A move to Europe can often take a successful musician out of the tight focus of American listeners. Though the cross-pollination of Europe and America is now well established, ex-pat Americans often give up their native renown for the increased work and appreciation to be found across the pond.
Though Noah Howard, once one of the young darlings of the new music scene in '60s New York, plays the city quite rarely, he has maintained a successful tridential career as a saxophonist, record label executive and, most recently, jazz club proprietor in the seat of the European Union: Brussels, Belgium. A resident of that city since 1982, the alto saxophonist has carved out a comfortable niche for himself within the region he was first exposed to during the Golden Era of avant-garde ex patriotism. "When I first came to Europe it was 1969 and I came to play in a big festival and after that we had a lot of concerts, recalls Howard. "Then we left and we came back to the States, I was based in New York at that time. About six months later, we had some more concerts, we came back and this went on for years, going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth... I decided that instead of going back and forth all the time, it was more advantageous for me to stay over here and live and work. Howard made the official move to Paris in 1972 after having spent much time there with musicians like Anthony Braxton and groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Having moved to Europe and then Brussels in the last quarter of the 20th century, Howard has been able to benefit from the rise of the European Economic Community, today's European Union. "It's totally changed the landscape of the city [Brussels]. The city is very very international and because you have all of these young people, young professionals working in the city in governmental positions.
The pull of Europe has always been strong for Americans of all generations (from Dexter Gordon and Steve Lacy to the whole Chicago contingent). Howard, who was part of the nascent New Music movement in New York, found a lot of similarities. "I think the dynamism was very similar, he theorizes. "It was a very strange thing though we knew what was going on. We were not as acutely aware of it as I am today looking back in retrospect. But here I was in Paris and I would say at least 55-60% of the people that were in the new music or improvisational music or avant-garde jazz music or whatever you want to call it were actually living and working and based in Paris. There was this colony of Americans that were working in a foreign country in France. It was kind of a spontaneous thing. I don't think anybody planned it.
The early time spent in Europe, though intensely creative, did provide some lessons that would serve Howard well in the future in regard to working with some rather shady record companies: "I think all of us who recorded during that period have the same feeling... [But] had we not did those recordings they wouldn't be around for history as they are now. And the artists wouldn't have been able to assemble the musicians they did assemble to help them create the kind of music and the kind of compositions that they assembled at that time. So it's a mixed bag. Howard is especially qualified to discuss this topic having been the receiving end of similar treatment by the most famous, or notorious, of avant-garde record labels: ESP. "...ESP is the monster of deception... I am aware of ESP's adventures...they continue to make money off the artists and they refuse to pay any royalties.
These kind of experiences led Howard to found one of the first musician-run labels, his own Altsax Records, going strong since 1968. It has released his own work over the years as well as albums by some of Howard's colleagues. "I could have more control over what I recorded and produced and put into the marketplace and it was an alternative to going to these type of companies that were not treating these artists fairly or me personally fairly enough, he explains.
New projects for Altsax will include tasty treats from Howard's own archives including historical recordings of arguably one of Howard's, and jazz', most exciting groups: the Frank Wright/Noah Howard Quartet. "It was a very powerful group, and very dynamic and very creative musicians, recollects Howard. "It was unusual because we didn't have a bassist in the original group. It was just two saxophones, alto and tenor saxophone, the great pianist Bobby Few and Muhammed Ali, Rashied Ali's brother, on drums. In fact, at that time in Europe, for the American groups, there was only two groups that were really outstanding and that was that group and the Art Ensemble.
When Howard comes to New York this month, he will be appearing with frequent collaborator spoken word artist Eve Packer. Howard feels a special affinity towards this format: "You say spoken word but anytime you say a verse in poetry, it's melody anyway. When somebody is talking, when you're a musician, just normally talking, we all sing. We don't know that we're singing maybe but to a musician's ear, it's melody. So if it's melody with meaning, I can take that and work with it and bring something to it.
Though quite comfortable in Europe, where his new jazz club has just started, trips backs to New York, his first musical home, elicit special feelings from the 62-year old. "I love New York. New York is my adopted city in the United States... New York is just one of the most unique places on the planet and it's always great to play in New York. Recommended Listening:
· Noah Howard - At Judson Hall (ESP, 1966)
· Noah Howard - The Black Ark (Polydor, 1969)
· Frank Wright - Uhuru Na Umoja (America-Universal Music, 1970)
· Noah Howard - Berlin Concert (FMP, 1975)
· Noah Howard - Patterns/Message to South Africa (Eremite, 1971/1979)
· Noah Howard/Bobby Kapp - Between Two Eternities (Cadence Jazz, 1999)