Don Pullen: Ode to the Life Lived
Of course, thumbing his nose at the establishment in America paid off, but in an unexpected way. Europe and Japanit's those older civilizations againresponded with respect for individuality and SRP sold many more discs there. But more than that, the artists were welcomed there like some had never imagined. Jane Bunnett told me (of a much later time, but of no less relevance) about how artists were welcomedand she spoke of Pullen and herselfin Australia. This was the 1980s... How much worse in the US of the 1960s and how refreshing must it have felt to be received differently in Europe?
But Don Pullen believed that it would all become right in the end. He was a stoic, like that; who believed that all good would come in the end... disappointed, but still happy to give of himself amid the brutality of everyday that unfolded after SRP was born. He may have been accused of turning his back on the so-called avant-garde, but he was only disillusioned because the music did not swing... something Pullen's music always did, even when it was at its most 'out.' He played in different venuesat universitieswith different musiciansNina Simone and Arthur Prysock, in different contextsR&B and soul, and even transferred his great keyboard skills to the organ, acquitting himself with flying colors on this unwieldy instrument. Pullen always stayed true to himself. His integrity was unshakeable... He was a rock... And he had wings and could flynot just across the musical firmament, but also across the keyboard. His mind just could not be contained.
Still, the impulse to create enduring art is preeminent. It will not be suppressed. What it hears must come out and be committed to tape and record... And so he played the music he heard constantly... and often he commited much to tape, for posterity. By the time the sixties were done, Don Pullen had four albums: two with Guiseppi Logan in 1964 and 1965, and two with Milford Graves in 1966. It is hard to make a living with this music and Pullen experienced that too. But then there was other music that he also heard in his head... And he wanted to experience more especially as if it is good enough to swing and dance to then it is good enough to be played. "I always considered that I was fortunate enough to be in any circumstances where I could play and always tried to take advantage of it. That way I had a foundation in all the different kinds of music that I was experiencing," Pullen once said. 3 And he fit in well, in any scene. He was a well-trained pianist by the time the gigs came in the late-fifties and early sixties. Mrs. Whitlock took care of that in Roanoke, Virginia, then Cousin Fats and then the cats who taught at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. And then there was the First Baptist Church in Roanoke. Pullen played and studied and played and learned... So when he met Muhal Richard Abrams in 1963, he was ready. Abrams heard the new music in him... "Muhal approved and encouraged me in what I was doing. I was trying to incorporate atonality into the standard formsthe blues and the standardsand to make whatever I heard fit that mode," Pullen once recalled.4
So, why was it so hard for those who heard his music from the sixties in the vanguard of the new movement to understand where he was coming from and where the music was at, then and there? Why, when Bernard Stollman, Founder of ESP-Disk heard the music he was recording with Giuseppi Logan in 1964: "At one point, I was standing with the engineer in the control room, and I thought the piece they were playing was stunningly beautiful. It sounded totally spontaneous, as if they were adlibbing and commenting like a gorgeous conversation. Suddenly I heard a 'thwuuunk,' and I realized that the tape had run out. The engineer and I were so absorbed, we hadn't been paying attention. I thought 'Oh God, this remarkable thing is lost. It was interrupted in the middle and it's gone.' Richard Alderson was the engineer, and he got on the intercom and said, 'Giuseppi, the tape ran out.' Without a pause, Giuseppi said, 'Take it back to before where it stopped and we'll take it from there.' So he did, wound it back and played some bars of it and they took down the record button, and they resumed exactly what they were doingthere was no way of telling where one or the other ended. It was unreal."5