Something's Happening Here: LA's New Music Scene
“ The rise and growth of advanced and free jazz in LA depended on the generosity and inclusiveness of its major practitioners ”
“I’m currently in Belgium completing a tour of Europe. I’ve met with several writers and many jazz fans in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Belgium who know the jazz scene in LA better than many writers and jazz fans in Los Angeles do. People over here are very aware of musicians in LA, especially people like Vinny Golia, Nels and Alex Cline, Mike Vlatkovich, and they are very interested in what we’re doing.” –Jeff Gauthier
Los Angeles jazz musicians are fomenting a revolution with worldwide implications. What began with John Carter, Horace Tapscott, Don Cherry, Bobby Bradford, Charlie Haden, and a few others has grown into a musical Temporary Autonomous Zone closely watched and appreciated internationally, and too often ignored at home. As many of these pioneers bore scorn, skepticism, and exclusion by incorporating advanced musical concepts such as microtones, 12 tone series, and techniques borrowed from world cultures into improvised music, subsequent generations of musicians have approached them with open ears and built on their foundations. For once, the good guys are winning.
The rise and growth of advanced and free jazz in LA depended on the generosity and inclusiveness of its major practitioners, now an entrenched tradition here. “Well, I was very lucky to have established musicians play with me very early in my career,” remembers Vinny Golia, “like bassist Bruce Cale, guitarist Dave Pritchard and Tom Canning, but the people who really took me under their wing so to speak were John Carter, Bobby Bradford, and Horace Tapscott. Once I was already committed to playing the music I wanted to be involved with they were very open to my playing with them. It was fantastic.”
“Vinny has tons and tons of great stories both from his LA and New York days,” says guitarist Noah Phillips a member of the latest generation of players. “I love hearing the stories of his early days playing with John Carter and Bradford. He always says that he feels it necessary to play with, help and encourage the younger musicians because that was one of the main lessons that Carter taught him. If you really sit back and take a look at Vinny’s recent LA performances you will see that a good chunk of them have been with people much younger and he loves it.”
That LA boasts so many highly regarded young players derived from no serendipitous happenstance. Whereas now a blossoming circuit of venues in which to perform and perfect new ideas thrives, a quarter century ago experimental musicians played a hot stuffy little theatre on Pico rented out on Sunday afternoons. The now legendary Century City Playhouse series curated by Lee Kaplan brought together a group of musicians destined to take LA musical culture to the next level. Besides national luminaries such as Sonny Simmons, Oliver Lake, Leo Smith, George Lewis, and Anthony Braxton, the CCP provided a stage for Carter, Bradford, and Tapscott. In addition, then-young locals such as Golia, James Newton, Adam Rudolph, Wayne Peet, Billy Mintz, Anthony Davis, and Nels and Alex Cline took their turns. Even Downbeat took note of a “burgeoning avant-garde music scene” in ’79.
An interesting developmental difference can be illustrated in the famous anecdote of the woman who transcribed one of Coltrane’s solos, presented it to him and asked him to play it. Nonplussed, he returned it and said he couldn’t. Hungry to legitimize the new music, James Newton maintained he could transcribe anything he played. That dedication to craft led him to Cal State LA where he leads the jazz department and the school’s esteemed Luckman Orchestra. Vinny Golia teaches reeds at Cal/Arts. Charlie Haden heads the Jazz Department at Cal/Arts. Bobby Bradford teaches at Pomona College. Wadada Leo Smith teaches at Cal/Arts. Within a few years, young musicians from all over the country poured through these programs and into the streets.
“I lived in New York after graduating from college and worked for Knitting Factory Records,” recalls drummer Harris Eisenstadt, an emerging talent. “I met Adam Rudolph while I was stage managing Tribeca Hall for the 99 Texaco New York JazzFest. He was playing with Yusef Lateef. I was asking Adam about the Creative Music Studio (what a place that must have been!), and he mentioned that Wadada Leo Smith had been at CalArts for the last few years and was starting a program called African American Improvisational Music. I contacted Leo and he was so cool, man. I sent him a tape, he told me to apply, and the scholarship thing ended up working such that I could afford to do it. I spent two full, wonderful years at CalArts, had so many wonderful teachers, and met so many cool people. Leo gave me an incredible opportunity and I’m forever thankful for that.”