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As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free Jazz Revolution 1957-1977

Ian Patterson By

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As Serious As Your Life: Black Music And The Free-Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977
Val Wilmer
408 Pages
ISBN: 978 1 78816 071 1
Serpent's Tail
2018

First published in 1977, journalist, author and black music historian Val Wilmer's As Serious As Your Life... makes a welcome print return at a time when jazz excites perhaps greater and more meaningful historical debate than ever before.

The title—the subtitle is a new addition—is from a quotation by McCoy Tyner and one that neatly alludes to the cultural chasm that existed between the multi-layered aspirations behind the variously-called new music, Black music, avant-garde or free jazz that began with Ornette Coleman and the general indifference and outright negativity shown to this musical revolution by the media, the recording industry and the mainstream jazz promoters/venues/ public in America.

The clutter of nomenclature surrounding the new music appears to have been, as with so much else, the invention of the media, but the musicians themselves identify in the main with the term 'new music' or 'black music.' Significantly, practically all reject the term 'jazz,' as the associations and limitations of the word in their eyes had nothing to do with the musical revolution they were embarking on. Incidentally, Radhika Phillip's collection of interviews with twenty six of New York's leading contemporary innovators, Being Here: Conversations On Creating Music (Radio.org, 2013) revealed the same uniform discomfort with the term 'jazz musician' four decades on.

Wilmer's voice is eloquently opinionated throughout. She interviewed practically every notable Afro-American musician during her career, although she readily acknowledges material sourced from interviews conducted by other journalists originally published in Down Beat, Black Music, Village Voice, Melody Maker etc. As the author herself states, one of the chief virtues of the new music—and of African-American music in general—was its refusal to conform to pre-conceived rules, particularly those of the European model. This desire to assert a separate musical identity—and thereby escape the exploitation inherent in the prevailing music industry—by pushing the limits of creativity to the maximum degree and by embracing African-influenced rhythms , is the leitmotif that threads its way through these pages.

The driving force of musicians such as Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Milford Graves and Sunny Murray—amongst many others—was their dissatisfaction with the formulaic patterns of mainstream jazz, which Anthony Braxton describes as being "not so much about creativity any more as it's about fulfilling other people's ideas about form." The musicians who created the new music revolution forged distinctive yet not unrelated musical paths that were controversial, the author intimates, because they threatened the musical status quo.

Extreme and incomprehensible to many, the fearless new music frequently provoked ridicule and rejection. The Sun Ra Arkestra, for example, was once kicked out of Canada as its music was considered to be "disturbing public order." Wilmer describes how some saw the new music as "the last refuge of the untalented" though as the musicians themselves repeatedly emphasize, the music's ability to provoke physical, sensual and emotional responses far outweighed any considerations of technique or slavishly following established norms. The backlash from some jazz musicians and critics alike, however, was severe, though as Wilmer pointedly states, "The so-called New Music has been treated irresponsibly by many critics, something that could not, I suggest, have gone on for so long had the music in question been created by whites."

Wilmer refutes the notion that free-jazz was played by blacks to an exclusively white, intellectual audience, though just who the audiences were during this twenty-year period is not clearly depicted. There are examples of Milford Graves and LeRoi Jones taking the music onto the streets of Harlem, and references to gigs in lofts but one comes away with the impression, rightly or wrongly, that free-jazz reached only small numbers of the black community. What is clearer is that gigs were hard to come by, with venues dismissive of what they saw as uncommercial music.

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