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Ben Allison: Different Generations, Same Realizations

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It was clear to me that the model of a grassroots, musician-run organization could work in the jazz world. In fact, I felt the jazz world was crying out for it.
This article was submitted on behalf of Ben Allison.

In the summer of 1992, I was reading a biography about Alban Berg that described his and Arnold Schoenberg's frustration over the lack of adequate performance opportunities for their music and the gap that seemed to exist between them and the public. This situation inspired Schoenberg to look for alternatives to the usual channels that composers were forced to use to get their music heard.

He and his colleagues decided to produce their own concerts, free from the pressures of traditional presenters and the critical press (both of whom wielded a lot of influence in '20s Vienna). They formed "The Society for Private Musical Performances" and, over the course of three years, presented 117 concerts that featured over 150 new works by contemporary composers, including Debussy, Bartok, Berg, Webern, Reger, and others.

Reading this account was like replacing my old TV with a high definition one. I had not even been aware of how faded and fuzzy my view of the jazz scene had been until I saw this brilliant, new picture that suddenly put everything in focus. It was clear to me that the model of a grassroots, musician-run organization could work in the jazz world. In fact, I felt the jazz world was crying out for it.

Saxophonist John Schroeder, pianist Frank Kimbrough and I spent the next few months debating the finer points of how our organization, the Jazz Composers Collective , was to be structured. We talked with musicians who had been connected to similar efforts before us. Drummer Barry Altschul stressed the importance of inclusiveness and involving many different musicians. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described how in-fighting had negatively impacted his organization, Free Life Communication. So, while democracy was good, it was clear that there would have to be a central group of musicians as well as a director to keep the whole thing together. Drummer Billy Hart talked about his experience in the '60s and '70s and the kind of creative spirit that permeated the loft scene. I appreciated the fact that Lincoln Center presented jazz in fine concert halls (my experience was very limited at that time, having played mostly in small clubs), although we differed on other things. Our focus would be on new music and we would be dedicated to widening the definition of the genre.

Incorporating and filing for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status was the logical next step. The process itself was illuminating and vital for us in terms of defining ourselves as an organization. The IRS requires a detailed mission statement as part of the long application procedure, and there's nothing like putting abstract ideas into words to force you to clearly define what you want to accomplish and how you're going to do it.

The first Jazz Composers Collective concert was held on October 20, 1992. We scraped together $400, rented a hall, printed up programs, and published our first newsletter (another idea borrowed from Schoenberg's organization). The first edition of the newsletter was basically a manifesto on our mission and goals, but it also contained articles written by the composers about the music to be performed on the upcoming concert.

During the past 11 years the Collective has presented over 100 concerts, featuring the works of nearly 50 composers (including Matt Wilson, Steven Bernstein, Ethan Iverson, Eddie Gale, Jane Ira Bloom, and Wycliffe Gordon, to name a few), the participation of over 175 musicians, and perhaps most importantly, the premiere performances of over 300 compositions. In addition, we have produced or helped to produce over 20 recordings, commissioned new works, and provided a springboard for many ongoing projects, including Ted Nash's Odeon and Still Evolved, the Herbie Nichols Project, Frank Kimbrough's Trio and Noumena, Michael Blake's Elevated Quartet and his Free Association and Eulipion Orchestra, Ron Horton's Quintet, and my groups Medicine Wheel, Kush Trio, and Peace Pipe.

Although I am fortunate to have many more opportunities today to present my music in venues in and outside of the U.S. on my own terms, the Collective continues to be a strong organizational force behind much of what we do.

The industry that surrounds jazz and music in general can be so complex that it often feels like the music itself is secondary. The Collective has enabled me and others to approach our music with a sense of idealism. And being involved in as many aspects as possible of the business and production side of our music brings practical, empowering benefits as well.

The days of the jazz club circuit are largely over. Most of the major jazz labels are homogenizing into a few monolithic entities that are increasingly losing interest in jazz. And the market share for instrumental jazz recordings is lame at best. Against this backdrop, the question is: Why are there not more musician-run non-profit jazz organizations out there?


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