Jazz at 100 Hour 91: Whither Freedom? (1978 – 1990)

Don Pullen

In the 1980s, the avant-garde, although still home to many fine free jazz players, increasingly adopted an ecumenical approach to historical styles. Freedom came to include freedom to be “in the tradition.” The broadly-influenced music of alto saxophonists Arthur Blythe and Henry Threadgill, clarinetist John Carter and pianist Don Pullen illustrate this trend – in this hour of Jazz at 100.

“Although critics routinely pilloried the avant-garde for rejecting jazz convention, it ultimately proved to be the most inclusive form of jazz in history. Innovators of bop apprenticed in swing bands but played exclusively in their own modern styles as they became prominent; they never played Dixieland (except to belittle it) or attempted to create new versions of Jelly Roll Morton tunes … Yet the avant-garde, which seemed to Incarnate the very definition of futurism, welcomed every kind of musical influence and allusion… The avant-garde was impatient with clichés but not with historical styles and achievements.” – Scott DeVeaux & Gary Giddins.

Joachim-Ernst Berendt writes that the post-free-jazz view of the jazz tradition is one of the important eighties jazz tendencies. “… developing from the sound of what was formerly the jazz avant-garde, in the eighties more and more musicians began to incorporate the great heritage of the jazz tradition into contemporary improvisation. Here, elements of free jazz are combined and mixed with traditional styles.”

“It was alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe who provided a slogan for the contemporary look back at the history of jazz, with the title of an album he recorded in 1980: In the Tradition. All the important musicians within this direction, coming from free jazz and entering into a dialogue with jazz’s legacy, really did play in the tradition: pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams; saxophonist, flutist, and composer Henry Threadgill and his sextet; tenor saxophonist David Murray and his octet and big band; trumpeters Lester Bowie and Olu Dara; bassist Dave Holland; flutist James Newton; and many others.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Arthur Blythe.
“Columbia records attempted to groom him for stardom, but Blythe’s avant-gardism, which combined elements of post-bop jazz conveying the passionate immediacy of the early pioneers with elements of non-Western harmony and rhythm, was muted. Blythe has always experimented with the sound of the basic jazz group, reintroducing the tuba as a bass instrument and often using non-kit percussion. He was an erratic presence, unwilling to surrender his most radical ideas, but also desperately searching for wider recognition. In 1979, Blythe signed with Columbia and produced what became one of the masterpieces of modern jazz [Lenox Avenue Breakdown].” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“In 1982, the critic Francis Davis wrote that Mr. Blythe ‘may well prove to be the magic figure of reconciliation, the force for consensus, that modern jazz has been looking for in vain since the death of John Coltrane in 1967.’ That was not to be. Within a few years, a young crop of neo-traditional musicians had seized what spotlight remained for jazz. Mr. Blythe left New York at the end of the 1990s, and his playing career tapered off.” – Giovanni Russonello

Down San Diego Way. Arthur Blythe Septet
(Bob Stewart-tu, Athur Blythe-as, James Newton-fl, James “Blood” Ulmer-g, Cecil McBee-b, Jack DeJohnette-d, Guillermo Franco-per). From Lenox Avenue Breakdown. 1978
Composed by Arthur Blythe.

Henry Threadgill.
“When the avant-garde trio Air released its Air Lore album in 1979, which links free jazz with Scott Joplin’s ragtime melodies and Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans sounds, it was a sensation. At that time, when the avant-garde world was preoccupied with permanent innovation, it still took courage to turn again to the old masters of jazz. But it wasn’t long before free-jazz players’ return to the imposing achievements of jazz heritage became something that was taken for granted.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

“The most durable cooperative after the Art Ensemble, Air achieved nonpareil equity among its members, who could—playing Joplin and Morton or originals—undermine the beat without forfeiting it. Each member possessed grit and wit. Steve McCall’s drums were plush and decisive, yet spare and understated. Fred Hopkins’s bass fused audacious power with mercuric reflexes. Henry Threadgill wrote most of the material and played reeds, flute, and, briefly, a contraption made of hubcaps… Threadgill’s alto is ripe, raw, and focused. They had more in common with the restored [Art] Pepper than with the’60s avant-gardists. ‘Do Tell’ has a mellow A-theme and double-time B-theme; each man helps to shore up the backbeat pulse until Threadgill launches a lusty climax.” – Gary Giddins

“Henry Threadgill’s music grew its own definition, and by the 1980s, with his sextet, he was writing music that sounded like a Webern string quartet one minute, a roadhouse funk band the next… Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, the second album by the group, shows Threadgill at the peak of his powers as a composer: ‘Gateway’ still stand as perhaps in the single best piece of writing he’s done.” – Ben Ratliff

Do Tell. Air
(Henry Threadgill-as, Fred Hopkins-b, Steve McCall-d). From 80° Below ’82. 1/23 – 1/24/1982
Composed by Henry Threadgill

Gateway. Henry Threadgill Sextet
(Olu Dara-cor, Craig Harris-tb, Henry Threadgill-fl/cl/as/bs, Fred Hopkins-b, Deirdre Murray-cel, John Betch-per, Pheeroan Aklaff-per). From Just The Facts and Pass The Bucket. 1983
Composed by Henry Threadgill

John Carter.
Clarinetist John Carter’s composition “On a Country Road” from the LP Fields, “The last movement of the fourth of five suites in Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music shows how much ground Carter … could seed with relatively chaste material. At heart it’s a deceptively simple clarinet riff that burbles like a swallow yet requires consummate breath control, two-note chords, and register hopping. In a winning take on musique concrete, Carter employs a tape of his Uncle John telling a story. The cadences of John’s voice and his nephew’s appreciative laughter—not the tale—are what count. Fred Hopkins picks up on the clarinet riff and Andrew Cyrille (outstanding throughout the album) brings the rhythm home as the piece turns into a big city blues, featuring baying choruses by trumpeter Bobby Bradford, who is then superceded by a harmonica solo, which, ipso facto, returns us to the country.” – Gary Giddens

On A Country Road. John Carter Septet
(Bobby Bradford-cor, Benny Powell-tb, John Carter-cl, Marty Ehrlich-bcl/fl, Don Preston-syn/key, Theresa Jenoure-vln/voc, Fred Hopkins-b, Andrew Cyrille-d). From Fields. 3/1/1988
Composed by John Carter.

Don Pullen.
Don Pullen “[a] remarkable pianist associated with the outer fringe suggested a powerful detente with the center, when he teamed with Gary Peacock and Tony Williams [on the LP New Beginnings]. Pullen had journeyed from ESP-Disk to backing pop singers to Charles Mingus to co-leading a successful quintet with George Adams. He innovated a keyboard technique that obliged him to turn his palms up and rake the keys with his knuckles, while hewing to chordal boundaries and uncovering ecstatic melodies. His opening three choruses on ‘At the Cafe Centrale,’ a symmetrical 48-bar Flamenco stomp, are parsed in eight-bar segments, shadowed every step by Williams. The harmonic range is narrow, yet Pullen’s percussive attack abounds with colors.” – Gary Giddens

“…by the late eighties, [Don Pullen] was fusing avant-gardist piano techniques, with blues and gospel vamps, tunes written to a crisp rhythm, and above a new songful sensibility. [The LP] Random Thoughts is the summit of that sensibility. He became a bona fide writer of melodies, one of the few that the entire avant-garde-jazz movement produced. They were relatively simple structures, and Pullin was never an overbearing pianist, even when he created banging dissonance; he seemed to find peace with the fact that jazz needn’t be overly complicated or overly empty. The ballad, ‘The Dancer,’ for one example, picks up where Billy Strayhorn left off – you can imagine Ellington-band horns wrapping around it – and Pullin fashions a swinging, lean, perfectly proportioned solo from it.”– Ben Ratliff

At The Café Centrale. Don Pullen Trio
(Don Pullen-p, Gary Peacock-b, Tony Williams-d). From New Beginnings. 12/16/1988
Composed by Don Pullen.

The Dancer. Don Pullen Trio
(Don Pullen-p, James Genus-b, Lewis Nash-d). From Random Thoughts. 3/23/1990
Composed by Don Pullen.

John Carter and Don Pullen passed away in the 1990s at 61 and 53 years old. Arthur Blythe died at 76 in 2017. Henry Threadgill, still active at 74 years old, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 for his release In For A Penny, In For A Pound. Their legacy-respecting multistylistic work in the 1980s was characteristic of one of several strains of the avant-garde.

Perhaps no jazz musician recorded a more varied output in more diverse setting in the 1980s than tenor saxophone and bass clarinet player David Murray. Three of the best bands to emerge in the decade were his Octet, his Quartet and the collaborative – the World Saxophone Quartet. He may also have been the most recorded jazz artist of the decade, as well, and with consistently high quality. David Murray in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

Arthur Blythe. Lenox Avenue Bridge. Columbia 35638
Air. 80° Below ’82. Antilles AN 1007
Henry Threadgill Sextet. Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket. About Time Records ‎AT1005
John Carter. Fields. Gramavision 18-8809-2
Don Pullen. New Beginnings. Blue Note CDP 7 91785
Don Pullen. Random Thoughts. Blue Note CDP 7 94347

Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. 2009. The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century. Chicago, IL. Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.
The Styles of Jazz: The Eighties
Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 15. The Avant-Garde
Giddins, Gary. 2004. Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 118. Postwar Jazz: An Arbitrary Roadmap (1945 – 2001)
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Arthur Blythe. Lenox Avenue Breakdown
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
92. Don Pullin: Random Thoughts (1990)
Russonello, Giovanni. Arthur Blythe, Jazz Saxophonist Who Mixed Sultry and Strident, Dies at 76. New York Times. March 29, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/arts/music/arthur-blythe-jazz-saxophonist-dies-at-76.html

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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