[This is the final of a series. To understand the context of this, please scroll down to the two earlier parts of this series.]

I’m reading a chapter on Cecil Taylor written in 1966 (A.B. Spellman’s Four Jazz Lives), of which a central concern is the difficulty of musicians like Taylor making a living. The expectation was that if you had both critical support and a decent audience it was an injustice not to get paid enough to live from music. There are two separate arguments involved, one based on the assumption that jazz belongs with the high arts and the second that it is entertainment. If it is high art (and modernist) then it is to be ranked as cultural capital and worthy of patronage by listeners who expect a certain distance from what they listen to. They must be willing to reward, with sales of tickets and recordings, those who provide an experience that challenges their received notions of the possible content of art, while retaining the form of all high art music, the concert setting. If it is entertainment then the music’s cultural value, or snob appeal, is low; it might even have reverse snob appeal, claiming to reach people’s heart and soul, which is what everyone is supposedto have. This is the usual club clientele, out for an evening of pleasure and not normally seeking to be challenged. In either case musicians are to be paid on the basis of sales of product, the issue is the grounds for the purchase.

The difficulty for high art music is that unlike visual art neither of its two forms, performance and recording, can expand in monetary value to indicate the hierarchical ranking required by cultural capital. That is why high art music requires patronage to survive, at least at a decent supportive level, and patronage rests on authority to establish the hierarchy and pay scale. Social and political authority, our secular priesthood, has some special communication skills with the mysterious Other, who bestows the aura of high art. The high artist must appeal to those of established authority even as he or she challenges that authority. Entertainment, on the other hand, depends on the consumer vote to establish its hierarchy, and blatantly so. Anyone can crunch the numbers and come up with the winners and losers. The opposition between the two functions as binary, either/or, and excludes or severely degrades other options for playing music, focusing solely on the question of monetary reward, which is statistically significant and measurable.

Taylor could bring together these two contradictory categories because of a slight aberration. In the mid-sixties there was a good-sized young audience for whom rebellion against the arbiters of high culture, called the Establishment, was popular. It was what Susan Sontag referred to as “the public” in the same period, those who went to Happenings, which were taken as a slap in the face of traditional conceptions of art.  Taylor argued that the reason he could not make enough money to live from his music was prejudice against anything outside mainstream taste, since at least for Taylor himself the paying audience was there and club owners were making money. (There was no thought of help from the new federal arts administration, which defined anything from jazz as entertainment and outside consideration as high art, and the universities were just beginning to support current art music.) That argument was true for that period. The owners had no ears for what Cecil and others were doing; maybe they hoped it would all blow over soon; meanwhile, they paid avantgarde musicians the lowest amount they could get away with. Indeed, a couple of years after Spellman’s book was written the jazz clubs turned to rock, when the young paying audience got swept up in it and stopped patronizing jazz. (And I’d be surprised if these musicians were as poorly paid as the blacks who preceded them.) At that point the argument of Taylor’s that was grounded on audience size was no longer valid. He had expected his earlier audience to continue as a conventional (Euro-centric) high art audience, which accepts a certain stability of the authority backing high art.  He had not counted on it acting as a popular audience, always on the lookout for the next thing and not amenable to even the counter-authority of his critic supporters.

This was a period when a cultural shift was taking place, or more precisely player identity was reaching a new stage in its complex entanglement with the modernist conception of art. It started in the thirties when some white critics argued that earlier New Orleans jazz was authentic in contrast to swing, and authenticity is first of all a modernist argument for art. Jazz musicians first began to distinguish themselves as artists and not entertainers in the forties (Ellington’s denial that his music was jazz may have preceded this, but he was in the traditional artist position of composer/leader and not band member). The beboppers especially were in an ambivalent position, for musically they were obviously coming from jazz, defined as the entertainment music of the time, but in order to carve out a space where their music would be properly interpreted and respected they sometimes declared that they were not jazz musicians.

It must not be forgotten what a financial and short-lived failure bebop was at the time, treated as a fashion by the media and much of the wider public. It was succeeded at the turn of the fifties by a succession of “new things” that were both commercially and artistically oriented. From bebop through the fifties was an historical moment during which jazz musicians had secured a stronger position for themselves as artists, when their musical value was determined internally in its field and not in comparison with all sales of music, as it had been during the swing era. This moment was soon followed by a time when jazz could be seen as properly belonging to an older and conservative, sentimental generation, immune to the radical experimentalism of the sixties. This period of jazz as an art form lacked the national popular significance of the swing era, yet would suffer the same fate, subject to revivals and imitation. In the late 80s and more publicly in the early 90s some critics began calling it “America’s classical music,” which continues to be its most heavily promoted image.

Cecil Taylor has been excluded from this category. In the canon-establishing mini-series, Jazz, Ken Burns even chose to include a comment from Branford Marsalis, who labeled as “self-indulgent bullshit” Cecil’s summary restatement of all modernist and contemporary art, that the art audience should expect to be challenged (“I prepare for my next concerts. The audience has to prepare”). One would imagine that Marsalis thinks of jazz as art, but his invective is a common defense of entertainment. Taylor’s exclusion from ”classic” jazz is consistent with earlier critical judgments, since he was censured in the 60s for being too European and too far from jazz roots. In another sense it is ironic, since European means “classical music.” Another irony is the marginalization of the Chicago AACM, which had been bold enough to call their music “Great Black Music.” The later designation of jazz as classical was a development for which the earlier Black Pride movement and Black Studies were necessary predecessors, yet the classicizers were doing just what Paul Whiteman had done in the Jazz Age of the 20s, making jazz respectable to middle class folks, especially the (still white) arbiters of cultural capital.  At a time when it looked certain that the aging jazz public was not going to be replenished, the imposition of a closed-canon, classic framework on jazz has effectively challenged European-based art music for equal status and consequently  market presence and institutional funding. To do so had to clean up a portrait that had been messy and controversial almost from day one.

An unintended consequence of the classicizing move is that it has in part stimulated a reaction from certain writers who have refused to consider jazz history finished, or the narrative presented in Ken Burns’ Jazz as complete. Drawing upon lines of thought that have originated in the disciplines of literary criticism, philosophy, and anthropology, these writers have been probing the question of jazz and its relation to the wider social and musical world. Jazz studies is by no means on a par with the critical work that has reshaped the discipline of art history since the early 80s and created a close relation of visual art critique and philosophy, but it is pointed in that direction.

Along these lines, Free Jazz and the musicians of what was called “The New Thing,” are now finally getting attention from a post-sixties generation of academics. At best it lasted from about 1959-1972 and never even achieved the level of commercial success of bebop. Increasingly in this period players were moving to Europe and later taking university jobs in order to support their musical lives. They never imagined the situation today, when the vast bulk of musicians accept that it is impossible to earn a living from performing music, or perhaps only come to realize that in their late 20s or early 30s.

Turning to the present, from my own musical and financial perspective today’s situation is not such a bad deal. More than ever there are exciting young players to pick from, cooking up new and interesting approaches. It’s just that most of them will have to quit playing with me and go legit if they want to continue in music, or at least reduce free improv to a low priority, with very little time in their lives for musical exploration that doesn’t promise to pay. Musical maturity for this music, which can take a few decades (and which isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of achievement), is something I will not get to enjoy from these players. As for finances, just as Cecil and Sunny Murray remarked in the early 60s, the kind of economic support that exists for any musical direction determines how far it can go. Musicians such as these didn’t practice to get in shape for the gig but to go further on the gig than they could otherwise and to break their preconceptions of what music had to be. They would think of raising the level of spirit, something they did not imagine would ever be adequately rewarded in material terms. The material thing was just so they could concentrate all their strength and will on the collective project of Free Jazz (often called just “the music”), taking it further, and scornful of those who bowed to music that promised commercial reward. They wanted to be supported financially despite public and institutional rejection, on the grounds of their conviction that they were worthy artists.

Today “experimental music” and “free jazz” are far more widespread, and each has developed an institutionalized and rationalized hierarchy, a scale of winners and losers. The situation for musicians such as the sixties free jazz players, who had nothing but their self-conviction to uphold them and no ropes available to climb, is not what holds for current players. Those earlier players may be idealized and imitated today but few would continue in such music if they had to deal with the same hopeless material conditions.

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