With a century behind it, jazz has had ample time to develop its own hagiography, with stories of its saints too numerous for even the most devout to keep track of. So along comes the Lost Jazz Shrines project— a national,
multiyear series of concerts recalling the music played at legendary venues like the Watts Zanzibar of Philadelphia, the Lincoln Theater
in Washington, San Antonio’s Eastwood, Newark’s Silver Saddle, and other dwelling places of the holy. A week ago, the Shrines project arrived in town for a three-day celebration of the musicians’ lofts of 19691979: places like Sam Rivers’s Studio Rivbea on Bond Street, Rashied Ali’s Ali’s Alley on Greene, and John Fischer’s Environ on lower Broadway.
The new jazz of the ’60s had first arrived
on the margins, in coffeehouses and basements. But a better solution turned out to be musician-occupied lofts, which could be rented cheaply (and illegally) and turned into miniperformance areas that came to seem less like clubs than they did church picnics and political rallies. Squatters from out of town like Anthony Braxton, David Murray, and Anthony Davis first found their places in the lofts, as did Stanley Crouch, as drummer, critic, and programmer. Joe Papp opened the Public up to the new music, record labels like India Navigation recorded it, and the clubs finally got the message, only to forget it again the next time the economy took a dive.
The first evening was a major event, a re-creation by his former student, Marty Ehrlich, of the work of the late Julius Hemphill, a fine alto saxophonist with a Southwestern knack for distilling folk and pop materials into high art— including opera, dance, and theater. Half of the night was devoted to Hemphill’s Saxophone Sextet writing. It’s no secret that he was the true force behind the World Saxophone Quartet, and to say that he had found a means of bringing the fire of free jazz collectivity into the saxophone sections of the old swing bands would be true enough, but this fails to capture the variety and richness of Hemphill’s transformations. The compositions played on this evening, for example, ranged from the choirlike purity of “Opening” to the Ornette-ish broken lines and sound sweeps of “Mr. Critical” and the J.B. horn riffs of “Otis’ Groove.”
All six saxophonists were superb, but two were especially surprising: the seldom seen D.C. tenor Andrew White, normally identified with the astringency of John Coltrane, on this night played bar-walking, one-foot-in-thegutter vamps with a vibrato as wide as a storefront Holiness Church; and the new-to-me Aaron Stewart, a young player with a sound as big and authoritative as a tree. (The others were Ehrlich, Sam Furnace, Andy Laster, and the always agreeable baritonist Alex Harding, who gave the group buoyancy and sass.)
In the second half, a 16-piece band re-created Hemphill’s large group compositions of 20 years ago with the confidence of a working band (due, no doubt, to Ehrlich’s centrality Downtown over the years). The diversity of the work was impressive: the hymnlike “Children’s Song,” written for Bill T. Jones’s dance company; the multipart, soaring “Drunk on God,” originally conceived of as a recitative; “Bordertown,” a charming Tex-Mex ballad; and the closer, a terminally funky “Hard Blues.” This was music full of hoots and cries, yet also elegantly structured into barroom elegies and marching-band passacaglias.
On the second night at the Tribeca, Hamiet Bluiett’s Baritone Nation nicely recaptured the sense of a loft concert with a mix of talk, exhortation, joking, and lounging about on chairs and couches, his four-baritone sax line (James Carter, Pablo Cologero, Alex Harding, and himself) defying musical theory (and gravity) to jar to life old jazz standards such as “Broadway” and “Milestones.” When they broke out alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets, Hamiet’s musicians— he called them “low people”— plumbed the sonic depths even further. (At the third event, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom re-created her own loft days with singer Jay Clayton, and then updated some of her recent work with trombonist Julian Priester.)
Lost Jazz Shrines productions are a far sight from the lofts— class affairs with crisp production, beautiful program notes, panel discussions, and tasty buffets for the audience (who, as at the lofts, alas, were in small attendance). Unlike the grim received wisdom about free jazz, these performances reminded us just how in-the-tradition this music really was, how spiritual and physical it could be, and, especially in the case of Hemphill, how successfully the free playing of soloists could be translated to larger ensembles.
In May, the Lost Jazz Shrines project will be back at the Tribeca, this time with a salute to the old Five Spot, with three days of the music of Eric Dolphy, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and George Russell’s Living Time Orchestra. Enough said?