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Jazz Now Interactive (vol 5 number 1) Anthony Braxton by Cris Kels


Better Worlds by Chirs Kelesey By Chris Kelsey I'll make my bias plain at the outset. I believe that Anthony Braxton is one of the great musical minds of the twentieth century. So don't expect this to be a coldly objective analysis of the man and his music. I'm afraid that, when it comes to writing about someone I admire as much as I do Anthony Braxton, I've got to check my journalist's skepticism at the door. Mr. Braxton, is a man of extraordinary talent and vision, who, in his thirty-odd years on the scene, has shown a better way to any of us who care to follow his example. Or maybe I should say emulate, because in Anthony Braxton's Better World, realization of our collective humanity is dependent upon realization of the individual self. A saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, and philosopher, Braxton was born on June 4, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, where he grew up on that city's South Side, the middle of five children. Musically, he came of age in the l960s as an early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based group of forward-thinking Jazz musicians that included saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Henry Threadgill, trumpeter Leo Smith, drummers Phillip Wilson and Famoudou Don Moye, bassist Malachi Favors, and many others led by the pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams. Braxton's 1968 album, For Alto, was the first and most influential solo saxophone recording to stem from the AACM of that era and may just be the most significant effort of its kind.

Throughout his career, Braxton has built upon a Jazz foundation to create a body of work that transcends classification. He's written for virtually every combination of instruments imaginable, from solo piano to grand opera, and recorded an incredible amount of music, collaborating with players ranging from the free Jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins to bebop pianist Hank Jones. Braxton's a musical scientist who, in his ongoing quest for knowledge and self-expression, rejects no piece of information, musical or other, that might help him realize his creative and philosophical vision.

This openness frequently...and unjustly...gets him into trouble with Jazz's conservative element.

On a sunny Saturday morning in early April [95?], I took a bus from New York City to Middletown, Connecticut, to interview the man who is, in my opinion, Jazz's most important musician, theoretician, and metaphysician. Middletown is the home of Wesleyan University, where Braxton has taught for the last several years.

After Braxton picked me up at the bus station (and thanked me for coming up to interview him), we drove to a comfortable little restaurant where we ate hamburgers and discussed his all-encompassing philosophy of music and life. Braxton's range of interests goes far beyond the merely technical and aesthetic aspects of music. His worldview is inextricable from his artistic vision; consequently, much of what we discussed in the three-hour interview had less to do with Jazz per se than with the exterior forces that govern the music and its function in society.

Listening to Braxton speak is an event in itself. The man's mind operates on such a high level, and his range of concerns is so vast, that it required a great deal of concentration on my part to follow his enormously complex patterns of thought. We went over way too much ground for me to cover in this limited space. As it is, I'll hit on a few of the most important points, trying to preserve the integrity of Braxton's rather idiosyncratic...if most illuminating...manner of speech. What started out as a formal interview became in the course of two or three hours a relaxed conversation between me and the friendliest, most humble musical legend I could ever hope to meet.

In the l960s, Anthony Braxton and the other members of the AACM were looking at new solutions, new ways of expression, that took into account the momentous changes both Jazz and the nation at large were undergoing in those hectic times. It's a quest he continues to this day. "I feel that part of the challenges of the new millennium will involve a redefinition of our concept of idiom and style. It was because of that feeling in the 1960s that I began to search for a perceptual unit that could help me to better integrate my own individual experiences, as well as the dynamic breakthroughs that occurred in that time period."

Braxton's redefinition of Jazz has earned him scorn from some critics who would question whether his music deserves the label. But just listen to the man play the saxophone for two seconds and tell me with a straight face that he's not a Jazz musician. Braxton's sound is suffused with Jazz. It's heard in his articulation, his vibrato, and his phrasing. What sets him apart (and drives his detractors nuts) is his incorporation of elements lying outside the Jazz domain. The structural, harmonic, and metaphysical implications of artists as wildly diverse as, say, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and the late composer-philosopher John Cage inform Braxton's music. Such seemingly incongruous influences combine with a formidable intellect and a highly original approach of his own devising to create a more demanding...and ultimately more rewarding...type of music than can be contained within the bounds of a single category.

Braxton continues to strive for an expansion of musical values, regardless of where his journey might lead. But he knows all too well the strength of the forces in opposition. "Starting from that time period [the 1960s], going through to the Reagan era, we could see, under the banner of reactionary conservatism, a new mind-set coming into place that was very practical...We have seen in the last fifteen years a new kind of practicality and efficiency," which Braxton obviously feels is less than productive. "But my work, and the forces I represent, or want to be aligned with, were the forces not separate from what Dr. King talked about, were the forces not separate from what John Coltrane in "A Love Supreme" talked about, or what John Cage or Marshall McLuhan talked of when they talked of the significance of universality and the potential of our species. Somehow that message got lost in the weight of the rebalancing that took place in the sixties."

As the message was lost, so too were many of the positive changes effected by Braxton and his colleagues. "We've seen a circle drawn around the aesthetic of the music, coming from the African-American intellectual sector. They're saying blacks started here and stopped here"...Braxton gestures as though cutting up the music..."and that the music is a celebration of those devices. But in fact no group is going to have the luxury of drawing a line...a two-dimensional circle...and proclaiming exclusivity. The future's going to be more complex than that."

Which essentially means that one's creative ambition should not be thwarted by societal expectation. "It is more complex than simply the lineage group you come from. There's the family you're born in, there's the vibrational family you connect to, there's the family of your beliefs and attractions." Braxton is dead set against the imposition of any artificial limitations on the growth of the individual. Which is not to say that one's heritage is in any way immaterial. "I teach my students: never accept any concept of reality that disrespects your lineage...[but] never accept any viewpoint of reality that says you cannot inherit any aspect of the information on the planet that you decide to seek...that pushes your button and causes curiosity and attraction...[to compel] you to pursue something." Braxton's model teaches "Hurray for the Africans, hurrah for the Europeans, hurrah for the Asians! Hurray for men, hurrah for women, hurrah for children. And hurrah for the individual experience, hurrah for the group experience, and hurrah for the highest thought that you can think of."

I asked Braxton whether he didn't view Jazz's stylistic contraction over the past decade and a half as an attempt by some to impose an order upon a music that had gotten too complex to be readily understood. "Yes, I agree with that viewpoint...and yet, again, I would go back to the sixties. There were many problems in that time period, but somehow we've forgotten some of its basic components. We've taken for granted all the work that the men and women have done over last two thousand years to advance the state of music, the concept of music as not just a two-dimensional proof sheet, but music as related to composite reality and human motivation and evolution." According to Braxton, much of Jazz has lost its vision and has lost its "concept as related to a viewpoint of the future." Braxton laughingly describes the prevailing attitude as "from here to here is music, and I am the best because I can play it faster then you!" This is a view with which he takes issue, as his music makes manifest.

Braxton has never lost touch with the essential, experiential aspect of music, namely listening. "I've tried to keep a consistent relationship to the traditional musics. I mean, I grew up in Chicago listening to Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. They were in the neighborhood." And he listened to records. "Of course, the saxophonists who were my heroes...Mr. Desmond, Marsh, Konitz, McLean, Mr. Coltrane, Ornette Coleman...I have always bought their records."

As one might expect, he takes his listening very seriously. "I was not really interested in, say, just hearing how the music sounded. I wanted to get past the first one hundred times of listening to a solo, after which it's possible to really hear what's happening." Of course, he listens to his own music as well. "I've always listened to my own music based on either enjoying it or, from a critical perspective, understand what aspects of it were serving the purpose of the music or had simply become a...cliche that might or might not work but anyway had become irrelevant. Analytical or editorial listening. So, yes. Listening. I'm always listening."

After scuffling financially for most of his career, Braxton received a grant last year in the amount of $300,000 from the MacArthur Foundation in recognition of an extraordinary lifetime of creative achievement. He intends to use part of the money to stage some of his projects that were previously not feasible economically. His Trillium operas, for instance. "More and more, my hope is to find ways to put on my operas and theater music. I'm tired of begging at this point; I will do it myself...stage el cheapo versions of my operas, which actually I'll love! There's something about the cheap versions that I can relate to. I must say, I will never be able to thank the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation enough for the ritual significance of their gesture. It would come at a time in my life where it is especially beautiful."

Anthony Braxton's music is about self-discovery. It's about universality and enhancing the human condition, even when the odds against improvement seem insurmountable. In Anthony Braxton's Better World, there's always the faith that we can improve ourselves. "Whatever situation you are in, there is hope," says Braxton. "From an unrecoverable position, you can still have hope...In my system [it's] only asked that you try to do your best." For our own survival's sake, we should heed his words.