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Robert Levin: The War is Over - A Conversation About Jazz

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[Editor's Note: Interview conducted by Eleanor Brietel, New York Editor of The Drill Press. Most of this interview, originally published on the Buzzle website, was conducted via email.]



Eleanor Brietel: You've published fiction and you also write essays on a variety of subjects. I want, however, to confine this discussion to your thoughts about jazz, a special interest of yours that has resulted in a couple of books, a lot of liner notes and numerous articles in places like Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Metronome, Jazz & Pop Magazine (where you were the Jazz Editor) and The Village Voice (where you earned a reputation as an avid—some would say, zealous—supporter of the so-called "jazz revolution" in the '60s). What got you into jazz in the first place? Who were your guides and teachers?

Robert Levin: Working at Sam Goody's record store got me into it. My father, Abner Levin, a classical music critic—he wrote a much-praised book, The Disc Book, with David Hall—was Sam Goody's partner from the early 1950s, when the Long Playing Record was introduced, into the mid-1960s. In 1954, when I was fifteen, I started working part-time at the main store (on West 49th Street, midway between the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and the Brill Building and Colony Records on Broadway) and it was there that I met George Sprung and Joe Goldberg. George, who was the head jazz salesman, played a recording of Bix Beiderbecke's for me on my very first day and, upon noting my enthusiastic response, suggested that I check out albums by Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Erroll Garner, among others.

I did, and I was fully hooked in a matter of weeks. Then Joe Goldberg, who came to work as a salesman at Goody's a year or two later, expanded the field of what I was listening to by turning me on to people like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Monk, Sonny Rollins and Milt Jackson. Joe—who'd later write Jazz Masters of the Fifties—was six years older than me and a big influence. He was writing plays then and Frank Perry wanted to direct one of them—a marvelously poetic three-act play called Mexican Blues. It got as far as a backers' audition, which Joe invited me to. Zero Mostel, who was still unknown then, read one of the parts. (Joe was rooming with Jerry Orbach around that time and I remember Orbach joining us for coffee next door to Goody's just moments after he'd auditioned, unsuccessfully it turned out, for West Side Story.) Someone else who worked at Goody's, a trumpet player named Dick Schwartz—he'd recorded an album with Steve Lacy called Progressive Dixieland—also made valuable recommendations and he played an important role in how I listened.

Other guides and teachers were visitors to the store. Goody's location and enormous inventory (it stocked virtually every LP in existence and sold them at deep discounts) made it a kind of mecca, and besides all of the celebrities who came in—I recall an entrance by Marilyn Monroe very vividly—a lot of musicians and people in the jazz business showed up. I met Sidney Finkelstein, who wrote Jazz, A People's Music, Harry Lim, Martin Williams and Marshall Stearns there. And Nat Hentoff, as well. The Farmer brothers, Art and Addison, were regulars and Tony Scott, known then as the "first bebop clarinetist," would stop by often. He took a liking to me for some reason and brought me with him to a couple of his recording sessions. Lee Konitz had worked at Goody's before I did and he'd come back to buy records from time to time.

And it was at Goody's, where he was paying a call on Joe Goldberg, that I met Cecil Taylor.

EB: I want to ask you about Taylor, of course, but first: Are you musical yourself? Do you play an instrument?

RL: No. I tried to play the saxophone when I was in my teens but I realized fairly quickly that I had no aptitude for it. I am on a record though. I was part of a chorus on Ornette Coleman's Friends and Neighbors album, which was recorded by Bob Thiele for his pre-Impulse Flying Dutchman label. On the title track, it was the chorus's job to shout, "Friends and neighbors, that's where it's at!" That line (and my reading of it) notwithstanding, Friends & Neighbors is actually a pretty good album.

EB: Was it when you realized you weren't going to be a musician that you decided to become a writer and critic instead?

RL: Ha. Maybe that's the way it worked. But I was never a "critic" in any true sense of the word. Martin Williams was a critic. I played at being one occasionally and—it's been gnawing at me for forty years—I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Shorty Rogers, Shirley Scott and Mal Waldron for the unconscionable bullshit I spouted about them in that role. Basically I thought of myself as an advocate, particularly when the "new music" came along.

EB: For the record: You're talking about the emergence of "free jazz" in the late '50s and early '60s.

RL: Yeah. And if we're going to use that term—"free jazz"—let's make sure we're clear about what it was intended to convey. To play "free" didn't mean to play anything that came into your head. What "free" meant was to be working within systems—many of them highly structured and complex—that were at a remove from traditional or conventional systems; systems that, in the parlance of the time, were "liberated" from the perceived constraints and limitations of established systems.

EB: Your tone, if I may say so, is a little bit defensive.

RL: I suppose that I am defensive. Too many people have said to me: "But that's just anarchy."

EB: OK. But not questioning its legitimacy as music, wasn't "free jazz" ultimately destructive? Didn't it cost jazz its audience? It definitely turned a lot of people off.

RL: Yes, it did turn a lot of people off. The intention of the "free" players wasn't to entertain but to enlighten. Animated as they were by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, a goal of many of those men, in addition to reaffirming the hegemony of jazz's African strain, was to restore black music to its original function as a music of spiritual utility. Resurrecting, in some instances, ancient African methodologies, they wanted, in the high fevers of their self-assertion—with the sense of infinite possibility that accompanied those fevers—to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way that we lived. Those who were conservatory trained (a relatively new phenomenon) and with an intellectual bent, were also employing elements of the European avant-garde, concepts and system they felt they owned now as much as whites did. (Their avowed purpose was, of course, to incorporate them into a black aesthetic.)

So if you looked to "free jazz" for familiar and agreeable harmonies and melodies you were missing the point. At its inception there was a moment, at least in certain quarters, when "free jazz" was very much welcomed. But finally the broader audience didn't want to go where it had gone. As Eldridge Cleaver, taking stock of developments in his province, the social and political sphere, put it later in that period, "America didn't want a revolution." Did you know, by the way, that Cleaver went on to become a designer of men's pants? They were pants that, to more comfortably accommodate the natural inclination of one's genitals, offered a choice of extra material on the left or right sides of the crotch. But apparently America didn't want his pants either.

EB: I didn't know that. Thanks for sharing.

RL: But there's more to say about this—no, not about the pants. If "free jazz" cost jazz a large portion of its audience, support for jazz was also diminished by the advent of rock—the first hip white popular music. Those young and counter-cultural white people who'd always been drawn to jazz because they identified with the outsider image of blacks, gravitated to rock instead.

EB: So where has this left jazz as a music? It's hard for me to get a handle on what's happening right now. Is jazz finished as an evolving music? Has it become the museum music that Wynton Marsalis seems to think it is? There've been no major movements or innovations in almost fifty years—seventy years if you don't count "free jazz," which Marsalis and the Lincoln Center people apparently don't regard as jazz.

RL: Wynton Marsalis? You mean Wynton Marsalis the "jazz great," as I heard him introduced recently? Yeah, he's right up there with Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, isn't he?

Look, it's entirely possible that Marsalis is right and that jazz is indeed finished as an evolving music. What I'd emphatically disagree with is the judgment that jazz culminated with bebop and that the "new thing" wasn't really jazz. If jazz and the changes within it can be said to have served as a document of the African-American's evolution—if that's, in fact, one definition of jazz—then "free jazz," as a reflection of where African-American musicians had arrived in the late '50s and early '60s, was no less a part of the jazz continuum than bebop was. Actually, coming from this definition, and from the assumption that jazz is no longer an advancing art, you could say that "free jazz," implicitly—and appropriately—completed jazz.

EB: Then what now?

RL: We can't know with any certainty. In the future, the underlying dynamics of American art music will be different. Changing ethnic demographics figure to engender all manner of new musics. Will jazz systems have their place in them? I can't see how they wouldn't. But frankly, Eleanor, I'm not as interested in issues like that as I once was—no more than I'm interested in participating in the war between jazz factions or arguments about whether or not black jazz musicians are innately superior to white jazz musicians. After years of listening to and occasionally writing about only one species of jazz, I find that I'm refocused now on musicianship and artistry on their own terms and that it makes no difference what style a musician is playing in or what color he is. If a talented musician is emotionally connecting to the discipline he's chosen to work within, I can be moved by what he's doing.

EB: Wait. Are you saying that, contrary to some very strong opinions you came to hold, you believe now that white jazz musicians can be the equal of black jazz musicians?

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