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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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The music, of course, was fundamentally about freedom. While Wilmer acknowledges that politics and economics cannot be separated from the music her narrative is not as vehemently Marxist as the analysis of free-jazz adopted by French jazz critics Philipe Carles and Jean-Louis Comoli, whose Free Jazz Black Power (1971)—published in English for the first time by University Press of Mississippi in 2015—viewed all jazz and all criticism through a political and economic prism. The free-jazz musicians were warmly received in a France still reeling from the May 1968 riots/demonstrations and were able to record extensively on the progressive BYG Actuel label. For some in France, the American free-jazz musicians were often idealized as rebellious ghetto heroes casting off the chains of slavery but not all the musicians identified with this role. Alto saxophonist Noah Howard tells Wilmer: ..."I don't stand up on stage, put my saxophone in my mouth and think about bullets and destroying the government."

Not all free-jazz practitioners rejected white, Western norms by adopting Muslim names or traditional African dress, while the political framework of significant collectives/initiatives such as the Jazz Composers Guild and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that militated for better working conditions and/or control over every aspect of the music did not appeal to all musicians, used as they were to "surviving at near-subsistence level" and fending as best they could for themselves. Archie Shepp, the author illustrates, attracted the ire of the other Jazz Composers Guild members by secretly negotiating a recording contract with Impulse! Wilmer is more sympathetic towards Shepp, recognizing the financial burden weighing on a father with three children to raise.

Perhaps the theme that crops up most frequently in Wilmer's book is that of the dramatic evolution of rhythm in free-jazz and the musical freedoms that it brought in its wake, encapsulated in Braxton's comment: "Tempo is a limited use of time. I think of time as all time." The chapter dedicated to the principal drummers in the free-jazz revolution, Andrew Cyrille, Ed Blackwell, Rashied Ali, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, and the increasing feel for African rhythms in the music is particularly illuminating. "Whereas at one time the drum was forbidden," the author writes, "now it is dominant in every musical undertaking. The wheel has gone full circle."

Fascinating too, the chapter that looks at the roles of women as wives and partners whose support and sacrifices enabled the male musicians to dedicate themselves fully to their musical pursuits. The myth of Black sexuality and the objectification of black musicians, the relationship between black men and white women and the sexual mores of the time are also explored. Wilmer also sheds some light on the patronising, misogynistic attitudes that female musicians have battled against, summed up in her paraphrasing of Su Ra's alleged comment that, just as the seamen's legend of yore maintained that taking a woman on a voyage would sink the ship, so too Carla Bley's presence in the Jazz Composers Guild would spell bad luck.

Wilmer covers a lot of ground in a revealing study that serves as a very good starting point for anyone keen to learn more about the free-jazz revolution and the contexts in which it existed. The author succeeds in making sense of a music widely derided at the time as senseless, and, importantly, humanizes its protagonists. Highly recommended.

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