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Interviews

Robert Levin: The War is Over - A Conversation About Jazz

By Published: August 21, 2010
RL: Ha. Maybe that's the way it worked. But I was never a "critic" in any true sense of the word. Martin Williams was a critic. I played at being one occasionally and—it's been gnawing at me for forty years—I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Shorty Rogers
Shorty Rogers
Shorty Rogers
1924 - 1994
trumpet
, Shirley Scott
Shirley Scott
Shirley Scott
1934 - 2002
organ, Hammond B3
and Mal Waldron
Mal Waldron
Mal Waldron
1926 - 2002
piano
for the unconscionable bullshit I spouted about them in that role. Basically I thought of myself as an advocate, particularly when the "new music" came along.

EB: For the record: You're talking about the emergence of "free jazz" in the late '50s and early '60s.

RL: Yeah. And if we're going to use that term—"free jazz"—let's make sure we're clear about what it was intended to convey. To play "free" didn't mean to play anything that came into your head. What "free" meant was to be working within systems—many of them highly structured and complex—that were at a remove from traditional or conventional systems; systems that, in the parlance of the time, were "liberated" from the perceived constraints and limitations of established systems.

EB: Your tone, if I may say so, is a little bit defensive.

RL: I suppose that I am defensive. Too many people have said to me: "But that's just anarchy."

EB: OK. But not questioning its legitimacy as music, wasn't "free jazz" ultimately destructive? Didn't it cost jazz its audience? It definitely turned a lot of people off.

RL: Yes, it did turn a lot of people off. The intention of the "free" players wasn't to entertain but to enlighten. Animated as they were by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, a goal of many of those men, in addition to reaffirming the hegemony of jazz's African strain, was to restore black music to its original function as a music of spiritual utility. Resurrecting, in some instances, ancient African methodologies, they wanted, in the high fevers of their self-assertion—with the sense of infinite possibility that accompanied those fevers—to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way that we lived. Those who were conservatory trained (a relatively new phenomenon) and with an intellectual bent, were also employing elements of the European avant-garde, concepts and system they felt they owned now as much as whites did. (Their avowed purpose was, of course, to incorporate them into a black aesthetic.)

So if you looked to "free jazz" for familiar and agreeable harmonies and melodies you were missing the point. At its inception there was a moment, at least in certain quarters, when "free jazz" was very much welcomed. But finally the broader audience didn't want to go where it had gone. As Eldridge Cleaver, taking stock of developments in his province, the social and political sphere, put it later in that period, "America didn't want a revolution." Did you know, by the way, that Cleaver went on to become a designer of men's pants? They were pants that, to more comfortably accommodate the natural inclination of one's genitals, offered a choice of extra material on the left or right sides of the crotch. But apparently America didn't want his pants either.

EB: I didn't know that. Thanks for sharing.

RL: But there's more to say about this—no, not about the pants. If "free jazz" cost jazz a large portion of its audience, support for jazz was also diminished by the advent of rock—the first hip white popular music. Those young and counter-cultural white people who'd always been drawn to jazz because they identified with the outsider image of blacks, gravitated to rock instead.

EB: So where has this left jazz as a music? It's hard for me to get a handle on what's happening right now. Is jazz finished as an evolving music? Has it become the museum music that Wynton Marsalis seems to think it is? There've been no major movements or innovations in almost fifty years—seventy years if you don't count "free jazz," which Marsalis and the Lincoln Center people apparently don't regard as jazz.

RL: Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
b.1961
trumpet
? You mean Wynton Marsalis the "jazz great," as I heard him introduced recently? Yeah, he's right up there with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, isn't he?


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