There is a lot of talk these days about experimental music. But despite mentioning the more obvious names, such as John Coltrane or Sun Ra, there is a basic lack of understanding that jazz from Armstrong to Osby is seat-of-the-pants experimental music, a white-knuckle ride of expressionism for musician and audience alike.
Since the late 20s New York has been the town where a jazz musician must go to make it. It is the premier urban landscape in the world, dominated by its skyscrapers and its legends. Even without its music, it has an aura. It is a city on the cutting edge, be it Duke Ellington at Birdland, Sonny Rollins blowing on the Brooklyn Bridge or Ornette Coleman working out in his SoHo loft. It is the town where the likes of Parker and Gillespie worked through the changes that would create the bop revolution at the legendary Minton's night-spot. It was in New York, that Billie Holiday debuted Strange Fruit at the nation's first multi-racial venue. New York, to paraphrase trumpeter Don Cherry, was NOW!
By 1960 this was all true. Jazz had experienced a boom in the 50s like no other-.-it was a music that was taken seriously and the 12 inch microgroove LP was a format it was perfectly suited to. It was the music of the hip-.-the sound of the city. This carried on into the 60s, but things were changing. Black politics was becoming radical, riots were taking place in the ghettos and soul music was replacing jazz as the popular choice of black America. The reaction to these changes were myriad and split jazz into many different directions (free, soul, straight ahead) whose champions often seemed to be waging war in the pages of Downbeat, but whose musicians would often come together at jamming sessions in any one of the city's many after-hours night spots - John Patton with Sun Ra or Basieites with Roland Kirk.
The music was captured at its best by a handful of labels. The ultimate trio of New York labels were Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note. These three (along with Riverside's owner Orrin Keepnews' follow-up label Milestone) captured the young musicians as they came up, and put to tape some of the most vital music of the era. They then shipped it in some of the sharpest packaging known to man. Much is made of Reid Miles' sleeves for Blue Note, but both Prestige and Riverside gave us images that resonated with would-be hipsters the world over, be it the sharply dressed Messengers on Art Blakey's Ugetsu or the smoke-obscured Joe Dukes on the fabulously monochrome cover to his only Prestige album.
These sleeve images resonated throughout the world: from the sharp suits of the early 60s to the start of the radical pan-African outfits, which you can just begin to make out in the outfit and hairstyle of Gary Bartz on his debut album. The music was just as, if not more, resonant and we are here showing a cross mix between sweaty bars and world-travelling optimism. These tunes are the sounds of a city's musicians trying to balance the need to earn a dollar with their desire to be heard on the feeling of the day. This is jazz taking up issues, but not quite shouting them out. It is a feeling that is present as much in the back-to-soul shouting of George Braith as it is in Gary Bartz's cry to other cultures. This is Jazz, New York style: hip, sharp and definitive.
By Dean Rudland