Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Periodically, I get to feeling guilty because I am a music critic--I hate the term, but I suppose it applies--who knows nothing about music. I have listened to a lot of rock and jazz, of course, and I do know a good deal about the development of American music. But I can't read music. After several patient lessons, I am hard-pressed to detect even the simplest chord changes. I never count time. And I don't know the first thing about harmony. (Actually, I do know the first thing--it has to do with sound waves. I don't know the second thing.) Furthermore, I know that stuff means something to musicians, even rock musicians. Worse still, some listeners care about it too.

But I am expert at assuaging my own guilt. To concentrate on the formal elements of music, I tell myself, is to make the assumption that has constricted the arts in this century, namely, that a work exists apart from its environment, that it is a thing-in-itself which has to be understood in itself. Bullshit. The interesting thing about any performance is not what it is, but how it is perceived. Jazz may be more complex in itself than rock, but in terms of observable work-audience interaction, rock is more complex. The only permissible stance for a jazz musician is one of undiluted creative seriousness--that Roland Kirk is a crowd-pleaser, for instance, invalidates his work almost by definition. A similar concentration, artificial at best in the places where jazz is usually played and of questionable relevance anyway, is required of the jazz audience. If you're looking for fun, diversion, or sensory overload, look elsewhere. Only those who want the real stuff--that is, Art--are welcome.

This implicit mandarinism was one of the many things that turned me off jazz around 1965. But the music itself, the other variable in the work-audience relationship, endured and grew, and as some of rock has moved toward jazz so have I. In the past month I have spent several evenings at Slug's with Sun Ra, who pleased me most of all with his showmanship. Sun Ra's musicians are only competent and his singers are worse, but the way it comes together, with the band in all its brummagem space gear moving innocently from '40s ensemble playing to cacophonous, multi-percussive moderne, blends the mad and the bogus in just the manner of so much that is excellent in American art.

Mike Mantler's Jazz Composer's Orchestra represents another direction. Mantler is a composer who is trying to do for new-thing jazz what Duke Ellington and Gil Evans tried to do for swing and bop. I think Ellington succeeded and Evans failed. Mantler, who uses many white musicians and does not perform regularly (probably because he can't, but that's at least partly his fault) would seem more in the Evans mold. He has, however, gathered some great jazzmen, including soloists Cecil Taylor, Larry Coryell, Don Cherry, and Pharoah Sanders, and his first LP, issued independently by the non-profit Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association won the Album of the Year Award in the Jazz and Pop Critics Poll.

Necessarily, this is a worthy but flawed project. Jazz musicians have to build an insular view of the world merely to preserve their sanity, and in this harried spirit JCOA president Timothy F. Marquand has written an eloquent and intolerant little essay decrying the "mechanistic inclination" of the "popular entertainer" and the "instant aesthetic response" he elicits, putting down "the jukebox, the animated cartoon, and the Rockettes" and bracketing them all with poor, underrated James Fenimore Cooper, a bogus madman if ever there was one. This contagion is posed against who else but Sufferin' Herm Melville, for who our hearts have bled these many years, plus Pollock, Ives, Martha Graham, and of course Jazz, which "remains unrecognized as a serious art form." Like hell. This is not to deny that a certain kind of artist suffers deeply in this society, though such suffering is anything but exclusively American. (It no longer applies at all to the abstract expressionists and the Graham-Cunningham choreographers.) But I wonder whether an artist who works solely for himself and his art, as we are told the true artist must, can rightfully expect recognition from anyone else.

But there is another side to the JCOA, and that, in addition to its excellent music, is why I am writing about it. Let me quote a paragraph from its prospectus: "There are many ways to listen to music but the most exciting is to be right next to it while it's being played. This privilege has always been limited to a small number of people because of the physical restrictions of the stage and the high cost of good seats. Since the Jazz Composer's Orchestra is presented in the round from a central point, there is more surface exposed to contact with the people in the audience, who are free to choose their location or move around at will. Pieces will often be played more than once during a concert, allowing the listener to become familiar with the music. Accordingly, concerts will be much longer, with the audience's comfort (smoking, food and drink, relaxed surroundings, entertainment) always kept in mind.

It was in this sensible and genial spirit of making things easier for the audience not through the music itself, which is untouchable, but in the surroundings, that the JCOA presented a benefit concert for itself at the Electric Circus last Sunday. Some benefit. For 15 bucks, 25 for a couple, the contributor got a six-hour concert, all the food he could eat and wine he could drink, and the two-record, award-winning album. The new Circus is handsome and somewhat homier than in the past, and the orchestra generated both excitement and warmth. The long breaks between compositions, an insult in the club atmosphere, were merely relaxing, though they could have been ten minutes shorter with no loss. I cannot write in detail about the music, which I enjoyed. But I can say that I listened hard most of the time though I felt under no pressure to do so, and that since I got home I have been listening to small-group albums by Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry and Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders with renewed pleasure. Mantler's music itself has a modern European feel, just as modern European music often has a new-thing jazz feel. His "Communication No. 11" provided a superb setting for the roiling energy of Cecil Taylor's piano, and for me was the high point. A similar concert--without food, I believe, which is too bad, and for less money, which is why--will be presented at the Circus this Sunday. Go with someone. I hope this summer the JCOA will try the same thing outdoors. That would be perfect.

Village Voice, Apr. 24, 1969