Jazz composer and vocalist Lisa Thorson has long been a leader in making live jazz accessible to the broadest possible audience. In the words of the blues great Sonny Boy Williamson, she "brings eyesight to the blind", and from "just one word from her lips,... the deaf can hear." To achieve such miraculous feats, Thorson, unlike the lusty lover of Williamson's blues, depends on a jazz quintet, a painter, two ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters, and closed caption experts, to order to create a mulltimedia, multisensory, interactive, and improvisatory jazz experience that she calls "JAZZARTSIGNS."
There is currently no commercially available DVD of Thorson's project, though I imagine one would be welcomed by jazz fans and others caring about making music accessible to those with disabilities. Thorson is a versatile vocalist with a convincing delivery. There's a Sheila Jordan influence marking her agility with bop rhythms, and she imbues lyrics with urgent dramatic energy as she performs from her wheelchair. The other band members improvise knowingly in synch with her vocal gymnastics, particularly the terrifically expressive saxophonist Cercie Miller,a talent deserving much more national recognition. Those in the Boston area will be able to experience JAZZARTSIGNS on March 9, 2006 at the Wheelock Family Theatre. My viewing, alas, will be limited to a brief DVD of a performance contained in Thorson's Press kit that left me hungry for attending the upcoming performance.
But heralding that particular event is not the reason for this piece. As noteworthy as JAZZARTSIGNS is in terms of making "seeing" and "hearing" jazz possible for the blind and deaf, an effort that warrants our wholehearted praise and financial support, I'm interested in the implications for jazz performance not specifically focused upon those with physical disabilities.
Forty years ago, Thorson's musical and dramatic presentation would have been classified by the Press as a "happening," a term signifying an improvised artistic performance blurring the boundaries among various arts, and between artists and audiences. A curiosity of the free jazz of that period was how rare were ambitious jazz happenings blending free-form dance (which Thorson's ASL interpreters Jody Steiner and Misha Derissaint look like they're doing nonstop), action painting, and projected words and lights. Sun Ra was the pioneer of the jazz happening, and few of even the most intrepid avant-guardists of the 60s followed Ra's lead.
Perhaps the prevailing cultural norms of the jazz club and concert hall, then, and even now, prevent such spontaneously dramatic, genre-busting, jazz happenings. If that indeed is the reason for the lack of jazz happenings in Sun Ra's wake, perhaps it is a paradox that it has taken a wheelchair bound jazz musician like Thorson to teach us how to return to the delight of performing and experiencing improvised music in a carnival atmosphere full of multisensory surprise. Indeed, Thorson and her talented musicians, signers, and caption experts, are reversing the meaning of Sonny Boy Williamson's blues. They are blazing a path where the immobile teach the mobile how to dance in their seats, help the deaf hear, and "give eyesight to the blind." If you think I'm writing metaphorically as well as literally, you've connected with my intent. As Chuck Close, one of the world's great artists, who has been wheelchair bound for many years, answered an interviewer who asked Close what word Close uses to describe those without disabilities, Close wryly commented, "the not yet disabled." Those of us in that broad population, and who care about the future health of jazz, would do well to follow Thorson's ambitious project.
Painting by Nancy Ostrovsky