I think of Donald Barthelme's short story "The King of Jazz" whenever I'm at a party and people at a loss for appropriate small talk after I've said I write about jazz ask me to name a good place in town to hear some. They want me to point them to a hangout like the one that Hokie Mokie, Barthelme's king of jazz, strolls into after inheriting the crown from the deceased Spicy MacLammermoor—"Hi Bucky! Hi Zoot! Hi Freddie! Hi Thad! Hi Roy! Hi Dexter! Hi Jo! Hi Willie! Hi Greens!" A hangout with all the giants on the bandstand or at the bar, being fawned over by an audience for whom the music is incidental to the satisfaction of not being square.
In reality, it's been two full generations since being a jazz insider was taken as proof of being hip, and almost as long since jazz fans or musicians agreed on such basic issues as what jazz is and who the legitimate heirs of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane are. The problem with wanting to dig the scene is that there isn't a scene anymore—not one that could live up to the fanciful expectations of the people I politely excuse myself from at parties, by that point not merely pretending to need another drink.
What jazz does offer today, along with a bewildering profusion of subgenres and hybrids, is vest-pocket scenes, the most vital of which is the most marginalized—banished to the furthest reaches of bohemia in its home base of New York City, and documented chiefly on musicians' vanity labels and small labels here and abroad. The music—which is descended from the avant-garde "free jazz" of the 1960s (the title of a 1961 album by Ornette Coleman, the movement's founder), and proud of it—may be too extreme for anyone desiring only a foot-tapping beat. Otherwise, if the party was in New York, before excusing myself I would advise people to keep an eye out for Steve Dalachinsky, a stream-of-consciousness poet and a loquacious advocate for his favorite players. His presence is a guarantee that on any given night you're where the action is.
You're sure to spot Dalachinsky handing out flyers or minding the CD table at the annual Vision Festival, where the odds of being drawn into a conversation with him, or with one of the other regulars, or even with a performer who's hanging out to listen after finishing his own set, are equally good. Presented over several nights leading up to Memorial Day, in a variety of homey Lower East Side locations that have included a former synagogue and a recreation center, the Vision Festival is the best time to hear everybody and meet everyone. The music may be uncompromising, but the vibe couldn't be friendlier.
Last May, a few weeks before the festival, Dalachinsky and a handful of other regulars were among the large crowd that showed up at the Blue Note for a one-nighter by the pianist Matthew Shipp, the closest thing this scene has to a star. The swankiest of New York's frontline jazz spots, the Blue Note was a move up for Shipp—a club with a menu and tables instead of folding chairs. He dressed for the gig as always, in slacker's T-shirt and jeans; the polished loafers he wore in place of his customary sneakers were the lone hint of occasion.
Bespectacled and tall and still wiry in his early forties, Shipp is the most dynamic and advanced of a growing number of pianists his age and younger whose starting point is the turning, elongated approach to melody and the inching, fragmented rhythms that Cecil Taylor introduced to jazz in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of bebop. These innovations still haven't been absorbed into the jazz mainstream, and Taylor long ago set off in a more open-ended direction. But often when Shipp or another pianist of similar inclinations seats himself at the bench, Taylor's fingerprints are already on the keys. In Shipp's case, the similarity is infrequent enough to be knowing. The long list of other pianists Shipp draws from—Bud Powell and his skewered runs, Thelonious Monk and his rhymes, McCoy Tyner and his harmonic magic carpet—is somehow proof of his individuality. The earlier pianist he most resembles, in impact more than approach or touch, is the relatively unsung Mal Waldron, who specialized in tension-and-release—though he frequently made do with just tension. Shipp, too, tends to worry a phrase as though something about it is eating away at him, and his solos don't "swing" in a way that a jazz listener with conservative tastes might recognize. Instead of giving the impression of ongoing forward motion, they go back and forth and around in circles, inexorably dragging you along.
Shipp was in top form at the Blue Note, where his trio featured the bassist William Parker and the drummer Guillermo E. Brown, his teammates in the tenor saxophonist David S. Ware's rhythm section. They demonstrated their usual rapport, not merely accompanying Shipp but improvising their parts on equal footing with him and frequently taking the lead. A highlight of the set was Shipp's own "Three in One," a waltz that suggested both Monk and a sinister twist on "Rockabye Baby." More surprising, since Shipp only occasionally plays standards, was a hammering interpretation of the Sinatra barroom anthem "Angel Eyes" that obsessed on the phrase corresponding to "try to think," calling up drizzle and blinking neon signs and other images from film noir.
I was surprised to learn, when I met Shipp for coffee the following morning near his apartment on the gentrified tip of Alphabet City, that he didn't know the lyrics or even the song's bridge. "I get that from Ran Blake," he told me, naming one of his teachers at the New England Conservatory, a maverick pianist whose own music is haunted by movies and images from his dreams. "Because he's a film buff, Ran structures his interpretations that way, with songs going through different 'scenes.' And I've always had plenty of film images and dream images of my own."
Something Shipp undoubtedly gets from Cecil Taylor is his athleticism; his attack starts in his shoulders, and biding his time during a dialogue between bass and drums, he makes fists over the keyboard and pumps them like a prizefighter waiting for the bell to begin the next round. "It's unconscious," he said when I remarked on it, "but I must be doing it, because you're the third person to tell me. The first high school I went to, before I got expelled, my friends and I used to talk on the phone at night and decide who we were going to beat up the next day. I'm a total pacifist now, but following boxing is my major hobby, and the way they used to talk about Cecil Taylor emulating the leaps of dancers—well, I'm not emulating a boxer, but I guess it does enter the fray."
The latter-day free-jazz scene of which Shipp is a part—along with Parker, Brown, Ware, the drummer Susie Ibarra, and the saxophonists Rob Brown, Daniel Carter, Charles Gayle, and Assif Tsahar, among others—is the only one in jazz right now with younger faces noticeably represented in the audience. I don't mean young, mind you; that would be hoping for too much. I mean people a decade or two younger than Baby Boomers like Steve Dalachinsky and me.
Free jazz was wrongly blamed for chasing people away in the late 1960s, around the time that the graying of the jazz audience first became a grave concern. The truth was more complicated. By then soul music and psychedelic rock not only had achieved greater popularity than jazz ever dared to hope for but also, in some odd way, had eliminated any need for it. No longer greasy kid stuff, pop suddenly offered simplified and easier-to-find versions of everything that had once drawn certain kinds of listeners to jazz: its own Charlie Parker and John Coltrane in Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, its own Stan Kenton in Frank Zappa, its own wigged-out Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra in Captain Beefheart and George Clinton. Plus you could dance to it. The most telling blow came when James Brown, and then Motown artists led by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, embraced black consciousness. Unlike that era's politicized jazz, which generally relied on titles to communicate pride and outrage, their music had the advantage of lyrics—not to mention the ear of black America.
Jazz survived despite all of this, but just barely. It joined classical music as one of those fine arts that people pay lip service to out of guilt but shy away from out of fear they might be too difficult. (This is increasingly what passes for high culture today: yesterday's no-longer-popular pop culture, coming soon to your public-television station. Rock-and-roll is already on its way.) The fanfare surrounding Wynton Marsalis when he burst onto the scene almost twenty-five years ago was widely taken as evidence of a return to traditional values in jazz, following two decades of self-indulgent experimentation by avant-gardists, and commercial compromise by Miles Davis and his former sidemen. But even Marsalis, who as the son of a journeyman jazz pianist was presumably exposed to the best in jazz more or less from the cradle, has admitted to having liked such jazz-rock fusion bands as Weather Report and Return to Forever as a teenager, before renouncing them for bebop and Ellington. And although Marsalis has remained steadfast, many of the slightly younger players once counted among his disciples, including the trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Roy Hargrove and the bassist Christian McBride, have lately been toying with techno and electronica.
Are these younger players selling out or heeding generational inclination? They grew up with pop—like Shipp, who at one point during our conversation interrupted himself when a song on the radio caught his ear. It was something from Uh Huh Her, the latest CD by P. J. Harvey. "I love her," Shipp said. In 1999 Shipp signed with Thirsty Ear, a label whose catalogue also includes CDs by such alternative-rock bands as Throbbing Gristle, Teenage Fanclub, and Gay Dad. In addition to serving as "curator" of the label's new jazz series, he has recorded numerous collaborations with what he refers to as "beat artists," meaning rappers and DJs from the hip-hop underground. (The very notion of unrecognized hip-hop experimentalists may be a shock to many jazz listeners, who, like adults in general, assume that hip-hop is all MTV awards, drive-by shootings, and bling bling.)
Shipp has in fact enjoyed a following outside jazz since the early 1990s. That was when the audiences for free jazz and post-punk bands such as Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo began to overlap, partly because word got out that the bands' members were devotees of free jazz, and partly because Shipp cultivated relationships with alternative-rock labels. Shipp's fans include Thurston Moore, of Sonic Youth (whose collection of free-jazz vinyl from the 1960s and 1970s is legendary); Henry Rollins, of the 1980s hardcore band Black Flag, whose label 2 13 61 released the CDs that brought Shipp airplay on college radio; and Lenny Kaye, the guitarist with Patti Smith's band, who offered Shipp a job with Smith.
Shipp is still as likely to be featured in such rock fanzines such as Yakuza, Puncture, and Forced Exposure as he is to be interviewed for Downbeat and JazzTimes. Marsalis, despite his wish to be our day's Duke Ellington, is more like our Leonard Bernstein—which I mean as no small compliment. Officiating, in his role as the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, at what amount to Young People's Concerts for adults, he has greatly expanded the cultural establishment's appreciation of jazz and respect for its history. But tradition and the mature elegance that Marsalis sees jazz as epitomizing are a tough sell to the young—especially those who prize all-out aural assault.
Today's youth culture is a body culture, and both Shipp's music and free jazz as a whole are far too cerebral ever to become a significant part of it. Even so, I suspect that in listening to free jazz, many intellectually curious younger people vicariously experience a thrill similar to the one experienced by participants in skateboarding, motocross, BMX, and the sports featured at the annual X (for "extreme") Games. And also similar, perhaps, to the thrill Shipp himself experiences watching boxing and ultimate fighting.
At various times free jazz has also been called "avant-garde," "free form," "the new thing," "out jazz" (as in "far out"), and, for a brief spell about ten years ago, "ecstatic jazz," referring to both the party drug Ecstasy and a religious trance. "A lot of us meditate, including me," Shipp told me, "and there is a strong Pentecostal element to the music—speaking in tongues and the descent of the Holy Ghost—going back to Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders in the 1960s. So I guess the idea of an ecstatic religious experience isn't totally off base. But I'm just as glad that one never caught on."
Shipp prefers "free jazz." "The idea," he said, "is that what we're doing is a revival of that." Free jazz is an alternative music unlikely to be co-opted. But what its younger followers might find even more appealing is that something actually seems at risk in its heated improvisations. A good name for what Shipp and his fellow revivalists are up to might be "X Jazz"—even when it's acoustic, it's amped.
Shipp freely admits to being ambitious. He says he "practices" being interviewed, and word has it that he drops into a shop in his neighborhood that specializes in avant-garde music almost daily to see if he's moved any CDs. The question I bet he gets at parties—although that didn't stop me from playing square's advocate and asking it anyway—is, Since free jazz dispenses with bebop's framework of chord changes, what guidelines do its improvisers follow? He gave a detailed and patient answer. "You might present a band with just eight bars of written music and encourage them to improvise on that using their own vocabularies, expanding on those eight bars of music rhythmically, harmonically, or melodically," he said. "There might be a set of melodies or just a gesture in the direction of one, but you keep extrapolating from that. And sometimes my pieces actually have chord changes, though not like in bop—more like a set of bass lines or a general harmonic movement of some kind."
On the new Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear) the drama is in hearing Shipp's trio, featuring Parker and the swift drummer Gerald Cleaver, interact with the loops and sampled beats furnished by Chris Flam, the album's co-producer (billed here as just FLAM). Free-jazz fans can be as set in their ways as anyone; spontaneity is a fetish with some of them, and they fear its loss when studio technology is added to the equation. But FLAM's electronically generated sounds are dissonant and elliptically dreamlike, rarely lapsing into facile man-versus-machine allegory or mindless turntable wicky-wicky. And Shipp, for his part, proves more adaptable than most of the neo-beboppers and modal colorists who have attempted this sort of thing and failed.
Shipp's other recent release is The Trio Plays Ware, on the Italian label Splasc(H), a program of eight compositions previously recorded by Ware's quartet, this time without the leader. Ware's pieces may be little more than springboards, but here they convey a rapturous sorrow independent of his baleful solos. Shipp has become a more economical improviser than he used to be, possibly as a side effect of emulating pop recording techniques (and all to the good), and he wrings every last nuance out of these melodies. The Trio Plays Ware is as good a starting point as any for newcomers to Shipp. But for the especially wary, an even better introduction—to him and to the latest manifestation of free jazz he represents—might be Songs (2001), another Splasc(H) CD, featuring his interpretations of several standards; a hymn; an English carol; one tune each by Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and Sonny Rollins; and an interpretation of "Angel Eyes" almost as startling as the one you missed unless someone told you the Blue Note was the happening place to be one rainy evening this past spring.