September Is The Month Of Music Festivals In Chicago

Just as live music is starting to come back, one of the most important figures in live music history has departed. George Wein (pronounced ween), the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and many, many other events, died September 13 at 95.

Wein produced the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954; the lineup included singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Oscar Peterson, among others. It barely broke even; Wein later claimed it turned a profit of $142.50 (about $1450 in 2021 dollars) and that was only because he waived his own fee. The following year, Miles Davis gave a performance that got him signed to Columbia Records — the label had reportedly been reluctant to take a chance on him because of his drug habit — and in 1958, photographer Bert Stern filmed the festival for the documentary Jazz On A Summer’s Day, which features performances by Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, and Chuck Berry, among others. Perhaps the most famous performance from any Newport festival came in 1956, though, when Duke Ellington’s band performed “Diminuendo Ad Crescendo in Blue” and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves delivered an absolutely stunning 27-chorus solo:

Over the years, Wein’s empire grew; he also ran the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan famously “went electric,” pissing off many people and thrilling many more) and the New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival. By the early ’70s, his company, Festival Productions, was staging events and tours all over the world via large-scale corporate partnerships: The JVC Jazz Festival ran for more than two decades. Matthew Shipp told an interesting story on Facebook, writing, “at one point George tried to franchise (not sure if that is the correct word) and sort of colonize all New York jazz festivals and put them under his kingdom — of course he wanted to get the Vision Festival under him, so he asked Patricia Parker to lunch and she asked me to join her being that he had dealt with me before and I had played Newport — we had a great lunch and George was an extremely charming host, but of course the Vision Festival was not going to hand over control.”

There will never be another George Wein, and the jazz world as we know it today would not exist without him. And/but it’s important to remember that he did everything out of a genuine love for the music, from refusing to take a fee for the first Newport Jazz Festival to bringing in corporate sponsors that allowed jazz to flourish all over New York City during festival season. Yes, some musicians, like Charles Mingus, thought his bookings were too conservative, ignoring the most forward-looking players on the scene, but come on; it’s impossible to argue that having such a powerful advocate for so many decades wasn’t a net positive for jazz.

Speaking of the jazz avant-garde, Tom Surgal’s documentary Fire Music premiered this month in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other cities. I saw an earlier, shorter cut (running just over an hour) in 2018 and didn’t like it much. Surgal jumped from subject to subject, let seemingly tangential musicians talk at length about not much, and seemed to spend as much time on Charlie Parker as on free jazz. This new version is 90 minutes long and is much improved. But it still has some major flaws, which it pains me to report, because I love this kind of music and want to see it well served on film.

The subject is far too vast to be covered in 90 minutes, let’s just specify that right now. What Surgal has attempted to do is cover a lot of the important milestones of free jazz history in a manner not unlike what Ken Burns did with his Jazz TV series in 2000. Among the subjects discussed here are: the rise of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor in the late 1950s/early 1960s; the October Revolution in Jazz in 1964 and the formation of the Jazz Composers Guild by Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others; the mass artistic migration to Paris in 1968-71; the AACM in Chicago and the Black Artists Group in St. Louis; the loft jazz scene in mid-’70s New York; the rise of free improvisation in Europe; and more. Individual artists like Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, and Eric Dolphy are spotlit as well. (The testimony from European musicians who witnessed Dolphy’s death from undiagnosed diabetes is horrifying and tragic.)

There’s a lot of great footage here — Surgal shot a ton of interviews, many of them with musicians who are dead now, like drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Noah Howard. But he also rounded up performance video by Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, the Globe Unity Orchestra, and many other individuals and groups. He also snips fascinating interview clips out of other films, allowing players like Taylor and Bill Dixon to be heard.

But just as with Jazz, there are big omissions. For example, the ESP-Disk label (for which Ayler and many others recorded crucial free jazz documents in the 1960s) is never mentioned at all. Perhaps more consequentially, the movie seems to argue that free jazz died out by 1980, because nobody making this kind of music in the present day, like Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Ivo Perelman, Jaimie Branch, James Brandon Lewis, or Irreversible Entanglements, to pick just a few examples, is interviewed. There’s no footage from the Vision Festival, a week-long (or longer) event that celebrates free jazz every year.

And honestly, the music that is included is undercut by the movie’s format. A typical free jazz performance is quite long, often running 15-20 minutes. Many Cecil Taylor performances were an hour long, never stopping from beginning to end. Peter Brötzmann, seen in the movie, frequently goes off for a half hour or more at a stretch. And you can’t really understand what an artist is doing in this idiom unless you ride with them all the way from the beginning of a piece to the end. But Surgal will show Albert Ayler blasting away, or the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in the clattering, honking middle of a piece that likely started with a thoughtful unison melody and ended with a chant, and expect it to reveal something meaningful about their music… and make an uninitiated listener want to hear more. It winds up giving the false impression that this music is just about screaming and wailing as hard as possible, when in fact there’s real depth to it. The more you listen, the more you’ll hear.

And now, new music!

Source : https://www.stereogum.com/2161348/the-month-in-jazz-september-2021/columns/ugly-beauty/

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