Bang on a Can: When New Music & Jazz Collide

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Bang on a Can
By Courtesy of Peter Serling, 2001

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I was on my way down 42nd Street in search of the unstable compound that results when something called “jazz” and something called “new music” are brought together under pressure in the presence of money. Next to the hulking, stinking Port Authority Bus Terminal, Cecil Taylor would be meeting his new band to prepare for a brief European tour. They were to begin rehearsals for a score Taylor had written as a commission from the Bang on a Can organization. Among the All-Stars’ musicians were accomplished improvisers like clarinetist Evan Ziporyn, classical wizards like pianist Lisa Moore and omnivorous sidemen like electric guitarist Mark Stewart.

But why would a chamber group whose bread and butter is scored composition choose to perform with Cecil Taylor, the legendarily uncompromising co-founder of free jazz? And who gets to define the terms of that meeting?

Perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew. If anyone could confuse the issue of jazz and that other thing—new music, concert music or, to some, just “composition”—it would be Taylor. Despite Valerie Wilmer’s insistence that Taylor is “at heart a bluesman,” there are few composers in jazz whose work relates so clearly to the European modernists. In Unit Structures or 3 Phasis, one can hear Olivier Messiaen or Iannis Xenakis as easily as Bud Powell. But unlike Anthony Braxton, a composer who resists the category “jazz” altogether, Taylor’s methods are exclusively improvisatory.

Cecil Taylor didn’t straighten me out that day on 42nd Street; he didn’t make that rehearsal, or any of the next ones. My dutiful appearances at the Bang on a Can practice sessions began to resemble Waiting for Godot, and I became a source of gentle mirth for the players. As I tiptoed into the room during a run-through of John King’s clangorous, Curtis Mayfield-inflected “Amadou Stomps the Blues,” Stewart called out cheerfully, “Didn’t you hear?” letting me know Taylor hadn’t shown again.

In the end, of course, commission or no commission, Taylor did what Taylor does. In Vienna, before the first show on May 8, he gave the group pages of new material—”a topography, more than a chart,” in Stewart’s words—mostly in the form of exercises. Then, over two dates, he led the Bang on a Can All-Stars in improvisations lasting the second half of the program.

Clearly the classical concept of a commission didn’t carry much weight with Taylor. He treated it, rather, as a concert date with unfamiliar musicians, thus realizing the archetype that the jazz musician is the score. But working off the cuff with a mixed group of musicians, the archetype was asking for a train wreck. After the first night, Taylor cut out half the Bang on a Can band, but he added free-improv drummer Tony Oxley to the mix. Matthew Shipp, who has also written for Bang on a Can through its People’s Commissioning Fund, says, “People who improvise for a living can sustain it. If [other musicians] have the ability to improvise but it’s not their specialty, you have no choice but to keep [improvisatory sections] short, or you die.”

If artists like Taylor and Braxton confound the category “jazz,” the marketing and promotional term “new music” needs no confounding. With the historic lineage of classical music little more than a picturesque ruin, “new music” has emerged as a catchall, with roots in contemporary classical but including practices wholly unrelated to it. “New music opens out to include all different kinds of music,” as Julia Wolfe, co-founder of Bang on a Can, puts it. This pluralist vision is fulfilled every year at the Bang on a Can Marathon, a daylong affair that may feature postminimalist string quartets, Norwegian fiddling and Burmese hand drumming.

At its inaugural festival, in 1987, Bang on a Can programmed works by academic serialist Milton Babbitt and minimalist Steve Reich back to back, thus bridging the “uptown–downtown” divide that once rifted the new-music world. Restlessly seeking new divides to cross, Bang on a Can shares something of the mainstream classical industry’s hunger for crossover. The group’s motivations are more artistic than the average A&R rep’s, but Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Gordon, the composers who direct the organization, are themselves savvy marketers who have scored hits on the classical charts with arrangements of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and Terry Riley’s In C. Commissioning Taylor, Shipp, Don Byron and Henry Threadgill can be seen as a particularly ambitious crossover attempt.

More and more chamber outfits like Bang on a Can, Absolute Ensemble and Relache have asked jazz composers to write works for classically trained musicians. Classical organizations like Meet the Composer and Chamber Music America have begun giving grants and other forms of support to jazz composers. John Duffy, Meet the Composer’s founder, spearheaded the trend, and he introduced Taylor to the Bang on a Can principals.

There’s plenty of precedent for such boundary crossings: from Ellington on, jazz composers have borrowed classical elements, and vice versa. One might pair Charlie Parker with a string section, but fish was fish, fowl was fowl: no one asked Stravinsky to sit in at the Five Spot. In the late 1950s and 1960s, third stream consciously fused elements from the two musics. When the august New York Philharmonic essayed a rare performance of Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America in 1997, clearly some kind of benchmark had been reached.

But the jazz tradition, for all its widely diverging branches and doctoral-length disputes, remains a coherent, living entity, with its own institutions and audiences. Does it make sense for new-music organizations to embrace jazz? Is Shipp, say, truly integrated within a spectrum of new music, or is Bang on a Can guilty, in some sense, of poaching?

“Nobody is integrated with anybody!” says Frank J. Oteri, the editor of NewMusicBox.com. His online magazine, supported by the American Music Center, has featured Abbey Lincoln and members of the Jazz Composers Collective, and writes up recordings of Charles Gayle alongside those of John Adams. “Charles Wuorinen’s music has nothing to do with Steve Reich’s music,” Oteri says. “Yet they have everything to do with each other on the macro level: they are outside the commercial mainstream and reaching to say something larger than a 3-minute pop song.”

Advocates of a pluralist new music thus take a horizontal slice called “serious” or “avant-garde” out of the vertical categories called “jazz” and “classical,” while leaving the whole corpus of straightahead jazz (not to mention its watered-down offshoots) in its own edifice. There’s certainly justification for this. Musicians like William Parker or Henry Threadgill probably share more listeners with Mary Ellen Childs, Fred Frith or Terry Riley than they do with Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard or John Pizzarelli. Gunther Schuller, Ornette Coleman and others in the third-stream movement recognized such correspondences decades ago. Yet their breakthrough has had little impact until lately.

Wider artistic divides have been bridged quicker than that of jazz and new music. In the middle decades of the 20th century, for example, figurative and abstract painters regarded each other as hostile aliens set to destroy painting. Now abstraction and figuration are understood as just options—different structures capable of conveying different things, and certainly not antithetical.

Of course, most abstract painters as well as most figuratives were white. To some fans, the distinction between free jazz and new music is a thriving vestige of an ugly history. “If race divisions were nonexistent,” Oteri thinks, “composers like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman would have been welcomed into the classical new-music community. Instead, they were pigeon-holed as jazz musicians in the same way that African-Americans from Chuck Berry to Prince get labeled as R&B rather than rock.”

Improvisation isn’t necessarily a Maginot line. It can be seen on a spectrum with postwar classical practices like graphic notation or indeterminacy (John Cage’s disavowal notwithstanding), which require great interpretive efforts from specialized players. In no artist more than Taylor is the claim that improvisation is spontaneous composition borne out more fully. Often longer than symphonies, his pieces involve few of the riffs and repetitive structures (such as verse-chorus) that historically link jazz to song form.

But by the 1970s, at the moment when jazz and classical avant-gardes might have begun to close the gap, persistent racism and a renewed black nationalism encouraged jazz artists to insist on the fundamental blackness of their music. Bill Dixon and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians were at the forefront of a movement that staked a claim for African-derived high art independent of European tradition. Jazz claimed separate but equal status as “black classical music.” Cecil Taylor’s conservatory training and deep knowledge of modernism didn’t stop him from bristling when a white fan compared his work to Ravel.

Then something funny happened. In the 1990s, neoconservative critics and players launched a campaign to keep jazz “black,” and began expunging composers whose music didn’t swing hard enough from a canon of jazz. Wynton Marsalis established a canonical repertoire and a repertory orchestra, and secured the institution ne plus ultra, Lincoln Center, as its home. Thus he accomplished what Cecil Taylor never could: made jazz a truly classical music. Yet by writing off the avant-garde and its fellow travelers, the jazz violinist Sam Bardfeld speculates, “The neocons may have pushed avant-garde jazz into the arms of so-called new music.”

Oddly, white American composers were also eager to assert an identity separate from European classical music. Critics such as Kyle Gann asserted that the soul of American music was in those mavericks—Pauline Oliveros, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow—who built sound worlds from whole cloth: new tuning systems, new instruments, new ways of hearing. Individualism, rather than artistic lineage, became a composer’s most admired feature. From this perspective, the significant difference between a Conlon Nancarrow and a Cecil Taylor is that Taylor plays live, while Nancarrow programmed a player piano to achieve the superhuman densities of his solos.

A fine distinction? Not really. We can take a cue from biologists, who assign species on the basis of evolution, as traced in genotype, rather than on appearance, or phenotype. Superficial resemblances may mask real differences in musical culture. Matthew Shipp finds that “the way the [jazz and new music] worlds are structured is different. You organize and disseminate music differently, the way you make money, how you get up in the morning. Your whole modus operandi is different.”

Economics entwines with aesthetics. While jazz composers make money through concert dates and recordings, classical composers are paid for commissions, and make additional money through royalties on performances. “Composers are ultimately writing for the future, for legacy,” Oteri says. “You can’t write for one ensemble, because you want it performed, ideally, all over the place. It’s a different view of what the text of the composition is, and what the ultimate shelf life of a composition is.”

For new-music pluralists who embrace jazz as one idiom among many, it seems self-evident that where musical barriers exist, they should be brought down. “I’m always of the opinion that things are more similar than not,” remarks Julia Wolfe. But it’s worth asking what, exactly, we gain by having new-music ensembles essay the works of jazz composers. For Bang on a Can, a high-profile jazz composer is an audience draw, and helps establish a greater sense of—what to call it? Relevance, I guess. For that composer, working with chamber musicians is an opportunity to try out new things. One section of Matthew Shipp’s “Code Axis” plays with the serialist method. “It’s interesting to work with other players,” he finds, because “their angle may make you see something different. It might be reflected in my next solo piano gig.” A commission may allow a composer-bandleader the opportunity to write an instrumental setting unavailable among jazz players (or unacceptable to listeners)—a wind concerto, a cello solo, a piece of electronic musique concrete.

Moreover, with major labels hostile to avant-garde jazz, nonprofit organizations may come to play a larger role in supporting the creation of new work. Grants and residencies—formerly a white, classical prerogative—may provide an alternative to a recording contract for a truly ambitious project. Since jazz is still thought of as a popular form not needing such support, collaboration with a chamber group helps establish the jazz composer’s credibility as a “legitimate” artist.

Given the number of classical composers struggling for gigs, though, one wonders whether borrowing jazz heavyweights really serves the cause of new-music composers. Composers (with notable exceptions) do not lead their own bands, and thus they depend on strangers to interpret their music on minimal rehearsal time. The exposure of the annual People’s Commissioning Fund concert, broadcast on National Public Radio’s New Sounds, are a plum for a young composer that Shipp, already in demand on the festival circuit, hardly needs.

Specialization is not necessarily narrow-minded; the demands different musics place on a performer (and, indeed, a composer) differ. The pluralist assumption that “it’s all just music” ends up recapitulating the fallacy of classical supremacism: if you can do Mozart (or Schoenberg), you can handle anything. No one so far has suggested a night of postminimalist classics by a sax quintet at the Village Vanguard.

It remains to be seen whether the All-Stars will evolve into a group capable of performing jazz-based works as convincingly as they do classical and rock-based pieces. Shipp’s “Code Axis” received a somewhat muddled reading, but works by Don Byron and Hermeto Pascoal have become standbys in the group’s repertoire. No matter how proficient they become, new-music players will always face grueling competition from musicians within the jazz composer’s own band. A jazz bandleader handpicks players whose unique traits will best realize his vision, and may influence the music he writes as well. The sensitivity of interaction within the music of a seasoned jazz group is what jazz fans live for. It’s hard for strangers, even virtuosos, trained in other types of music to match that.

With the right program, an evening with the Bang on a Can All-Stars is as varied, exciting and satisfying as anything in music. The All-Stars features a supremely flexible group of players who achieve startling results in many styles of music—they need to be flexible, for styles of new music, as Frank Oteri points out, are as numerous as the composers. But when these virtuosos appear with highly individualistic divas like Taylor or Meredith Monk, they stop being a star ensemble in their own right and become just a back-up band. I have seldom been so depressed at a concert as hearing the All-Stars meander through an unscored ambient groove behind Sussan Deyhim, an improvisational vocalist from Iran.

Leaving aside the loaded categories of “jazz” and “classical,” one ought to look at the way composers make music as the measure of their compatibility with a performer. The All-Stars with Cecil Taylor didn’t make much more sense musically than Yo-Yo Ma and whatever folk music he’s playing this week. Improvisation and reading scores remain distinct disciplines—not antithetical, perhaps dialectical. Composers may work in both with success, and the rare musician performs both at the highest level. But such players are too few to build a lasting merger of jazz and new music. (The Kitchen’s House Blend has taken a creative approach to the problem by gathering equal numbers of players from jazz and new music into a versatile medium-sized band.)

It would be a shame to see a shotgun wedding of new music and jazz, brokered by an uncaring marketplace, result in an unhappy marriage without progeny. The chamber ensemble and the jazz ensemble have evolved to meet unique demands. In compromising them for the sake of breaking barriers, we expand some composers’ possibilities, but we risk losing some of the genetic diversity of 21st-century music.

Originally published in September 2002

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