Perfect Sound Forever

Black American Avant Garde

Roscoe Mithcell George Lewis Muhal Richard Abrams

by Morgan Craft
(February 2010)


The concern had been brewing for years but I just didn't know how to phrase it or I was too scared to ask what that rumbling was in my chest. The question is quite simple- is there a black American musical avant garde under the age of fifty? It's impossible not to speak generationally where this is concerned since those over 50 are well defined: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, Bill Dixon, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Abrams, Ornette Coleman, George Lewis, Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, etc. are all alive and still working. All have contributed to the progression of advanced black American music and culture with respect to generations past. Open any new music/experimental music magazine or visit a cutting edge webzine and try locating a new black American avant garde. There's plenty of column inches devoted to the rest of the world. Some examples include Japan and the breakthroughs of the 'onkyo' scene. In the UK, there is John Butcher setting the bar high with his saxophone. In Germany, there is trumpeter Axel Dorner. All of them deserving of recognition indeed. If black American music makes an appearance at all, they might slide around the issue, consciously or otherwise, by putting in a hip hop producer, thinking we won't feel the difference between Timbaland and Charlie Parker. No, let's look at the issue from the front and let's leave the niceties at the door.

In talking about a black American 'avant garde,' we have to be careful not to accept the current definition of said term. Obviously there is a style of music which currently enjoys international festival recognition that might go under this name. I can hear it now, there are the flailing drums out of the mold of Sunny Murray or Rashied Ali, there are the honks and skronks of a tenor saxophone straight from John Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. Or maybe you'd see a wildly atonal and physical piano exhibition cut from the cloth of Cecil Taylor (are we still in 1965?). I think you know the kind of music I'm talking about. This has been profered to me when I go asking about the new black American avant garde.

Now let's look at it in terms of what the words actually mean. According to Webster's, the 'avant garde' is 'the advance group in a field whose works are unorthodox and experimental.' Historically, all of the various branches of the black American musical tree were truly avant garde in their time. The blues, gospel, jazz, (its evolutions alone boggle the mind), rock and roll, funk, disco, hip hop, techno et al. The modern black American musician is the inheritor of them all. They exist within us on a cellular and spiritual level, it's in our blood so to speak. We also have access to what the rest of the world is doing, past and present, and can absorb those elements we find useful.

The recurring theme, or message coming from the black American avant garde of the past was that this music was not a plaything, was not a game, was not a money making gimmick, but a gift and responsibility to be respected and used wisely. The masters taught that you had to find something unique and develop a new language out of the materials that were laid down by your predecessors. The musician was expected to transcend and transmit tones for mental and soul healing. The musician as vessel for the spirit to descend. These tones should plant the seeds of inspiration that would assist in helping humanity and the planet realize it's full potential. So where do we find ourselves now? What does the contemporary black American musician do with the space s/he has been given? Where is the next generation of musicians willing to go into unknown territory and come back with the blueprints we so desperately need? New times demand new tactics. It seems that my generation didn't internalize those lessons, which is why we have so many of our most talented tilling an already plowed field. I don't hear my peers saying they aspire to make work that is utterly modern but infused with the same, shall we say, spiritual weight of relevance and urgency as Miles or Ellington (sacrilege). More questions arise. What are the motivations of the new black American musicians? Is it the money, the fame? (relative of course) Is the weight of tradition so great as to intimidate anyone stepping into the arena? Who are the gatekeepers entrusted with the future of Great Black Music?


So what happened, what has been happening? Obviously we have to attempt some form of analysis or we're just hiding our heads in the sand. What happened? First of all, can you institutionalize an artistic avant garde? Is there a syllabus? The reason I ask this is because there seems to have been a shift in how black American artistic ideas are passed on and received. Black American genius has moved into the universities. There are more and more certificate holders venturing out to represent the new music, trying to be the new voices of a generation. I would agree that institutions of higher learning serve a purpose in science, medicine, mathematics, economics, etc, but what about art?

If every new generation is to find its own way, there must be visionaries willing to go beyond the history books, willing to risk everything to discover new lands. Can you teach such a concept within our present day institutions? What goes into the making of visionaries? One may have to dig below the surface a bit but there is documentation of what is in store for you should you decide to walk this path. One must step out into life, usually alone, confront all the natural elements, the demons within, traverse a dark wood, slay a dragon, walk through fire, drink of the elixer. Mythology, legend, trials and tribulation. And if you survive, the doors shall open unto you. So I ask again, can you get to all that in a classroom?

It was only a matter of time before black American genius, post-civil rights, was recognized and brought into the fold of academia. I'd say it started happening with alacrity in the 1970's. Certain key artists were accepting positions at institutions of higher learning around the country perhaps because it paid better and was more secure than the clubs they were playing in, night after night. Also, the level of respect afforded to a professor far outweighed that of a jazz or experimental working musician. I can only imagine the relief at such an opportunity. Finally, there was a platform to stand on that did justice to the conceptions flowing from the minds of these artists. But this was a new phenomenon.

As the business of going to college began to pick up speed, marketing strategies aimed at attracting a deeper and much wider cross section of the populace increased. On economic grounds, the more kids paying the exorbitantly high cost of tuition, the better. On political grounds, longer and more in-depth indoctrination might ensure the much desired 'right way of thinking.' They began quietly selling the idea that even the avant garde, once a notoriously anti-authoritarian bastion, could now be officially learned. But in order to convince the rebel youth of this, they had to make it appealing. They had to make it legitimate. Widespread installations of the new avant garde on staff began in earnest. Now, if I were willing to think along more sinister lines, I'd have to say that dividing up and isolating black American genius, in the midst of a nascent tendency toward self-empowerment, would also help neutralize revolutionary ideas and possibilities.

Traditionally, black Americans have had to devise alternatives to passing on knowledge. Our history evolved on front porches, speakeasies, clubs, the street. It was community based, informal, face to face, heart to heart. Shifting the context of black American musical genius from the club/concert hall to the classroom alters the discourse dramatically. In a classroom setting, the professor is usually forced to analyze or talk about issues and situations that were previously played. The beauty of music is that it exists before and after the word, it does not need, and is not bound by, a language.

With many of our most progressive musical elders scattered across the country teaching, inevitably a vacuum was created. You couldn't go down to 52nd St., NYC anymore to find and try to sit in with the greats. There were no more epic after-hour jam sessions. There were no more lofts where you had the time and the space to work out your ideas. Those of us on the ground who missed that era and didn't believe that the university could give us the keys to the new music were forced to solve the arcane equations on our own, without the proper information and guidance from our elders. For me, it became about following a faint trail of breadcrumbs through the rare magazine article, and obscure record stores and bookshops, then piecing the findings together as best I could to form a cogent history.

Wadada Leo Smith, from his MySpace page


The life of a musician is not glamorous. I know it looks to be so when we see our favorite artist up on the stage, flowing effortlessly through an instrument. But behind those stage curtains remains a sometimes, often times, painful fact; years and years of practice. No audience, no photo shoots, no album deals- just yourself, alone in a room with your instrument. And as endless as those hours seem to feel, there comes a point when something happens. Some spark, some feeling that makes sense of all that time put in. You begin to be taken up in the pleasure of making music.

I'd say that it takes at least several years to reach proficiency on any instrument, which basically means being able to play in tune and on beat. That's just proficiency. Then I'd venture to say that it takes several more years to reach mastery. That could be 10-20 years. Mastery is no longer having the distraction of learning- you've assimilated your influences and boiled them down into your own sound. Why it takes so long to achieve a symbiosis of mind and body, I have no idea. One thing is for certain- in the process of learning how to tell a story through sound, patience and dedication and discipline are inbuilt.

Up until about thirty years ago, this was the only way to become a musician. But by the end of the 1970's, technological advancements in musical gear exploded, producing cheaper, smaller and more powerful versions of novelty devices invented in the fifties and sixties. The advent and widespread use of rhythm/drum machines, synthesizers, effects, emulators/samplers and computers ushered in new ways of creating music. Now anyone wishing to be involved could forgo the once mandatory stretch of practice. All that was required to elicit a passable example of a tune was a general reading through of an instruction manual and a healthy index finger. The drum machine replaced the drummer. The DJ replaced the band. The sampler replaced the musician. As art moved more deeply into programmable technology, it necessarily moved further away from what it means to be human, it asks us to leave the body behind.

The almost immediate success of certain forms of electronically programmed music created another dilemma- does acceptance become the new motivation?

If greatness is confused with cash, houses and cars, would we want to push the boundaries of our art? What do we do when this success comes before an actual gestation period with our materials? When the pleasure of innovation gets replaced by the pleasure of popularity, does the music suffer? If issues of spirituality and responsibility are no longer being passed down how will the youth differentiate good from evil?

But let's flip the coin and look at this again. Black American genius thrives on adaptation. There has been progressive art made from these new technological materials. There are lights out on the horizon. There have been new kinds of creativity that point to real brilliance. The river flows on. Grandmaster Flash, RZA, the Bomb Squad, Jeff Mills, Roc Raida etc. come to mind (with big shouts to Tricky and Goldie in the U.K.).

Now, we need them to go further. But without the guidance and stabilization from their elders, they run the risk of losing a certain perspective. How do you evolve as an artist? How do you keep your focus on innovation when the marketplace beckons?


What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. The time has come for a new black American avant garde. Black American music must coalesce around and extend the timeless spiritual impulses that we still carry. They have not been extinguished. We must refocus our energies to actions that uplift, transform and move humanity beyond where we thought ourselves capable of going. From the outside looking in, the amount of work can seem daunting, but as we move into action, our limbs will rejoice at being used again. Our minds shall begin opening up with new ideas, larger endeavors.

A think tank will be created where all progressive forms of black American music and art can meet up, support and share what has been found across disciplines without the financial pressures and political intrigues of present-day university systems.

There must be new standards. Commitment must be actualized, made physical. We have to be able to hold it, analyze it, test it, extend it.

We must encourage long-term thinking. Bodies of work must be created that emphasize a lifetime of exploration rather than the currently fashionable trend of one hit wonders.

We must take the initiative to document our sounds and make them available.

With the collapsing infrastructure of the music business, we must create a new model that benefits us.

New technologies must be accepted and absorbed with respect to patience and discipline. It's time to see what the human can do by mastering the computers and programs.

We need the new virtuosi who understand way beyond the traditional approaches to their instruments. They must accept the entire universe of sound and be able to contribute, even in the smallest way to raise the level of the music.

We need the new musicians to talk about their processes in a way that allows present and future generations access. It will also be a measure against the continuing problems caused by critics who do not know why we do what we do and still feel the need to publish negativity.

We must create music journals that explore advanced approaches to sound production.

We must create venues for the new music to be performed.

We must be willing and able to critique our peers honestly, without the fear of disrespecting someone.

We must move toward an internationalism, with our work in dialogue with the greatest achievements of all nations. We must be willing to collaborate and build alliances of diversity.

We have no more excuses. We can't fall back on slavery or racism. We can't fall back on having no money and no access. If we do not start from where we are and begin to find and implement solutions, we will live in regret. We must accept the fact that the current system will not foster these changes. We must locate and inflame our own courage to stand up for the truth and cut a new path. In this, I have supreme faith. We are on the cusp of a new optimism and new visions. It's time to breathe fresh air. This is going to be fun.

Sam Rivers, from his MySpace page

See/hear/read more from the author at his website

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