Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes
AAJ: Another interesting musical figure who you have had some direct involvement with is Teddy Charles.
CB: I am very fortunate to have developed an interactive relationship with this key figure in jazz history. I first met Teddy in 2007. Teddy had employed Gigi as his alto saxophonist in a very hip ensemble, the Teddy Charles Tentet, in 1956. Noal Cohen got word to me that Teddy was interested in making a comeback to the jazz spotlight after decades of obscurity. I drove out to Riverhead, Long Island with Noal and my quartet; we played for an afternoon and started his return journey to the jazz bandstand. Two years later, I am happy to say that most of my plans have successfully been achieved. His first studio recording in over 40 years, Dances with Bulls (Smalls Records) was released in 2009, and another, under my name, will be available in April 2010 entitled Bop-ography (SteepleChase). We have enjoyed extended runs at the Village Vanguard, Iridium and Smalls. Among much positive press, a full-page feature article on Teddy ran in the Down Beat September, 2009 issue, written excellently by Eric Fine.
I also included him in two Chamber Music America grants. Bronx Jazz Series (through CMA's Residency Partnership Program) had some great moments. We performed at the school where Gigi Gryce taught (now named the Gigi Gryce/Basheer Qusim School) and Teddy was able to give a firsthand account of Gryce's professionalism, personal affability and good habits to the host of attentive elementary schoolers, who were at least 300 strong.
Another great moment was the concert return of the Teddy Charles Tentet, which brought to life great arrangements by Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Giuffre and Teddy himself, hitting the audience's eardrums for the first time in over 50 years. The second CMA project was New Works: Creation and Presentation, for which Bop-ography was composed. I based this original work on the three key sections of Teddy's life: first, his arrival on the New York jazz scene in the late 1940s (a jubilant, up-tempo section); second, his move to obscurity and isolation (a slow, meditative blues); and third, his triumphant re-emergence late in life (a medium-up closer). The piece was a success; at over twenty minutes long, it featured three extended solos by Teddy, as well as the addition of my father on oboe/English horn, forming the rather unusual three horn frontline of double reed/saxophone/trombone. We had great fun putting it together.
AAJ: What, if anything, did you learn about the social dynamics from which this music was created?
CB: That's an important lesson that is still so current, in fact, even more important now than ever. My good friend Ari Roland sums it up eloquently when he speaks about jazz in our educational workshops. As he points out to audiences overseas: Jazz is a valuable tool for today's world because it has always brought people together. In the U.S., jazz was a meeting place for people from all backgrounds. Performers and audiences crossed social barriers to get closer to the music. This was not just a case of black and white, but all kinds of black and all kinds of white. Old or young, rich or poor, man or woman, it didn't matter what your outside definition was. And because the music was so strong, it added a freer, more tolerant social dynamic to many people's lives, and they became more culturally aware as a result. Jazz was first in this regard, before the sports world, before the workplace, before the military.
To give you an example of why this is still important today, let me mention the "Jazz Futures Bi-Communal Workshop." On the beautiful island of Cyprus, which is situated in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, a conflict continues in a 35-year stalemate. It is too complex to adequately describe in this small space, but a thumbnail sketch is something like this: there are two communities of Cypriots, one in the North, known as Turkish Cypriots, and one in the South, known as Greek Cypriots. They have been politically separated since 1974, due to inter-communal violence. The U.S. State Department officially desires unification of these two communities, and the abolition of the dividing "Green Line," which slashes the island in half and runs through the capital, Nicosia.
The State Department has created an "Office of Bi-Communal Support" which provides service to both communities, in hope of drawing them closer together and making peace more of a possibility. After an initial visit by the Chris Byars Quartet in March 2008, the State Department substantially committed to a series of ongoing workshop visits by myself and Ari Roland. We bring from two to four additional New York musicians for five days of workshops in the Buffer Zone (which is patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force). Cypriots from both North and South pass through their checkpoints with ID cards in hand, and meet at our workshop to play jazz. Through the process of self-expression and a driving thirst for knowledge, they have made lasting cross-communal friendships. Now there are weekly jam sessions, on alternating sides of the island, and musicians travel to "the other side" to make progress with the music they have been studying.
We are headed back to Cyprus in September, with great anticipation, for an extended series that features two large concerts (one on each side, of course) that kick off the year. Joining Ari and I are Sacha Perry (piano), Marion Cowings (vocal), Zaid Nasser (alto saxophone) and George Fludas (drums). The workshop is called "Jazz Futures" because it is created with an eye towards the future, but also because the first tune we worked on with the Cypriots was Gigi Gryce's "Futurity." I am excited to tell you, while they are developing inter-communal friendships; their jazz playing is also making great strides. Soon you will be hearing about great players coming out of Cyprus, borne of the unifying social dynamics inherent in this music.