Creation Myth

Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago arts collective charted new territory in black music. Now, in a three-day retrospective, Minneapolis free-jazz explorers Douglas Ewart and Carei Thomas return to that land of possibilities.

If free jazz has its own Liberty Bell, surely it is to be found in the living room of composer and inventor Douglas Ewart. His bell collection is lined up three rows deep, and it features indescribable nuances of design, composition, and size. One would imagine the bells are capable of producing an equally wide range of sounds: These are tinkling, jingling, tolling, and chiming devices culled from around the world. But the bell is not tolling for Ewart this moment (so to speak) as he reaches cautiously past this shelf to demonstrate another prized possession. The device that Ewart snatches from the wall is more rudimentary and sturdy, a homemade clay didgeridoo dappled with intricate, multihued patterns.

"Lately I've been working with clay," he explains, guiding the bulky aboriginal device safely to the floor. Then Ewart purses his lips and blows deeply, and the instrument unleashes a low, wavering belch. Stretching from his mouth to the floor, the elongated hollow tube makes Ewart, who stands well under five-and-a-half-feet tall in his socks, seem even more diminutive.

Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments
Tony Nelson
Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments

And I do mean in his socks--that's how the 56-year-old musician greets me at the door of his Powderhorn home, asking me to shed my own shoes as well. The polite manner with which he fixes me tea and offers me a seat is an initially hard-to-read mix of the congenial and the proper. Ewart was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and you can hear the cadence of his island heritage at odd intervals in his speech, such as the unexpected emphasis on the first syllable when he mentions he is working on a "CD." Often, however, that intonation is swallowed up by a deep, sonorous formality in his speech.

"You buzz, howl, grunt, sing," he explains of the didgeridoo, coming up for air in between huffs into the aperture. As Ewart grows excited at showing off his array of creations, I can hear his voice bounce up into a singsong Jamaican lilt. "The principle is like a brass instrument, but you keep your lips a lot looser. Still, the key is the vibration of the lips." His mouth reaffixes itself to the blowhole, and he lets loose another monstrous blast.

"As a child, I made my own instruments--drums out of tin cans," Ewart recalls. "We made our own scooters and trucks that you could sit on to be pushed, with our own steering. Kites, tops, balls, bats. Covers for our own schoolbooks. You learned about structure and how to care for things, and you learned self-reliance. When I started playing music, I wasn't in a financial position to buy these kinds of instruments from around the world. Not having economic resources helped bolster my creativity. Now, when I see an instrument...my first response is, 'I can make that.'"

And apparently, when he sees some mundane household object, Ewart's first response is, I can make that into an instrument. The living room that serves as storage and display space for his musical inventions is all but overflowing with homemade delights. Ewart has spent the past quarter-hour traveling around the room plucking upon, blowing into, thumping, shaking, and otherwise manipulating whatever crafted object is in reach.

But here's the odd part. Far from outlandish, impractical designs, these creations seem (at least now that they've been birthed) inevitable. Their existence seems almost, well, obvious, which is a great testament to the precision of Ewart's imagination. Of course the tensile quality of a ski exists so that it can be tautly strung and transformed into a harp, capable of a brittle, haunting melodicism. Of course a crutch has a hollow space so that you can cram it full of cymbals that clatter when you bounce the stick's rubber tip against the floor. Of course if you saw open a trio of 9 mm shells, coat the holes in rubber, and latch the shells to a clothes rack for support, you'll get a versatile percussion device. What's that? What do you strike the shells with? Why do you think Ping-Pong paddles are cased in rubber? And why do you think flip-flops are coated with the same stuff on the soles?

Perhaps it is another unlikely inevitability that Ewart was not alone in developing his singular artistry. And that the organization that launched Ewart's career, the Association for the Advancement of the Creative Musician, would launch dozens of strange and wonderful careers as part of the evolution of postbop jazz. The AACM--the Chicago arts organization that will be celebrating its 35th anniversary at the Walker this weekend with what's being touted as "A New Jazz Mini-Festival"--has established a legacy of exploring the gap between imaginative conception and improvisational execution. That is to say, between poetics and practice.

Freedom is an oft-abused license in the world of spontaneous music, but AACM musicians have generally justified their excesses with concise conceptual leaps. Why not, Anthony Braxton asked, replace traditionally notated music with inscrutable designs and instructive prose poems? Why not, the Art Ensemble of Chicago suggested, integrate soul and poetry and theatrical effects into a musical setting? Why not, indeed? replied AACM guru and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. When you discard previously accepted rules--the jazz tradition of plumbing the harmonic depths of a limited number of standard melodies and changes, for instance; or the wall dividing the arts into discrete categories--such questions become easier to ask.

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