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Creation Myth

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

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.

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.

 

And yet whatever leaps the members of the AACM may plan next remains, after 35 years, beyond even the best-informed guesses. We know that Minneapolis pianist (and renegade AACMer) Carei Thomas has been commissioned to write and perform a piece on the opening night of the minifestival on Thursday. We even know what instruments Thomas intends to use--piano, sax, bass, and trumpet. But what side of his compositional personality will Thomas indulge? Its ruminative depths, its sprightly surfaces, or its sentimental soul?

Similarly, will the scheduled panel discussion held Friday be awash in the allusive poetic sensibilities of the AACM, gently synthesizing contradictory ideas and thick poetics? Or will the conversation gravitate toward a hard-nosed debate on the economics of improvisation--finding stages and getting paid?

As Ewart leads me away from his panoply of creations, back into his sitting room, I realize it would be particularly stupid for me to try to guess what he has in mind for his Saturday performance with his group Inventions (featuring Joseph Jarman and Wadada Leo Smith). It turns out Ewart himself might hesitate to guess what's on the bill: A few weeks before the show, he hasn't yet finished composing the piece.

 

Although the living room of Ewart's home is dominated by instruments, the sitting room is more of a study, arranged into what's best described as an orderly clutter--a wonder cabinet of sorts.

"Cultures have a way of letting them carry you back," Ewart explains, gesturing around the room. "Other cultures infect you--they have their own viral tendencies."

The bookshelves alone are evidence of an omnivorously curious man, its texts ranging from the novels of Ishmael Reed to The Indonesia Handbook, to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to David Halberstam's biography of Michael Jordan. ("Some of those books are Janice's," he tells me modestly, referring to his wife, arts organizer and KFAI DJ Janice Lane-Ewart). On the walls are masks of traditional design, which Ewart--who was initially trained as a tailor at vocational school in Jamaica--has dabbled in over the years, and the room is awash in potted greenery. Commanding one half of the remaining space is a massive hand-carved gong brought back from a trip to Bali, the dream vacation for a musician as inquisitive as Ewart.

"As you can tell, I'm not interested in restricting myself to what sounds I utilize," he says. "I'm always looking to find things that create new sounds."

That playful search can produce results that may seem daunting to the uninitiated. "His early music looked a lot like Schoenberg or Webern, except that it was permeated with the flavor of the African diaspora," recalls Ewart's friend Carei Thomas, who first encountered the composer in Chicago in the late Sixties. "It was angular, but it was like if 12-tone music had originated in Kenya."

The written music for Ewart's more recent compositions is just as involved, though somewhat more fanciful. Ewart shows me the score for "Boukman II," a composition named for the Haitian revolutionary, and divided into several differently annotated sections. On one page, seven movements are set apart in bubbles, and musicians move from one to the next as they wish, as in a musical choose-your-own-adventure. Each musical segment depends on the serendipity of a group of talented improvisatory musicians: Some have symbols suggesting that horns should start up high and gradually descend, but not which notes they should play along the way. Other schematics tell the musicians either which notes to play but not how long to hold each one, or how long to hold each note, but not which ones to play.

To hear the result of such a visually abstract sketch, sample Ewart's Angels of Invention. A live recording from the mid-Nineties, the piece spotlights Ewart's eight-man Clarinet Choir, an all-star assemblage that contained AACM luminaries such as Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton, not to mention Ewart himself. Periodically, my ears can locate a delicate eight-note melody within the tumult. One clarinet rumbles in its low register, producing a pitch whose vibrations are more felt then heard. Another moans with a ghostly flutter, like the incidental music when Abbott and Costello unexpectedly stumble into some looming Universal Pictures monster. Still another clarinet attenuates the timbre of its high register to a clarion purity. Players tighten and loosen their embouchures. Keys pop and reeds buzz. The eight clarinets trade winding motifs, intermingle, answer one another squawk for squawk, disagree, and, eventually, make up, resolving on an extended, intricate chord that dissolves into silence.

 

This is what happens when you forget that there's a "right" way to play the clarinet. Angels of Invention is a keen exploration of what sounds this instrument can make, and a reminder that Ewart doesn't need to invent instruments to uncover unlikely noises. Even on the homely bass clarinet, often his instrument of choice, he can create unexpected results. The essence of Douglas Ewart's art is to never be so distracted by novelty that you forget the pleasures to be derived from your immediate surroundings.

"As I tell my students," Ewart explains, cleaning his clarinet with a soft gray feather, 'You've got to keep courting your art, or it will find another lover.'"

 

The lifelong affair between a musician and his art may be a storied romance, but as the old ballad insists, "Romance without finance is a nuisance." In the Chicago of the Sixties, as in just about every American city of any decade, an avant-garde musician's aesthetic principles impinged upon his economic ones on a daily basis. So when the charismatic and idea-driven pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, in conjunction with Phil Cohran, Steve McCall, and Jody Christian, first convened the Association for the Advancement of the Creative Musician in 1965, his reasons were as much economic as they were aesthetic (as if those two categories can ever be separated).

With the rise of "creative" rock in the 1960s, there were a dwindling number of jazz clubs booking acts in town. Few of those wanted to reserve space for musicians deemed too "out" for profitable public consumption. And the future members of the AACM, with their post-bop interest in divorcing music from European harmonic constraints, their yen to jumble the visual and spoken arts into their musical presentation, and their Africanist leanings--they were way out.

"The AACM was, and still is, a challenge to the economic infrastructure," says George Lewis, a representative of the second wave of musicians to join the AACM in the early Seventies. Since the production-consumption model of artistic creation was deemed unfit for real improvisatory exploration--that is to say, no one would buy these jazz records--the AACM argued that another system needed to be put in place. "It was a call for artists to come together to help themselves," Lewis says.

Lewis, who joined the AACM in 1972, currently teaches at the University of California-San Diego and operates as a respected composer himself on the vanguard of computer music. In his scanty spare time, he's compiling a massive and potentially definitive tome that will serve as a history of the association that spurred him forward. "It's important to see the AACM in the context of larger economic forces," he insists by phone from his West Coast home. "The association challenged the existing distribution of wealth." This political challenge did not stand separate from their art, but in fact mirrored their aesthetics. "When you break boundaries of practice," Lewis continues. "You break boundaries of economics."

And the boundaries of practice were certainly broken under the auspices of the AACM. In 1967 Lester Bowie's unconventional suites of improvisation, Numbers 1 & 2, featuring Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Malachi Favors, planted the seeds of what would sprout into the Art Ensemble of Chicago. One year later, Braxton's collection of saxophone solos, For Alto, would become the first wholly improvisational recording of an unaccompanied instrument other than the piano.

But the AACM, though collective in many ways, wasn't to be some anarchic commune. The four founding fathers immediately saw to it that the fledgling AACM would be a state-chartered nonprofit organization. In contrast to the vaunted liberties taken in their art and performances, the AACM itself was strictly disciplined. "They instituted parliamentary procedure," says George Lewis. "The initial AACM was very formal, with regular weekly meetings."

Once they felt reasonably assured of their continued existence, the members of the organization decided to pass the discipline they'd acquired on to others. Under the tutelage of Abrams, the AACM created a school in 1967, offering free instruction to promising young musicians willing to espouse the association's freewheeling, yet stringent, aesthetic. Every Saturday the members volunteered their time, carrying out instruction in performance and theory, and distributing instruments to those children who couldn't afford them. One such student was Douglas Ewart.

"There was no tuition," Ewart recalls. "We helped with publicity and working around the AACM office, assembling the magazine. The school provided lessons for everyone. There weren't age barriers for anyone. That has always been one of the strong points of the school." Because of the organization's focus on collaboration and composition, Ewart recalls, the students were quickly writing their own material and performing in coffee shops or whatever other spots would give them room to experiment.

 

"How does an organization remain together without a central dogma to unite them?" asks George Lewis rhetorically, posing the central question of the AACM's unique identity. In New York, after all, a similar attempt to band together musicians, headed up by Bill Dixon, Carla Bley, and Cecil Taylor, quickly fell apart. There the star system reared its own disruptive power, as individual players commanded large enough contracts to create rifts in the jazz community. Even today, Lewis insists, you see the workings of New York's "conglomerate" model in the split between Lincoln Center traditionalists and the downtown avant-garde. An organization such as the AACM remains vital, then, because the artists are forced together by economic exclusion.

Many historians mark 1969 as the end of the first incarnation of the AACM. That's the year when a number of the musicians, frustrated with the marginalized condition of the improvisatory artist in the U.S., departed for France--some, like Braxton, never to return, others, like the Art Ensemble, to make their way back to the States by the mid-Seventies. Abrams himself would soon set out for New York. Lewis, who hadn't even joined the organization until three years after the AACM's supposed demise, hesitates to endorse that verdict of premature death. No matter where these musicians traveled, he insists, they consciously remained representatives of the AACM. And many AACM graduates, including Douglas Ewart (who would serve as president of the organization for the latter half of the Seventies and has assisted in organizing the Walker event), returned to volunteer their services.

Regardless of how one charts the AACM's "creative peak," the fact remains that the organization continues to teach students in Chicago and induct young trailblazers into its midst. "We have lean years and, well, less lean years," jokes Lewis, when asked about the institution's financial health. Most important, the idea of the AACM as an island of improvisational experiment, continues to motivate both members of the organization and others influenced by its example.

Carei Thomas's posture at the piano is a curious thing to behold. His elbows hang out over the keyboard and his arms bend inward. His fingers, curled into themselves at the first knuckle, float stiffly over the keys, rigid wrists propelled with thoughtful deliberation. Thomas's manner of fingering is complicated and distinctive. The runs he coaxes from the piano are often staccato, Monkish jabs that eventually reveal themselves as unsettled chordings. Forearms maul the keyboard violently in more invigorating passages. Maintaining a sprightly rhythm throughout, Thomas transforms the choppiness into a jaunty mood, a dance of improvisation.

Thomas's five-man Feel Free combo--a drummer, a bassist, a saxophonist, and a flügelhorn player--is tucked away in the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater on an early Wednesday evening in October. (They perform there the first Wednesday of each month.) There's often a speakeasy-style secretiveness to the theater: Just a few yards away, after all, folks hurl bowling balls down warped lanes at unresponsive pins, while, unknown to them, a gaggle of us are secluded here in the darkness consuming some esoteric manner of fringe art. But tonight, the space is more familial: There are known children in the audience. One seven-year-old sitting in front of me (whose bag Thomas's frisky avant-jazz would apparently seem not to be) preoccupies himself with piloting a digitized character through some rococo matrix of LCD peril.

In a beret and with a scruff of a beard that would mark him as an elder jazzman in any setting, the 62-year-old Thomas introduces another "cartoon," as he calls a certain playful style of composition that he sometimes employs. This piece is supposedly a musical depiction of a "portly Charles Laughton/Orson Welles-type character" he and the band have noticed "roaming about town." Oblivious to the accessibly peppy rumble emanating from the stage, and no longer diverted by his handheld videogame, the kid in front of me is now all afidget. As Thomas motions with his head for the horns to respond to a particular motif, the boy tosses the game down on his table and goes running off to the back of the room. The lurch of tones jumbling from the stage, like some mix of Carl Stalling and Kurt Weill, seems a fitting soundtrack to the boy's rambunctiousness. You can tell by the expression on his father's face that he wants to make the kid behave. Unfortunately, his father is playing saxophone onstage right at that moment.

 

If Carei Thomas notices the commotion, he doesn't acknowledge it; he's busy stirring up some commotion of his own. What is striking about Thomas's music is that, no matter what complexities lie underneath, the sounds are graspable on first listen. Not ordinary sounds, but, to anyone with a grain of patience and an open ear, it is music capable of being translated from unfamiliarity to a pleasing system of timbres and pitches. This is as true with the "cartoons" Thomas performs at the Bryant-Lake Bowl that night as with 1995's Windfall: Twice in a Lifetime, which teams Thomas with a violin and cello in an "improvisational piano trio" dubbed Triade. In this piece the results are both intimate and elegant, exploring unexpected tonalities without abandoning melody. "I like to use the word pan-tonal, meaning all-tonal, as opposed to atonal, meaning no tones," Thomas will say.

"My music doesn't reek with virtuosity," Thomas admits with a smile when I meet with him several days later. "I am a complex yet simple man, and I think my music reflects that." He considers this supposition for a moment. "I think my mission is to show people how you can be complex and simple at the same time."

As if to demonstrate this, Thomas closes his performance at the Bryant-Lake Bowl with a song entitled "Baby Baby Home Buddy," which he dedicates to his wife, Joyce Marie Thomas, sitting in the front row. A love ballad, the tune is unexpectedly pretty. Of course, you think at first: After the joyous cacophony that has preceded it, any song employing even marginally straightforward harmonics is bound to seem like a familiar standard. But "Baby Baby Home Buddy" is as undeniably pretty as it is shamelessly sentimental, laid out over a bed of changes so lush and melodic that Wynton Marsalis himself might be tricked into soloing over it in a weak moment.

Thomas's conversation is just as unpredictable as his music. As he sits comfortably in the front room of his south Minneapolis home, his thoughts and the words he chooses to encode them are restless. He launches into whirling, unchartable (and in a sense, unquotable) soliloquies that veer from musical exegesis to Buddhist philosophizing--which he then undercuts with apologies that transform into digressions longer than the original speech itself. His conversation is, like his music, improvisational, and even when you can't fully suss the dialectics of his discourse, you can skitter along the surface of his speech for pure pleasure.

"Carei always seems to be in awe of everything," laughs Dawn Renee Jones, local writer and theater director, and the artistic head of the Alchemy Theater in south Minneapolis. "Even before we were collaborating," she recalls, "He would call me at whatever hour just to share an idea. 'You should see this sunrise this morning. Are you awake?' and I'd grumble, 'No, Carei, it's six o'clock in the morning.'"

"I have what I want to do within me, like a fingerprint, and I gravitate toward people who'll give me affirmation of what I already am," explains Thomas. He admits to being a bit of a maverick professionally, and so his tenure in the AACM was more a peripheral one. "I was respectful and committed, but I wasn't much of an organization man. Early in my life, I said, 'I want to be a musician.' And then I set out to find out what 'a musician' is."

 

Thomas traces his aesthetic to growing up in the culturally diverse Hill District of Pittsburgh. "If the neighborhoods spread out from there like ripples of water, then I guess I was in the second ripple," he explains, then launches into an impressionistic recollection of his childhood home. "Paint stores, marketplaces, a lot of immigrants and black people who had migrated from the South and the West Indies. Slavic people, Serbs. Way before pita bread was a big thing, we'd get it from the Syrian bakery. Provolone hanging from Italian stores. Sanctified churches on Sunday. A lively, sensual culture, and hills where I could run off and explore, animals and flowers. And I was an only child, so I thought all of this was my family.

"On Sundays after church, my grandfather would have men over to the house to discuss current events. Japan is up to this, da da da da da, Haile Selassie is up to that, and so on. My juvenile ego would lead me to try and steal the show--to sit at the piano and play Cecil Taylor-esque rambles."

Thomas's family eventually migrated to Chicago. Here he fell in with the members of the AACM, before drifting up to the University of Minnesota to study music teaching and music therapy. Thomas, who admits to having issues with methods of structured education, soon wandered away from the academy, before severing ties completely. He set about composing, and found a decent chunk of grant money floating about in the Twin Cities, as well as opportunities to collaborate with talented artists in the region. Alchemy's Jones soon would become one of Thomas's many collaborators. Along with visual artist Seitu Jones, Thomas and Dawn Renee Jones embarked upon a performance piece called Skin, for which they received funding in 1993. "I told Carei and Seitu straight off that I did not want to write a script that they would decorate," Jones says. "We each ventured into areas that are not our discipline. [Thomas] was able to understand the mood it was coming from. We met once a month for three hours, then shared our thoughts, then worked individually."

 

This already leisurely artistic gestation was slowed even further when Thomas developed Guillain Barré Syndrome, an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves that affects his body to this day. "I turned against my own body, like lupus does," Thomas says of his disease. "The myelin sheath that covers the nerves was just eaten away. Unlike [with] MS, though, it regenerates. But at that time, I was like a puddle of water from Thanksgiving of 1993 to April of '94. I was on a respirator--all I could do was move my eyes."

"It was obvious he was going to be out of commission for a while," Jones recalls. But the writer and the designer refused to enlist a new pianist. "Waiting on the project was our way of confirming that Carei was going to get better," she elaborates. One year later, he was able to resume work.

But although Thomas's body was gradually rehabilitating itself, he wasn't regaining movement fast enough to satisfy him. "There was a time when Carei was still in a wheelchair," Jones recalls. "Douglas and Janice had just bought their house. They had a good old-fashioned Chicago house party. Chili, dancing, dancing, dancing--I mean, serious dancing. James Brown was on the box. The music was loud, but over the sound of the funk, you could hear Carei say, "Get me up! Get me up!" We were worried. So I asked, 'What's wrong?' And he told us, 'I want to dance.' So Douglas and a bunch of the guys pulled him up, and helped him dance as well as they could."

How Thomas would learn to take up his instrument again was a more long-term and solitary activity. To the extent that he has always considered himself a composer first and a player second, he was able to overcome his loss of dexterity by adjusting his style. Thomas reports that his ear was still drawn to the same offbeat chords and unusual tonal colors. In forcing him to approach his instrument differently, the illness in some sense behaved as just one more unexpected chord progression to solo over.

"I love spontaneity," Thomas insists gleefully. "Art comes from the spontaneous and grows into the structure, rather than straitjacketing ideas and feelings initially," he theorizes, leaning back in his chair. "In spontaneity, there is order. When we think about ordering, then we make absurd statements like 'I want this to feel real natural.' When we just respond, we arrive at a truer order."


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