In 1968, poet and noted authority on black music Amiri Baraka wrote, "Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been." Politics of race aside, in 1968, Baraka's words were not opinion, but fact. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor, Art Blakey, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Roy Haynes (all of whom he mentions in Black Music) validated Baraka's argument. But fast forward 35 years and Baraka's words, however poignant at the time and arguable now, are dated. Certainly, the majority of critics remain white, but the artists that are revolutionary and keeping improvised music current are white and more importantly, apart from a few (a very few), are not even American. Peter Br'tzmann, Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, Alex von Schlippenbach, Willem Breuker, Peter Kowald, Wolfgang Fuchs, John Butcher, G'nter Christmann, Fred Van Hove, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Tony Oxley, Barry Guy, various members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Global Unity Orchestra, London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, King 'b' 'rchestr', Instant Composers Pool, and Evan Parker have taken the "new thing" and made it their thing. Improvised music continues to develop stateside with a new generation, but ask around and most in the know are devotees of Parker (unedited and in his own words) and other Euros.
All About Jazz: Tell me about your involvement with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
Evan Parker: The core members of that group were John Stevens, Trevor Watts, and Paul Rutherford. They had met when they were in the Royal Air Force, stationed in Germany. Each of them joined the RAF as a way of studying music. It was one of the options that people used in those days. Also, conscription was still enforced. I'm just slightly younger than they are and so I missed that, but they were all old enough to be included, so I think their logic was that if they were going to have to be soldiers, they would be soldiers playing an instrument. That was how they met and then when they came back to London from Germany, they stayed in touch and formed the SME, the earliest version. I came onboard something like '67. It was a strange transition then because they had been working with notated materials, the usual forms of theme and variations on the theme. Some were cast in the mold of Ornette Coleman type material and some things sounded like George Russell's work and some things sounded a little bit more like Eric Dolphy perhaps. But in a way, you could hear clear models, well stylistic traditions for the notated material that they were working with. I came into that and it gradually changed into a thing with no fixed material. In a way, that fitted the idea of Spontaneous Music Ensemble better than the original material. In fact, the earliest form of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was not really playing what we now think of as classic SME music, which was then derived from that second phase of working without themes.
AAJ: The perceived school of thought in the States is that European improvisers are coming from European classical music like Stockhausen and Berg rather than "traditional" jazz models, which is clearly not the case.
EP: That is absolutely the case for almost everyone of the players that I can think of from that so called first generation, apart from Cornelius Cardew, who was a member of AMM from around that same time and Cornelius' background was in classical music and in composition studies from a conservatory background. Later, I suppose it could also be said that Gavin Bryars had a foot in both camps. As far as I know, what made Gavin Bryars interested in playing the bass was Scott LaFaro. There were probably clear hero figures from that generation of American jazz players for everyone. The fact that we were also listening to Boulez and Stockhausen and Webern is almost incidental.
AAJ: That being said, how influential were records coming out of the States on new music labels like ESP?
EP: Well, yeah, the ESP records that I remember were obviously the Albert Aylers, but also a little mentioned record is the Giuseppi Logan, which may be more important for me for the interplay between Milford Graves and Don Pullen. Then the duo records that Don Pullen and Milford had made. Yeah, there was a bunch of stuff from musicians that we first heard of in association with ESP. Not everything that was on ESP was relevant, but I think some of those musicians were very, very pertinent.
AAJ: Certainly, there must have been something in the water for that many musicians from the SME to have gone on to become the vanguards of the music.
EP: Yeah, I think that is a reasonable thing to say when you look at the second record that the SME made. The first record with the open improvising that is characteristic of that group, well, Dave Holland, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, myself, and John Stevens. If John were still alive, he would still be playing. Everybody else is still alive and still playing and somehow made a life for ourselves in the music. That speaks of the commitment I suppose and the attention behind those early statements.