FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Joseph Chonto


(Also known as Jazz)

First of all, let's make something clear: I'm not going to say anything about the music on this disc as far as notes, rhythms, harmonies, etc. are concerned. The essence of this music is way beyond those fundamental concepts and besides, you were hip enough to buy this CD, therefore you probably don't need any instructions in appreciating how utterly wonderful this music is.

What is important to note, though, is that this FMP recording of Charles Gayle is his first to be released in four years and only his fourth released recording overall. (The first three being the Silkheart label recordings, all recorded in a four day period in 1988. Also wonderful and recommended, in night add.) It is also significant to note that FMP is a German label and that Silkheart is a Swedish company. And therefore the question: Why is it that Charles Gayle - an American musician playing at the highest level a music that the American culture System grudgingly acknowledges as "America's only original contribution to the arts" - has not been offered by an American label even one chance to record and that his public performances are almost exclusively limited to the streets of New York and an occasional Monday night at the Knitting Factory? Why has Gayle, at certain points in his life, been homeless? Why must he scuffle for just enough work to sustain himself? In a 1991 Village Voice article by Francis Davis, Gayle had revealed that he "earned just enough money for one meal a day by playing on the streets," yet that was "the only honest alternative for a black musician." Why?

What is it about America - a country which alternately bills itself as "the leader of the free world," "the land of liberty" and "the land of opportunity" - that the most free and liberated music receives virtually no opportunities? The answer lies in America's inherently racist cultural attitudes and power structure and the fact that the music Messrs. Gayle, Parker and Ali play is self-determination music of the highest order, which, by definition, is the thing that most scares the shit out of the American white colonialist power structure. (You can be sure that which America's well documented history of crushing every serious self-determination movement outside its borders, it is also at work crushing every domestic force for self-determination.)

What scares the power structure so much about this music is that it is a dynamic, unifying force that is not only beautiful to listen to, but also expands the listener's awareness of what it means to be a human being and all the implications that follow. For example, Ellington was the first composer who recognized that sitting in the chairs holding their musical instruments were human beings - developed individual human beings. Hence, he composed taking into account the individual musician's strenghts and weaknesses. He was the first truly democratic composer and in this sense was the first post-Western composer. And if one takes Ellington's concept of what constitutes an orchestra and expands it to a social level, then that is terrifying to the white power structure because it means they have to start taking into account the fact that behind this machine or driving that bus or standing in the unemployment line is not just a cog in the gross national product machine, but a human being who deserves basic human considerations like health care, proper housing, food, leisure time, etc.

Gayle, Parker and Ali play in a context which is a natural evolution of Ellington's concept (which was also an evolution of the Black musical tradition which preceded him), each man contributing his whole musical self freely and spontaneously while at the same time taking into consideration the aesthetic needs of the composition and that each contribution/response blends with the others into a unified, harmonic whole. A spiritual unity and spiritual wholeness, which is finally, what this music is all about.

It is interesting to note how the methodology of different musics reflect the social orientations of the times. For example, Western classical music was composed by a Beethoven or Mozart or Vivaldi, was handed to a conductor who rounded up a group of musicians who dutifully executed the prescribed lollipops on the page like music-making machines. Basically a situation that expanded to a social level, both Hitler and Ronald Reagan would be very happy with. And conversely, how the methodology of Gayle, Parker and Ali - each individual sensitive and responsive and assertive of their own existential needs while at the same time equally sensitive and responsive to and supportive of the needs of the collective -, expanded to a social level, is that which Marx, Jefferson, Guevara, Schweizer, Mandela and probably nearly all of humanity hopes to achieve. And therefore the threat to the white power structure. And therefore the white power structure's efforts to starve this music to death.

A musician, obviously, must either be supported through commercial means (club and concert work, recordings, etc.) or through government arts funding programs, corporate and private donations, etc. For Gayle and all other creative black musicians, both of these avenues are almost completely blocked. This is directly a result of the Americans System's inherently racist cultural attitude and its success in keeping the public ignorant of the music and its meaning.

Any record executive will tell you the reason they're not interested in recording this music is because it won't sell." Why won't it sell? Because the public doesn't know about it. The hip magazines aren't writing about it - it's not selling, therefore it's not hip enough for their readers. The few jazz radio stations won't play it- it's not selling according to the Billboard jazz charts, therefore, people don't want to hear it. The jazz club owners - dito. The TV talk shows won't touch it - they've got far more interesting people to show. As you can see, a vicious circle exists where the music doesn't get recorded because of the lack of knowledge and understanding about the music and the media doesn't want to bother with it, again, because it's not being recorded anyway, so why bother promoting something people can't buy (and they can't advertise)? And again, it's all because the music must prove itself capable of making substantial enough profits - for some white owner to take home - and if the music can't bring in at least a few thousand bucks to some club owner, if it can't bring in a couple hundred thousand to some record company, then it' s just basically tough shit, buddy and why don't you learn to play something the people might like? (Which is what far too many musicians end up doing). As you can see, the music in its purest, most intense and beautiful incarnations has almost no chance of economically surviving (forget shriving) within the hostile and short-sighted American capitalist environment.

And perhaps it is foolish for one to expect the American marketplace to ever be able to support this music, considering the seemingly bottomless pit of tastelessness the American public chooses to wallow in. (Yeah, okay, it sounds kinda nasty, but am I right or what?) The crux of the problem is that jazz is an art music equivalent - at least - to any other art music, Western classical music in particular. Yet the white Art Dictators (and their bosses and deputies} who decide what gets taught in schools and which art programs get funded stubbornly pursue a culturally racist policy and refuse to accord jazz its proper status as an art music. At best, jazz is condescendingly acknowledged as a kind of "artistic entertainment music," meaning it's aesthetically inferior to Western classical music, but still a notch or two above the pop music on the radio and the background music of Las Vegas tits and ass shows.

The American Music and Arts Establishment basically takes the stance that the forms of Beethoven's symphonies and quartets, the ingenious thematic developments of Mozart's piano concertos, the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach's fugues, etc., are things that jazz has never come close to, therefore Western classical music is artistically superior to jazz. And this is, of course quite frankly, ignorant racist bullshit because it is using one culture's standards to judge the relative merits of another culture's art. But this idiotic "form precedes content" argument and application of a kind of aesthetic Protestant work ethic (whoever's got the most ambitious scores that sound like something, wins) to judge artistic quality is precisely what is used by America's Art Dictators to justify "keeping jazz in its place" and to perpetuate racist Cultural Big Lies and by extension, perpetuate America's racist socio-political status quo. (And for anyone who doubts that America is not at heart a virulently racist society should consider the fact that 85% of America's prison population is non-white, while 85% of the overall population is white and is second only to South Africa in its prison population per capita ratio).

The biggest of the Cultural Big Lies, then, is that 1) Western classical music is the most aesthetically refined, intellectually developed, disciplined and demanding to perform and therefore by implication: 2) Black musical tradition is some raggedy-ass shit that can't be taken seriously, or at least not as seriously as Bach, Mozart or Beethoven the Great.. The fact that music is, essentially, a communication of life and about life and that on this level Coltrane, Monk, Mingus - and Gayle, Parker and Ali - and so many other musicians have and do communicated} as eloquently and imaginatively as any music that has ever been made, is not what America's Art Dictators want you to think. They don't want you to know that Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson or Mississippi Fred McDowell could create as much musical magic with three chords in three minutes as Beethoven with 100 musicians in four movements. And that the content of a solo by Coltrane or Ayler or Gayle blows away the content of the average sonata. Because once enough people start understanding these things, and start taking the music into their lives and growing with it, it's going to blow the System's nice classical music garden party all to hell and maybe a few other things as well. All right, I'm sure some of you are thinking l 'm anti-classical music. I'm not. I realize there is much Western classical music that is quite good and some of it great despite the inherent defects in the composer-conductor-musician relationship and the occasional lapses of taste and imagination by the composers. The problem with European classical music at this point is not the music itself, but the prententious and hypocritical way it is funded, packaged and produced. (Check any orchestra's program this season - guaranteed to be more of the same tiresome soup as last season. There won't be any Cage, Feldman, Brown, Nancarrow, Wolff, Nono, Berio, or Varese. It's considered "progressive" if in an entire season a short piece of Schönberg, Webern, Bartok or Ives is featured.) In nearly every city of any size there is at least one orchestra, and in the major cities there are several, along with opera companies, chamber ensembles, etc., playing in concert halls and for fees creative musicians like Charles Gayle can only dream about. Obviously, the System smiles upon Western classical music and supports it lavishly with government arts funding and tax-deductible corporate and private donations. And why not? It's melodic, sweet, touches our most precious deep delicate emotions and afterwards over coffee everybody can readily agree they had a "cultural experience" and that the world isn't such a bad place after all and wish perhaps there weren't so many scurrilous homeless panhandlers cluttering up Lincoln Center. In other words, the classical music scene has been fashioned into a kind of cultural soporific, a cultural opium. Which, of course, is good for the American Sytem. Because it pacifies and stimulates no changes. It is true, of course, that the System does offer grants to jazz musicians. But compared to the support the classical scene receives, the little support reserved for jazz is nothing but insulting and obvious tokenism. Literally the crumbs off the table. But again, not surprising considering the racist nature of America. And yes, the System does pay lip service to jazz, calling it "America's only original contribution to the arts" and so on. But one can see how deep the appreciation runs. Virtually no financial support. Virtually no education. {Every American high-School graduate is expected to know about the three B's, who composed the Messiah, etc., but as far as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, the names might be mentioned sometime, but it's not an essential part of the curriculum. And of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor? One is lucky to hear the names mentioned in university-level studies.) The result, again, is a mass-indoctrination that jazz is not worthy of serious attention, that it is esoteric, something for freaks. And this is not only sad, it is alarming - and insane - that a country that spends three billion dollars a day on its military and whose love-affair with technology produces space shuttles and super-colliders, has such a paranoia of the most profound and beautiful human expressions and such a callous disregard for some of the most brilliant and contributive members of the population. (Not to mention the rank and file.)There's much more to be said, but l've run out of space. And I know these notes are a bit of a drag, but the music is full of uplift. So savour it - it's been worth the wait.

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