Last weekend, John Zorn and Cecil Taylor made their debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a concert self-consciously promoted as a daring double-bill for the notoriously conservative cultural institution. If I'd had the cash, this is the rare JALC hit I'd actually have liked to have caught, especially since it marks one of Masada's last performances as a band, and I still haven't heard Cecil's new group with Henry Grimes and Pheeroan AkLaff, which everyone says is his strongest trio in decades.
But since I couldn't make it, I read Ben Ratliff's writeup with interest. I think he did a good job of concisely encapsulating the essence of the two groups -- Masada as "logical, comic, athletic" and an "airtight system"; Cecil's music is "all in the movement," the "millions of choices that make a flowing gesture" -- sounds about right to me. It was also no surprise that the Jazz at Lincoln Center audience warmed immediately to Masada's hard-grooving, high-energy post-Ornette klez-jazz (everybody loves the beat), but remained somewhat mystified by Cecil's more abstracted pulse -- to the uninitiated, his music often sounds discontinuous and disconnected, and it can take some time immersed in his sound-world for the shape of things to reveal themselves.
[It's also, sadly, no surprise to learn that the house management at JALC's Rose Theater apparently tried to cut the concert short by bringing up the house lights before Cecil's set was done, presumably to try to save on overtime fees.]
But shortly after the article went live on the Times' site, I got an email from Secret Society co-conspirator James Hirschfeld, reacting angrily to the third paragraph in Ratliff's review, which reads:
But above all, the experimental composers and bandleaders whose work refers to, argues against and engages with different parts of jazz — the putative jazz avant-garde — just don’t need Jazz at Lincoln Center anymore. Their interests and audiences don’t extend there. They’ve built their own festivals, their own record companies. (Mr. Zorn has created his own Lower East Side club, the Stone, with music six nights a week.) The MacArthur Foundation has honored almost all the major figures of the jazz avant-garde with fellowships. Academic presses are pumping out books about their achievements. What’s the big deal, for them, about a gig at the Rose Theater?
On a casual reading, this didn't seem particularly objectionable to me -- I took it as a somewhat veiled way of saying that the financially struggling Jazz at Lincoln Center needs Zorn and Taylor more than they need JALC's seal of approval. Who needs the blessing of The House That Wynton Built when you've got Guggenheims and MacArthurs?
But James begged to differ:
In this paragraph, (in my reading) Ratliff is speaking generally about "the putative jazz avant-garde," not specifically Zorn and Taylor. I think that a comparison between the institution of J@LC to whatever institution exists for jazz avant-garde artists is a bit silly. The operating budget of J@LC is $31 million. And while the MacArthur Foundation has given 8 or 9 avant-garde jazz guys grants over the years (which is hardly "almost all the major figures"), there still just isn't a huge audience or much institutional support for this music, though there are some exceptions (like this concert).
Ratliff seems to say that the avant-garde doesn't need Lincoln Center since we have our clubs and festivals and our record companies and our grants. But there is NOTHING on the scale of Lincoln Center. Can you really compare the Stone to Allen Hall? There is a chance that greater inclusion of this music into the J@LC programming would have an enormous impact on the marketability of this music across the country.
And, over at SpiderMonkey Stories, Taylor Ho Bynum voiced similar objections:
The point isn’t whether the avant-garde needs Jazz at Lincoln Center, the point is what truly creative artists could do with the truckloads of money they pour into that place! In a culture of very limited arts funding, Jazz at Lincoln Center is the elephant in the middle of the room, eating everything in sight, while everyone else fights over the crumbs. Marsalis, Crouch, and crew were very focused in marketing themselves as the only arbiters and purveyors of “real jazz” during their jazz purges of the 80s. I really think this was as much a well-organized business plan as it was an aesthetic crusade. Arts funding in general and in jazz in specific has become a very top-down, institutionally dominated field, and Lincoln Center is the most dominant institution. There is little support for independent artists and grass-roots movements. The festivals and record labels Ratliff mentions were all started out of necessity and run on shoe-string budgets. The Stone is a great place, but comparing a tiny sixty-person capacity room on the lower East Side to a multi-million dollar complex in a corporate mall on Columbus Circle is simply silly. A few MacArthur grants does not make up for the difference. (And hardly “almost all the major figures of the jazz avant-garde” have gotten one, that’s a pretty snarky comment. And I’m sure Marsalis’ annual salary over five years dwarfs even the generosity of a MacArthur Fellowship.)
These are all good points. I honestly do not begrudge Lincoln Center its conservatism. They are supposed to be conservative -- that's their cultural function. And while I'm glad to see Zorn and Taylor finally get their turn onstage at JALC, I also don't see this as embracing the avant-garde so much as embracing reality. Cecil Taylor and John Zorn may have started out as shit-disturbing radicals, but they have been established, respected figures for decades now. Their music may still be vital, provocative, and controversial, but it's been a long time since either of them has been a hardscrabbling up-and-comer.
James and Taylor are right that JALC would generate a lot less antipathy if they hadn't appointed themselves the exclusive arbiters of jazz legitimacy. But the problem is far bigger than who gets a JALC gig and who doesn't. The real issue here is that there's no structural support for up-and-coming artists. For starters: jazz has nothing remotely like South by Southwest -- although David Ryshpan asks an excellent question: why can't IAJE be more like SXSW? Taking over the local clubs, showcasing new talent, reaching out to the public and generating buzz outside of the hermetically-sealed walls of the hotel convention halls -- why doesn't this happen?
The record labels are fading away and there's nothing emerging to take their place -- no way to pay for that crucial first studio record other than going massively in debt to predatory lenders, with scant hope of ever breaking even. The only recording grant for US artists (that I'm aware of) is the Aaron Copland Fund for Music Recording, which is supposed to "provide wider exposure for the music of contemporary American composers," but look at who gets their support -- that's not exactly a who's who of hot young artists (notwithstanding a handful of notable exceptions). And no disrespect intended, but -- Roger Sessions? John Cage? Conlon Nancarrow? Lou Harrison? Harry Partch? Charles Ives??? The Copland Fund people are obviously operating under a definition of "contemporary" somewhat at odds with the one I'm aware of. They also tend to disproportionately reward large organizations whose staff includes full-time professional grant-writers -- like, say, Jazz at Lincoln Center.
While I'm obviously all for the proliferation of independent, artist-owned, do-it-yourself labels and young musicians trying to pull off ambitious projects even in the absence of institutional support, the problem is (as I have said elsewhere) if everyone's just doing their own thing, how does a collective scene emerge from that? How do we get people excited about the vanguard of independent, creative, contemporary jazz as a movement, instead of just gravitating towards the handful of stars who somehow emerge to wider acclaim?