There's Something Happening Here: LA's Jazz/New Music Scene

There's Something Happening Here
LA's Jazz/New Music Scene

by Rex Butters

copyright © 2004 Rex Butters

"I'm currently in Belgium completing a tour of Europe. I've met with several writers and many jazz fans in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Belgium who know the jazz scene in LA better than many writers and jazz fans in LA do. People over here are very aware of musicians in LA, especially people like Vinny Golia, Nels and Alex Cline, Mike Vlatkovich, and they are very interested in what we're doing." -Jeff Gauthier

LA jazz musicians are fomenting a revolution with worldwide implications. What began with John Carter, Horace Tapscott, Don Cherry, Bobby Bradford, Charlie Haden, and a few others has grown into a musical Temporary Autonomous Zone closely watched and appreciated internationally, and too often ignored at home. As many of these pioneers bore scorn, skepticism, and exclusion by incorporating advanced musical concepts such as microtones, 12 tone series, and techniques borrowed from world cultures into improvised music, subsequent generations of musicians have approached them with open ears and built on their foundations. For once, the good guys are winning.

The rise and growth of advanced and free jazz in LA depended on the generosity and inclusiveness of its major practitioners, now an entrenched tradition here. "Well, I was very lucky to have established musicians play with me very early in my career," remembers Vinny Golia, "like bassist Bruce Cale, guitarist Dave Pritchard and Tom Canning, but the people who really took me under their wing so to speak were John Carter, Bobby Bradford, and Horace Tapscott. Once I was already committed to playing the music I wanted to be involved with they were very open to my playing with them. It was fantastic."

"Vinny has tons and tons of great stories both from his LA and New York days," says guitarist Noah Phillips a member of the latest generation of players. "I love hearing the stories of his early days playing with John Carter and Bradford. He always says that he feels it necessary to play with, help and encourage the younger musicians because that was one of the main lessons that Carter taught him. If you really sit back and take a look at Vinny's recent LA performances you will see that a good chunk of them have been with people much younger and he loves it."

That LA boasts so many highly regarded young players derived from no serendipitous happenstance. Whereas now a blossoming circuit of venues in which to perform and perfect new ideas thrives, a quarter century ago experimental musicians played a hot stuffy little theatre on Pico rented out on Sunday afternoons. The now legendary Century City Playhouse series curated by Lee Kaplan brought together a group of musicians destined to take LA musical culture to the next level. Besides national luminaries such as Sonny Simmons, Oliver Lake, Leo Smith, George Lewis, and Anthony Braxton, the CCP provided a stage for Carter, Bradford, and Tapscott. In addition, then-young locals such as Golia, James Newton, Adam Rudolph, Wayne Peet, Billy Mintz, Anthony Davis, and Nels and Alex Cline took their turns. Even Downbeat took note of a "burgeoning avant garde music scene" in '79.

An interesting developmental difference can be illustrated in the famous anecdote of the woman who transcribed one of Coltrane's solos, presented it to him and asked him to play it. Nonplused, he returned it and said he couldn't. Hungry to legitimize the new music, James Newton maintained he could transcribe anything he played. That dedication to craft led him to Cal State LA where he leads the jazz department and the school's esteemed Luckman Orchestra. Vinny Golia teaches reeds at Cal/Arts. Charlie Haden heads the Jazz Department at Cal/Arts. Bobby Bradford teaches at Pomona College. Wadada Leo Smith teaches at Cal/Arts. Within a few years, young musicians from all over the country poured through these programs and into the streets.

"I lived in New York after graduating from college and worked for Knitting Factory Records," recalls drummer Harris Eisenstadt, an emerging talent. "I met Adam Rudolph while I was stage managing Tribeca Hall for the '99 Texaco New York JazzFest. He was playing with Yusef Lateef. I was asking Adam about the Creative Music Studio (what a place that must have been!), and he mentioned that Wadada Leo Smith had been at CalArts for the last few years and was starting a program called African American Improvisational Music. I contacted Leo and he was so cool, man. I sent him a tape, he told me to apply, and the scholarship thing ended up working such that I could afford to do it. I spent two full, wonderful years at CalArts, had so many wonderful teachers, and met so many cool people. Leo gave me an incredible opportunity and I'm forever thankful for that."

Reedman Jason Mears echoes that sentiment: "I came to LA because I was tired of living in Boston, kind of a stick in the mud feeling. A friend was going to go to school at CalArts so I decided to come out west with him. It turned out to be a really great decision. Almost immediately I was playing with incredibly creative people. Vinny Golia and Wadada Leo Smith really opened up my world. Kind of an extreme readjustment at how to look at things: music, life, everything really."

Eisenstadt adds, "Adam Rudolph has been an extremely supportive, and we play together a lot. Adam is an amazing music thinker, an incredible rhythm conceptualist, and beautiful guy. Adam helped me find a way to travel to Gambia to study Mandinka drumming last year. Alex Cline has been so generous with his time and insights as well. I go over to his house and we spend an afternoon talking and listening to music and I'm always blown away by his insights. He has experience so much and can recount his experiences with in such detail. Stuart Liebig has been a major source of inspiration as a composer and improviser. Talk about prolific!"

Trumpeter Kris Tiner took a more circuitous route: "I grew up in the Central Valley. Through junior high and high school I absorbed almost the whole history of jazz (all I did was listen to music), and I spent major, major portions of that time first with Louis Armstrong, then Miles, then Coltrane, then Cecil Taylor, among many others. The music was inseparably part of my growing up . . . it was like seeing the whole history of jazz unfold. I always wanted to hear what was next, 'what came after that?' At a certain point (and I was playing music pretty regularly by then) I became aware of the current movements in the music involving the downtown New York scene-William Parker, Matthew Shipp, Rob Brown, Joe Morris, Roy Campbell, those guys. They were the first ones whose records I could get hold of. I figured I wanted to do whatever it took to get to New York and find these people. Until I went there. No way, no way could I live like that. No way could I deal with this bleak, dark, dirty, anonymous city life. I came back and that's when I really began to appreciate my lifestyle out here. I found where I was coming from (i.e., little Central Valley farm town). I found a real peace in my music, began to concentrate, appreciate the slowness of things, read and study philosophy and religion and look at how people like myself have viewed the world, historically speaking. And I began writing very slow, very dramatic music to improvise within. And I finally decided that I wanted to find out who was out here on the West Coast playing creative music -- who could I find to do this stuff with?

"The first person I met was Wadada Leo Smith. I discovered Leo by reading an article about him in one of the jazz magazines, and found he lived out here. Then, exactly two days later I was at the IAJE conference in Anaheim listening to this critical debate when I heard someone's trumpet blasting in the next room -- Leo was playing duo with I think John Bergamo on frame drum. So I went over there and knew this was the man, the number one man I had to hook up with. Blew my damn mind. After his concert I went right up and got his number.

"So I studied with Leo privately for almost three years before entering his MFA program at CalArts, and that was two years ago. He has been without a doubt my highest influence, my favorite musician in the world, and as it is for anyone who studies with him, he challenges you to examine yourself as you examine your music, and you know you must pursue a knowledge of the deeper, deepest dimensions of this music if you are at all going to be successful or have any longevity with it.

"And no one playing this music in this town can say that they have not been influenced by Vinny Golia. He's the acknowledged godfather of this scene. We all look up to him for his experience and his leadership. We are all made better musicians by his willingness to share what he knows. Jeff Kaiser has been very helpful to me, we have a great friendship going back many years."

"I am consistently humbled by the heartfelt generosity the LA veterans show to all of us new guys," says Noah Phillips. "Steuart Liebig is a problem solver in his own way. In fact, in terms of composition he's an old master. Steuart also has the uncanny ability to choose the right musicians for the right projects in much the same way that Miles Davis did. Nels Cline has been helpful to me because I see him as the sort of Muse of the Los Angeles scene. I must say in many ways he is very open minded and at the same time a bit dogmatic, which is fantastic because these two viewpoints always give us stuff to talk about. Like Steuart, Alex Cline is very articulate and very capable of not only passing on his experience of over 25 years in the Los Angeles New Music Community but also has a fascinating ability to memorize music, which is consistently a wonder to behold. I can honestly say that I never engage in small talk with Alex, he always has something interesting to say and for that he is a great teacher. G.E. Stinson has become somewhat of an older brother to me. Out of anyone around the scene G.E. has had the most mainstream success in terms of making a lot of bread and dealing with a bit of fame and, of course, the whole twisted business side of music which gives him a certain amount of wisdom that I deeply cherish.

"I would be misrepresenting my experience in LA if I didn't include my friendship with Lynn Johnston. He is one of the most wonderfully insane artists I have ever met. Lynn has been around LA for a while and has played with a great many well-established improvisers. Lynn has taught me a lot about letting go and just playing from the gut which is much easier said than done. Lynn is a true sick genius. He really needs to play out more. The people of the world need a good dose of Lynn." The robust health of the creative music scene here has given birth to several independent record labels dedicated to documenting the action. Bobby Bradford, Vinny Golia, Jeff Kaiser, Jeff Gautier, Adam Rudolph, Harris Eisenstadt, and Kris Tiner, have all taken on the cross of record company ownership, with more coming. And more venues dedicate more of their schedules to presenting the new music. "Perhaps the greatest strength of the creative music community here is the resolve so many great musicians have," says Eisenstadt. "People are serious. Alex Cline's Eagle Rock series, Chris Heenan and Jeremy Drake with Line Space Line and all the stuff Chris had been doing at the Smell and whenever else he could before that. Chris Garcia with LIRA productions, Nels Cline, G.E. Stinson and the fabled New Music Mondays, Rocco and the all the amazing work he's done with his spaces over the last several years. Jeff Gautier and Cryptogramophone. Vinny and the incredible documenting he's done with Nine Winds. Robert Jacobson has been doing a great thing at Fais Do Do. LA is full of excellent players, so even if venues move around some, the music being made is at a very high level. Be nice if more people came out to listen, but that the music is here and vital -- that's what matters most."

"The players in the LA scene seem less dogmatic than other regional scenes in the US," says Jeff Kaiser. "Here there is a willingness among players to move between the different shades of the new music, rather than pigeonhole themselves. People here can groove, bop, honk, squeal, burp, screech, groan, wheeze, whoop, and holler with the best anywhere."

"The musicians out here are incredibly warm and receptive," finds Jason Mears. "There seems to be enough venues for a healthy scene right now, but that could change overnight. People are doing very different and explorative music, challenging for most listeners. It requires active listening, not passive. Many are not ready for this commitment. I saw this little quote the other day. It said, 'Listening is a selfless act.' This strikes upon a great challenge in our society. If people could truly listen, leaving all preconceptions and judgments behind for the moment, and leave your self (you can critique and analyze later), then people would be more open and understanding to unfamiliar thoughts and ideas, music included." "It was almost impossible to get booked into the jazz clubs in LA if you were young and doing anything different," remembers veteran Jeff Gautier, "so we were always looking for lofts, churches, or theaters to rent to put on shows. Having so many new music venues is a completely new situation and something to be treasured for the moment. There aren't many cities in the US that can boast so many quality venues.

"As I travel around I see the interest in creative jazz growing, but the economics getting more difficult. I think that in some ways the atmosphere for new music in LA has never been better, and at the same time we must work harder to keep what we've got. The audience is here and growing, but we have to work harder to get their attention because there is much more to contend with in terms of how people choose to spend their entertainment time and money. Also, there are many young and up and coming musicians like Noah Phillips, Harris Eisenstadt, Kris Tyner, Sara Schoenbeck, Jeremy Drake and many others revitalizing the scene."

"If you were to honestly sit down and look at the whole picture you would h ave to be inspired by the sheer variety of New Music that is taking place," says Noah Phillips. "We have a laundry list of cats who are doing their own thing and not being shunned by some ultra fundamentalist clique of the establishment who believe their dogma is the only one on earth. Moreover, the scene in LA is home to a group of extremely talented and creative young women musicians consisting of players such as Sara Schoenbeck, Ronit Kirtchman, Alicia Mingin, among others. We all play together and all of the older generation of male musicians recognizes the talent in this group of young women and have nothing but respect and encouragement toward their creativity and musicianship. On a personal level, the scene here has given me the opportunity to perform and become friends with my musical heroes and I really don't see that kind of thing happening for younger heads on this large a scale in other parts of the country. It is an experience that no amount of schooling could ever come close to simulating."

Finally, Vinny Golia sums it up this way: "There seems to be more of a connection between certain facets of the music community than there was when we (Alex, Nels, myself, James Newton, etc.) were all coming up. I think the CalArts factor is very large at the moment in terms of the musicians performing and organizing events in the New Music, Performance Art, and Contemporary Classical categories. The Century City Playhouse series was the connecting factor for us but in these days there's the Internet and more lists to keep everyone informed on the events. Also, there's more than one place to play in terms of locations which is very important in a city so geographically spread as Los Angeles.

"I like the non competitive aspects of the musicians. I like the positive energy and the will to get things accomplished. I'm enjoying the variety of musics that are being presented and the crossover elements that are being introduced throughout the different forms. All in all it's a very healthy period, I think."

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