Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music

By Santoro, Gene | The Nation, October 21, 1991 | Go to article overview

Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music


Santoro, Gene, The Nation


Allan Bloom has analogues all over the cultural landscape, and jazz is no exception. The One Great Tradition theory is currently popular in neocon jazz quarters; Jelly Roll to Louis to Duke to Bird-it sounds almost like a triple-play combo. And yet it takes nothing away from such indisputable greats to admit that there have been numberless musicians whose names have rarely become known to general audiences, or even to most jazz fans, who have nevertheless exerted a profound influence on the folks they played with as well as on those who've come after them.

Take, for example, the impact on Muhal Richard Abrams, founder of the seminal Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of two historical ciphers, King Fleming and John Dennis. Fleming led a big band in Chicago in the early 1950s and gave the then fledgling pianist Abrams his first gig as an arranger. In 1962 Fleming cut Stand By (Argo), an extraordinary excursion into rhythmic invention. His recordings never got out of Chicago in any significant way; now in his 70s, he plays lounges in suburban Illinois and the Midwest. In 1955 the Philadelphia-based Dennis made one record as a leader, New Piano Expressions, for Debut, the label founded by Charles Mingus and Max Roach; that record was also poorly distributed. Nobody's quite sure what happened to Dennis after that. But the two-handed approach to the keyboard that he and Fleming favored caused Abrams to rethink the post-Bud Powell attack that, with its atrophied left hand and lightning-bolt right, dominated postwar jazz for a couple of generations.

As Abrams-who, along with the A.A.C.M., is now based in New York-sees it, "Fleming and Dennis don't play licks; they play ideas. That's the older school, like Fats Waller and Art Tatum, again. Those guys weren't interested in a body of licks that were set down by one or two people that they could grab and make cliched connections with. It's a different way to think-trying to tell a story instead of showing off flash:' In line with that way of thinking, since the formation of his Experimental Band in 1961 and the founding of the A.A.C.M. in 1965, the incredibly open-eared Abrams has consistently expanded his own vocabulary to include everything from stride to swing to serialism to post-Ornette Coleman, post-Albert Ayler breakthroughs to international musics.

To cite just one example, on his most recent album, last year's brilliant The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint), Abrams wittily combined gorgeously written ensembles and thick-textured charts i la Duke and Mingus with blithely skipping playground-type tunes a la Ornette for an eighteen-piece band of first-rate players, including multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich, trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Jack Walrath (a Mingus Dynasty veteran), and bassist Fred Hopkins. And in mid-September at New York's Symphony Space, he led an eight-piece ensemble that included six percussionists through the beautifully articulated jazz-meets-gamelan piece "Percussion 26 (1)"; it projected a vivid three-dimensional sonic image as it moved gracefully from section to section. In some ways, it was the conceptual extension of Miles Davis's On the Corner (CBS). Abrams will be appearing with his octet from the album A View From Within (Black Saint) at the Victoriaville (Quebec) jazz festival in midOctober. And on his new Blu Blu Blu (Black Saint), he updates and redefines the gritty electric blues of his Chicago youth: The title cut is dedicated to Mc-Kinley Morganfield, a k a Muddy Waters. As Abrams characteristically puts it, "It takes me backwards and forwards."

Sub-aural pioneers like Fleming and Dennis-and, for that matter, Abrams himself, whose influence on three generations of musicians via the revolutionary A.A.C.M. is as incalculable as it is largely unknown to the general public-are the knots tying jazz's history together. So when you discover one, there's often a sense of deja vu, because you've heard his stuff before through the scrim of the folks who've picked up on him. …

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