The jazz man is the ladies' man. That makes him decadent. An entertainer. Sharp dresser. Pimp. One of the greatest American composers, Charles Mingus also wrote the great American jazz novel, Beneath the underdog. As beat prose, beats anything by Kerouac. As a jazz biography (which is how it's being merchandised) it's of dubious worth. Curious fans, or serious students of the music, won't find much here about composition, performance or bandleading. Two thirds of the book is jazz, dig? And half of that is pimping. The best part is the end, where the hero checks in - literally - to Bellevue mental hospital, only to find out he can't get any peace there, either. What? The music? Fuck, man, just open your ears.
So free music needed to be free of that kind of jazz too. Swing, Rock 'n' roll, Funk, it's all nothing but jazz. Keep that jazz offa my stage. Of course we know better now. Maybe sex is what you should just keep for yourself. Good sex is free improvisation. So the great improviser has got to be a super-stud. Only, he doesn't flash it. So he sleeps alone a lot of the time. The rock star tours in his own personal mobile brothel. The free musician drags his equipment (no wonder so many piano players) through trains and budget hotels. And all the poor ladies don't know what they're missing. Now sex too is free to be the same thing again and again. Or maybe it just died out collectively and we all pretended not to notice.
So you become an ascetic. Fuck that scene! As long as we're not getting it anyway, we might as well decide we're not getting it. But the ascetic path isn't safer, it just looks that way. Transcendence, or priapism, there's not much middle road. It's not like smoking, you can't just quit. So we're left with very few options. Gotta keep focused. Gotta stay awake. The ascetic way is the warrior's way.
Sun Ra did everything he could to keep his men's eye on the ball - though in order to go on gigging he had to allow them at least a glimpse of the world at large. Sharing a festival stage with degenerate rock and roll bands like the MC5, or sharing the Jazz Composer's Guild with "a woman" (Carla Bley), only served to confirm the Great Master's worst fears about the consequences of leaning too close to impure earthlings without making sure you control them first.
But not all workaholics are saints. John Zorn is probably too busy touring and recording to actually perform all of the nasty stuff on his record covers himself. Before Zorn, radical improvisers did not cultivate a pop image. The commercial angle is obvious, and it has paid off. So of course Zorn is not a name you want to drop these days in certain North European drawing-rooms (though Evan Parker calls himself Zorn's "original fan"). Zorn hijacks the "science" of sexual consumer manipulation, then (of course) subverts the cliché by shoving the subliminal flashes right up your face. The art-deco frills are just there to remind us that we're dealing with a man of wealth and taste. Extreme seduction back to back with extreme horror produces the now-familiar Naked Lunch effect: too obscene to make it as pornography. Which leaves us wondering how Zorn's music would "sound" if he'd left all the voodoo aside and just played. And Zorn himself? Except for the suggestive name (German or Yiddish for "Wrath"), there's not much of the man himself on display ("And the executioner's face is always well hidden").
"So what made you want to be a free musician? The money or the women?" We know, it's lonely at the top. But all that can be a thing of the past! Try to find a sexy name for your band. Derek and the Ruins was a good start. The Remote Viewers was not. For the ladies we advise skin-tight rubber pants, the gentlemen might consider to shave their chests, to refrain from playing the guitar behind a desk, and to move their hips back and forth while they perform. Good luck!
All words and images copyright 2001 by Vanita & Joe Monk
Except Carla Bley photo copyright 1968 by Tod Papageorge.