This was such an obvious documentary to make that for years nobody bothered making it.Once was a time when jazz came out of marching bands, the church. The music was forged out of social struggle and would a short time later speak out for social justice. These (2007-2008) are different times, Jazz is more international than at any other point in its history, and many of its exponents didn’t grow up listening to much jazz at all yet are expected to keep the flame burning.
Neither can Jazz still be considered music of protest with its increasingly middle class occupancy. .. or can it? Should it, even?The validity of all this is discussed by a large cast of players, who to a man seem uncomfortable with both the burden of keeping the tradition alive and the lazy labels given to their craft. Even Peter Brotzmann, the noisiest saxophone player in any town, takes umbrage with the term ‘free jazz’ and he makes his point well. Later on Courtney opines (sorry) that today’s British jazz musician is more likely to demonstrate individual expression than an American, principally because the music is not as precious in the UK as it is in the States.
Most of the contributions in “Free the Jazz” are rewarding enough on their own terms that the collective whole swerves any serious scrutiny. Most, not all. You will very likely shudder when the guys venture into the musicality inherent in table scratching, but hopefully by then you’ll be on-side and at your most forgiving.
2. The Universal Mind Of Bill Evans (Louis Carvell, 1966)
"I do not agree that the layman's opinion is less of a valid judgment of the music than the professional musician. In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of a sensitive layman than that of a professional since the professional, because of his constant involvement with the 'mechanics' of music, must 'fight' to preserve the 'naiveté' that the layman already possesses."Bill Evans
The reputation of an artist grows or diminishes during their lifespan. Critics will often crucify an artist’s next album if they overpraised their last. Bill Evans is no exception to this. Lauded for his Chopin-esque approach to jazz piano in the late-fifties and sixties, one decade on he was ‘over classical’ and overrated. The growing sentiment – partly incited by some of his outspoken peers - seemed to be that he’d dined out on “Kind of Blue” and made jazz too palatable for classical ears.
This was shot around the period when the critics hung on to his every word and note. It’s really no more than one intense conversation between Bill and his composer brother, Harry. They discuss the essence of jazz improvisation; process v style. Bill talks at great length about the importance of mastering fundamentals – both theory and practice - in order to develop the brain connection (what he calls "The Universal Mind") that is necessary for improvisation. Nothing you won’t find in Collective Unconscious theory, but very unpretentiously adopted here and even the occasional saunter towards the piano to demonstrate some of the points made, feel relevant.
Evans was supposedly a shy, reticent type but his observations are deeply focused and revealing. He’s an articulate guy who comes across well, and unlike say Cecil Taylor, doesn’t seem preoccupied with preserving his mystique. Bad teeth though. Not quite Ginger Baker bad but, still…bad.
3. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980)
If you want the Sun Ra story in consummate and myth-querying form, then read John F Szwed’s exhaustive biography “Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra”. That’s where you’ll learn all about Herman Poole Blount, his early life in Alabama, the Chicago years, the electronic innovations etc. I’ve read it twice and I’ll read it again.
I don’t believe in Atlantis, the “phantom punch”, the second coming, the first coming or Lebron James. I sort of believe Sun Ra is from Saturn though. Forget that Saturn consists mainly of helium and he speaks with a slight Alabama drawl. I refuse to let piffling details like science and sociolinguistics sway me on this one. He has to be from Out There. How else do you explain “Advice to Medics”?
Robert Mugge’s “A Joyful Noise” has no narration, map or timetable. It documents Sun Ra’s cosmos on Sun Ra’s clock, and I’m seduced by all of it; the sonics (whether roof top performances or philosophizing over Egyptian artefacts), the threads, the shapes. Even the more familiar locations like the White House in Washington, D.C. assume an otherworldly air when adorned with Sun Ra’s being. Or maybe the presence of these landmark fixtures somehow accentuates Sun Ra’s otherness. I don’t know which it is, but it is there. Or not.
If all this sounds a little too “Altered States” for your documentary requirements, then the concert footage of “Astro Black” and “We Travel the Spaceways” plus the testimonials from Arkestra members (John Gilmore’s especially) ought to scratch that itch for coherence. In each instance, the high regard they hold their leader in is clear to see.
4. Sarah Vaughan episode of "Like It Is" (Tom Guy, 1977)
“If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”Gil Noble
Here’s an episode from “Like It Is”, a Gil Noble produced New York public affairs show that ran for over three decades. It’s one amongst Noble’s impressive body of African American themed documentaries, beginning at the height of black power & civil rights, that sought to tell stories that simply weren’t being told in the mainstream news and educational shows. Noble proclaimed his show to be “the antidote to the 6 and 11 o’clock news” and from the few I’ve been able to get hold of (the Malcolm X, Max Roach and H Rap Brown episodes), he was good as his word.
Watch any other feature on Sarah Vaughan or any black singer from that era and it is business as usual. Business being ‘poor black girl done good’ or some redundantly edited contributions from a Count Basie or Quincy Jones, consisting entirely of “oooh, that voice. The first time I heard that voice…” or “Sarah was kinda shy, but when she got up on that stage…man, that voice. Oooh, that voice”. There rags, here riches, that voice. That’s it? That’s it.
This has depth and width. Even though it runs at around 23 mins, the interviews are allowed to play out and sound more sincere for it. Billy Eckstine, Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams are in awe of that voice, but actually find time to tell us a few things about Vaughan and her music that we may not have known otherwise. It’s unflinchingly honest too, as when Vaughan takes Noble on a tour of Newark, New Jersey, her home town and none of kids have a clue who she is. That’s how it was.