Jazz at 100 Hour 94: John Zorn and The Downtown Scene

Dave Douglas – John Zorn

Never far from the pulse of jazz innovation, New York in the 1980s incubated what has become known as the “downtown scene.” Radically multi-stylistic, the resulting music was unabashedly eclectic, celebrating influences from bebop to punk rock to cartoon music and eventually klezmer and Balkan music. John Zorn and the “downtown scene” in this hour of Jazz at 100.

“From the shrill, colorful legacy of noise music and new wave, integrating and further developing these sounds, at the end of the eighties a dynamic experimental music scene arose on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—the New York “downtown scene.” “What’s coming out of this scene is undoubtedly hybrid music,” said alto saxophonist and composer John Zorn. “It’s the result of people who grew up in the sixties and seventies and for most of their conscious life have heard and experienced music from all over the world.” One of the most important statements of the downtown scene was: unity no longer exists. Instead, there’s plurality. The impertinent, exuberant playing with quotation in this music marked an aesthetic of musical disintegration that, paradoxically, sought cohesion. A characteristic of the downtown scene was its unbridled.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

The Microscopic Septet, Seven Men In Neckties.
“Favourites on the New York downtown scene of the ’80s, purveying surreal modern swing; John Zorn was even a member at one point. Titles like ‘Take the Z Train’ and ‘Lobster Leaps In’ … pretty much sums up the Microscopic [Sextet] approach, tightly arranged ensemble swing built round a reeds-and-rhythm personnel … The writing is tight, mostly fast and highly co-ordinated. [Philip] Johnston’s delightfully wacky compositions … stand out on the first LP, which ends on a surreal high with ‘A Strange Thought Entered My Head’.“ – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

A Strange Thought Entered My Head. Microscopic Septet
(Philip Johnston-ss, Don Davis-as, John Hagen-ts, Dave Sewelson-bs, Joel Forrester-p, David Hofstra-b/tu, Richard Dworkin-d). From Take The Z Train (collected on Seven Men in Neckties) 12/15/1982 & 1/7/1983

Herb Robertson, Shades of Bud Powell.
“A maverick presence on a whole range of downtown projects, Robertson often gives the impression that he only took up the trumpet that afternoon and discovered he had an aptitude for it. His tone is raw, breathy and of a sort to make orthodox brass-teachers throw themselves out of upper-storey windows. However, he’s never less than wholly musical and his tight, often pinched sound, which often sounds as if it’s coming from a pocket- or piccolo-trumpet, is instantly attractive … Arranging Bud Powell for a brass ensemble was a genius idea that works brilliantly and yields one of Robertson’s own best recorded performances.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Un Poco Loco. Herb Robertson Brass Ensemble
(Herb Robertson-tp/flh, Brian Lynch-tp, Robin Eubanks-tb, Vincent Chancey-frh, Bob Stewart-tu, Joey Baron-d/per). From Shades of Bud Powell. 1/1984
Composed by Bud Powell.

Tim Berne, Fractured Fairy Tales.
“Berne has never been considered one of the great instrumentalists of modern jazz, but his ability to shape a dense, hyperactive ensemble sound is second to none and his dogged self-determination and application to a starkly challenging idiom commend him as an experimenter… With Fractured Fairy Tales Berne began to create the kind of work he would be associated with in the ’90s with almost every piece of any length seeming like a miniature suite of wild dances, free passages and strange sounds.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Now Then. Tim Berne Sextet
(Herb Robertson-tp/cor, Tim Berne-as/voc, Mark Feldman-vln/bar-vln, Hank Roberts-cel/voc, Mark Dresser-b, Joey Baron-d). From Fractured Fairy Tales. 6/1989

Either/Orchestra, Calculus of Pleasure.
“A modest-sized [ten-piece] big band full of outsize talents, Either/Orchestra has for 25 years bucked the almost impossible restrictions that modern budgets set for a band of this kind. It’s a heroic accomplishment that the group is as swinging, exciting and cheerfully cutting-edge as it is, and its importance is underlined by the number of future stars who have passed through its ranks … The Calculus Of Pleasure … is a contemporary masterwork, brilliant and perverse.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Ecaroh. Either/Orchestra
(John Carlson-tp/flh, Russell Jewell-tb/cowbell/mar, Russ Gershon-ss/ts, Charlie Kohlhase-as/bs, Douglas Yates-as/bcl, Tom Halter-tp/flh, Curtis Hasselbring-tb, John Medeski-p/org, Bob Nieske-b, Matt Wilson-d). From The Calculus of Pleasure. 5/27 – 5/28/1990
Composed by Horace Silver.

Don Byron, Tuskegee Experiments.
“The sight of a young, dreadlocked black man playing klezmer with the same facility as music by Robert Schumann and post-bop jazz was perhaps the most vivid anticipation of the pan-stylism of the 1990s.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“In various projects, [Byron] has celebrated klezmer music, updated nineteenth-century classical compositions, championed fringe composers such as Raymond Scott, Junior Walker, and Mickey Katz, and played the standard jazz repertoire from a variety of angles, with perspectives from both inside and outside the changes. One seeks in vain for the defining elements of Byron’s style, and would do better to see his work—as well as that of many of his contemporaries—as embracing a jittery anti-style that seeks constantly to redefine its own parameters and limits.” – Ted Gioia

Tears. Don Byron Quintet
(Don Byron-cl, Edsel Gomez-p, Bill Frisell-g, Lonnie Plaxico-b, Ralph Peterson Jr.-d). From Tuskegee Experiments. 11/1990

John Zorn and Dave Douglas
“Zorn is not only the best-known musician of the New York downtown avant-garde, but also its most brilliant integrative figure. His groups and projects have consistently catalyzed the New York downtown scene.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Berendt writes that one of many lenses through which to appreciate his work is that of “John Zorn as jazz interpreter, [specifically] his tributes to the great figures of the jazz tradition. It may seem paradoxical that John Zorn of all people, the symbol of the avant-garde, has recorded some of the most moving and most original tributes to the jazz tradition. Zorn’s jazz homages are concerned more with paying musical tribute to jazz’s knotty original figures and creative outsiders than to the giants of the mainstream. The CD News for Lulu, for example, honors almost-neglected hard-bop stylists.”

One of his very productive ensembles, “Naked City is, as Simon Hopkins put it, “a whole city crammed into two- or three-minute bursts.” The music, performed by guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, electric bassist Fred Frith, and singer Yamatsuka Eye, is a lightning-fast cultural massacre, a compression of the history of music in the twentieth century into the blink of an eye.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Blue Minor II. John Zorn Trio
(George Lewis-tb, John Zorn-as, Bill Frisell-g). From News For Lulu. 7/28/1987
Composed by Sonny Clark.

Lonely Woman. Naked City
(John Zorn-as, Wayne Horvitz-key, Bill Frisell-g, Fred Frith-b, Joey Baron-d, Yamatsuka Eye-voc). From Naked City. 1989
Composed by Ornette Coleman.

“It is a mark of John Zorn’s position as the engine and integrating figure of the downtown scene that he also was a trailblazer in the encounter between jazz and new and old Jewish music … In a manifesto, Zorn called for a “Radical Jewish Culture”: for New York’s pastiche music to contribute to the renewal of Jewish culture … With his quartet Masada, John Zorn created the model for an approach to improvising that interpreted Jewish music from an individual, modern perspective.” – Joachim-Ernst Berendt

In the early 1990s, there was a notable turn by many New York jazz musicians toward the melodies and rhythms of Balkan folk music, which Berendt describes as “imaginary folklore”. At that time, Masada’s trumpeter, Dave Douglas, initiated his long-standing trio – Tiny Bell Trio. “The best of the Tiny Bell records, Constellations was recorded off-road but mid-tour. One hears immediately that this is a working unit. Douglas’s Balkan interests – both musical and political – come through strongly. ‘Taking Sides’ is inspired by the brutal civil war in the former Yugoslavia, a raw, powerful expression of anger and mourning.”– Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Zelah. Masada
(Dave Douglas-tp, John Zorn-as, Greg Cohen-b, Joey Baron-d). From Masada, Vol. 1: Alef. 2/20/1994
Taking Sides. Dave Douglas & Tiny Bell Trio
(Dave Douglas-tp, Brad Shepik-g, Jim Black-d). From Constellations. 2/27 – 2/28/1995

The players that created the downtown scene in the mid- to late-1980s were a restless bunch and most have continued to explore new horizons as their music perpetually develops. Theirs was one more example of a maturing art form that continued to grow even as it never forgot, incorporating its roots in new and sometimes startling ways.

This was the 94th of 100 programs in the Jazz at 100 series. In the next five hours of the series we will explore the state of jazz in the 1990s and the start of the new millennium, as we wrap up our survey of 100 years of jazz recordings.

Microscopic Sextet. Take The Z Train, collected in Seven Men In Neckties. Press Records P4003
Herb Robertson. Shades of Bud Powell. Winter & Winter 919 019
Tim Berne. Fractured Fairy Tales. JMT 834 431
Either/Orchestra. The Calculus of Pleasure. Accurate Records AC 3252
Don Byron. Tuskegee Experiments. Elektra Nonesuch 9 79280
John Zorn. News For Lulu. hat ART CD 6005
Naked City. Naked City. Nonesuch 79238
Masada. Masada, Vol. 1: Alef. DIW 888
Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio. Constellations. hat ART CD 6173

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
The Musicians of Jazz: John Zorn
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 9. Traditionalists and Postmodernists
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Microscopic Sextet. Take The Z Train, collected in Seven Men In Neckties
Herb Robertson. Shades of Bud Powell
Tim Berne. Fractured Fairy Tales
Either/Orchestra. The Calculus of Pleasure
Don Byron. Tuskegee Experiments
Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio. Constellations

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

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