This site grew from a hope to remedy to the frustrating neglect suffered by certain cultural traditions. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the avant-garde music conceived by African Americans during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. In my view, this music, with it’s continued practice and advancement, is the most important art-form to have been realized in the country of my birth. The fact that it languishes in the shadows is not only absurd, but the historical legacy of America’s sickening racial condition. I advocate music as a means to cultural equity, and an attack on its detractors. My writing is often inspired by the remarkable men and woman of Jazz who broke countless racial, cultural, and creative boundaries. I’ve too rarely arrived to fight in their corner. It’s a good moment to begin to rectify this.
I entered the vast cannon of Jazz during my early teens – a blind and directionless extension of my fascination with the Beat Generation. I pursued it with veracity, but in the era before the Internet and locked in rural isolation, I was limited to scratching at scattered references. When chance lead me to John Coltrane, everything changed. Both within his music, and growing from it, a world opened before me. Curiosity became an overwhelming passion. He embodied the furious energy that had drawn me to Punk, pushed me intellectually, and brought me to tears. He laid the foundations for what I expect of myself as a listener, and what I demand of the music I hear. I could dedicate countless words to the importance of the man, his music, and its legacy in my life. That’ll wait. This piece is dedicated to another theme, and though my love for Coltrane lead me to it, it is not his. Coltrane was the first artist who compelled me to devour his entire catalog, and push beyond it. I pursued his records chronologically and grew with him. It wasn’t until I arrived at his records on Impulse that things started to fall into place. Most people who love avant-garde Jazz trace the roots of their passion to Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor or Ornette Colman. Mine is bound to Coltrane’s later recordings. They dictate the character of my taste which have followed me through the years. It was my love for these albums and how distinct they were within Coltrane’s discography, that pushed me to explore the Impulse catalog further. As I discovered Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Alice Coltrane, somewhere along the way, I stumbled across an album that changed everything.
Mingus – The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (1963)
From the day it fell into my hands, Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady has been the answer to one of life’s hardest questions. My favorite record of all time. It’s stood like stone for more than twenty years. The first listen brought me to my knees, overwhelmed by heartache and confusion. I was in love but couldn’t understand why. This music was incredibly ambitious and aggressive, yet bore none of the hallmarks of the avant-garde which had initially drawn me in. At moments it sounded like the Big Band music which had once churned from my grandparents’ turntable, at others it shifted towards an emotional fury that trumped most Free-Jazz. One passage like six marching bands battling and the next a crying child. I’m still yet to find its match. For all the years I’ve spent with it, I’ve never fully understood how it works, how it captures what it does. It’s a confounding marvel.
Charles Mingus was a giant. Political, brilliant, and avant-garde across the entire breadth of his career. His music is complex, elegant, and sophisticated. Few have reached his heights. Mingus’ music threw its body against the evils perpetrated by his country, and made him the quintessential American composer. He was the troubled, torn successor to Ellington and a precursor to the Black Power movement. As recognized as it is, the body of music he left behind deserves far more. I adore him. A man of conviction, at odds with his time – time has proven his convictions. As a musician and improviser he was a legend. As a composer, few have matched him. Black Saint is his crowning jewel.
The album has never been neglected by music criticism. I’m not alone in singing its praise. It regularly tops “Great Recordings” lists. There is very little I can say that hasn’t been said. It’s legacy on my listening habits, and on the history of Jazz might be of some use.
Black Saint is important for what it does, and how Mingus achieved it. The composition folds the sonic history of African decent onto itself, while simultaneously accounting for the sprawling distillation of diaspora that is our country. It is one of the most decidedly American works of art ever rendered. Like each of us, it’s a mutt.
Mingus was a musical bridge. In his youth he studied classical music. His twenties were dedicated to touring with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. Despite history having rightfully crowned him Ellington’s logical successor, Mingus’ difficult personality lead to his being one of the only people he ever fired. He was early to understand the advancements made by Charlie Parker and played with him extensively during the early 50’s. By the time he reached 30, he had participated in three musical idioms, and was yet to lead his own band. If great things come for those who wait, Mingus is one such case. Even early in his career as a composer and band leader, Mingus’ music was distinct and stood apart.
Mingus’ genius as a composer drew from his acute sense of perspective. He was a visionary who rarely bowed to the zeitgeist or practical difficulty. Despite being an active participant in the first wave of Be-Bop, he saw the future beyond it and proposed what it might be. Rather than the radical paradigm breaking gestures, Mingus’ music is a distillation of his own experience and musical legacy. From fragments of the past – Classical Music, Big-Band Jazz, and Be-Bop, he created a music which crept into the future. As early as the 1950’s, he laid the groundwork for many of the hallmarks of the 1970’s avant-garde. With Max Roach he founded Debut Records – one of the first artist (not to mention African American) run record labels. Debut became the model for many musicians during the 70’s looking for self determination after years of mistreatment by the White run record industry. Most significantly, rather than leading a band characteristic of his era (a tight knit trio or quartet), Mingus founded the Jazz Workshop – a rotating cast of musicians who were encouraged to improvise collectively in a large ensemble. This became a dominant means for creative practice two decades later, but was strikingly out of step with its moment, and helped form Mingus’ distinct sound.
For many years, unaware of the later legacies of Free-Jazz (largely because their recordings lay out of reach on rare private press releases), I considered Black Saint to be singular. I hunted for equivalents and failed. Even Mingus’ catalog somehow failed to produce. I couldn’t put my finger on what I was looking for, but knew it was out there. Time passed. The depth of my knowledge and explorations of Free-Jazz developed. Love grew and pushed me on. Occasionally my persistence would uncover an album which cried out and struck the chord – dancing with the mysterious territory of The Black Saint. It took years to understand what, where, and why I was hearing what I was. It happened so rarely, I’m not sure I even recognized the effect of the scale of the ensemble, or the character of their interplay. I was intuitively drawn to the sound of a collective vibrating off of each other. I was hunting for the simultaneous sound of the whole. From what seemed to be a scattered series of anomalies, a picture began to slowly focus.
During the second half of the 1960’s, as their fan base drifted toward Rock and Roll and Soul and Funk, Jazz musicians found themselves with flagging industry support. Some adopted the Pop sensibilities of their usurpers, creating a form of music which is generally referred to as Fusion. Those who refused to conform pushed on toward new and more advanced forms of Jazz. They followed Mingus’ model of founding collectives and artist run record labels. They did it themselves. This period of self-determination, and the music that grew from it, was almost always the source of the rare encounters which struck my heart. This new Jazz adapting to new economic restrictions, flourished and evolved. With no one getting paid, the scale of an ensemble went from constraint to enabler. From collective vision grew a rising wave of sound.
Despite the countless hours I’ve spent with The Black Saint, new dimensions unfold before me with every listen. It is an album that will travel with me for the rest of my life. I will ask for its sounds to envelop my death bed and funeral. My love for it never tires. I am always yearning for a little more. Many of the albums I hold closest to my heart are laced with its influences.These albums are as much the reason for my writing as is Mingus’ masterpiece. The results of remarkable musicians who took what he proposed, often laboring in the shadows, and made something so new that the results stand outside of idiom and time. Like Mingus, many of these musicians offered a different proposition of what Jazz might be. A music that moved into the higher realms of art and was drawn from the entire history of music.
These albums are among the closest to my heart. Ones that defy definition, whose sound, like Mingus’, grew from large ensembles and self determination. Because of my affection for this territory, I have selected more than I usually might and neglected far more than I hoped. For practical reasons, I have left out those which you are most likely to encounter on your own. Artists like Don Cherry, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders embody much of the spirit which I have described. I take no pleasure in neglecting them here. What I have managed to include is only a small fraction of this wonderful world. I hope it opens before you and lets you rest a little longer in the shadow of The Saint.
Philip Cohran & The Artistic Heritage Ensemble – The Malcolm X Memorial (A Tribute In Music) (1970)
For the bulk of his long career, Kelan Phil Cohran has been a significant contributor to the history of Jazz and one of its most neglected figures. He began his career as a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra – featuring on 6 of their LPs. When the band left Chicago he stayed behind and helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians – arguably the most important collective of musicians ever established. Had he walked away in 1965, his place in history would have been ensured. Much of the neglect that Cohran has suffered was self initiated. He has always been a fiercely principled and independent musician. Differences lead to his early departure from the AACM, after which he began The Artistic Heritage Ensemble. The band self-released two LPs and three 45s during the 70’s. None reached their rightful audiences – owing to Cohran’s justifiable resistance to working with the White run record industry and distribution system. Fortunately they’ve been reissued during the last decade and brought his remarkable sounds to the audiences they deserve. Further archival and recent recordings have since been issued, all of which are incredible. I’m such a big fan of Cohran’s output that it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite. The Malcolm X Memorial was the first that I heard and it hit me like a brick.
Though Cohran is decidedly avant-garde, it would be a stretch to call his music Free-Jazz. I’d never do him the disservice of designating his music as a derivation, but Cohran clearly owes a great deal to his years spent with Sun Ra. It’s almost as though the Arkestra split in two – one staying in Chicago following one path, the other taking the journey we know. Like Ra, Cohran embraced a vision of Black Nationalism that drew from the ancient world. He encouraged otherworldly costumes, and carried Sun Ra’s rigorous regime of rehearsal into all of his ensembles. He preferred large groups – both out of step with the moment and financially challenging. His music extends from the cosmic Big Band sounds of Ra’s Chicago years, but follows its own path toward the outer reaches of sound.
The Malcolm X Memorial is a honking angry sea of sound. It stands totemically in the history of Jazz. It’s brilliant, wonderful, overwhelming, and not quite like anything I can call to mind. It makes my heart race with every listen. Like its title suggests, it is an homage to the life of Malcolm X. It is also a lyrical extension of his more radical ideas. A vocal attack on White America and raises some of the more complex territory embedded in the history of Jazz.
Jazz should always be acknowledged as an African American idiom and invention, but from its earliest realizations, it’s been a multi-racial affair. Its musical structure is based on the sounds of multiple cultures – from diverse racial origins, with early contributions made cross-racially. Jazz rarely gets the credit it deserves for its resistance to institutionalized racism in America. More than any other art form, Jazz laid the foundations for the civil rights movement. Its musicians, out of mutual respect, were the first to refuse separation along racial lines. Similarly inspired, Jazz fans were among the first to ignore Jim Crow – rarely allowing themselves to be denied the music they loved, or the company of other fans who shared their enthusiasm. As long as I’ve listened to Jazz, I’ve been saddened by it’s lack of legacy in the African American community. It’s critical, historical, and contemporary legacy has largely fallen into White hands. This is something that I unequivocally would rather were not the case, and hope one day changes. I raise the subject of race within Jazz history because albums like this (as well as many of my favorites) were not made for White ears. They were made for Black listeners, as an attack on White America. Unlike many of my fellow (White) Americans, I believe that America is fundamentally racist to its core. That its values and economic policies are an attack on people of color. That any White person avoiding the question of race in our country is racist. Black America has every right to its anger and should allow itself a lot more. That said, there is a difference between constructive anger or attacks on injustice and blindness. Racism is not something exclusive to White people. Some realizations of Black Nationalism allowed a legitimate anger to devolve into a racist belief system. This album flirts with being such a case. I love it like few others, but I’ve also never entirely know how to address the lyrical content of the song Malcolm X which mantrically proclaims “White man is our enemy” and in the second half that we “ain’t no good”. Were the races of its creators and subject inverted, such a gesture would be deserving of the dustbins of history. Given the context that it was made, and the pure brilliance of its artistry, I’ve managed to forgive it and believe it’s worth facing a complex relic from a difficult history.
The remaining three songs are instrumental and absolutely astounding. They are chugging rhythmic realizations of big band jazz that reach back through history to their roots in Africa. Cohran managed to spin a music into being that possessed all the fire and avant-garde spirit of his Free-Jazz contemporaries, while accounting for the breadth of culture and history from which he sprang. The result sounds like nothing else of his time and is something that few but Mingus have been able to manage. This album is a towering achievement. Despite its forgivable faults is one of my favorites of all time.
The Bill Dixon Orchestra – Intents And Purposes (1967)
Bill Dixon stands tall as one of my favorite Jazz composers of all time. His albums would be among the first I would save from a fire. His genius was unmatched in his generation – perhaps in any, and in my view is one of the few that might be considered a legitimate successor to Mingus. He was a giant. Much of his career was spent laboring in the self imposed isolation. The rest he spent in the shadows. Even for serious Jazz fans, his name is far too obscure. Dixon was one of the first to embrace Mingus’ collective vision of Jazz. In 1964 he founded the Jazz Composers Guild, which evolved into the famed Jazz Composers Orchestra. Everything Dixon touched is gold. It’s impossible to pick a favorite record. This is the first LP Dixon released entirely under his own steam (his first two are shared with Archie Shepp) and the last before he withdrew from the world of performance and recording until the end of the 70’s. I often argue against an artist’s impulse to produce. In most cases the demand of over-productivity sacrifices quality. Dixon’s career is the perfect model. Slow, thoughtful, and faultless. He didn’t release much, but what he did was out of this world, and this album is no exception. The recording is a slow, complex meditation of energy. Its ensemble writhes and churns against itself, establishing remarkable sonorities and complex relationships. Like much of Dixon’s music, it defies definition. It’s Free-Jazz while pushing beyond the scope of its landscape. In many ways it holds a stronger relationship to 20th century avant-garde classical music, rather than with the tradition from which it springs. At once it flirts with the Blues of Ellington and Mingus while embracing the emotional atonality of Schonburg. It’s a triumphant work by one of America’s most remarkable artists. I can’t recommend it enough.
Mtume Umoja Ensemble – Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks (Live At The East) (1972)
This album is a mean motherfucker. It’s an amazing document of the pure fire of Black Nationalist Free-Jazz. I discovered it during a period when I was picking at the outer reaches of Leroy Jenkins’ discography (he’s a member of this ensemble). At the time I had exhausted his output as a band leader and as a member of the Revolutionary Ensemble and was desperate to hear more. It begins with an Afro-Spiritual/Political monologue. Even before the music started, I knew I was onto a good thing. When its first notes cried out, I nearly fell out of my chair. It’s astounding. I spent years desperately trying to track down a copy. It doesn’t turn up often and when it does, it’s rarely cheap. I waited it out and got lucky. The ensemble is lead by James Mtume, a percussionist who during this period was playing regularly with with Miles Davis, Buddy Terry, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders and others. He released two albums as a leader. Both are great representations of 1970’s New York Free-Jazz, and among the best displaying the possibilities of larger ensembles. Alkebu-Lan – Land Of The Blacks was recorded at The East, a radical venue in the Clinton Hill Neighborhood of Brooklyn, remembered for the Pharoah Sanders album bearing its name, and notable for not allowing White people to pass its doors.
Mtume left the world of Jazz in the late 70’s and went on to have a fairly successful career as a Modern Soul and Disco artist. This phase in his career didn’t produce many things I like, and is probably most noted for the track Juicy Fruit, which was famously sampled by Notorious B.I.G.
Of all the albums I’ve chosen for this list, Alkebu-Lan stands slightly at odds. Most of the artists featured here, like Mingus, use complex orchestration to capture the depth of their anger and emotion. To achieve this, they exacted remarkable control over the emotional realization of their music. Alkebu-Lan is the other end of the spectrum. It is a howling storm set forth on the world. There isn’t an ounce of restraint on its four sides. It makes the emotional onslaught of Punk and Hardcore sound like a childish temper tantrum. Despite all that it unleashes, somehow its sound still returns me to Mingus. It’s not only the scale of the ensemble, but how the musicians play off each other. The album embraces the rising tide of the whole rather than the brittle interplay of single musicians. The dissonances they create despite their energy and emotion feel considered and composed. It’s a rare and wonderful thing. If you spend the time it takes to hunt it down, you won’t be disappointed.
Horace Tapscott Conducting The Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra – The Call (1978)
Geography weighs heavily on the history of Jazz. There’s an east/west axis. It started in the middle (New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City), and exploded out across the country. For many years it was a nomadic art. Musicians spent more time on the road than in the cities that birthed their music. It didn’t matter where Jazz was from – it came to you. During the post-war period as dance bands fell from popularity and touring became more difficult, the music turned inward, laid roots and mutated. New York loomed large, as the rest of the country faded from view. The historical vision of Jazz during the second half of the 20th Century has a clear “depth of field”. It looks out from the East. You might be able to see a hazy outline of the Mid-West, but what lies beyond is all but lost. A clear vision West Coast Jazz during this period is slow to unfold. If you are patient, it offers incredibly exciting territories of sound. Artists like Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Horace Tapscott are so surprising and wonderful they have forced me to question everything I know. Their obscurity is confounding.
The Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra in was formed by Tapscott in 1961. This album is the fist presentation of their work in recorded form, and only the second (after a decade long gap) where Tapscott appears as a leader. Tapscott maintained a long and close friend of Eric Dolphy’s, while Arthur Blythe, Stanley Crouch, Butch Morris, Wilber Morris, and David Murray were all members of the Arkestra. They establish a direct link to some of the most notable names in East Cost Jazz, making the band’s obscurity that much more curious. Tapscott’s absence from history is bizarre and slightly unforgivable. Sadly he died before it could be remedied. Fortunately we have the documents we do.
This record is remarkable. It‘s historical reflection, forward thinking, emotional energy and restraint is the embodiment of Black Saint’s legacy. The compositions are thrilling and complex and shift fluidly between dissonance, melodic interplay and outright free improvisation. They display the sonic territory which can only be reached with a large scale band. As it rocks and writhes in heavy grooves, it’s sliced apart by Tapscott’s amazing piano lines. It’s stunning and long overdue for a reissue. The world has been without it for long enough.
Fred Stone – La Musique De Fred Stone (1972)
I can’t give you much of a story behind this album. Fred Stone was a Canadian trumpet player who worked with Duke Ellington during the 60’s and 70’s. To my knowledge this record, released by Radio Canada as part of a sprawling series of Jazz recordings made at their studios, is his only solo document. Though it stands slightly outside the orthodox history of Jazz during its era, it fits beautifully into this selection of albums. It’s a a tapestry of heavy big band grooves, drawing both from the past and looking out into the future. When I first heard it, I thought instantly of Black Saint, while also calling to mind Ellington. It’s a funny little mutant that reminds me of the strong link between the two great composers. This records is a blast to listen to. It chugs forward, dances and leaves you in a state of pure joy. Like Black Saint its dissonances are formed by the interplay of instruments rather than in the hands of a single musician. It’s funky, sophisticated and definitely worth your time if you can track it down.
Bob Moses – Bittersuite In The Ozone (1975)
Bob Moses is a drummer who got his start playing with Roland Kirk at the age of 17. He had a spotty enough career to understand why he’s not a household name, but the obscurity of this album defies logic. Maybe it doesn’t have a cool enough cover to inspire people to give it a spin. Maybe Moses’ pedigree isn’t quite good enough. I honestly don’t know. Needless to say, this album is great and worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s also one of the cheapest selections found on this list. You can find copies that are practically free – a rare characteristic for a forty year old private press Free-Jazz record. It’s a beautiful piece of work and features some of the best players of free music – Daniel Carter, Howard Johnson, and Jeanne Lee, among others. I love it. The record nails the sonic possibilities that come from playing in large ensembles, while also capturing the wonderful sonic territories opened by multiple players simultaneously free improvising. The music vacillates between concise melodies played by the collective, the responsive interplay of improvisation, and its use as antagonism. It’s great – funky, grooving, spiritual and complex. Definitely a neglected masterpiece that I couldn’t begin to recommend enough.
Walter Zuber Armstrong – Alpha And Omega (1973)
Like Horace Tapscott, Walter Zuber Armstrong’s choice to live on the West coast seems to have relegated him to obscurity. Were it not for a few recordings he made with Milo Fine and Steve Lacy, I expect his name would be all but lost. I don’t remember how I came across this record, but I remember wondering how someone could produce such remarkable music and remain outside common knowledge. This record stands up with the best. Armstrong spent most of his life teaching in the Pacific Northwest, while issuing his recordings on his own private press. This record is a great advocation to doing your own thing. Of those profiled here, it dips furthest into the territory often defined as Spiritual Jazz. It’s music is a vision of the avant-garde that rests the wilder elements of free-improvisation on heavy grooves and meditative passages drawn from diverse musical traditions. It’s sound will be fairly familiar to fans of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry. It’s a wonderful rocking journey. It shifts between the full thick sound of a large ensemble and to the simple elegance of Armstrong’s flute solo excursions. It’s one of those rare Jazz albums from this era that thrills with its artistry and sophistication while making you want to kick back your chair and dance. Undeniably a rare and neglected gem.