Kind of Bleu

Posted on January 1, 2006


Originally published in Bookforum:

Jazz has long been labeled “America’s classical music,” a title some, like Wynton Marsalis and the board of Jazz at Lincoln Center, work hard to espouse, and one that still others hold responsible for the genre’s fossilization. What neither group contests is that the audience for jazz is waning in America, a situation countered in Europe, where the genre enjoys ongoing popularity and where most American jazz musicians now spend the bulk of their touring time. This attenuation began just as free jazz emerged, led by Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1960). Coleman arguably should have been the next giant to follow in the footsteps of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but his quavering alto sax improvisations polarized musicians, galvanizing the majority to retrench in bebop.

Coleman was received much more favorably by Europeans. As jarring as its lack of pulse and grounding structure was, his music did not depart from harmonic and metric convention as much as that of Schoenberg and Webern had. In fact, Europeans saw Coleman’s aural experimentation as the natural successor to the fast-paced, virtuosic improvisation of saxophonist Charlie Parker. Free jazz, argues Mike Heffley in Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, precipitated a loss of audience and a period of stagnation in America, but in Europe, it enabled musicians to break free of the American model and develop a distinctive and innovative jazz culture of their own.

After this Emanzipation (a term coined by the German critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt), European musicians asserted distinctive national identities. The English were collectivists with an aesthetic of “quiet anarchism,” while the Dutch were louder, more ironic, and more humorous. But at the heart of Heffley’s book are the Germans—the most intense musicians, the “energy” players. Germany, the author asserts, was the epicenter of free jazz in Europe from the mid-1960s through the ’80s. This claim seems counterintuitive, given that American jazz was a presence in Britain and France before it penetrated Germany and that Paris was a major destination for American jazz expatriates. Heffley freely acknowledges Joe Harriott, a black Jamaican emigrant to England, as the originator of European free jazz.

Heffley set himself the impossible task of chronicling the free-jazz movement across Europe, and his coverage of British jazz is scant. It is only by reading Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain, George McKay’s skillful examination of race relations, gender issues, and the Left in relation to British jazz, that we can understand why British jazz wasn’t at the center of the European free-jazz revolution.

As McKay meticulously recounts, British jazz before 1960 was dominated by “trad” and leftist marching bands that lacked musical discipline and training. Harriott had the misfortune of being a prescient voice in a highly conservative scene; he was at least half a decade ahead of his time, and his group’s improvisations, unlike those of later German free-jazz musicians, owed nothing to Coleman’s, which were solo efforts. Harriott’s improvised group sound evolved during his quintet’s residency at London’s Marquee Club from 1958 to 1962. British musicians mocked these performances, and McKay speculates, plausibly, that Harriott was ostracized for his color as well as for his avant-garde tendencies. Though his album Abstract, released by Jazzland in 1960 and Capitol (USA) in 1961, was the first British jazz recording to receive five stars in Down Beat, the most prominent jazz magazine in America, he never achieved renown in his own country.

Contrast this reception with that given the group at the core of the East German scene, a quartet originally called Synopsis and later renamed the Zentral Quartett. In one of the most engaging sections of Northern Sun, Southern Moon, Heffley interviews all four members of this remarkable group: pianist-composer Ulrich Gumpert, alto saxophonist Ernst-Ludwig Petrovsky, drummer Günter Sommer, and trombonist Conrad Bauer. Apart from his work in the group, each man had a thriving solo career in a country where, at the time, there was no commercial system to support jazz. What accounts for the difference between Harriott’s treatment in England and the Zentral Quartett’s reception in Germany?

McKay sees Harriott’s lack of popularity as indicative of fundamental racial inequities in British jazz. While some of the musicians he interviews are impatient with his questions about race, gender, and politics, and though his resistance to definitive conclusions can be frustrating, McKay’s exploration of social trends extends to his own ideas, and his willingness to question his own theories often results in valuable and imaginative scholarship. He debunks the stereotype of British jazz as overwhelmingly white and male and gives due to female jazz musicians and immigrants from the Caribbean and South Africa, and his discussion of the irony of the leftist tendencies of British jazz musicians given their knowledge of the oppressive nature of Communist countries in the Eastern Bloc is particularly insightful.

Heffley covers too much territory to draw these kinds of connections; in his commendable effort to rectify the scholarly silence on European free jazz, he is far more likely to raise a thought-provoking point and then leave it behind. It’s not surprising, then, that he fails to answer the most interesting question provoked by his book: Why was Germany the European hotbed of free jazz? The authority of Heffley’s claim is indisputable—he marshals an impressive roster of French and German primary source documents and extensive musician interviews. But his narrative sweeps so brusquely from Scandinavia to Russia, piling up interesting snippets of information like sixteenth notes in a tenor sax solo, that one feels burdened by the sheer quantity of information and wholly unable to stop and consider questions of why. Heffley intermittently alludes to possible explanations for Germany’s flourishing scene, mentioning free jazz as a symbol of personal liberty to politically repressed individuals and the German reverence for the deep-rooted Western classical tradition, but no one idea dominates his discourse.

The two most provocative explanations relate to the Western classical tradition and to the phenomenon of the European musician-writer. East German free-jazz pianist Joachim Kühn relates, “You have to know everything about music, basically, in order to play free,” an idea that runs directly counter to the American perception of Coleman as a primitive, untrained player. (Miles Davis said of Coleman, “If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside,” and Max Roach, who saw the saxophonist’s legendary debut at the Five Spot, responded to it by punching Coleman in the mouth.) Heffley draws an ambitious and insightful comparison between Coleman’s harmolodic theory (in which equal musical weight is given to harmony and melody) and Bach’s use of counterpoint, establishing a link (corroborated by his interviews with German musicians, most of whom are conservatory-schooled) between improvisation and composition. Heffley writes, “German jazz artists have exhibited the same life-or-death sense of ‘serious play’ that has marked the European composer-improviser tradition from Bach through Stockhausen.” The musicians he interviews—from the trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff to the vibes and sax player Gunter Hampel—corroborate this notion, discussing Coleman’s influence on their music; the connections among jazz, Schoenberg, and fugal development; and their inclination to think “dramaturgically” about music. Dramaturgy is generally used to describe dramatic composition in theater, but here it refers to the compositional element of improvisation: “It’s also good when one knows one’s fellows for a long time, and [has] a history of experiences of many such different new musical discoveries together; it brings a certain dramaturgy, like a composition, to the mix,” explains trombonist Bauer. Dramaturgy indicates the definitive presence of form, in opposition to the common perception of improvisation as a free-for-all, a situation described with dark glee by the West German drummer Paul Lovens: “Nobody knows what they should do, they’re all trying to listen to what the others are doing, and nobody knows what to do.”

As compelling as it is to imagine European free jazz as a natural outgrowth of Western art music, it’s unlikely that the superior training of German artists (and audiences) wholly accounts for the fertility of their jazz community. The free-jazz movement was more connected with mainstream jazz and the larger cultural discourse in Europe than in America because more writers also played and more players wrote about their music. Free jazz is notoriously difficult to describe (Heffley recognizes this problem and attempts to develop a new system of analysis in the last part of his book), and, as a community of “serious amateurs,” German musicians were well positioned to publicize the music they played by writing about it.

Though he is an American expat living in Paris, Mike Zwerin is an example of the musician-writer Heffley discusses. For much of his career, Zwerin struggled with a heroin addiction, and his “improvisational memoir,” The Parisian Jazz Chronicles, obliquely recounts his battle to quit doing “sniffettes.” The book proceeds, riff after riff, with no clear trajectory, as if the twenty years the author spent as jazz critic for the International Herald Tribune have left him impatient with the journalistic tenets of brevity and directness. A looping, maddening read—there is a fascinating chapter on jazz in Siberia and an irritating one on brewery magnate Freddy Heineken—the book, for all its flaws, captures the tragic marginality and sporadic brilliance of the musician’s life that is missing from Heffley’s and McKay’s books. Zwerin is a natural at establishing rapport with his interviewees—there are unusually intimate glimpses of Davis and Chet Baker—which makes the absence of material on European musicians a true disappointment; while the interviews in Northern Sun, Southern Moon are uniformly excellent, I’d like to see what some of the German free players would say if they sat down in a room with Zwerin. He can be achingly elegant (on Baker: “His pianissimo touched you in a summertime place where the living is not easy”), and of the three writers, he is the best at the formidable task of describing the sound of free jazz.

But even Zwerin’s carnivalesque prose can only approximate the strange and disconcerting sounds of improvised music. Atavistic, through its Unheard Music series, is beginning to reissue the work of Peter Brötzmann and of the Globe Unity Orchestra, a pan-European collective led by West German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, but albums by groups like the Zentral Quartett aren’t available even as imports. Soul Jazz Records has done a remarkable job of reissuing old soul and funk, and it would do well to follow suit with European free jazz. American audiences could then hear the music that inspired Heffley to spend over a decade unearthing a European jazz revolution and led guitarist Attila Zoller to say, “It is music which literally charges you with hate, I can’t listen to it. I want to set everything ablaze or hack it all to pieces after I’ve listened to Brötzmann.”

Posted in: Bookforum