Saved by the Classics

Bell Meets (Is?) Big Brother

Okay, so Michael Dorf is not the Flo Ziegfeld of jazz, not yet. Forgive the prefestival enthusiasm, but the pain of festivals past, like the pain of pregnancy, has no shelf life. Last year at this time I was vowing to be in another country this year at this time, but then I looked at the schedule—Ornette! Max and Cecil! the Art Ensemble!—and capitulated to a heedless optimism. Where else would you want to be, and how could anything go wrong? Such a simple concept: You exchange a ticket for a specific seat, the lights go down at a prearranged time, great musicians emerge to play great music.

But that's not exactly the way the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, now in its second year and with tentacles in D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, works; as the heir to the long-running Knitting Factory What Is Jazz? festival and a fleeting season of Texaco sponsorship, Bell wants to be at once inclusive and legit and bohemian. So the great music that was played cost more than the price of a ticket. Consider the following triptych of big events. All were imperfect. But unlike so many of the lesser shows, at least they weren't predictable.

You may have heard about the blinding yellow lights, emanating from the stage and into the eyes of the audience, that went on a half-hour into Ornette Coleman's final set—the one with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins—at his opening-night Battery Park concert. The Parks Department chose to impose a curfew, subjecting patrons (who paid as much as $65) to an indignity it would never think of implementing at a free Central Park concert with Diana Ross or the New York Philharmonic, where the audience is many times larger. The lights were Commissioner Henry Stern's way of saying, "Coleman, you've got five minutes to finish your piece." The lights did not merely blink a warning, but remained on, while generators in the rear roared into clattering motion, until it was no longer possible to play or be heard. There were no assaults, no fights, no disturbances of any kind to warrant such treatment, though the crowd might have considered tarring and feathering Stern and the imbecile who hit the switch.

Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors
photo: Michael Macioce
Max Roach at Columbia U: refusing to flinch, then slamming all the doors

Except for jazz reviews, the incident didn't make the evening news; we have become a city willing to accept arbitrarily imposed curfews—for our own good. Incidentally, the lights went on not at midnight or 1 a.m., but at 10:10. The concert began at seven. Unless the Statue of Liberty wanted to take a nap, the likelihood of residential complaints was nil. The whole business was pure thumb-in-your-eye bureaucratic idiocy. But it didn't begin there. From the late start, there were occasional jackhammers, as if the city and Bell were unaware of each other's existence. The sound, Bell's problem, was dismal for the opening set—the debut of Coleman's Global Expression Project, in which the backup musicians were amped at the same level as Coleman. Audio was especially cloudy in the press section, a holding pen populated mostly by suits who talked louder than jackhammers. George Wein figured out how to amplify an outdoor space and handle (ruly) crowds at Newport 45 years ago. At Battery Park, you'd have thought open-air concerts were a novelty.

For the second set, I escaped the pen and had no trouble hearing the American debut of the chamber piece alternately known as "La Statue" and "Freedom Symbol," a marvelous 40-minute paradox that begins and ends with notated ensemble sections and has a long middle section in which each player solos—improvising or embellishing a notated episode. Drawing on diverse influences from Renaissance music to 19th-century romanticism to jazz, the players generally acquitted themselves well, though Lew Soloff's startlingly rangy trumpet episode, accompanied by guitar and suggesting an exalted Coleman ballad, so outdistanced the rest you couldn't help but wonder what the piece would sound like if most of the players had been drawn from jazz rather than classical. The mounting and speedy closing section, bouncing off Greg Bendian's timpanis, is a roller-coaster thrill ride.

The concluding, hastily interrupted trio should have sent everyone away drifting on a cloud. Against Haden's buoyant rumble and Higgins's pneumatic suspension of time, Coleman's gorgeously ragged riffs swan-dived and jackknifed, ageless and serene, instantly echoing a distant foghorn, dropping momentary references to "La Marseillaise," "Autumn Leaves," and "The Good Life," and just freely exulting—until our guardians stepped in, for our own good.

Little attempt at crowd control was necessary at Columbia University, where Max Roach and Cecil Taylor revisited the site of their original 1979 duets. The city could not interfere and the music went on for hours, though most of those hours were prelude to the main event, including one by Bob Stewart's La Guardia High School jazz orchestra, with guest soloists (Warren Vache, James Spaulding, Wessell Anderson). Does any other music fetishize amateurism—from school bands to weekend dilettantes—the way jazz presently does? I was reminded of a story Ira Gitler tells about standing backstage with Gerry Mulligan at a concert in Europe while students played. A woman enthused, "Aren't they cute?" Gerry retorted, "Madame, jazz is not cute."

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