-conscious compositions. It was a weak, over- and underplayed, watered-down hack job, as are most attempts to cross over as far back as Stravinsky and Gershwin (sorry, George) to many present-day folks who for the sake of time and space shall remain nameless. This was a case where playing well was simply not enough. That night Beethoven ruled despite four standing ovations for Wayne. (Yes, I know: It doesn’t hurt to try. Or does it?)
Charles Gayle recently played an incredible 74th-birthday concert as part of the Arts for Arts Rucma series. This was preceded by a beautiful solo set by Joe McPhee—on pocket trumpet and white plastic alto with pink trim—that included two improvised pieces and a wonderfully distorted version of “Stella by Starlight.” Gayle, who once in a while will play a standard in his own inimitable way, this night made standards the rule. He began his set with “Well, You Needn’t,” then did a bluesy free original with McPhee coming in on trumpet, accompanied by Michael T. Thompson on drums and Larry Roland on bass. He proceeded, sans McPhee, to launch into “Giant Steps,” then “Oleo,” and from there into Ayler’s “Ghosts,” joined again by McPhee, this time on alto. He ended the set with the trio in out Rollins-esque fashion with “I Remember You,” morphing into “Green Dolphin Street,” and Gayle playing “Happy Birthday” to himself and his audience. When done, he reiterated what McPhee said at the beginning of the night: that without the listeners the music would be nothing, and that there would be little reason to go on. He and McPhee were partly alluding to two dedicated jazz listeners who had passed away that day and the day before.
I would like to dedicate this piece to their memories, and hope that they meet up and get to experience the best free blowing session in the annals of musical history. They are fellow avid fans and music travelers Peter Cox and photographer, bookseller, archivist, co-founder of the French label BYG, collaborator, and dearest of friends Jacques Bisceglia. Both of them were as much members of the band as they were members of the audience and above all devoted, true LISTENERS.
From one of my earliest music pieces written for Cecil Taylor, September, 1966:
“SING not song / but a well constructed chaos / …the room floats above us…enfolds and possibly loves us / completion to an unfinished psalm / let us remain locked to each other / as we lock the door and bar admission to all but the piano furious / let us remain together / in love, lust, and laughter / let us remain together / let us remain / let us…”
There is much more to be said, but since the “poem of my life” is MUSIC let the music speak instead and I will dutifully listen. MUSIC + WORD = LANGUAGE.