by George Grella
Allen Lowe Against the Jazz Tradition
Fine arts and literature each have a well-established academic and commercial establishment that defines—through teaching, curating, buying and selling, and criticism—what it means to be working inside them. “Outsider Art” for them could be something as innocuous and tautological as a painting or a book that was created beyond the limits of what the establishment has set as normative. Instead, perniciously, condescendingly, the “Outsider Art” label has been attached to the fetishization and objectification of difference. The mental illness of someone like Henry Darger or Adolf Wölfli, not their work, becomes the point of fascination, so that what makes their work notable—the internal logic and values so different from the established consensus—is seen as an accidental byproduct of disordered thoughts, rather than the thing that matters. This is true in music, especially with Irwin Chusid’s shilling for kitsch and crap as “Outsider Music.” So the Shaggs, Tiny Tim, Farrah Abraham, plus the musical careers of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Crispin Glover—all are outsider-hip, because they’re easy to condescend to. The real outsider artists are the ones who find that their terms and goals are outside the mainstream consensus and pursue them with rigor and determination, holding themselves to an entirely different set of standards: Emily Dickinson, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Charles Bukowski, Hasil Adkins, Banksy. Poetry, classical music, literature, rock-and-roll, painting—historically, these fields have chauvinistically asserted their right to decide what belongs and what doesn’t.
You would think that jazz would be different, but jazz has an outsider problem too. The music, sitting at the margins of American cultural consciousness for decades, both proudly on the outside yet dearly wishing to be let in, is itself ambivalent about musicians who “play outside the changes,” literally and philosophically. Entry here, again, is via the sense that the musician has something eccentric about their thinking, so Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Gayle, and Thelonious Monk are in the fold, although not entirely embraced for their music (jazz has rightfully placed Monk in the pantheon, but the predominant take on his music as just another part of the canon of standard tunes completely misses the value of his logic, which is defiantly outside jazz song form). The music of Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Miles Davis’s electric period, Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisations, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor continues to find opposition in the jazz world.
The deep, consistent logic of all these “outsider” musicians creates its own aesthetic world that is of the world of jazz and the blues but not inside it, making perfect sense on its own terms. That is the key. Anyone willing to listen to what the music says, rather than what they wish it would say, can hear the logic—that’s the main reason these musicians have found audiences at the creative edges of rock, contemporary classical, punk, and improvised and world musics. The so-called “jazz police,” who sniff out any deviation from swing, the blues, and AABA song form are Zhdanov-ites who listen so furiously to where the cadence and the bass drum beat fall that they can’t hear the music.
Then there’s Allen Lowe. As the great jazz critic Francis Davis writes in his book Bebop And Nothingness, “Through no fault of his own, Allen Lowe has become jazz’s quintessential outsider artist.” Another succinct way to think of him is through the first sentence in his official autobiography: “Who is Allen Lowe, and why is he doing all these projects and why have you never heard of him?”
Born and raised on Long Island in the mid-1950s, weaned on jazz as a young saxophonist in New York City in the 1960s, he moved in and out of the jazz world and college through the 1980s, calling himself an “unreconstructed bebopper.” He found his way into what, for him, was “new music”: the playing and composing of saxophonist Julius Hemphill, clarinetist Don Byron, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and progressive traditionalists like saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and trumpeter Randy Sandke. He put out a few records, held the job of Director of Jazz New Haven for a few years, then found himself, in 1996, in Maine. Working a day job. Lonely.
“Aside from my day job,” he told me on the phone, “I have nothing else to do. Portland, Maine, despite its image of itself, is culturally dead. So basically I have had nothing to do since the late 1990s.” As he writes in the description for his 2007 album Jews in Hell, which was prompted by his inability to book a gig in Portland, “Out of sheer boredom […] [I did] pick up the guitar, retreat to my basement, and practice, practice, and practice some more. […] I started writing songs. […] I was becoming interested in punk rock and some other things. […] I also started playing an alto sax, part of my new identity in what was beginning to amount to membership in the Musician Protection Program.” He also taught himself sound restoration.
“[Lowe] spent like three years in [his] basement, picking and choosing, mastering” the early jazz and pre-jazz sides—some 6,000—he collected. In those three years restoring sound, mastering, and compiling, he wrote one book, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950, with a companion 36-CD compilation of early jazz; wrote another book, American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo, with a nine-CD collection; put out Really the Blues? A Blues History, another 36-CD set with 80,000 words of notes; and wrote two more books, still unpublished: God Didn’t Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970, and The Lost Generation: Jazz of the 1950s. All on his own time and his own dime (the published works were brought out by Music & Arts Programs of America; much of the music can be found on the after-market, as downloads or cobbled together through streaming services; and everything is available at allenlowe.com). The quantity, and quality, of the work is daunting. As Lowe explains, “What else do I have to do up here?”
What else was to make his own records. He began playing and recording again in 2001. Two of his key collaborators on Jews in Hell—an enthrallingly strange mix of blues, country, punk, and everything else that comes off as a learned man abandoning language to recover his barbaric yawp—were guitarist Marc Ribot and pianist Matthew Shipp. In 2011, he put out a three-CD set, Blues and the Empirical Truth. Something prompted him to send me a copy, or I never would have known what he was doing. It’s an astonishing recording, one of the best of that year and, once heard, impossible to forget. Lowe, Ribot, Shipp, Rudd, and pianist Lewis Porter, joined by what seems like a cast of thousands, play the tunes—all originals—like they are inventing a new tradition as they go along, one that just happens to collide with the historical freedom and development of jazz.
The closest thing to Lowe’s career is that of the imaginary title character of Borges’s story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Borges’s story is literary criticism in the form of a fictional narrative in which Menard’s identical (yet original) Quixote is superior to Cervantes’s own because Menard knows so much more about the world and history. Lowe’s jazz, coming directly out of the music’s most primitive roots, sounds both more traditional and more avant-garde because of his own immersion in the timeline of history. There is really no term for it; he’s best described as a performing musicologist, though with neither affiliation nor Ph.D.
“Jazz [has] trouble accepting people who have a serious intellectual approach and a serious musical approach,” Lowe told me. “Many other art forms have a tradition of critic and creator”—Hector Berlioz was an important critic as well as a great composer, to cite an example from classical music—but “[there’s] a bit of an anti-intellectual tradition in jazz.” A polemicist to the core, “almost all my projects are an argument with something or someone.”
His latest, the four-CD set Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4, is the extension of an argument that began six years ago with Wynton Marsalis. The dense, fascinating booklet Lowe wrote for the release describes “a strange encounter with Wynton […] in which […] he attempted to shut me down with the hammered insistence of his disapproval.” The subject was “hip-hop and his dislike of that form, which he and Stanley Crouch have labeled ‘the new minstrelsy.’” What Lowe was thinking, and hearing, was the “music of the Minstrel Diaspora,” the origins of “American song of all form, shapes, and sound.”
“But since it felt personal, I also began to compose and then record,” first Blues and the Empirical Truth, now Mulatto Radio (there’s at least three albums worth of related material he hopes to release). Like Blues, and like Menard, the music sounds like it began right where Tom Turpin and Irving Berlin first found themselves, then followed the same journey and ended up in the same place, but one more real and vivid: surreal. That’s the sound of historical knowledge, of working through newer ideas of rhythm and harmony than Turpin and Berlin had, then using the same materials they did.
His series of three CDs from early in his recording career, Mental Strain at Dawn, At The Moment of Impact, and Woyzeck’s Death, are a search into his own formative influences. Lowe was consciously trying to shake off the influence and rigid dictates of bebop and hard-bop and learn from peers like Hemphill and David Murray. Mental Strain is a reimagining of Louis Armstrong as an avant-gardist (which he was, within the bounds of diatonic harmony); At The Moment of Impact is a dip into 1980s compositional formalism; and Woyzcek’s Death, his take on the Büchner play, is the sound of a growing musical personality.
The last recording before the exile to Maine was Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground - The American Song Project. This is the disc where Lowe found himself, the core of his sound and his imagination. Retrospectively and metaphorically, this is when he first opened the basement door. A compelling exploration of the dark and bright heart of Americana through song, it opens with the title track, which Lowe points out is the very first alternate version of the chilling Blind Willie Johnson gospel-blues song. It’s just Lowe playing saxophone in his kitchen, accompanying himself via overdubbing with guitar—played with a kitchen knife—and the throbbing whistle of a whirling hose. The expression combines curiosity, wonderment, frustration, desperation, reverence, and irreverence. His work sounds like a first cousin to what Tom Waits has been doing ever since Swordfishtrombones, great American music, ancient to the future.
Lowe is conscious that he is traveling fraught territory, the racial origins of American popular music and the racist country to which the music was born. “Arguing about what is the heritage of jazz, the black-white thing, is pretty much a constant,” he says. Jazz, blues, and rock have origins in African-American culture and also European-American culture. Jazz comes directly out of slavery and emancipation, and as a music it is also constructed out of European marches, French songs, and Cuban rhythms, and any time spent listening to proto-jazz music—like James Reese Europe’s band, ragtime, or Louis Moreau Gottschalk—makes this clear. And while it may be socially unfortunate that the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band waxed “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917 before any black musicians could, the ODJB was there at the origins of the music, along with King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.
Minstrelsy is the most difficult subject of all, but Lowe is neither the first nor the only one to point out that minstrelsy is the means by which “African-American entertainment came to dominate the culture of the USA.” He’s also clear about the necessary but uncomfortable position of certain white patrons vis-à-vis the Harlem Renaissance, the entertainers “first perverted and then oddly nurtured through the Caucasian midwifery, promotion, exploitation, and the loving—if often condescending—sponsorship.”
Isolation is not usually healthy for an obsessive thinker and tinkerer, and perhaps his almost-naïve honesty means he will never sit down to dinner with Marsalis and Crouch, but he is personable, good-natured, and continues to attract talented musicians to his projects. “For better or worse,” he says, “I’ve developed a reputation, my projects are known to be difficult and high quality!” He’s active on Facebook, where he’s connected with players. The roster on Mulatto Radio includes clarinetist Ken Peplowski, dynamic young saxophonist Noah Preminger, and star classical pianist Ursula Oppens, and was the last recording session for the late, great tenor player Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre.
He’s bringing the whole project to Spectrum on the Lower East Side for a show on May 3rd. The band will include Shipp, Porter, saxophonists Bobby Zankel and Hayes Greenfield, bass-clarinetist Paul Austerlitz, brass players Brian Simontacchi and Christopher Meeder, guitarist Ray Suhy, and bassist Kevin Ray. “I’m writing a bunch of new things, a new piece I hope to debut, ‘Meditations on Disintegration,’ my thoughts on Mingus. I don’t think we solved the problem [that continues to plague jazz] on this recording, of the whole head and solos thing. If I had more time, I’d like to develop something more like Mingus. Mingus is a great model, it takes very much for me to not consciously model him.”
If he had more time—“There’s no limit to the timeline,” and no end to the past, he says. But—“there’s a limit to how much I can compose.”
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.