All great musical performances have a way of transforming the space they take place in. Throughout history, performance spaces themselves have gone through transformations, changed by the appearance of new instruments, new attitudes, new requirements, new ideas that the artist wants to communicate. In the latter part of the 20th century, composers and performers in the contemporary music world began exploring new ways of physically transforming and redefining their performance spaces (along with redefining music in general, of course) and the jazz world was no exception. By the early 1970's—around the time I started going to concerts as a young teenager in the San Francisco Bay Area—attending a show at a jazz club like Keystone Korner would often mean encountering a stage set-up which looked very different from that of a jazz club from 10 years earlier: a standard drum kit would often be augmented by bells, gongs, conga drums, and all manner of percussion, sometimes along with "found" objects such as hubcaps, brake drums, frying pans, etc. In short, musicians of all stripes within the "new music" umbrella, particularly African-American musicians associated with the jazz avant-garde had begun to adopt a noticeably more expansive and often very international approach to instrumentation. This was heaven for a young musician like myself. Showing up to a concert early meant getting to sit and stare at a variety of instruments and imagine the sound while waiting for the musicians to take the stage.
Attendees of Don Cherry's performances in the 1970s were treated to a sumptuous stage display: in addition to the wide assortment of instruments on stage—typically including a Malian hunter's harp, Indonesian and Indian bells, wooden flutes, and harmonium—the back of the stage was often draped with large and colorful handmade tapestries. These pieces, crafted by Cherry's Swedish artist wife, Moki, featured various nature scenes, Buddhist themes and sometimes even the names of the players sewn into the fabric. Adding to the unconventional nature of the presentation, Cherry and other members of his ensemble, often including Moki on tamboura, typically sat cross-legged on the stage in a lotus position. All this served to project a feeling of musical performance as a communal activity, breaking down the separation between the musicians and their audience. The Cherrys took this concept a step further in the summer of 1971 when they took up residence in a geodesic dome near Stockholm, inviting listeners and other artists to join them for marathon music and art-making sessions.
Much has been written about the artists and groups who helped define a new paradigm in the presentation of African-American creative music: Sun Ra and his Arkestra, with their Afro-futuristic space costumes, dancers and films projected behind the band; the Art Ensemble of Chicago with their African ceremonial face paint, multiple racks of gongs and bells (often with burning incense sticks affixed to them), rows of woodwinds and banks of decorated African drums. Certainly, this was reflective of the time. African-American groups from the pop and funk worlds such as Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth Wind & Fire also had stage dress and set designs which referenced African cultural roots as well as space imagery indeed, members of the Art Ensemble had played in early versions of EWF such as The Pharaohs in Chicago. Then there was Milford Graves, whose personalized drum set, with its multicolored shells, sitting at unusual angles with their bottom heads removed, was but one component of his visual expression. The man himself might appear as if in a trance, using long poles as drumsticks, sometimes catapulting himself back into the audience. The pianist Cecil Taylor injected an air of suspense into his performances by starting the show offstage, often in complete darkness, chanting and/or reading his poetry, sometimes moving in silence or slowly circling the piano for several minutes before actually touching the keys.
Interacting With A Space and Relating To An Audience
My experiences with all this produced a habit of constantly questioning and re-evaluating the extramusical aspects of performance, i.e. how, as a performer, I relate to the environment on stage. For example, during a section of a performance when I'm not playing, do I choose to leave the stage? Or do I remain onstage and just move to a more inconspicuous spot? Or if I’m not playing for a relatively short interval, do I stand still as a statue, or do I allow myself to adopt a more casual demeanor and watch, and/or react to the other musicians? All of these ways of being onstage are valid. I feel lucky to be in a profession where it's a matter of personal choice. I may do any one or more of the above, depending on the length of time, my mood, the particular surroundings and what the other musicians on stage are doing.
Also, how do I choose to relate to the audience? I came of age in an era when artists like Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman didn't introduce their band members or even speak to the audience –for that matter, neither did many rock bands of the day. By the late sixties, this type of routine stage behavior was considered passé. Not just passé, but especially for African-American performers, demeaning, with unwelcome overtones connected to the showmanship expected of black entertainers of earlier eras: after all, "respectable" musical outfits like symphony orchestras didn't announce the players: there was no need to, as they were listed right there in the program. Moreover, for Ra, Taylor and the Art Ensemble, a performance was an experience in which the players assumed a kind of character role, sometimes the role of a shaman and the effect would have been diluted by having the leader essentially doubling as an M.C. Imagine if, at the finale of a ballet performance, one of the principal dancers, wiping the sweat from their brow, suddenly picked up a mic and shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for Natalia as the dying swan!" It would be almost as jarring as if, at the end of a movie, the characters had jumped off the screen into real life and began goading the audience into applauding. Which, needless to say, would be quite remarkable and not necessarily unwelcome, but not what one always wishes for at the end of a transcendental performance.
Fortunately, there are all kinds of ways a performer can communicate with and/or interact with an audience, if they choose to do so at all. That’s the beautiful thing about how far humans have come through evolution: long-accepted norms of stage behavior and dress have been re-evaluated over and over to the point where there is now no one accepted the way to be. It's fascinating to see how in 2019, fans of the unpretentious-looking, t-shirt and jeans-wearing jam band Phish, for example, seem to be equally capable of appreciating the over-the-top stage productions and costumes employed by Beyonce or Kanye West. One doesn't negate the other.
While today's younger music-lovers may not have the appetite for, or even awareness of, the rich experience of listening to a full-length LP, they have become accustomed to rich and multidimensional concert experiences which often reflect a healthy dose of imagination, not to mention craftsmanship. And this experience extends beyond live shows: in the post-MTV era, music videos have gotten more cinematic, more scrappy, more cross-referential, more nuanced, and more interesting all at once... all while the cheesiness, which defined the early days of the art form, hasn't diminished but rather become a part of the language. Considering stage sets, stage dress and demeanor, and the music itself, the vocabulary and spectrum of expression is wider than ever. As the great composer and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams said in 1998 at a rehearsal for his piece “Yihat” with my group, The Hieroglyphics Ensemble (after passing out texts from various poets, the Bible and even unfavorable reviews of his colleagues in Down Beat for recitation by the band members): "We're going to use it all, now!" For artists to give themselves permission to use anything and everything can be liberating. The ability to “use it all” goes to the very heart of what it means to be creative.
This all-encompassing approach to performance emphasizes both a musician’s self-awareness as a pure performer as well as the understanding of a performance space as endlessly modifiable and open to reinvention.It’s also a manifestation of the artist’s quest to self-define, whether it be on a grand or small scale and create a particular kind of relationship with an audience. Even the simplest, most stripped-down performances, which can be the most powerful of all, are often deliberate in choice, an expression of the musician’s intention to shape and even transform their environment. If there is one thing I learned growing up in Berkeley in the 60's and 70's, surrounded by folks who were allergic to formalities of any kind, it's to question conventions, explore all possibilities and not let oneself be confined or limited by anything, human-made or otherwise, in the sacred and infinite endeavor of artistic expression.