with Florence Wetzel
Jazz has inspired a number of fine "oral" autobiographical writer-musician collaborations. Most, like Albert's Murray's Count Basie and Quincy Troupe's Miles Davis memoir (to cite two classics of the genre) focus on the superstars, legends around whom well-worn myths have already been imprinted in the minds of generations of fans.
The Traveler, an oral history/memoir/biography of clarinetist Perry Robinson, done in collaboration with novelist Florence Wetzel, however, shows that it's not so much fame but the style and rhythm of a charismatic mind that makes the mode. With the right writer-musician chemistry, the career of a peripatetic semi-famous jazz innovator can offer an excellent prism to probe the social history of an era, in this case the New York new music underground of the 60s-90s.
Robinson, son of composer Earl Robinson (I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hill, The House I Live In), though hardly a household name, has over the past forty years become a mainstay of the New York concert scene, leader of several influential jazz bands (including Uni Trio and the Perry Robinson Quartet) and favorite side-man for what has to be the most eclectic range of performers of any musician of his generation. Just a partial list includes such wildly improbable cohorts as Pete Seeger and Ginger Baker, Archie Shepp and Deborah Harry, George Clinton and Gunter Hampel, Bob Dylan and Ornette Coleman.
The Traveler abounds with recollections and vivid, candid off-stage snapshots of these and many other musical notables, featuring the most detailed portrait yet in print of the origins of the "free jazz" scene which arose in the early-to mid 60s on the lower East Side and in Brooklyn, not in commercial clubs but in people's apartments and lofts.
As Robinson recalls it, "In February, 1965 when we came back from the army, my band Uni Trio and I brought about twenty tobacco pouches filled with Red we'd smuggled back from Panama. We pasted them under our Army uniforms, and since we had to come through the army checkpoint it was cool because we knew they'd never check. Tom, Bill, and I rented a house on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn on army unemployment and we used to have people come over and play, great players like Paul Bley and Albert Ayler.. We did performances in Brooklyn Heights in different friends' houses."
The Traveler reconstructs the heavily psychedelic social milieu from which revolutionary music such as Ayler's Spiritual Unity, Sunny Murray's Mama Too Tight and Robinson's own The Call was generated. Juxtaposing Robinson's memories and the recollections of fellow musicians, the book brings important mid-60s radical art venues such as Willoughby Walk near Pratt Institute (through which the first wave of LSD made its way to the jazz world), and Archie Shepp's loft at 23 Cooper Square back to life. The book also contains many detailed descriptions of the origins of the highly influential, but seldom documented world of the Soho loft jazz scene of the early to mid-1970s, and of Robinson role in hooking up New York artists with visiting German musicians such as Gunter Hampel and Willem Breuker, who would pioneer Europe's improvisational jazz movement. It finally follows the flowering of these movements in a myriad of divergent directions in the 80s and 90s, including the revival of Kletzmer music, in which Robinson's played a pivotal role. Future histories of these eras should find this book a rich primary document.
Organized around a sequence of very loosely chronologically connected short vignettes, topical thought-snaps and personal recollections the book thrives on quirky juxtapositions, mixing low and high moments, serious and not-so (mystical experiences brought on by fasting, next to accounts of drunken parties) in unpredictable ways. Given this collagist approach inclusion of contemporay accounts (e.g. reviews of concerts mentioned) might have added another rich dimension to the mix.
Through all a panoply of facets of Robinson's character emerge and co-exist, easily or not so easily- the disciplined, obsessive musical experimentalist, hippie stoner, shrewd character judge, jester, intellectual, boozer, intense partier, hermit, bachelor, practitioner of magic, student, mentor, maestro.