Serious Music

Destination: OUT! tweeted the transcript of an extraordinary 1964 panel with Cecil Taylor, Hall Overton, and others.  I'm an Overton fan -- I wrote about him here, and you can watch me play one of his piano pieces here -- but there's no doubt he's out of his depth interacting with Taylor, especially when he tries to play traffic cop about free jazz, serious music, and race. Taylor brutally schools Overton and the rest of the room.

Overton begins by citing the early Lennie Tristano free jazz track "Intuition." Taylor is unwilling to deal with white innovators before black innovators, and responds by bringing up Duke Ellington. To someone not taking the long historical view, this may seem to miss Overton's point, but I admire Taylor's sophistication; he's refusing to enter the conversation on the committee's terms. With a black genius, especially a mid-century black genius, one has to be extra careful to make sure they feel respected in public debate. Overton and the rest just don't get it.

I'm more willing to cut Louis Calabro some slack -- it was au courant for disconnected college composers to call their stuff "serious music" in reaction to the onslaught of jazz and pop -- but I would have thought Overton would have learned more lessons from his friend Thelonious Monk. It makes me suspect that Overton doesn't really admire Taylor as a musician. 

Apart from Overton's general tactlessness, the trope that Lennie Tristano invented free jazz needs special handling. I wrote about it on this old Destination: OUT! post.

Now seems to be a good time to apologize and recontextualize: The very first DTM interview was with Stanley Crouch. The most heated part of the discussion concerns free jazz, and it ends up with me defending Cecil Taylor. However, I felt like I needed to give Stanley something, so I spout: "...Any record of the whitest British rock has more to do with Africa than any Cecil Taylor record of the last 40 years."

Taken out of context, that comment is as bad as Overton, really. I've updated the interview:

That last comment has haunted me since first posting. I shouldn't have said that Cecil Taylor is disconnected with Africa; Cecil's the apotheosis of a certain kind of magical and suggestive art that only comes out of the African diaspora. To make my point, I could have said that, for me, John Bonham is more African than Sunny Murray.

Cecil's art doesn't really deal with the jazz beat. As a logical conseqence, he is a rare example of a significant modern jazz pianist that has never recorded as a sideman in some capacity or other. Offhand, I can think of only one other: Dave Brubeck.

Taylor knew his Lennie Tristano (I'm positive he knew it better than Hall Overton) but Brubeck was a bigger influence. Those early records of Brubeck playing standards like Jazz at Oberlin still have the power to shock. Dave goes nuts, shoveling bushels of dissonant chords, building "classical-sounding" edifices of motive development. It's barely possible the influence went both ways: I was just listening to the mediocre 1972 Brubeck album All the Things We Are, and Dave lets loose with a wild flourish at the end of "Like Someone in Love" that could be called "Taylor-esqe."

Some have said that Brubeck couldn't swing. Actually, I think he can have a nice feel on a slow blues or something that references medium-tempo stride piano. But there certainly could be something a little unsettled about Brubeck's modern jazz time, especially at a faster speeds. It's truly painful to hear him with Roy Haynes on All the Things We AreIn the first chorus of "All the Things," I believe he's a beat early of the rhythm section -- hard to tell, but for sure something isn't right. As the solo continues, Brubeck continues to skate and skitter on top, never listening to Haynes.

Cecil has a similar feel on his first records playing standards. It was wise of Cecil to pursue another direction. When Brubeck doubled down on playing "jazz" after the 1950's, he became historically irrelevant. 

Those famous 50's Brubeck records are great, though, certainly part of the canon.  I'd like to go through them all some day and see what really went down. Without researching, I'd cite three things as especially important:

The early live avant-garde standards with Paul Desmond, with some of the most beautiful alto saxophone solos ever recorded.

The dark and moody solo piano album Brubeck Plays Brubeck, a major influence on Keith Jarrett.

And, of course, Time Out. I told Fred Hersch in our interview, "You can definitely draw a line from Time Out to The Bad Plus." His response was, "If you say so!" (Like, "That's not something to be proud of.") But I'm not ashamed. I loved that album!  And I still love it. It's one of the all-time gateway jazz albums, and it always will be. When I played it again after Brubeck died, it held up. 


Ted Panken interviews Dave Brubeck.


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