Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind
KV: The most creative and unique music of any period has always been ignored or was under the radar. Thelonious Monk was almost a household name and that's kind of astounding. Almost all the great classic jazz records with rare exception were made on small independent labels such as Bluenote, Riverside, Prestige, Dial, and Savoy. That's not unlike now, whether in Europe, Asia, Canada, or here. You're talking about people who are passionate about the music and trying to get people documented that are overlooked by the mainstream. Columbia Records is a weird exception because Miles Davis did some of his greatest work on Columbia. There are other examples like Duke Ellington as well, but generally speaking, it's been people working independently outside the mainstream. And I think the people who are doing some of the most interesting work now, like you said, are artists that others don't know about.
LP: One of the problems with documentation focusing on jazz, such as Ken Burn's series, is that it spends most of it's time concentrating on what jazz created in the past tense and little on what the music is creating at the moment, which is the essence of this great music we call jazz. Doesn't this seem shortsighted, perhaps a lost opportunity to educate potential aspiring jazz students and educate people to what jazz is really all about and what is available to them?
KV: One of the problems with art is it's hard for people to assess what's really happening connected to the present. The artists that get signed to a major label frequently are people who have done work that's associated with the past because people can assess it or think that they can assess it. There are very few writers who actually talk about artists that are doing things right now that have real weight. Some people are trying to do that obviously but the overwhelming majority of information about the music is about its past. In some ways that makes sense but there is certainly a discrepancy there.
At the beginning of their careers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk were looked at as outsiders. Amazingly, Monk was even looked at as someone that was not technically capable of playing the piano that well. At some point, there was enough weight in their art for people to accept the fact that they were great artists. However, when many artists are allowed to do their work, they end up being misunderstood. This is especially true for someone like Duke Ellington, who was still being criticized for not being able to compose long-form pieces even towards the end of his career. It doesn't surprise me that the people who get funding to document jazz usually receive it for stuff that has been assessed as art. There are no qualifiers that say the people doing great work right now such as Mat Maneri, Joe Morris, William Parker, or Peter Brotzmann are going to be as lasting as the work of Charlie Parker. So we'll talk about Charlie Parker more because that's a qualified and quantified thing as great art in America. The irony is that improvised music is attached to its own time, the present, and very infrequently is it discussed in its own period. Institutions like schools place emphasis on music that has history, and I would say the emphasis is much more on harmonically derived elements and music that's attached to tonal harmony as opposed to music that comes out of the end of the '50s. There is like a ton of development going on inside and outside the United States that has really moved the music into different places. That's why it continues to thrive. It may not get written about or acknowledged like in a Ken Burns series, where I think the last episode dealt with the '60s and was pushed into thirty or forty-five minutes of time. In terms of chronology, that's half the period of the music. It's absurd! Whether you like the music or not, it has continued to change and shift. People in mainstream jazz magazines still talk about Albert Ayler as a charlatan and I think that's a very simple illustration of the kind of problem that we are faced with. If Jackson Pollack is seen as a genius, then translating that to music, Albert Ayler should be seen as a genius. His approach to the saxophone and sound radically changed the possibilities for music and yet he is very unknown. In terms of the general thrust of the writing, Albert Ayler is a footnote and he shouldn't be. There is some kind of critical assessment issue with the music as far as the way I perceive it.
LP: Is there a chance that at some point over the generations we became a more visual kind of society and took for granted or place less significance on various elements of sound?