Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley
Copyright Š 2001 Anthony Braxton & Mike Heffley. All rights reserved.
Extracts, with Commentary by Ralph Dumain
The plain text in each numbered selection is commentary by Anthony Braxton extracted from the interview and published by The Autodidact Project with permission of Mike Heffley. Italicized paragraphs are commentary by Ralph Dumain (© 2003 Ralph Dumain).
I’m no fan of Spike Lee’s, but the fact that he would have a project dabbling in minstrelsy, on whatever level, is just further proof that the components of the third millennium will be very different from what we came up with in the ’60s. For instance, much of the hip-hop music that we’re experiencing right now has a minstrel component. More and more, it’s the tough guy celebrating vulgarity—which isn’t to say this is the only component of hip-hop. I have a feeling hip-hop, like every other form of music, has many different levels, but the one that gets through is the level that the marketplace co-signs. So we’re seeing the same thing that has happened to the jazz world.
The comment on Spike Lee and on the minstrel quality of contemporary popular culture, especially the representation of black people, is very perceptive. This minstrelization indeed was once imposed on jazz musicians as well, but now the image presented by the likes of Wynton Marsalis is one of respectability (though, tellingly, Marsalis romanticizes the ignorant behavior of the past even as he admonishes that of today: see for example his treatment of Sidney Bechet in Ken Burns’ Jazz). This freezes the image of jazz in another way.
As far as I’m concerned, the political decisions of the last 15 years have involved what I would call quadrant-specific coalition politics. Quadrant-specific in the sense that, looking back on the last 15 years we see a movement that has sought to move toward idiomatic certainty, as opposed to what my interest has always been, which is responding to composite reality. Idiomatic certainty is a way of talking about the kind of reductionism that has come to characterize present-day notions of what we call the jazz musician. Reductionism, in the sense of where in the beginning, we could look at the continuum of the music and the recorded materials available demonstrating the music as the artifacts, the sonic footprints of the path of evolution and experience of the great creative masters who have brought us to this point in time. Reductionism, then, is my way of looking at how that information has been redefined to where the language and conceptual experiences from the great lineage of mastership of those individuals that we call jazz musicians have been frozen, and have become the sonic artifacts that have been used to reduce the composite conceptual and vibrational implications of what that information originally meant. And so when the term jazz musician is put forth in this time period, it’s put forth as part of a grand Southern political strategy. Southern political strategy in the sense that since the 1980s, in my opinion, what we have seen is a continuum of political decision that, one, would reposition the New Orleans experience as a point of definition of this erected concept of canon, at the expense of a composite American creative experience that reflects on American experiences in a way that transcends the political and ethnic position parameters that have characterized, even historically, how American progressionalism is viewed. What am I saying? I’m saying that the emergence of the modern era—say from 1880 to 1920—can be viewed on many different levels. The most important level in this example would be the concept of the IQ as a reflection of Darwin’s evolution of the species, on the one component; and on the other side of that composition would be the concept of rhythm and blues as a way to establish a thought unit that on one side says the European and trans-European continuum is responsible for all of the intellectual advances of our species; and on the other side, the concept of rhythm and blues as a way of saying that African Americans have this special feeling, and that the Europeans, with all their intellectual advancement, are somehow retarded in the area of natural human feeling. I see this intellectual gambit as profoundly flawed and false; in fact this is a political gambit that is consistent with the original Southern gambit that would involve the concept of 3/5ths of a person as a way to justify a political decision that would enslave non-European, especially African American people.
Quadrant-specific, idiomatic certainty, reductionism, racial mythology of white (cerebral, unfeeling) and black (emotional, instinctive, non-intellectual), artifactual approach to a musical “tradition” vs. composite reality, vibrational dynamics: the freezing of a complex living reality into a fixed, monumental, Platonic archetype and fetish-object alienated from the living process in which the creation of music took place, and thus mirroring the ideology and social structure of a racial classification scheme. Southern strategy: a very important observation. Braxton links the victory of the reactionary South in the American power structure to the emergence of the contemporary ideology of jazz as institutionally dominant in the person of Wynton Marsalis and his confreres.
. . . part of my problem, or part of the complexity of my creative struggle, has been that there’s no category for an African American person who’s interested in composite reality and in responding to it. I think in the very beginning, many of the problems that I would experience would come about because, for many sectors, I was an African American who did not know my place; who embraced the trans-European and trans-Asian musics to the same extent that I embraced the trans-African musics because I did not experience a natural opposition to those continuua. Part of the complexity of the ethnic politics that has been the political gambit leading into the modern era would be that the African-American person has to function within a defined zone, or parameter.
Yes, popular culture remains relentless and absolutist in pigeonholing and confining black people within a rigidly defined cultural and ideological position.
In fact, part of the beauty of my life was the experience I had with the AACM, and the information that has come out of that experience. The AACM was a restructural and mystical union that was dedicated to advance composite information dynamics. . . . . These people were and are dedicated Americans, people that we can be proud of. They were seeking to advance a position that would be consistent with what America is all about. Their work has not been interpreted correctly because, again, it goes back, in my opinion, to the axioms that would determine what I call the Southern Strategy 2000. Southern Strategy 2000 is a way to regain an ethnic-centric parameter that would determine what musicians could be successful and from which value systems. Axiom 2 would determine which individuals would be allowed to be successful, and what subject and area focuses those individuals would have to talk about to become successful; and Axiom 3, the nature of what kinds of flexibilities the creative musician would have to entertain: flexibilities involving vulgarity, and input from the A&R people as far as what projects could be documented and what musicians would be used. As far as I’m concerned, the last 15 years was prepared in the 1980s, and we’re seeing a fulfillment of this Southern Strategy, which would also be connected to the African American middle class, and finally the African American upper class. Also, connected to this strategy would be manipulation of image-logic quadrants; I’m thinking of the work of Hollywood in the last 20 and 30 years, and also image logic manipulation on the television set.
Fascinating example of Braxton’s abstract, quasi-scientific/mathematical terminology: restructuralism, composite information dynamics, parameters, quadrants, image-logic. Yet these abstract structural terms are resonant as well as suggestive for deepening one’s perception. The Southern Strategy: a crucial avenue to explore. Braxton suggests the power ascendancy of the reactionary South is not just a white thing, but has restructured the class and cultural dynamics of Black America as well. Note also the language of Americanism from a black perspective: a radical democratic language spoken by other great Americans such as Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, and Ornette Coleman. The AACM as exemplary, dedicated Americans: beautiful!
Let me put it like this: what we’re talking about transcends individuals, but Southern strategy is a good way of talking about this, in that the concept of a Southern strategy, and its success, in my opinion, has been that in many ways the Southern strategy trumps the composite intellectual strategy. By that I mean that the depth of slavery, and the actualness of slavery, was of such a dimension that everyone has to genuflect, especially in the trans-African American intellectual community, to the profound weight of the slavery experience. So the concept of the Southern strategy in this context is a strategy that sets the parameters for the intellectual dimensions of the music, and trumps any thought unit that goes outside what is considered race-generic, if I can say it like that.
While Braxton describes these dynamics according to his own personal terminology and conceptual system, fleshing out this characterization shows it to be very revealing. In actuality, the opposition between North and South could not be more central. It goes to the very struggle within modernity, between the fluid and the fixed, the progressive and the reactionary, modernism and the anti-modern reaction. Braxton also highlights the process by which blacks and black ideologies are as complicit in this split as are whites, not just as objects of the political dynamic, but also as perpetrators.
The Southern strategy is also a way to understand the exclusion of the contributions of the trans-European creative musician, or in this context the European American contributions to the creative music tradition. I’m convinced more and more that the whole idea of black music, jazz music doesn’t really encompass the correct context to talk about the evolution of American creative music. Jazz works because, one, the European American political structure, from the beginning of the modern era, would place a quadrant circle around the black community, because the black community serves several functions in America. The black community would be of a zone where the trans-Victorian component would not be allowed to be dominant. The black community would be the quadrant that would challenge the trans-Christian and especially the trans-Pythagorean component; the black community would be the quadrant that would allow for extended morality, or existentially posited psychologies. So the black community was isolated because, one, the European American power structure needed to have it isolated because of the psychology of racism, first, and also the psychology of financial and economic dynamics. But the evolution of American creative music, and finally the evolution of world music has always been much greater than any territorial experience. In seeking to understand the discipline of creative musics and the phenomenon of vibrational dynamics, more and more I think in terms of territorial experiences into continental experiences into, finally, global experiences. From that paradigm what we call white and black doesn’t work in the same kind of way, because the real history of our species and of creative music evolution has been a history of human beings responding to one another, based on coming into contact with one another, and that was the case in the Byzantine period, in the Ottoman Empire period, in pre-classical Greece time period, the period when the classical Greek information would go into the Islamic world, to later be re-translated into the European universe and locale; it was the case in the forming of the American area space, and it was the case in the time period of colonialism. What we see in this time period, in my opinion, are efforts to undermine continental experiences as a way to continue present-day notions of ethnic politics, of coalition politics, that’s what we’re really dealing with: ethnic and racial politics, idiomatic politics, and the phrase Southern strategy in this context, in my opinion, involves the latest component of this reconstituted agenda from the 1880s that seeks to put everybody back into their place again. By that I mean put the African Americans back in their place, put the homosexual community back in their place.
The curious quasi-mathematical terminology—quadrants, trans-[X], etc.—is not the usual way these dynamics are described, which makes Braxton’s statements even more interesting. Braxton outlines the economic, political, racial, and ideological system that institutes a division within a perverse unity—trans-Victorian vs. licentious zone, etc. Braxton recognizes and names a composite reality as the true nature of human interaction occluded by an oppressive ideological/political filtering mechanism.
The whole jazz platform, everything that’s happened since the 1960s in the jazz world, in my opinion, has come about through the liberal sector, and that sector has postulated a concept of “we are with you in communion around trans-African matters,” while at the same time, what they’re really saying is “we’re with you, but you had better follow our concept of what you should be. We’re with you as long as we can say that jazz goes to 1965, and everything after that is not black.” By chopping off the restructural component of the music, what we’ve seen in the last 30 years has been that without the head you start taking from the body, drawing from stylistic influences. From that point, the musicians would start to go further and further back in time; now we’re back to the minstrel period, back to Stagger Lee. But it’s taken for granted in every other community that evolution is a point of fact.
To best appreciate this paragraph, one should decode it into a more concrete framework. The “liberal sector” names but does not adequately describe the dynamic involved, but clearly points to the liberal integrationist politics that finally enabled the recognition of black people and their cultural contributions and their incorporation into the mainstream social order, within a certain framework. The final result is the recognition of the sins of America’s past and the celebration of progress, embodied within the contemporary, respectable image of jazz, acknowledged by official society at last, proffered by Wynton Marsalis, Ken Burns and co. The respectability and the frozen artifactual presentation of jazz are such that jazz must be delimited, framed, and tamed, and that the evolution beyond the mid-’60s both culturally and socially is too dangerous and close to present problems to touch.
As long as they accept the parameters of what they call jazz. What they call jazz is a reductive proposition that takes away the restructural spectra of the music. We can talk about jazz from many different standpoints, but one thing is certain: jazz was the only quadrant where an African American creative person would have the right of definition, to seal a definition; but that has now changed. All of the musicians who would define a way for themselves based on their understanding of affinity dynamics have been kicked out. In their place we have a concept of jazz that is generic, that is a reductive attempt to create an artificial quadrant that would have the properties of what they call jazz but in fact jazz was always much more profound than what these people want to deal with anyway. Their problem with the restructuralist tradition has always been that the Establishment was never prepared to accept that an African American person could have an intellectual thought that would be equal to the Europeans.
Restructuralism implies an attitude to received input which must be transmuted in some way, reflecting the paradoxical position of black people in American society. In Hegelian terms, one would say that black culture is not self-identical; it can only be understood in terms of the social totality, in terms not only of what it is as a delimited entity but of what it is (allegedly) not. “Restructural spectra”, “affinity dynamics”—terms in a language redolent of physics, engineering, and calculus—suggest a different perspective, a living (composite) reality, which would constitute a black intellectual perspective denied recognition by the racial-mythological order.
And the psychology of the entertainment musics has been the aesthetic goal of the Southern strategy; they’ve moved the creative music that guys like myself were working with, they’ve changed the aesthetic concept to entertainment being the highest goal again. We’re back to the Eisenhower years; I’m waiting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to come out of his grave and take away Brown vs. the Board of Education.
I feel that this time period, in many ways is analogous with the dawn of the modern era. That’s why I keep going back to the late 1800s to 1920s. The same components are at work; and in this time period, in seeking to understand those components, we can look at the phenomenal success of Wall Street over the last 15 years; the greatest gains in the history of our country. We’re seeing mergers on a level that’s equal to the early 1900s. We’re seeing a new tier of super-rich people, that 1 per cent Al Gore liked to talk about; and on the other side, the gap between rich and poor is widening. The Southern strategy, in my opinion, is part of this greater component that really reflects on multinational reductionism, and multinational reductionism in this context has kicked out 3/4 of the recording companies and merged them into one; controlling the performing outlets, bringing in a group of guys who are working all over the planet because they play ball. This is political, and part of a political strategy: if you play ball, you can be successful, because the ball has never there’s never been greater abundance, because we are again at this cycle of dynamic technology that has resulted in new possibilities for making money. Jazz is a part of that; the jazz business complex is that zone that controls the music; the motion picture industry is the zone that controls image logics in the film; television has its domain; so we’re talking of political and aesthetic domain parameters.
I think the connection between politics and the economic control and shaping of culture is made clear.
It is coming out of New York; they brought the South to New York. By Southern strategy in this context, take the blues, for instance. The blues is being posited as the legitimate projection for African Americans to function inside of. More and more, the blues is being defined as an idiomatic generic state as opposed to an infinite affinity state, which is what it really is. The blues, in my opinion, is being used as a way to marshal and limit, or define the parameters, of African American intellectual and vibrational dynamics. With the blues, they can say “this is black music.” If it’s not the blues, if you write an opera, they can say, “oh, this is not black music.” If it’s blues, it can be received and appreciated as consistent with what African Americans are supposed to be involved with.
North vs. South: very important. And shameless ideological manipulation informed by black conservatism: Albert Murray’s blues ideology, etc. Sickening! So shameless and obtrusive in PBS documentaries: the Murray-Crouch-Marsalis pipeline. A shame it is, as these people do have valuable things to say.
For me, then, what we’re really talking about is some attempt to understand this time period, the concept of the modern era and all of what that concept implied, as far as what tenet components would comprise the variables that all of us as human beings would find ourselves dealing with in the last 100, 120 years. By the term “Southern strategy,” I want to be clear with this; I’m not only talking about the “New Orleans phenomenon,” I’m talking of the political psychologies and strategies that have dominated the domain of information and vibrational dynamics in American culture, and what that domination would pose for the erection of quadrant politics, coalition politics, ethnic politics, intellectual dynamics, and the resulting decisions that would come out of that alignment, and how that phenomenon would set up the constructs of the modern era.
For myself, I see my position as consistent with African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation. I have from the beginning sought to find a viewpoint that would allow me as a human being to participate in composite reality, in the sense that I wanted to have an experience that would reflect my interests, those things that I’ve discovered in life, and to have the possibility to integrate that information, and hopefully to evolve in a way that would be consistent with my beliefs. The concept of the modern era would also of course have a spiritual component, and that spiritual component—especially the trans-Christian aspect of it—would also fuse on the tri-plane the various axiomatic tendencies that have become the accepted norm in this time period as far as general perceptions of reality. It is from that point that I’ll try to respond to your question.
In seeking to explore and learn about history, I think the most basic focus that I can come up with at this point would be that period of exploratory recording that we generally associate with Alan Lomax and, later, John Hammond. It would be in that period when we would see the manipulations to contain idiomatic and vibrational quadrant spaces concerning African American affinity postulates, and the gradual move to create alternative quadrant spaces for African American experiences as opposed to integrating those experiences into a composite platform that reflected American vibrational dynamics. It would be with those quadrant political strategies that the first echelon of idiomatic parameters—i.e., “African American music”—would be undertaken.
I read this morning in a magazine that some basketball player who’s making multimillions—who, of course, is angry, since all African Americans are angry, whether it’s justified or not, since anger has become one of the qualities that our young people seem to embrace, which is to say it’s become almost a minstrel tenet, what has happened with anger in this time period. This young man is doing his hip-hop CD, and the article talked about how foul this CD is in terms of language. For me, it triggered the early notions of how the African American community would gravitate toward blues, how in the initial gambit of what we now call race recordings was to present the African American community as being more fascinated with “blues” than with composite initiations. I disagree with that viewpoint. I think of the American master Abner Jay, who spoke of his work and himself as the last of the minstrel musicians. I recall that when talking with Mr. Jay, he talked about his struggle, and finally his rejection, or the rejection of his music, by the African American community. For me, Mr. Jay’s experience and the conversation I had with him was indicative of the profound forces at work.
The abstract and esoteric terms Braxton uses as a method of analysis are not scientifically or sociologically adequate to the task, from my perspective, but they conceptually structure the phenomena discussed with great significance. The characterization of composite reality vs. the simplistic monovalent ideology of black cultural expression (note story of Abner Jay) could not be more important.
The distinction is that what we call minstrel music is complex. There are at least three or four different levels. There’s the first level of European Americans recognizing the creativity in the slave quarters as a component for attraction and assimilation; two, there would be the response from the African American community that would mimic the mimicers; and three, there would be a contingent of African American creative musicians who would seek to parlay that polarity—that is to say, to take the original and dynamic components of that experience, and attempt to do something with that.
The fourth level would be minstrelsy as an “ism,” that being a parameter that would become part of the idiomatic character components that would be used to define the identity state of what is “correct” for African Americans—i.e., translating into Amos and Andy, translating into those components and ideas that would form the early attempts to frame African American vibrational dynamics and identity.
Part of this gambit, and this idea that through the race records the marketplace manipulators would frame this viewpoint that the African American community was only interested in blues part of that gambit would involve sacrificing the composite creative spectrum, especially the creative experiences taking place in the North. It would be in that context that the thrust continuum of experiences from the African American composers like Frank Johnson, William Grant Still, James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook—this continuum would be sacrificed in terms of the significance of their input as conceptualists and composers. What we would have instead would be glorification of folk music into blues, with the solidification of race recordings taking the position that the African American community was really an outgrowth of the blues psychologies exclusively. This is my point.
Note, aside from the characterization of this historical process in general, the dynamic of North vs. South. The South is the embodiment of fixed, quasi-feudal tradition; the Northern urban experience brings fluidity, complexity, and modernism.
If we were to look at the emergence of the great American musics, we would be forced to look at the fusion solidification of Irish and African American music moving into the country string-band continuum, which would later set up propositions for active rhythmic-logic folk musics, moving into country music and rhythm and blues, all as one unit, as opposed to how it was segregated by the marketplace because of social reality, political reality, ethnic reality, and finally racialist/racist psychologies. That would be one tenet component of the modern era.
Note Braxton’s use of the widest range of historical information possible, and how it figures into composite reality.
The prescribed realm of idiomatic qualities, all of which goes back again to the period between 1880 and 1920. We’re talking about the slave master looking at the Emancipation Proclamation to set the image logic parameters of African Americans in terms of how they would be perceived. At the same time, with the new technologies developing—i.e., the movie industry—Birth of a Nation would be a vehicle to posit idiomatic qualities as regarding the image characteristics of the African American. The recording industry would create “race records,” separating African Americans from composite realities, creating the special circle for the black community. Some would say—I think Max Roach said it beautifully—that the music was able to evolve because nobody would accept African Americans in the composite space, so the black community, turning in to itself, had no choice but to do the business of living and creating within this sanctioned sphere. And yet, on the one hand, the positive implications of that experience would bring forth a whole new category of invention dynamics and exploratory musics; on the other hand, the principle axiom of the modern era would involve an overseer quality by the European American community, which would determine what components of the African American experience could be viewed as valuable, and on what terms that overseer position would also define the vibrational synergies of the black community. And in every case, their definitions would always function with respect to what was in the interests of the European American community.
A noteworthy, sophisticated analysis of the constraints and manipulations imposed upon the black community and its relations with the powers that be within the larger society.
But this has been, what you’re describing, in my opinion, one of the axiomatic tenets of the modern era as far as the imposition of quadrant experiences and ethnic experiences. In that context, African American creativity is used as a stimulant for American culture; for the Europeans, it would also function as a triggering mechanism that would provide vibrational stimulus through the parameter of the Other, to reactivate dynamic European creativity and curiosity. And we’re talking about the 1880s when that started.
Abstractly (quasi-mathematically) stated, but very important.
And the modern era says that everything has to be redefined from a Eurocentric perspective, and it’s at that point where it gains value. Now let me be clear about this. I have no problems with whatever Paul Simon decides to do; I’m a Paul Simon fan, so Mr. Simon’s not what I’m really talking about. What I’m talking about is the position of European Americans in this time period, and their ability to appropriate whatever they want and be able to define it in whatever way they want to define it. At the same time, if I go and try to have an experience and seek to define it, I’m looked at like I’m a fool. Plus, the same opportunities are never available in reverse, like for the African musicians to be able to use Paul Simon, or musicians from that ilk, and have their work respected based on its fulfilling some aspect of their experience. My problem is not with Paul Simon. As far as I’m concerned, he understood in his own way the dynamic implications of globalization, and the fact that the creative person has to, if he wants to keep growing, find fresh parameters. Not only that: just as I hope to have more experiences with the great Latin musics, the great Asian musics, it would make sense for Paul Simon to look towards Africa, and Latin America. I have no problem with that. My problem is that the Metropolitan Opera won’t give me a performance, because somehow it’s outside the natural order for me to write an opera; but it’s not out of the natural order for André Previn to go and do a trio record of My Fair Lady tunes with Leroy Vinnegar and Shelley Manne, and have everybody say, “wow, this is great jazz, it’s jazzy jazz;” then he can go and conduct and do his opera.
Very important. The black creator is denied the full expression of composite experiences by the culture industry.
Well, it’s not for me to have any kind of stipulations about what another person should do with their creativity. In fact, the more I explore myself, the more I find that the axiom tenet that says it’s impossible to judge anybody but myself is the only position that makes sense to me. The problem, as far as the spectrum of experiences and humanity the problem is that the modern era defines African Americans as a people that can only function in an idiomatic quadrant, one that contains an ethnic mechanism that has not been understood. So when I use the phrase “Southern strategy,” I’m talking of a political coalition that is functioning under a particular psychology, and that psychology is connected to what the modern era is, and it manipulates quadrants, manipulates who is going to be successful and under what terms—and invariably that quadrant is concerned with the elevation of trans-Eurocentric definitions and value systems and political proclivities.
Stated in an abstract, schematic, metaphorical terminology that would profit from more concrete scientific exposition, but the meaning is clear. In one way or another, the cultural definition and functioning of blacks within the American (and world) polity are relentlessly jim-crowed, even in a post-apartheid society.
For instance, I think one of the things that surprised me, which I was starting to intuit in Chicago, when seeking to understand the African American community in New York City, for instance, and the Black Power movement and the music itself that was evolving, the post-free jazz musics, how narrow this music was as compared to the great work of Roscoe Mitchell, and the broader concept space that these guys were working with; the great work of Julius Hemphill, out of St. Louis, and his connection with theater, and broader strategies. The New York platform and the jazz business complex would, in effect, be co-signing this reductionism that was taking place in New York. I think of Amiri Baraka and the Black Power movement, and the viewpoint of Africanisms that would evolve in that period. As a young guy, even in the middle ’60s, I was very much aware that there was a reductionism taking place in their psychologies as well. More and more, I would come to look at this phenomenon as part of what for me, even in the 60s and 70s, was the strangeness of the East Coast and its politics, and how that strangeness would allow for a special reductionism in the black community and in their understanding of what they called free jazz and the political associations they attached to it. It was a kind of a pro-Garveyism.
A very sophisticated take on the ideological, political, and regional configurations of the times and places discussed.
. . . the South lost the war, but the value systems and political mechanisms of the South have come into prominence. And he mentioned jazz as one of the components, from New Orleans, right now permeating the scene, and drawing on the New Orleans period, and I felt he was right. The New Orleans strategy then, in this period, has culminated in the successful blockage of the restructural musics and the re-installation of the New Orleans psychologies: those being, of course, ethnic quadrants, idiomatic quadrants. The black man is back in place, in other words.
The Southern strategy again, and very important. “Back in place”—this should be spelled out—means the peculiar racial class-divided social structure of the post-apartheid era. The “jazz” essentially of a former time is now marketed to the educated, professional classes as an authentic, classical product (artifactual freezing and suppression of “vibrational dynamics”), while hip-hop is marketed to the poor and ignorant to keep them poor and ignorant and to the middle classes of all races so they can go slumming and sweat off their inhibitions and frustrations. This cultural divide reflects a rigidified class structure and cultural sphere.
But in fact Mr. Armstrong, whose connection with the minstrel tradition, no matter how honorable it was—who was cited as his hero, Steppin Fetchit, or Bill Bojangles? I’m not sure, I’ll check that—that connection is usually cited as the source of his interest in minstrelsy, and in the Satchmo film it’s spoken of as a noble attraction, as indeed I have no reason to question. However, whatever his connection to the minstrel tradition, as we know, minstrel tradition meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For the political powers that control information dynamics and image logic manipulation, the minstrel tradition was a reductionism that was effective as a psychological manipulating component. So that has come back again in this time period as well.
We’ve gone in the last 30 years from the emergence of a composite aesthetic music and intellectualism in the black community that suddenly has been squelched, and in its place idiomatic, ethnocentric psychologies and successes have been allowed to dominate. Hip-hop is celebrating vulgarity but 50 years from now the scholars will maintain that hip-hop was the music of African Americans and represented its intellectual ideals and conceptual input. That is to say, IRRELEVANT—and that is the word that came out in the Du Bois book review, that Du Bois found himself looking at the liberals and conservatives and understanding that, at best, the input of African American experiences, intellectually, creatively, scientifically, would always be viewed as irrelevant. Not we like this or we don’t like this, but irrelevant, in a corridor where it’s not integrated into composite information. It was with that understanding that DuBois lost it and decided to get out of America. That’s why I need to go back and study this guy all over again.
So these comparisons are frightening to me.
Very interesting, striking as far as the contemporary situation is concerned. The comments about Du Bois are certainly thought-provoking but the argument needs to be pinned down. Du Bois emerges as a key figure for Braxton, but still a nebulous one.
The European improviser’s continuum has a position that is very similar to 100 years ago, and that position is what distinguishes me again from Wagner and Hildegard and Schoenberg. It’s a composite aesthetic in the house of the rectangle—that being the unified, notated music—and putting the triangle inside of the rectangle, in the case of Wagner, with mythology. But there was no attempt to deal with improvisation. A hundred years from the first of the so-called “modern era” sequences, we see a European continuum that says it’s only about improvisation, and you can’t have any notation. That’s the same position as 100 years ago too, only in the house of the circle [free improvisation—MH].
So it’s interesting in the Satchmo film that much is made of Louis Armstrong’s Jewish music teachers in New Orleans. I’m just trying to understand America’s racial political decisions, because Louis Armstrong, for me, was like a summation master whose work took the language of the region, of King Oliver, and just did it better, fast, higher. It wasn’t like he put together a new language. Plus, coming to the north, it would be in the northern regions where Mr. Armstrong as a soloist started to evolve, and the concept of the soloist in the music has always involved the concept of self-realization and extension—and in the North, that phenomenon cannot be separated from the vibrational psychologies that evolved in the North. And African-American middle class and upper class in Chicago, in the early period, was not on a second plane to the European American community; there was a healthier interaction.
So this is another aspect of that first wave of migration of African Americans, and Louis Armstrong’s music would be a part of that; his travels to come up and play with King Oliver would be a part of that. This is another aspect of creative music progressionalism that I’m seeking to understand.
South to North: the ramifications of this dynamic are much greater than I think most people realize.
. . . the teachers we had made us feel that we could compete with anybody. We never thought of ourselves as being programmed to be in second place. I think that’s important: the psychology of thinking we could change the world was a psychology that was bathed inside of the vibrational quadrant of the northern geographical experiences in a way that was the norm for me. Only later would I start to see the different psychologies, the different geographical realities, and have a greater sense of what that was.
For instance, it was always clear to me that in a crunch, the southern experience would trump the northern experience, and that has been what has happened. And by trump, I mean when times get tough, the southern guys can say, “you know, the experience of slavery was a real experience, and people really suffered, and if you don’t go for our agenda, it means that you’re not black. If you don’t play the blues, if you don’t have allegiance to the southern experience, you’re a traitor.” And by positing that viewpoint, it would always trump a guy like me, because I could be held in suspicion of not being black enough.
North vs. South: could not be more important. The Northern urban experience as liberating, democratic, expansive, even under bad conditions. The North creates a wider and freer vision of human possibility. The pull of slavery—of the Southern experience—is deployed metaphorically, but it’s an abstract depiction of a movement characterizable by another abstraction—modernity.
I’m saying that the experience in Chicago, in my opinion, was much more healthy than the experience in New York. And that the experiences in Chicago and New York were both much healthier, in some respects, than the experiences in the South. But then it gets complex. Because one component of our conversations have been inside what I have called the Southern experience. In many ways, the Southern experience has been a more honest experience, to gain insight into the composite American psychology, than the Northern experience. Because the Southern experience, as we’re seeing now—if you function within the Southern parameters of their concept and quadrant of what is ethnically correct, you can be appreciated and you can be advanced. The Northern experience, where everybody talks about how they’re “liberal,” has always been more complex, and more insidious. And in the northern geographical centers, I have come to feel that the concepts of liberal and conservative—and this is why I want to go back to DuBois—in the end, the African American experience is marginalized, and whatever happens in the African American experience, at best it’s irrelevant to determining the real information dynamics of the culture, the real documentation of the culture. Because in the north, they don’t even respect you second place or third place, not to mention first place; they can’t even relate to an African American as equal. The South can relate to an African American not as equal, but as a second-place good boy.
Intriguing but still cryptic and hence in need of decoding. Du Bois is emblematic of an enigma. Du Bois himself started out very New England and non-“black” culturally, yet saw the South and wrote an African-American version of Hegel’s Phenomenology, i.e. The Souls of Black Folk. Now, it seems as if Braxton is struggling here to analyze a differentiated totality difficult to characterize: what is the North, and what is the South, what is liberal and what is conservative? (Speaking of Southern Strategy, what about the political configuration embodied in Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—anti-working-class, economically conservative, yet racially inclusive?) Braxton suggests here that the paradoxical fluidity of the North means that a creative black intellectual drops out of the picture altogether, with no assigned place. Curious: further investigation is required.
But I grew up in a black community, it wasn’t an integrated community, it was the South Side of Chicago. I did not know any European Americans when I was growing up, so it was me, Howard Freeman and Michael Carter, and a handful of other guys. We did our little projects, had our little baseball games, watched the television. We didn’t even know about anything outside our neighborhood, but we had all the dreams of every other American. Having a TV set, one of my heroes would be Roy Rogers. Not only did he have two guns, unlike Gene Autrey, but even in a fight his hat wouldn’t fall off, and he wouldn’t even get dirty. This was the kind of guy I could use. My hero was Werner von Braun, the V2 rocket scientist, and I had all kinds of charts in my room of different stages of the V-1, and finally the V-2, the White Sands testing grounds and all this kind of stuff. By not having any contact with European Americans while I was growing up, I did not experience any kind of hurt feelings or rejections; instead, I just kind of felt like I could take over the planet, as did my friends.
Although we also noticed that there was a sector of African Americans that we could not relate to. This was the gang sector, toughie-tough guys, who weren’t interested in any intellectual anything, they were just tough guys, athletic guys; I liked them, but at some point I would have to back away from that community, because we were interested in the world of ideas. But what was far out was that there was a beautiful kind of synergy where all of the qualities of the community could work. For instance, it was taken for granted that the girls were the smartest; I mean there was no doubt, we all knew these young girls could run us into the ground intellectually. They were the ones who did the homework, they were the ones who got the good grades, they were the ones we had to go to for help
This description of Braxton’s environment and vantage point could not be more touching: it’s the American democratic vision at its best. Braxton expresses the impressions and feelings of millions, reflecting from one vantage point the experiences of all races as well. Where can we find the public articulation of this quintessentially American experience? Ralph Ellison paved the way, but where is the black Route 66 where we get to journey through the nation and tell all these untold stories?
So when I grew up, I kind of felt like I could be whatever I was able to work toward, and that if I applied myself, I could do my best. Later when I fell in love with Karlheinz Stockhausen, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t want to build on Stockhausen, and do my operas and my pieces for four orchestras; Stockhausen did it, I wanted to be able to do it. He’s one of my heroes. I didn’t know I was crossing into quadrant spaces that were outside what was acceptable for me, not only by the European American community, but by the newly modulated African American community of the ’60s. Black Power, which in the beginning started with a broader agenda, would in fact by 1966 be exhibiting a reductionism that more and more would form along the lines of Garvey versus Du Bois.
Poignant. Who else will speak up for this experience?
Starting with Stokely Carmichael, moving into H. Rap Brown, moving into Amiri Baraka, and then the Black Panthers. More and more, an intellectual position would be advanced, but rather than butttressed with intellectual arguments, it would be instead buttressed by “if you don’t accept this, your butt’s going to be kicked:” toughie-tough arguments. And that toughy-tough psychology would parlay through Gil-Scott Heron’s beautifully intellectual dynamic, creative work, into the Last Poets, whose hopeful inspired work would translate finally into Niggaz with Attitude, toughy-tough psychologies that would merge into post-Baraka Black Panther psychological experiences, and Huey Newton—two positions that could be expressed more or less as “Either/Or:” either you’re with me or against me, everything is politics, everything is everything no more room for gradations; follow my agenda or you’re the enemy.
Braxton sees through all this.
. . . I would also say that it has become fashionable to talk of Congo Square as an experience where the transplanted Africans who became African Americans would have a free space moment of information dynamics. Those experiences were important, to be sure, but I would only add that the first and second Great Awakenings, in the Northern states, would also be a component that would contain the same kinds of experiences. Remember, the European transplanted settlers were always frightened whenever the slaves got together without supervision, especially if they had a drum, especially if they had the opportunity to start making their music. It was because of that fear that finally they started trying to bring the slaves into the church, under the banner of civilizing the heathens, in hopes of reducing the intensity of their experiences, because to the European settlers, these guys looked like wild savages, and they could not be trusted after having these quadrant-communal cycles; so it would be at that point that the first Great Awakening would come together, not just for African Americans, but as a point of definition for the Pentecostal American Protestant groupings that would emphasize self-realization and emotion. Before that, in Europe, if you were in church and started shaking your butt to Wagner, they would kick your ass. And the Pilgrims and the Puritans, they were some toughy-tough guys: enjoy the music, but don’t have a mind-body connection, they could not handle that. And that of course is all they were seeing with the African slaves. So the First Awakening—which, by the way, if it’s on target, it should be coming back in the next 10 or 20 years to America [laughs].
What a use of historical information! And dig this: ” . . . in Europe, if you were in church and started shaking your butt to Wagner, they would kick your ass.” Brilliant! Hilarious! America vs. Europe. What would C.L.R. James make of this?
I saw myself as interested in composite reality by the time I joined the AACM; and I would also say that I did not see myself as unique in the sense that I was the only person who had solidified a fresh aesthetic position. In fact, part of the significance of the AACM would be that all of the principal guys would solidify an aesthetic position that would reflect something fresh. By the time the guys had started writing about me, it had become clear to me even then that there was a political-racial component that was distorting our work.
For instance, when I got out of the army, the record Sound, by the Roscoe Mitchell sextet, had already been recorded. That record, for me, was one of the greatest records then and now, from the time period of the ’60s. I’d like to hope that when the mature histories are written, that that recording will be reevaluated. Not only that—I feel that the universe that Roscoe Mitchell would put together represents then and now one of the great bodies of music from my generation; I feel that the universe of Leo Smith, the universe of Joseph Jarman, the great work of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the great music of Muhal Richard Abrams, has been seriously ignored and undermined. There was a guy named Troy Robinson; he didn’t survive it, but he was another African American who had a store front, who trained his own people, ā la Sun Ra, and was doing a music of total integrity; everybody was postulating positive goals
That continuum is the template of my experience; I would come to understand that. It is from that template that my relationship to Europe can be understood. For instance, in the late ’50s I started to read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and this continuum of writers. The work of William Grant Still was very important to me by 1964, because I was always looking for African American equivalents of everything that touched me, as I got older, especially, when I came to see that there was a continuum that I didn’t know about. I think the time period of the ’60s, for me, would be when I would always look to that continuum to better understand who I was. When I discovered Berg, and as I started to develop a taste for notated music, the next question I would ask myself was, were there any African Americans doing this kind of music?
So what I’m going to talk about now, I’m going to talk about but I can’t talk about it in a sequential order starting from say 1954 or 5 in the way I can talk about discovering Ahmad Jamal or Brubeck, because I didn’t like notated music as a young man. But in the end, when I talk of the template of my aesthetic qualities, I’m talking of a continuum of African American men and women who have tried to meet the challenge of existence in every space. Many of them I still don’t know about—scientists, agriculturalists, spiritualists—I’m still in need of education.
William Grant Still, for instance, was very interested in the composite tradition but was not an instrumentalist or improviser himself, so you’re right, there was a limitation there. But at the same time, this guy would compose across the spectrum from solo piano music all the way to an opera cycle that has never been performed. His work is neoclassic in the same sense as Bartok—taking melodies, ethnic melodies, folk musics, and building a symphonic logic out of them. William Grant Still would do the same with blues, put it in a symphonic context. That was revolutionary in his time period. And the actual music is as unique and as separate as Bartok, but we never talk of it like that. This is my point, that that continuum would just be marginalized; it doesn’t matter, it wouldn’t be integrated into a Charles Ives—we talk about Charles Ives and his move toward dissonance and complexity, but William Grant Still’s music was exploring fresh materials, in his use of blues scales, in his decision to bring it into a symphonic context, but it’s just not talked of in that way; it’s kind of
Well, his [Joplin’s] work would come along at a time when the piano would become a part of the salon culture of America, when the piano roll would be introduced. Ragtime would become very popular; but Ragtime, of course, was a composer’s music. Joplin was not a leading exponent of the improviser’s Ragtime, but he was able to translate it into the notated space and achieve success, but they would not accept the opera or the grand ideas. This is why the man became a depressive and eventually lost it. He was the beginning of the continuum that I’m a part of. But I consider him a great American master. After him, William Grant Still as a dynamic master, kind of like Wagner but not as encompassing in terms of bringing in a mythology. Although the operas—have you ever heard the operas? I have one on videotape. He’s dealing with African Americans, placing them in mythological contexts and dealing with the battle of good and evil, a la Wagner. This isn’t to say he’s a point of definition for that integration, Wagner’s the point of definition. I’m only saying that Joplin was a small-time poor guy like myself who had great dreams, and his work would respond to the improvised restructural strategies of Ragtime as well as the dynamics of Chopin. So you have a Chopin-Ragtime integration that was uniquely American, that he tried to, that he did in fact parlay, transform, expand into the operatic context. He wrote two operas; one was lost.
But it would be at that point that we can start talking of the grand African American composer’s tradition, Joplin into William Grant Still. The next group would be an academic group that was interesting but also complex, because that group would be a part of the African American middle and upper class that would draw its information mostly from the academy, while at the same time drawing on African American thematic materials. That group was greatly misunderstood, but it was a complex group because in many ways they would accept second-place status. We’re going to see them reappear in the next twenty years, now that the Southern strategy is back, guys are graduating from college; they’re going to start writing correct African American notated music, papers; some of them will achieve success. But the success is predicated on that second-class status.
[much on Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, George Russell, AACM musicians, and others]
Well, I see Duke Ellington as occupying the same position that we give to JS Bach, that his music is all-encompassing. And yet, his music is politically being used in this period to stifle guys, like myself, when in fact his whole career was a struggle, as an African American person, to have the right to do his music and to have it respected based on his value systems. For instance, there was a period when Duke Ellington’s music was put down in the jazz community. It was being undermined by a viewpoint of trans-Africanisms that would say that his extended compositions were somehow not correct for an African American composer, that it was too Eurocentric. So, you know, here I am fifty years later getting the same kind of viewpoint, where parameters are being set that seek to determine what is correct for an African American composer, that seek to reduce the dynamic possibilities of the music as opposed to seek to understand the breakthroughs, the possibly unique possibilities that have come from the African American experience. So Mr. Ellington then had the same objections put on his music.
Stanley [Crouch] has been quite effective in the last 20 years as far as positing a viewpoint about what constitutes the correct aesthetic parameters and alignment for African American music. From the beginning, we’ve always had a different viewpoint about this subject. When I think about my understanding of Stanley’s viewpoint, I find myself feeling that it, again, is a reductionist one, that on the one hand insists on the inclusion of Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus, and rightfully so—that continuum of composers as equal to anything that has been created by the European or European American composers community. But on the other hand, his viewpoint of Eurocentric [sic] in many ways has distorted his understanding of African American creativity. In doing so, Stanley’s viewpoint, in my opinion, is involved with those reductionist forces that have historically sought to limit the vibrational spectrum of African American experience. In my view, while on the one hand, Stanley’s writing and political decisions have been very important for elevating and exposing people to the work of Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, and the blues tradition; on the other hand, his work is directly connected to the suppression of African American composite vibrational dynamics. For me, this has been the tragedy of his viewpoint.
Tragic indeed. More specificity is needed though about Crouch’s position and what makes it tick. Crouch like Marsalis fights the contemporary cult of black degeneracy, but at the price of another ideological construct. This to me symptomizes the impasse of American culture and politics as a whole.
Twenty years ago everyone was saying you had to refer to African Americans as black. I see his [Crouch’s] use of the term [Negro] as consistent with his composite attempts to transport the musics back into the 1920s and ’30s. All of this, in my opinion, is part of this retrogressive movement. He wants jazz to be jazz, negroes to be negroes, jazz musicians to wear suits; he wants one rhythmic logic, that he calls swing; he wants idiomatic certainty, from a continuum that was based on evolution and responding to the dynamics of real time. Just as, in my opinion, the devices of the bebop language are the sonic bones from that continuum, the use of the word “negro” is only relevant in the sense that psychologically, this is an attempt to pull everything back to the ’20s again, and to celebrate the psychology of the ’20s and ’30s as representing idiomatic and vibrational certainty.
Well, it is an attempt to fix a past that can be used for purposes of the present—to create an alternative time-line— which is not exactly turning back the clock, but to consolidate the gains of integration of a generation within the political order of the present. Crouch eschews narrow racialism, to be sure; he wants to be as cosmopolitan as anyone. But like all black public figures, he is inherently defined as black; he defines himself not only by what he is for but by what he struggles against. There is also a generational issue involved. I am with his generation against the young, with qualifications. There were no good old days, but those of us who straddle at least two epochs know what has been lost as well as gained. The relation between past and present, and the lack of perspective for the future—this is the key issue that has been silenced.
I think Ornette Coleman’s use of the blues has been a vehicle that has helped him. They include Ornette Coleman, but they don’t include, for instance, Cecil Taylor, who Stanley likes to talk of as including too much Oliver Messaien in his music. In saying that, Stanley is really helping us to see how little he really knows about the European art musics, and how little he knows about Messaien’s music. I think Ornette Coleman’s Texas blues qualities have helped him. I guess I would also say the dynamics of the early quartets; it’s kind of hard to deny. But then again, they’ve been able to deny so much music. I guess they could have simply denied all of Ornette Coleman’s music; but I think it’s the blues quality
All of Braxton’s musical-historical reflections are noteworthy.
I would position my work as such: Duke Ellington’s music as a fresh synthesis music demonstrating composition and improvisation; Charlie Mingus’s as a post-Ellington music demonstrating the extremes of that position, plus extending into new global music domains; Cecil Taylor is a point of definition for modular structural devices, moving into the oral tradition, but even using that material modularly; and I see my work as a point of definition for propositional logics, in what I’ve come to call a tri-centric music; propositional logics as a way to talk about the connections in my music—in the house of the circle, the house of the rectangle, the house of the triangle. Tri-centric in the sense of the connection between domains, between the Tri-Centric writings and the actual compositions and the integration of those components. Propositional in the sense of in the house of the circle, a concept of language music as a point of definition for mutable logic syntax geometry as a way to create improvisatory language in the house of the circle. From that point, expanding the same information to the house of the triangle, to the architectonic domain; and from that point to create languages based on syntax and logic; propositional in the sense of defining strategies based on the twelve components of my system; from that point, propositional in the sense of defining language syntax, then architectonic syntax. From that point, defining synthesis integration point of definition with respect to ritual and ceremony and philosophical components.
So how would I distinguish my work from Cecil Taylor’s? For me, Cecil Taylor’s music demonstrates a modular structural space that would extend into world music vis-ā-vis santaria, with an occult component that is holistic; my work, for me, demonstrates a multi-hierarchical thought unit that is tri-centric, and when I talk of it in this time period, I talk of a tri-centric music that demonstrates propositional constructs, syntactical constructs; tri-centric as a thought unit that demonstrates a mechanism, or structural mechanism, or active mechanism; and finally, tri-centric as a thought unit that demonstrates an occult position—which is to say, no wonder I’m broke.
That has been one of the secrets of American music, that much of it was based on existential, just kind of positing an idea, because you didn’t have a tradition that told you you couldn’t do whatever you were hearing. So it was a fresh psychology that brought in the new American musics, and that psychology, one would hope, would be part of understanding America, especially what it could mean in the third millennium. But what we’re seeing instead of attempts to really understand what we’re talking about, we’re seeing the components of the modern era come into place, and those components, in my opinion, have axiomatic components that have very clear ideas of which individuals are going to be able to effect culture, which individuals and groups are going to have access to the possibilities of the composite forces and factors shaping change. So in many ways, I find myself that’s consistent with this kind of dynamic change that America is going through right now, as we get ready for the real Third Millennium.
“Secrets of American music”: America is different, hallelujah! An important vantage point. What comes next?
As far as how my work will be viewed in fifty years, I’m not even worried about that, because the music will fight for its own life, and in the end I think all of these things are cosmic. I think all I can focus on is trying to do my work and to know that, one, it was always first and foremost a personal matter. Second, it was something that I felt that I could be involved with that would also be bigger than me, so that hopefully I would be a part of something I could believe in, and add to. Finally, it’s not about me, or the individual; there’s a cosmic component happening. What’s fascinating to me, at 55 years old, is seeing the dimensions of change, and how quickly time and space go by in a period of 25 years, where suddenly we have the opportunity to see so much change, and the various levels of manipulation that come into play. This is why I can’t wait for the DuBois books, because I feel more and more that his position between Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington was a position that set up the propositions that I’m experiencing right now. As his ultimate viewpoint that African-American intellectualism, in America, anyway, is a subject that is basically irrelevant, because the information complex is not set up to include perspectives from non-Eurocentric psychologies, and especially from African Americans. I feel that before we can even get to a point where we can have a healthier intellectual discourse, that our country will have to go through another set of experiences or something; we’re not there at this point. So I would not be surprised if my work experiences the fate of Frank Johnson’s, and William Grant Still’s and the Philadelphia school, whose work will be kicked out of the domain of relevancy at the beginning of the modern era. Suddenly it became all about creative music as a practice perceived within the marketplace’s concept of New Orleans, as opposed to experiences taking place all over America. Now we see the primacy of the blues, the primacy of the rhythm in swing, used in a way that actually defeats the evolution of the music in terms of how those propositions were conceived a hundred years ago, or eighty years ago. They’re taking definitions of a hundred years ago and trying to apply them to now, and kicking out anything that doesn’t fit in neatly. In fact, get ready, Mike Heffley, for another period of Reconstruction. George Bush has won. When this experience happened after Reconstruction, during the Hayes-Rutherford period, part of the deal involved cutting off the Reconstruction process, and getting the troops out of the South.
Regarding the political situation, Braxton is on target. But on the meaning of his own situation, his own project, do you realize that Braxton’s self-characterization is a big cipher? Braxton has much more to say in this interview about his music and his projects, but his self-analysis here leaves us hanging. Concretely, the “meaning” of “Braxton” on the cusp of the millennium remains an “x”. Braxton doesn’t properly analyze it. Who will?
In fact, the machinery is gearing up for the Ken Burns 10-part, 19-hour extended work this guy is doing. And everything I read about it says it goes up to 1965 and jumps to 1985, and—well, we’re not surprised by that. But in fact, that period from 1965 to 1980 was a profound period in time in America; whatever one wants to say about the AACM, it’s an organization that was unique in the sense that it was a gathering of musician-composers who decided they would respond to creative music in any way they wanted to respond, and support one another. And that the musics and ideas that came out of that group would be viewed as not relevant is a tragedy. Or if it’s not a tragedy, I’m surprised that it’s not, because the men and women I grew up with and worked with were serious people who were totally dedicated, and functioning from the highest possible intentions, that being giving something back to the community, being the best musicians they could be, and finding something that was personal in the music. All of that now is being wiped out. The African American community is spinning, like the rest of America, from this last thirty-something days of political lawyering. It’s going to be interesting to see how all these components congeal on some level as we get to the Third Millennium, and sets the stage for something like it feels like the Reconstruction era is coming back. It already feels like the Swing era has come back. It feels like entertainment as the highest experience has come back. The psychology of the practical has come back. The cult of ethnicity and racial politics never really left, so it didn’t have to come back, it’s just taken a new form. And I’m basically in the same position, if not worse, as when I initially made the decision to move out in this direction. Although I have to be careful with how I say that. I’ve been able to have a whole life, until 55 years old, and to maintain a connection with my work, and play music.
A profound characterization of what has happened to this country and its culture. Note that the “period from 1965 to 1980 was a profound period in time”, not just for the AACM, and not just for music, but as one of the hugest transitions ever in American culture, whose historical memory is now being wiped out.
I think for me, a central point about this whole movement has been how we see the arrival of the same atomic components that led to the modern era in the 1900s. And the atomic components, in the house of poetic logics, we see the trans-African input components narrowed based on a post-Antebellum psychology that mask, in many ways, the real significance of the music. And the real significance of the music can’t be understood by looking at ethnic-quadrant perspectives or psychology, the real perspective of the music can only be arrived at by seeing the music as it existed within composite reality. This is another reason why I would guess that present-day attempts to wall off what they call jazz—the whole invention of “jazz,” the whole reason “jazz” was necessary was because the idea of composite reality was unacceptable to European Americans. By that I mean the significance of this fresh input, this fresh creative information coming from African Americans was simply something that the European Americans were not able to assimilate within a psychological spirit that was consistent with how they looked at themselves. So it would be at that point, with the establishment of the marketplace component, and accelerated marketplace dynamics—and the multinational structure, and the new technological dynamics that would lead to marketplace sophistication remember, the ’20s and ’30s, that was a time period where the new technology was put into service, whether we’re talking about the Nazi era and Hitler’s use of media, or about radio in America, or the building of the railroads in the middle 1800s, and how important that was: continental experiences. So I can relate to DuBois, who would come to understand that the situation was the same for the African American intellectual or restructuralist, in the sense that whatever they came up with, it was irrelevant. It was irrelevant, one, because there’s no natural constituency—and by that I mean there’s no natural constituency in the African American community, in the way that existed in the ’20s and ’30s because of segregation, and the possibility that, with segregation, the African American community was able to have an information spectrum based on its own vibrational balances, which even then had complexities, but still, everything was allowed to happen. And we see that in Birmingham, looking at the earlier experiences that Szwed wrote about, in seeking to understand what Ra came up with. We see it in Chicago; that was what I grew up in, the tail end of that Washington Park experience, where you had composite dynamics happening, guys on soap boxes talking about Islam, concepts of black African Christianity; composite music exploration and investigation. All of those qualities were included in the black community, when suddenly with the Brown versus Board of Education decision, and the deconstruction of segregation, in a composite context, those forces have not been able to be understood as clearly, because in fact the restructural tradition of the music has become gnostic, as it was in the beginning anyway. Individual, and gnostic—that being, the individual’s idiosyncratic secrets, and the secrets of the group. That’s where my system comes in.
Spot on, mostly. The mystical terms in which the dynamics are framed present an obstacle to the further development of understanding, though. The lack of a “natural constituency” is a question to be addressed, but not just in the intregation era. The “vibrational balances” were not necessarily in synch within segregated black communities, either. The figure of Du Bois in this scenario is still a cipher: what does it mean? Well, Du Bois was a theoretician of composite reality (double consciousness) to be sure, but it doesn’t look as if Braxton can place him concretely in a conceptual scheme. I hope that Braxton is aware of how different he, a Chicagoan, is from Sun Ra, who was a product of the deep South, and that the mystical perspective does not block his understanding of the process of modernization. There is not a word about Richard Wright in all this, which may not be coincidental.
That I could no longer relate to the Republicans or the Democrats, that “jazz” has become an instrument of the Democratic Party, that “jazz” has become an instrument of liberal-conservative thinking, connected to the Southern strategy, and that what we see here is a Reconstruction that involves even the reconstruction of celebrated family dynasties, which are being posited in this space, and those dynasties are controlling the composite information lines based on the agreed affinities of that group with the upper political strata forces. Which I don’t disagree with, but I do disagree with the fact that only one sector has a connection?
This is a most provocative statement, but best assimilated if it is expanded and decoded instead of just taken literally. What does it mean to say that “jazz” has become an instrument of the Democratic Party and of liberal-conservative thinking, and so on? Metaphorically, I think Braxton is right, if the terms he uses are shorthand for a political/economic structure that defines how culture functions publicly.
These components that run our country continue to run our country; and “jazz” now is finding its niche within this place, and the nature of this niche involves certain sacrifices. Sacrifices that I can’t accept, even though I can understand on some level some of the trade-offs involved. But in the end, the ante-bellum view of transafricanism has always been a view with profound limitations. As we see those views perpetuated and forwarded in this time period, I feel there is profound danger in allowing those variables to go forward. But now it’s too late anyway. I think the African American community comes to the Third Millennium in a very complex stage.
For instance, where in the past the African American community functioned as a kind of a repository for profound vibrational and mystical currents, because of the last forty years, and because of the intellectual decline that’s taken place in the African American community, we now find ourselves in a position where we see state-of-the-state generations that are actually behind state-of-the-state current qualities in many ways. And we find a reverse problem, Mike Heffley, that’s in my opinion very profound. That quality is this: we’ve seen the neoclassic guys who got into power in the ’80s [the Lincoln Center jazz scene] tell the African American young men and women, “Don’t listen to Braxton, don’t listen to Roscoe Mitchell, don’t listen to Lester Bowie, don’t listen to Muhal Richard Abrams.” So the young people took them at their word and did not listen. At the same time, all over America and all over the planet, European Americans, Europeans, Asian Americans, Asians—composite peoples—have in fact been digesting that music, have in fact been listening to the music of Cecil Taylor, have in fact been listening to the music of Sunny Murray, have in fact been listening to the music of George Russell, or my music, or the great music of Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins or Leo Smith or Henry Threadgill.
My point is this: as we move into the Third Millennium, I’m seeing a generation of European Americans and trans-Europeans who have been reactivated by their ability to study this music and find that not only was the music relevant for them but to find that it also activated components in their life that allowed them to continue their work based on their own situation, having nothing to do with me. That’s how creativity functions: that is to say, creativity has always functioned on the tri-plane on many different levels: as a wonderful way to have a dance, creativity is a wonderful way to be motivated, creativity is a wonderful way to understand poetic logics, to look at narrative structures; creativity is a profound factor connected to curiosity, intellectual curiosity and spiritual depth and insight and postulation. So for the last four decades of young African Americans to not have exposure to, for instance, the AACM, or Sun Ra, people who have been totally dedicated . . . in the case of the AACM, the first organization of African Americans who came together because of their total belief in the music, and total insistence on going their own way and responding to the post-Ayler, post-Coleman, post-Taylor musics based on their own value systems—to have young African Americans not exposed to that music, or those musicians, or the results that came from those experiences was a profound phenomenon that will have profound implications in the next time period.
Niche and co-optation—true. The politics of Lincoln Center—true. Vibrational and mystical currents—I would analyze this from a different framework, but I can see what he is getting at. Black intellectual decline—it’s horrible, part of the total American cultural decline, and it coexists with intellectual advances and with cooptation in certain spheres. Intellectual advance now necessitates, in my view, a reconceptualization of all this mystical language, which was indeed expressive of the cultural complex of the ’60s, but is now beyond the historical limit of its productivity. It is an enigma to be decoded, a representation to be transmuted into Concept. (Black Hegel, where are you?) Reactivation of the creative musical heritage of the ’60s—a crucial question.
Yeah, but we’re not talking about just the crisis of integration; integration is always happening, people are always coming together in different ways. We’re talking of the crisis of composite reality, where some components are controlling the variables of that reality, and some components are becoming the effect of that position of control. That’s what we’re talking about. I’m for integration, I’ve always been for it; but what I’ve tried to focus on is the problem of a composite reality situation where certain sectors are presented with not the full information spectra of what has come out of their experience.
To have these two-dimensional concepts about blues and swing are false arguments, arguments that make sense to a certain sector of musicology—certainly, to a certain sector of music theorists, and the academy. Arguments that can be used to isolate the vibrational spectra of trans-African invention and mystic dynamics. To strip that information and use it for their own purposes, while at the same time denying the thrust of trans-African, and, finally, American invention, its proper vibrational components—because what I’m talking of is something more profound than Africa. I’m talking of the greatest nation in documented history; I’m talking about our home, Mike Heffley.
Our home is a home that has everybody here, bouncing off one another. Our home, especially as we move into the Third Millennium, is more complex than simply a Christian nation: it’s a Muslim nation, it’s a Christian nation, it’s an Indian nation. It’s a nation where women are suddenly not in the same position, and are suddenly able to ask the question, “what do I want for myself?” It’s a country where this next generation of African Americans are not going to be able to talk about disadvantages in the old way; but in fact, the components of the old way will apply.
This is our home—the black vision of Americanism! Duke, Ralph, Ornette would be so proud. This moves me to tears.
Anthony Braxton: Selected Bibliography
The Theory & Practice of John Coltrane
The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music
On other sites:
On C.L.R. James’s ‘On the Spiritual’
Postscript on C.L.R. James’s “On the Spiritual”
Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley
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