The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives: This Is Our Music

John_Coltrane_0The recording of jazz history has overwhelmingly focused on individuals. Yet while biographies that lionize great jazz men—women are sorely underrepresented—abound, the socio-political environment in which all musicians make and play jazz—the networks and collaborations that help nourish the music—is often ignored, or considered only in passing. In The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives…—part of the Transnational Studies In Jazz series—twelve essays by as many different authors explore global aspects of the history of these networks, and more specifically, of the musician-led jazz collectives since World War II.

Taken together, these essays and case studies invite a rethink on jazz/improvised music practices in Europe and the USA, asking what it means to be a jazz/improvising musician when the music has undergone very significant transformations in meaning and practise worldwide during its first century.

Employing both academics and musicians as the essayists certainly provides broad perspective on the nuts and bolts of collectives. Not unsurprisingly, given the book’s dozen authors, the style of the writing varies, with some of the academics indulging at times in perhaps unnecessarily convoluted language that can only be intended for an exclusively academic audience. Yet even in the densest, most jargon-laden passages, there is plenty of thought-provoking material in this little studied field of jazz culture.

JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET – Ascension – Live at Antibes, France, 1965

In the book’s forward, co-editors Tony Whyton—Director of Salford Music Research Centre at the University of Salford—and Nicholas Gebhardt—Head of Jazz Research at the University of Birmingham, UK—underline the fact that no single approach or method can hope to explain the breadth and diversity of collective jazz practices documented herein. It’s a wise point of departure, for the conditions that gave rise to the Jazz Composers Guild, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and the New York Musicians’ Jazz Festival in 1960s/1970s America compared to, say, the Instant Composers Pool in the Netherlands around the same time, or the Welsh collective Wonderbrass in the early 1990s could hardly be the same.

One of the book’s strengths is that it succeeds in portraying the complexity and diversity of non-American jazz practices, and in doing so deconstructs, firstly, the traditional notion of jazz as holding universal meaning, and secondly, the idea that jazz is an essentially American art form, whose torch is carried aloft by exceptionally talented individuals.

Yet for all the differences in the sets of circumstances that engendered the collectives studied here, there is one salient common denominator -the desire amongst the musicians for autonomy. Freedom to… and freedom from…, these appear to be the essential driving forces of most jazz collectives. Freedom to play whatever, whenever and wherever they like, and freedom from artistically restrictive record company contracts and other commercially exploitative entities. Yet as A. Scott Currie notes in his broad-sweeping essay covering Berlin collectives, New York’s loft-jazz scene and the renowned Vision Festival: “collectives of improvising artists have most often struggled valiantly but vainly against the conflicts structured into the system of jazz production, with lasting victories relatively few and far between.”

Moreover, another common denominator amongst many of the collectives discussed—and many more outside the parameters of this book—and hinted at by A. Scott Currie, is their often short-lived nature. As Michael C. Heller points out in his case study of the New York Musicians Organization, Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus
1922 – 1979
bass, acoustic

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and Max Roach

Max Roach
1925 – 2007
drums

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‘s Jazz Artists Guild (1960) and Bill Dixon

Bill Dixon
1925 – 2010
trumpet

” data-original-title=””>Bill Dixon

‘s Jazz Composers Guild (1964-1965) both pursued the organization of independent concerts in New York and yet both enterprises folded within a year of their respective founding. Perhaps this was unsurprising, for as Heller observes: “In an environment saturated with musicians financially motivated club owners could always find other artists to hire, even if a small handful removed themselves from the market.”

 

The reasons for collectives emerging, and in many cases for folding all too soon, is only part of the picture that emerges in The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives…. In Rob Smith’s essay, “Wonderbrass As A South Wales Community Jazz Collective”—the uplifting tale of a collective that began life as “a strolling street band in 1992″—the author (a member of Wonderbrass) captures the egalitarian nature of this Welsh collective through interviews with members past and present. They describe an ethos of skill-sharing and an openness to musicians of mixed abilities. “The nice thing is,” one member relates on the subject of improvisation within the collective, “is that it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, you all get a chance to do it and if it were to depend on how good you are at being able to perform an improvisation, I wouldn’t be doing any….”

Another insider’s view comes from Petter Frost Fadnes in his case study of the collectives he helped co-found—the Leeds Improvised Music Orchestra and the Kitchen Orchestra. Both collectives, the author notes, were born out of “frustration over the lack of opportunities within the political economy of their local music scene (rehearsal, spaces, gigs, funding etc.)” Fadnes, almost alone amongst the book’s contributors, raises a doubt over the suitability of the term ‘collective’ as an umbrella term, questioning the degree of internal union and cooperative ethos in the two groups he studies. For Fadnes, divergent and convergent forms of thinking are a necessity within such groups of musicians, and, citing the examples of the ICP, Globe Unity Orchestra and Spontaneous Music Ensemble, argues that strong individual voices often dominate in the founding of collectives in the first place, and in their running, “not unlike the big-band leaders of the jazz cannon.”

Fadnes is also illuminating on the pressures facing collectives, not just internally as regards organisation and musical direction, but regarding their vulnerability to external forces such as political change, whereby the removal of funding or urban development can remove the collectives “vital meeting places.”

There is much more to consider in these pages, from volunteerism to revolutionary zeal, from pan-national collaborations to the cultural geography of collectives within the urban environment, and from John Coltrane

John Coltrane
1926 – 1967
saxophone

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‘s essentially hierarchy-less large ensembles of his latter period to contemporary jazz-cum hip hop collective experiments. The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives… reveals that not only has the concept of the jazz collective changed over time, but that in fact it has always meant different things to different people in very different spaces.

By IAN PATTERSON

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