In the previous entry in this blog, I recalled some of the most memorable live music performances I’ve attended. Most of my early musical experiences, both with recordings and concerts, were with popular music—rock and folk along with music from some Broadway shows and movie soundtracks. In the early 1970’s, I came to appreciate that musical genre known as jazz and a new musical frontier opened for me.
I found new joy and new musical heroes in the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. Unfortunately for me, I never got to attend live performances by many of these. On the other hand, as I got more deeply into this music, I found I was fortunate to be listening at a time when it was undergoing some profound changes. The beauty created by the master improvisers of the genre in the early years of jazz, as they spontaneously created melodic solos and new harmonic explorations, was being taken in new directions. The 1970s were a fruitful decade for jazz and the live music scene in New York City was a prime showcase for the music.
Ornette Coleman’s music had already taught me to hear beyond the “solo-over-the-changes” tradition. In his music, there was no background of repeated structure over which the soloist took musical flight, no regular rhythmic pulse or pattern of chords. Listening to Ornette’s records, I learned there were other means by which the players could move the music forward.
In 1971, I first heard the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which took the idea of spontaneity to a large ensemble. This was a recording of Michael Mantler’s pioneering efforts with a studio full of all-star players of the day, including Cecil Taylor and Larry Coryell. But the impact of the concept really came home for me when the JCO held a series of weeklong open workshops at Columbia University in New York City. During the course of the week, the leader/composer would show the orchestra members the work and in the ensuing evenings, go over the different parts of the piece with the players, until the final night when the orchestra performed it for the audience. I was fortunate to attend during the week Don Cherry was teaching the orchestra his “Relativity Suite”. I had been a Don Cherry fan since I first heard him on Ornette Coleman’s albums. Being present as he brought forth “Relativity Suite” with a roster of top level players, is one of my fondest musical memories.
In contrast with the stupendous power of a full jazz orchestra, another special concert event I’ll always remember was a more intimate experience. This was a duet performance at a church in New York’s Greenwich Village. Sitting on a foam pad on the floor, I watched and listened as Karl Berger and Dave Holland, both only a few feet from where I was, created musical magic as the colors from their instruments filled the space.
This was the time of the loft scene in Manhattan’s SoHo district and among the more famous sites was Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea. I will never forget the night I attended the performance by drummer Sonny Murray. It remains indelibly engraved in my heart and mind, not only because of the leading edge music performed that evening but also because I met the love of my life that night and it was the first musical event we attended together.
In the days that followed, we would frequent the Village Vanguard in the West Village, for many evening performances by Keith Jarrett and his bandmates Charlie Haden (whom I also knew from Ornette Coleman’s records) and Paul Motian. Other memorable shows at the Vanguard were those by George Adams and his band, which included Charles Mingus alumni Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond.
It was 1972 when Miles Davis came out with “On the Corner” and when I heard there was going to be a concert at Carnegie Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets. As he was always seeking new directions, the music Miles delivered that night wasn’t exactly like that from either of his justly famous quintets. If there is a line between jazz and rock, the ensemble crossed it frequently. I vividly remember the red, black, and green grill cloths on the wall of amplifiers behind the players. And I recall all the instruments, including the congas, being played through wah-wah pedals. Even if it was one of the best rock concerts I ever attended, I finally got to hear Miles live.
More than a decade later, I finally got to hear another jazz hero live. Ornette Coleman had just released “Song X”, his collaboration with Pat Metheny. I attended the performance at New York’s Town Hall where Ornette and Pat were joined by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman. A few years later, I had the pleasure of attending another Ornette Coleman concert, this time at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
I love the fact that jazz happens everywhere, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to clubs like the Vanguard in the city, to the streets themselves and well into the suburbs. For many years, there was a small club north of New York City up in Westchester county, where the owner, Al Defemio, would sit in on drums with guest players ranging from amateur musicians to seasoned professionals. Al’s handmade onion rolls were famous among the players and audience alike. The players also loved the face that Al always made sure they were well fed.
On one occasion, I had the very good fortune to attend a Benny Golson performance at Defemio’s. In the close quarters and relatively small audience that would fit in the club, it was as though Benny was playing for us alone. We sat spellbound as we listened to him play “I Remember Clifford”. In between sets when my wife and I went over to tell him how much we enjoyed his music, he invited us to sit down and join him. We talked about musical composition and how he went about creating the pieces he played. In combination with the music performed, who could ask for more?