Earlier this year when the NEA named Anthony Braxton a 2014 Jazz Master, he expressed surprise, noting that for over fifty years the jazz community had ‘pushed him back’. It was indeed a surprise seeing Wynton Marsalis as the master of ceremonies for the presentation of the award. The bitter residue of Ken Burns’ PBS jazz documentary is vivid in my memory. Like Braxton himself, I had long gotten used to not thinking about the label of jazz. I like the designation he provides in his acceptance speech: trans-idiomatic music. A small voice inside me—not the best one, no doubt—said, they want to drag him back into the smallness of their world. Or could it be that cracks in that worldview are forming, that they need someone like Braxton? Are jazz fans confused by it all? The musical excerpt chosen for the ceremonies, from Braxton’s opera, utilized jazz language instrumentation, but sounded just like opera. Are we going to call this “jazz” now? Are there political forces behind the scenes of such an award that seek some advantage in trying to bring Anthony Braxton back into the fold? While I am happy to see him being recognized, I think that jazz needs Anthony Braxton more than he needs the award.
So who is Anthony Braxton to me? Why do I care so much?
All of us contain potential lives. As for me, I was born to be a musician. That didn’t happen for a complex of reasons, and I’m not complaining. For a long time I was a visual artist and now I am happy to be a writer. But music was and is my first and most enduring love. In addition, regardless of genre, those artists I admire most—people like Schwitters, Beckett and Braxton—are world citizens, those who transcend boundaries and show the way to globalism. These are, to me, the most inspiring kinds of people on the planet.
But as a young man I didn’t really know, on a cognitive level, the path I was on. Curiosity directed me to the double LP of Braxton’s Solo Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979. I bought it and listened to it at twenty years of age, before I even knew what jazz was. One year later I was in New York and had met a musician who turned me on to some more Braxton records. One of those, 3 Compositions of New Jazz, Braxton’s first record, issued in 1968, with Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and Muhal Richard Abrams, is still one of my favorite recordings of music.
The title of that record puzzled me for many years. It sounds like four guys improvising together. I have since learned a little bit about the complex array of compositional strategies that Braxton invented (more than a decade before John Zorn) to fuse structure and improvisational opportunities together. Another thing I always appreciated about the record was its use of silence, the great spaces that allow for a kind of geometry or architecture of sound. That, and the fact that the musicians hummed, whistled, tapped and seemed to show a willingness to use any object as a musical instrument. I have since learned that this is part and parcel of what might be called the Chicago school of jazz from the 1960’s, centering on the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM. The Chicago school offered a completely different jazz model than the New York school of the same time period. The latter, coming out of hard and fast bebop, celebrated speed, energy and an apotheosis of the individual soloist. The Chicago school embraced improvisation within a context of space and construction, and rather than merely charging ahead (as modernism in all of its manifestations tended primarily to do at that time), it looked into the history of music and found novel ways to combine musical styles.
What Braxton is doing today proves that this approach continues to have a future. It’s trans-idiomatic and globalist. Take a look at his composition for a hundred tubas.
That I am not qualified to go into the nuts and bolts of Braxton’s methods does not mean I don’t understand some of the big patterns of his music, and one that I deeply appreciate is the fusion of structure and improvisation. Braxton could have been exclusively a free player. His duets with Derek Bailey are, in my view, among the finest recorded examples of musicians playing free and really listening to one another. But for Braxton the more musicians you bring into a free session the more you have “existential anarchy”[Forces in Motion, p 236]. For Braxton, there are too few musicians who understand that freedom also means self-discipline, being quiet, stepping back and listening. That’s why his compositional strategies to fuse form and freedom are so exciting.
I have to mention the cycle of tracks which comprise the New York, Fall, 1974 album, as they offer a variety of Braxton’s compositional methods* in a perfect and concise package of aural geometry and exuberant improvisational flowers. The hooks on the first three tracks are catchy enough to keep me coming back, but too complex to memorize without great effort. That formula is like a key to my brain lock. They have speed and silence, spaces and walls of sound, solid construction and players that fly on their instruments. Richard Teitelbaum appears on the fourth track, three members of The World Saxophone Quartet on the fifth, and Leroy Jenkins on the final track which, because of its brooding tone, brings me back again to track one to start the perfect cycle over again. This record combines so many opposites so flawlessly in a mere forty minutes that it never fails to astonish, no matter how many times I listen.
Structure and freedom. Individual expression and ensemble unity. Soul and society. Globalism. The world is just beginning to scratch the surface of Braxton’s vision. This guy is OUT!
* One can study Braxton’s composition notes at the Restructures website.
Braxton’s acceptance speech for the Jazz Masters Award is well worth a watch.