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The Artist Formerly Known as Avant-Garde!

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This article was submitted on behalf of Roswell Rudd.

Back in the 1960's, avant-garde was one of the terms used to categorize the new music. Because I was coming from Dixieland Jazz into this new music, the term struck me as strange and a little inappropriate. My understanding in those days was that the term was used particularly with those of us involved with free improvisation.

Most recently my patience was piqued by a reference to my playing at The Village Vanguard with Dave Douglas and his band WORD, where I read "avant-garde trombonist Roswell Rudd". And so, it suddenly struck me that after plus or minus forty five years holding out as a creative performer that I am still today considered avant-garde in the minds of some writers.

I decided to look up avant-garde and was pleasantly surprised to find that it refers to innovative and progressive people in any field of endeavor. I can relate to that. So far, so good.

To have associations persisting for forty years or more is, in a way, gratifying and encouraging because I've always been devoted to our great classical American music, jazz, and continue to develop improvisations and compositions in the indigenous style.

But considering how I have performed in so many different musical situations and configurations since the 1960's, and steadily evolved through the '70's, '80s' and '90's to the present (listen to Roswell Rudd's MALIcool, Universal/Sunnyside), won a Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition, received awards for performing and arranging, am considered a Monk and Nichols scholar, and have recorded their compositions extensively, why would the label avant-garde — which has become a commercial stigma for Festivals and clubs, and it is the kiss of death to book anything called avant-garde ! — why am I stuck with this one hundred and forty year old label at the age of 68?

Born in nineteenth century France, the term designated artists who wanted to cut ties with whatever had been done before them. I, on the other hand, felt and feel very close to Dixieland, which I consider my musical roots, and that I was and am just evolving out of the tradition, with no desire to rupture with past aesthetics, but only to build upon and extend them. So in terms certainly of 19th century France and common usage at that time, I would not have been considered avant-garde. However, 20th century common usage of the term to include innovative and progressive would include me. Common perception, which is still more like the 19th century, makes this a distasteful term to most people, if not ambiguous.

I acknowledge that the writers who describe me in this way today may be using it as an accolade.

Somehow avant-garde has come to mean offensive, abrasive, and have negative connotations: what most people don't want to hear. Some hard-core adventurous listeners did and still do seek out the avant-garde. Thankfully. But the more popular usage, which determines perception and overrides actual meaning could keep people away rather than bring them in.

So call me fun; call me Dixieland; call me innovative; call me lyrical; call me for the gig; call me an improviser, because after all, I am a jazz musician. But don't call me late for dinner, and certainly not avant-garde!

P.S. - What is avant-jazz??

~ Roswell Rudd

How do you define the style Avant-Garde? Post your comments on the AAJ Bulletin Board .


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