Jazz Collectives: All For One
As January began to fade, pianist Marc Cary and producer Shon “Chance” Miller were pulling together loose ends inside the Langston Hughes house in preparation for a Feb. 1 grand opening. The three-story brownstone owned by the famous Harlem Renaissance poet is once again primed to resonate artistic gems. The residence that once supported a speakeasy now contains a recording studio, performance space and production companies. All of this supports a collaborative effort by Cary and Miller called the CrossRhodes Project—named after the Fender Rhodes electric piano that’s been a staple across musical genres. And much like the ubiquitous keyboard, the CrossRhodes Project (or XR Project) will produce music that bridges jazz, hip-hop, R&B and go-go. What the pair is doing is reminiscent of past and present musician-run collectives that embrace jazz but maintain the freedom to explore other musical styles. Cary, an accomplished pianist who can play comfortably alongside Roy Hargrove or neo-soul songstress Erykah Badu, says artists must start their own efforts to promote music. “People are not embracing jazz as the number one music,” he says. “It is up to us to bring it to them. My friends can’t afford to pay $30 a night to see me. We have to create an environment where they can.” Like many collectives, when the Langston Hughes house is fully up and running, it will feature an outreach component offering a jazz youth orchestra as well as classes in photography and piano.
The collaborative effort Cary’s pursuing comes from a rich tradition of musician-run collectives spawned from a desire to create new music. “There has been a strong movement to keep jazz a repertory art form, like classical music, where the emphasis is on people who are dead,” says Ben Allison of the Jazz Composers Collective. “That’s not just from market forces, but people in the industry who want to see it go that way. I want younger people to see that jazz is a vibrant, creative, modern and relevant art form.” The all-star SFJAZZ Collective honors the modern-jazz repertoire in innovative ways, in addition to commissioning new music. “[The collective] is somewhere between the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians),” says SFJAZZ executive director Randall Kline. Both historically and in their present forms, collectives aren’t shy about stretching the artistic paradigms of their members. While many of these groups are rooted in jazz, they aren’t anchored to it, and have sought the freedom to embrace a palette of musical styles. For instance, the sounds of traditional Japanese drumming, electronica and hip-hop have influenced tracks put out by the Asian-American collective Asian Improv. “We adopted the idea that we didn’t want to be locked into one form of music and that all sounds were available to us,” says co-founder Francis Wong. It’s that willingness to reach beyond the usual stable of songs, sounds and aesthetics that’s driven collectives to build awareness for their music and capture new fans without the aid of conventional industry channels. “It can be a lonely business leading a band independently,” says Tanya Kalmanovitch, a member of the Brooklyn Jazz Underground, which launched its first festival in January with a sold-out, four-night engagement at Smalls in New York’s Greenwich Village. “A lot of people [in our group] have labels, but they are small labels and don’t have the resources to put an artist on tour. And if you look at the jazz scene in any city there will be a couple of clubs, or one club, that mainly presents straightahead music, and trying to book festivals when playing a little more creative or experimental puts you in the category that the music is too out, but that’s also a function of being unknown.”
In the days leading up to the formation of the early collectives, Reppard Stone, a retired professor of Jazz Studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., says a dearth of opportunities drew artists together. “Musicians weren’t working and because they weren’t working, they were not communicating with others, and being unemployed for a while, one would want to talk about his craft and seek other musicians to communicate with. This is why you see these collectives forming.”
The oldest working collective is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) started in Chicago in 1965. The group also has a chapter in New York and currently lists between 75 to 100 active members worldwide. Its mission is to spark musical creativity regardless of genre or style. Co-chairman Douglas Ewart has been with the AACM since it began and says the collective was formed in part to cope with the rigors of racial apartheid that plagued America during the 20th century. “The segregation in the city made it imperative for finding commonality in musical direction and self-determination,” says Ewart, who plays clarinet, saxophone, bassoon and builds his own instruments. “These factors were further bolstered by having a life in the arts.”
Over the years, the collective has generated a crop of artists who have continued to push the music forward, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, who was awarded a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1994. Now in its 42nd year, the collective is still run by member musicians and composers. Ewart says what’s kept the AACM alive while other organizations fade is a willingness to put egos on hold so the group can thrive. “When you’re in a collective, it’s a complex thing,” Ewart says. “If you’re an individual you can move something faster than a collective will, but that kind of impatience makes for not having a collective. A collective has to coast; you can’t always drive it, even as a leader. You can steer, but you have to feel the body to drive.” The AACM is also unique because it has maintained a school for much of its existence. Started in 1967, the school is housed on the campus of Chicago State University and teaches theory, instrument technique and composition. Ewart says a number of the school’s students have remained with the collective and continue to compose.
George F. Lewis has been a member of the AACM since 1971 and recently penned a 660-page scholarly snapshot of the organization titled Power Stronger Than Itself: A History of the AACM, slated for publication in October on University of Chicago Press. Lewis says the organization laid the foundation for much of the entrepreneurial drive found in the newer collectives operating now. He says one of the early goals of the AACM was to rethink the artist-business relationship. “They wanted to produce their own events; when you do that you find that you hire yourself. You present your own concerts and being an independent producer places you in a different position,” Lewis says. “These people were not recorded in 1965, but over the years, things like starting recording companies, taking on a more personal role in establishing a musician-run enterprise was very important for the group. In the end, all of it is based around the idea of artistic freedom and artistic mobility and finding new places to allow you a freer reign.”
The journey to artistic freedom often took American artists oversees in search of new audiences eager for music that stretched beyond the conventions of the day. In the mid-1960s, then-bandleader Nathan Davis brought the Art Ensemble of Chicago to play at Paris’ premier jazz club Chat Qui Pêche. At the time, Davis was blazing the stage with avant-garde saxophonist Eric Dolphy. He says the early collectives played an important role in opening up opportunities for musicians who were experimenting with a different sound and were in search of an audience to appreciate it. “A lot of the established musicians kinda rejected those guys,” says Davis, a professor of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Davis says the ’60s invited an independent movement throughout the arts. “People would say, ‘The hell with Birdland or [the] Blue Note’ and they’d say, ‘Let’s get a loft,’ and then they had their own club and could build a following.” He said that during this time, a number of free-jazz artists couldn’t get deals with record companies, forcing these musicians to build their own businesses and labels to preserve their music.
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Creating a business model to grow and maintain an audience isn’t just a mainstay of early collectives. Organizers of contemporary efforts, like Allison’s New York-based Jazz Composers Collective, were aggressive in writing new works and enticing new listeners to hear them. “I’m not profit-driven,” says Allison, the group’s founder and artistic director. “If so, I would have been an investment banker, but I am about gigs, and forming the collective was a way to get our music out there.” The core of the collective consisted of three other members, and over the years Jazz Composers has presented some 100 concerts and debuted about 200 musicians. Allison and his group were able to keep and attract new followers with a free newsletter that was distributed to more than 4,000 subscribers worldwide. “Every artist needs to do this,” Allison says. “You have to have that mindset. There is so much media these days, audience members have to wade through so much info, if you aren’t there putting the music in the right context so people can get to it, they will not hear it.”
Pianist Frank Kimbrough says playing with other members of Jazz Composers helped him explore his sound. “There was a fear among us as the group went on that our [own] groups would sound more alike,” Kimbrough says. “But the opposite happened. We became more diverse and each of us helped the leader achieve his vision and things got better and better.” Kimbrough likes working in a piano-trio format and gives his sidemen almost no information to go on so the music can evolve in the moment. “I like to mute the piano strings or strum them or put things on them to make them sound strange,” he says. “Ben [Allison] would write things for me to play to use those techniques.” The group’s willingness to apply their talents so others could thrive continued to pay dividends. When Allison started recording with Palmetto Records, other members of the group who played at his side soon got studio time of their own. As Kimbrough sees it, much of the group’s success could never have happened without a shared desire to put Jazz Composers first. “Music is easy, relationships are hard,” he says. “You have to keep egos in check and keep a supportive relationship even when things aren’t going well. Given the times we live in and the way distribution of recorded music is going, being in a collective is the way to go.”
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A number of collectives have waned over the years, unable to sustain the cohesiveness needed to spur longevity. Fred Ho, one of the founding members of Asian Improv, left the group in the late ’80s when he deemed its cutting-edge agenda had taken a detour onto the beaten path. “We split on every single issue,” the saxophonist says. “Our goal was to create a radical Asian-American musical insurgency. We wanted to get artists to be a force in music and bring together progressive Asian-American artists across disciplines.” While the group wasn’t confined to jazz, most of its members acknowledged the jazz tradition and the so-called “free” music of the ’60s. Ho says he left the group when other members decided to become a traditional nonprofit and seek 501(c)3 status. “They wanted to apply for grants,” Ho says. “There is nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to challenge the system and when you become a typical 501(c)3 you live in order to perpetuate the funding.”
But the San Francisco-based collective continues to push the voices of Asian-American artists through jazz, hip-hop, blues, experimental and traditional sounds. The group supports musicians throughout the Bay Area and has a chapter in Chicago. Wong, who also serves as artistic director, said the collective’s record label of the same name works with over two dozen artists and has a catalog of more than 70 titles. Wong says Asian Improv is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to present the experiences and values of Asian-American artists. Asian Improv’s last jazz project was Jon Jang’s Paper Son, Paper Songs released in May. The album conveys the story of Chinese immigrants coming to San Francisco in the early 20th century. “Paper Son” refers to the practice of buying false identification papers, which in many cases allowed new arrivals to become the paper sons of American citizens so they could gain entry to the country. “A lot of the work we promote has to do with telling the stories of those experiences,” Wong says.
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The Bay Area is also home to one of jazz’s highest-profile assemblies: the SFJAZZ Collective. The collective, featuring such top-flight talent as saxophonists Joshua Redman and Miguel Zenón as well as trumpeter Nicholas Payton and pianist Renee Rosnes, is the touring and recording band for the non-profit SFJAZZ. That organization, started in 1983, produces Bay Area concerts and the now-mammoth San Francisco Jazz Festival, in addition to sponsoring its highly regarded “Spring Season.” The initial idea for the collective came about in the spring of 2000, when Kline and spring-season artistic director Redman began thinking of how they could “present [a] band much like a theatre company has their own troupe,” says Kline. “So we went about the process of trying to figure out what would be the best band and instrumentation…. We eventually hit upon a formula [but] it took about two years to research and talk.”
After fundraising and getting approval from the SFJAZZ board, the group held the working title of the SF Modern Jazz Collective; as Kline notes, “Modern” was dropped before the band debuted in 2004 and replaced with the current SFJAZZ moniker. “But the ‘modern’ piece … was an important piece of the conception of the band,” he says.
That modernity, as well as an educational outreach element, is what separates SFJAZZ from a conventional repertory band. The group dynamically interprets tunes by a different “contemporary” jazz composer each season (“…contemporary being post-bebop, like late ’50s and sort of beyond,” says Kline). Selections have ranged from Ornette Coleman—a personal choice by Redman—to Thelonious Monk, a more democratic decision made by the entire ensemble. “We all have our say on the artist … and the particular tunes,” Zenón informed JT via e-mail.
In addition, each member composes a piece to be performed and recorded by the ensemble. This compositional challenge proves one of the most exciting aspects of the two-month commitment: “I get to write music for a band that is not my regular quartet. In this case I’m writing for an octet with very specific instrumentation, so I have to pay special attention to orchestration and the overall presentation of the piece,” writes Zenón. This focused approach has led to new musical relationships that stretch beyond SFJAZZ. “Bobby Hutcherson had never played with Miguel Zenón before [joining SFJAZZ]. Since then, Bobby has used Miguel in his band a lot,” says Kline. Zenón is likewise thrilled to be collaborating with the vibraphone veteran, who he names “one of the greatest jazz improvisers alive, no question.”
The collective can be heard on three multi-disc tour documents released by SFJAZZ, one per season, plucked from live recordings deemed “best of the tour” by the composers. The Nonesuch label has released abbreviated versions of the sets.
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For four nights in January, the newly formed Brooklyn Jazz Underground put on its first festival at Smalls. The collective is comprised of 10 bandleaders whose influences span straightahead, rock, classical and Indo-Jazz (a fusion of jazz and Southeast Asian sensibilities). The group’s existence is in part an offshoot of the burgeoning jazz scene that is taking hold in Brooklyn. But its formation is even more about meeting the needs of musicians to book tours, publicize their work and attract an audience for new music. “All of us felt that being part of an exploratory group of musicians would alleviate the loneliness of the process and establish an identity,” says the Underground’s Kalmanovitch, who plays violin and viola. She says the group wants to build on the festival’s success by sponsoring future events and producing CD samplers that give listeners a hint of their deep roster of talent. And like many of the collectives that precede them, the Underground wants to connect with the community by holding workshops and fundraisers for music education in Brooklyn public schools. While plans are still in flux, Kalmanovitch says the group hopes to set up shop inside a school for 12 to 20 weeks and guide students through standards, help them compose new music and hold recording sessions. “At times you feel like you want to reach beyond the task of promoting yourself,” says Kalmanovitch, who teaches part-time at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “We want to find ways to strengthen the community and extend the community we build to other musicians.” The Underground plans to host more festivals and seek official status as a non-profit organization.
Kalmanovitch says joining the Underground has given her that sense of community so many other artists have felt in collectives that pioneered the movement. “It is empowering to have a set of social relationships where it is their job to look after a shared goal,” she says. “It is like a family, which is sometimes messy, and as time goes on I feel more trust and solace in my relationship with the guys, and there is something tremendously empowering about that.”
Originally published in May 2007