Monday, January 10, 2011

INTRODUCING: The L.A. New Music Snerd’s Dictionary of Terms*

Hello and welcome to what I hope will be an ongoing and inconsistently posted project of mine: an irreverent (irrelevant?) guide to the underground music as I’ve experienced and collected it of Los Angeles -- specifically, the frequent and surprising intersections of creative jazz, art punk, avant-garde, alt-hip hop and world music. It was inspired and dedicated to my friend Robert Mendoza, a loyal reader of my previous blog Downbeast despite by his own admission, “not understanding half of the terms and people mentioned.”

"Yeth thir, that new TheeDee by Flying Lotuth ith awethome!"

So let’s start with the obvious: “Snerd.” has several definitions, mostly along the lines of “sexy nerd.” (Another is, naturally, a reference to a revolting -- if not impossible -- sexual practice.) Though I am loathe to argue with that definition, “snerd” is for the purposes of this colossal waste of time-slash-labor of love my amalgam of “snob” and “nerd.” Now, there is a difference between a snob and a snerd: a snob with blow air through his lips derisively if you admit you’ve never heard of No Age or Dwight Trible and make you feel like an idiot; a snerd, hearing the same confession, while grab you by the arm excitedly and say, “Dude! You gotta hear this!” and immediately give up a ton of information – much of it too fast to absorb in one sitting – and will immediately want to be FB friends so s/he can deluge you with a shitload of links and downloads. In other words, a snob will hold onto information like it’s a Victorian money belt; a snerd will willingly and happily invite you in to share. And share. And share…

As for style and form, it’s pretty straightforward. All cross-referenced terms are in all caps. We’ll add more entries as we come up with them and add to the new entries as new info makes itself apparent to us (or subtract if something is inaccurate). If there are any you see missing, feel free to add an entry in our ‘Comments’ section – provided you aren’t some kind of spammy asshat or boner-pill pitchman – and I will add it to the list.

Here are the A’s.


Aceyalone. Fedora-hatted polymath and cofounder of the mighty FREESTYLE FELLOWSHIP, the once-named Edward Hayes is the purveyor of a particular brand of hyper-literate, jazz-inflected, semi-humorous Left Coast underground soul-hop that was birthed at the now-mythic “No Cussin’” open mike nights at THE GOOD LIFE CAFÉ. (Sample lyric: "I bet you think I'm silly, huh, Annallillia?") Unfortunately, it rose to cultlike prominence right around the same time that another West Coast rap strain with absolutely no sense of humor called “gangsta” blew up down in Long Beach and Compton, blew up the charts and obscured the FF’s more literary accomplishments. “Acey” released two guaranteed classics – 1995’s All Balls Don’t Bounce (later re-released as a deluxe edition in 2004) and 2000’s Accepted Eclectic.
Afrobeat. Danceable and politically prickly snerd-obsession that reached its apex with the re-release by KNITTING FACTORY Records of the complete catalogue of its mercurial founding father/monumental pussy hound Fela (Anikulapo) Kuti. (The Jay-Z-backed Broadway musical Fela! didn't hurt either.) Not usually known by budding snerds is that Afrobeat may/may not have its roots in Los Angeles, where Fela landed with his band Nigeria 70 in 1969 and even played a residency at Citadel de Haiti on Sunset Boulevard. (He also found the time to bed Black Panther Sandra Smith at a local NAACP gig.) Critics have noted that Fela’s music was merely an amalgam of afro and anglo jazz when he arrived in L.A., and yet when he left it had mutated into a potent brew of funk, afro-jazz, wacky stagecraft and hilarious album titles – a transition documented on The ’69 L.A. Sessions. Contrarian snerds argue that L.A. had nothing to do with Fela’s transition and that drummer Tony Allen had everything to do with it.

Albach, Tom. Gruff, six-foot tall, blue-eyed German-American indie record producer, label owner and SoCal jazz club attendee since the 1950s -- saxophonist VINNY GOLIA once described him as “a sea captain with a cigar” – known for starting record label Nimbus (later NIMBUS WEST) in the late 1970s specifically to document the music of pianist HORACE TAPSCOTT. He did this in part for refuge from, in his own words, “the growing miasma of crap that I could see happening in L.A.” Albach, who lived in Santa Barbara, had virtually no experience with the recording industry (he funded Nimbus with his Vegas winnings), evident in his maverick practice of giving Tapscott complete artistic freedom over his own recordings because, as he opined later, “When you start telling a creative person what to do, it’s going to have a deleterious effect on the end result, any way you shape it.” Notably gonzo print ad campaign underscored Albach's no-B.S. mein: a Tapscott quote ("Music Needs No Scene") with no other info.

Alligator Lounge. Former club located at 3221 West Pico Boulevard right under the lip of the I-10 freeway in West L.A. (and, perversely, near the offices of NARAS, the Grammy committee) that for five years in the mid-Nineties hosted NEW MUSIC MONDAYS, a seminal showcase for unclassifiable artists from L.A. and elsewhere curated by guitarist NELS CLINE. Also famous in older snerd circles for having been a venue previously booked by double bassist Ray Brown before it turned into an identity-confused refuge for Cajun dancers, Viggo Mortensen’s poetry and the old Palomino Club rockabilly crowd. Cline was hired by the club’s owner, an “old, alcoholic-looking” muscle-car enthusiast named Milt Wilson, who nevertheless saw the value of the scene erupting around the intrepid guitarist, which he intriguing dubbed “the New Subterraneans.” Fondly remembered by snerds for its rabid-red interior (before all L.A. clubs adopted it), relaxed no-security/no-cover vibe, and plenty of dark places out on the street to get baked. Remembered fondly by musicians for rare luxuries like a green room with a real working toilet, a sound system “with a sound guy who actually knew how to use it” and an actual stage. After Wilson died of colon cancer, the Alligator closed down in 1997 for various health code violations – including giant palm rats scampering through the kitchen – and replaced by a supper club specializing in Bananas Foster.

Red House Painters Live at the Alligator Lounge, 1995

All About Jazz. National publication founded by designer-framed jazz snerd/New Media impresario  Michael Ricci (not the ice hockey player) in Philly in 1995 with regional offshoots a la New Times or Starbucks. Print version boasts famously tiny, unreadable print and ability to show up mysteriously in wire bins all over L.A. Cavernous and unwieldy with over 100,000 web pages, its online version is as easy to get lost in as the hedge-maze in The Shining. Notable for its cheerfully aggressive subscription-pitchers at various local jazz events despite the fact that the paper is free. Great reading while you’re waiting for a table/bus/bottle service/elevator/presale tickets/date/happy ending. I have a pile of them in the corner that I’ve never read.

Al’s Bar. Much-missed, oft-misunderstood, impossible-to-find (at least for virgins) odiferous graffiti-strewn dive in downtown L.A.’s arts district located in basement of 100-year-old American Hotel building at 305 S. Hewitt Street. Opened on site of former truckers’ bar by mustachioed, widow-peaked artist Mark Kreisel on Easter Sunday 1979 as a way to fund his nearby art gallery (ahead of the city’s 1981 “artist-in-residence” ordinance) and went on to feature DNA, The Fall, The Residents, Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Nirvana, Hüsker Dü, Beck, L7 and Arthur Lee & Love. Also featured adventurous local music of all stripes care of booker Lizzie Balogh (and later, Toast and Jim Miller), who scheduled arty and experimental groups you'd never hear on the Sunset Strip: Paper Tulips, W.A.C.O., the Ray-O-Vacs, Christian Death, REDD KROSS, Betty Blowtorch, The Gun Club, Lutefisk, Popdefect, TVTV$, the Dagons, Tex & the Horseheads, the Dickies, Texas Terri, the Humpers, The 400 Blows, Tadpole, Blues Experiment, Ballgagger, the Caltransvestites and the Imperial Butt Wizards. Thought to be the west-coast equivalent of CBGB’s (acolytes of Anaheim’s Linda’s Doll Hut, Costa Mesa’s Cuckoo’s Nest and SF’s 924 Gilman St., we hear your whining), bar was famous for its numerous easy-to-remember t-shirt epigrams like “Tip or Die” or “Art & Life" and anarchic live shows where pogoing (yawn) and stage-diving (zzzzzz) were considered not creative enough – try wading pools filled with oatmeal, avocado juggling acts and exploding toy animals. CRUEL FREDERICK and Universal Congress Of, the two free jazz groups on SST RECORDS, both formed and performed regularly here. Post-fusion keyboardist WAYNE PEET recorded his 2003 album Live at Al’s Bar here. Predictably, fecklessly disgusting bathroom, decaying booths pilfered from old school Hollywood schmooze spot Nicodell’s on Melrose. Famous for its “No Talent Nite” and take-no-shit-but-lovable bouncer Cliff. Free-range mood was enhanced when patrons enjoyed 32-ounce beers for $5 and enthusiastically disregarded indoor smoking laws. Subject of snerd objet d’art 1996 comp Al’s Bar: What A Dive (featuring a CD encased in a giant yellow matchbook) and an entertaining liner notes the eponymous Jack Daniels and Jamaica Jay-loving “Al,” whose remains were reportedly buried under the pool table.

Al's Bar flyer circa 1981

Alt-jazz. Somewhat useless blanket term for any kind of jazz-inflected music made approximately between John Coltrane’s mid-60s work and the advent of the Cult of John Zorn in the 1980s. For awhile, this type of music didn’t even have a name—now it has about 25, from the sublime to the insulting: “Post-Jazz,” “Edge Jazz,” “Nu Jazz,” "Anti-Jazz," "Post-Miles," “Jazzcore,” “Creative Jazz.” Some would say it shouldn’t even be called “jazz” anymore—now, it’s “Creative Music,” “New Music” or simply “That Weird Sh*t.” (Reedman VINNY GOLIA prefers the mouthful of “Contemporary Improvisational;” the CLINE Brothers call it “Squeeky-Bonk.”) Whatever it was, the music succeeded in bridging a gap from the 60s avant-garde to the punk and indie rock generations, who saw something kindred in its musical freedoms and do-it-yourself ethic.

Amendola, Scott. Curly-haired, wire-spectacled, insanely prolific drummer with a well-known (and oft-envied) careerist streak. A longtime mainstay on the Bay Area nu-jazz scene through his associations with guitarist Charlie Hunter and Saxophonist Phil Greenlief and an honorary Angeleno for enduring six-hour car rides to play for unappreciative or nonexistent audiences in various collaborative groups like L. Stinkbug, Crater and most famously THE NELS CLINE SINGERS. Originally from Tenafly, New Jersey, Amendola’s musical pedigree extended back to his grandfather, Bronx-born guitarist Tony Gottuso, who played with everybody from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. (Gottuso played on the original "Hello Dolly" with Louis Armstrong.) Subject of a famous print quote by San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Derk Richardson echoing Jon Landau’s famous pronouncement about Bruce Springsteen: “If Scott Amendola didn’t exist, the San Francisco music scene would have to invent him.” The Nels Cline Singers’ 2007 song “Evening at Pops’” is dedicated to him.

Scott Amendola
[Photo by Peak]

Angel City Jazz Festival. Wildly diffuse NEW MUSIC soiree with misleading name—it’s less like the Playboy Jazz Festival and more like the ALT-JAZZ version of the FUCK YEAH FEST (which it shares the same weekend). Started in 2008 by local club promoter ROCCO SOMAZZI (who was later joined by musician/label owner JEFF GAUTHIER) and despite all predictions has lasted for three subsequent years and counting. It’s purported “lack of focus” actually a testament to how eclectic and borderless the LA creative music community is and a chance for people to finally appreciate that fact. The festival has evolved from a single weekend/venue to multiple days/venues, which in LA may be a sign of success or may not. Also a place where like-minded snerds reconnect with each other in a non-Zuckerberg kind of way, only to vanish into the city again until the next big event.

Rocco Somazzi (right) and Jeff Gauthier
at the Angel City Jazz Festival 2010
[Photo by Aaron Griffith]

Ankhrasmation. Surrealist term coined in 1977 by trumpeter WADADA LEO SMITH to refer to his personal style of musical notation that in part resembled the bizarre, multicolored Sesame Street-scores of ANTHONY BRAXTON. Word is a mash-up of Ankh (Egyptian for “Life Force”), Ras (Amharic for “Father”) and Ma (“Mother”) and like Braxton uses a system of colors, shapes and symbols to indicate to players which direction to take the song (i.e., a symbol to “play orange” means you play the fruit, the color and the mood) Smith attempted to explain: “Ankhrasmation music uses no pictures of notes, no designs of notes; it’s a symbolic interpretation of what’s there. It is a way of making music that has a little bit of both improvisation and composition inside it.” It is advised to sound this word out in front of a mirror several times before using in company of knowledgeable snerds.

An example of "Ankhrasmation"

Anticlub. Originally located at 4658 Melrose Avenue in East Hollywood in a former gay-bar space once called (ahem) Snoopy’s Long Shot, the 200-capacity Anti-club opened the same year as AL’s BAR with a show by a GREG GINN-led Black Flag and similarly caught the late 60s/early80s post-punk zeitgeist of unclassifiable music thanks to leasers Russell Jessum and Jack Marquette and booker Jim Van Tyne (not to mention sound man Jac Zinder, who had a policy of not miking the amps and lived nearby with his parents). Tyne once quixotically stated that the all-ages venue was “about music that‘s a challenge” and proceeded to make good on that statement by booking family friendly bands like Flipper, Savage Republic, The Cult, Agnes Angst (a.k.a., Lily Tomlin), The Nymphs, Tomata Du Plenty, The Descendants, The Urinals, St. Vitus, Swans, Lawndale, The Meat Puppets, The Lazy Cowgirls, The MINUTEMEN, fIREHOSE, and SACCHARINE TRUST as well as spoken word and performance art. DAVID OCKER, head of the INDEPENDENT COMPOSER’S ASSOCIATION, played there with his improvising trio that included saxophonist VINNY GOLIA and flautist ANNE LEBARGE. A large group assembled by saxophonist JONATHAN GOLD, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic, led a large ensemble that performed MINIMALIST composer Terry Riley's In C. Officially called The Anti-club at Helen’s Place, as owner Helen Gutman was noted for her dislike of the more bizarre acts, embodied by her frequent refrain: "What's the matter with you? Get off the stage, you crazy nut!" The club, which moved several times during its history – including a burrito stand, a Mission Furniture outlet and the parking lot of Apparel News – but had frequent zoning and fire code problems leading (among many other things) to its frequent relocations and eventual closure. FAST & FUCKED UP – a punk band with tuba player WILLIAM ROPER – played here, as did Sonic Youth during their first US tour. Front of original club featured in the 1986 PUNKSPLOITATION flick Lovedolls Superstar.

Anticlub flyer, July 1985

Arco. Knowledgeable musical term for bowed bass playing, i.e., “MARK DRESSER is the greatest living Arco player on the West OR East Coast.” When mentioned, you can nod thoughtfully and say, “Word.”

Ark. Biblically derived, blanket term adopted by at least two major avant-garde bandleaders of the 1960s – a sort of hipster term replacing the more Anglo-Saxon “commune.” Sun Ra and HORACE TAPSCOTT both used the term “Arkestra” in their very different but equally surreal big bands, which often contained more than one person on an instrument and acted as teaching ensembles for future generations of free-thinking alchemists. Typical snerd: “Yeah, man, I checked out ‘The Ark’ last week at the Levitt Pavillion!” Also see: PAN AFRIKAN PEOPLE’S ARKESTRA, THE GATHERING.

Arthur. Archeological indie snerd music mag founded in 2002 by ex-Sound Collector editor Laris Krelsins and ex-New Times scribe Jay Babcock. The heir apparent to the original OPTION magazine and a growing media empire that seemed to be poised to compete with the more inscrutable VICE magazine, Arthur trumpeted weird and forgotten music of all stripes, most notably NOISE MUSIC, psychedelia, and the avant-garde and backed up its cred and almost assured its eventual self-immolation by being free and bi-monthly. Cute snerdy titles for the names on its masthead: “universal mutant,” “psychedelic healing visions correspondent.” Columnists included Snerd Hall fo Famers Byron Coley, Thurston Moore, Daniel Pinchbeck, Douglas Rushkoff and T-Model Ford. After Arthur shut down temporarily, Babcock got wise and moved Arthur Vol II to New York, where it now exists strictly online. Sigh.

Arthur J and the Gold Cups. Depending on who you talk to this was a pioneering "punk rock big band" who was 20 years ahead of its time or a “godawful” absurdist joke. Name came from an amalgam of infamous local haunts for male hustlers: Arthur J.’s was a “big chicken hawk hangout” on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard; The Gold Cup was “a sleazy coffee shop” located on Hollywood Boulevard and Las Palmas near the punk club THE MASQUE and its attendant squatter’s tenement THE CANTERBURY and was the subject of the scum-punk song “Trouble at the Cup” by DANGERHOUSE RECORDS chairman Black Randy. Considered by some to be the house band for The Masque, as it first emerged out of jam sessions at the club. The club’s owner BRENDAN MULLEN played drums. Quasi-Gold Digger backup singers wearing cowboy hats and toy pistol holsters dubbed The Cupcakes. Aptly named frontman Spazz Attack (a.k.a., "Craig Allen Rothwell") was known for successfully executing 360 degree flips in the middle of a song. He playing Devo’s famed Booji Boy mascot (“a bizarre adult infant freak with pre-adolescent sexuality and Yoda-like wisdom”) in the band’s videos for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Peek-a-boo” and later was a dancer on David Bowie’s 1987 Glass Spider tour. (Rumor was he was coached by dance guru Toni “Mickey” Basil.) Lead guitarist Geza X known for his art-damaged surf guitar and trumpeter Hal Negro known for being a trumpeter in a punk band. Famed for its Cuisinarty mixing of influences: name-checking ORNETTE COLEMAN (whose song “Themes from a Symphony” they covered), Sun Ra, George Clinton and James Brown along with the New York Dolls, T.Rex and The Sex Pistols. Also may have pioneered the hipster practice of the Ironic Cover Song: from the Green Acres theme to the "Cal" Worthington used car commericals. Evolved into the pioneering LOUNGECORE band Hal Negro and the Satin Tones, with the Cupcakes evolving into the Playboy Martinet-aping Punk Bunnies.

Art punk. Poorly defined term centering on punk rock bands with artistic pretensions and can encompass the early recordings of the L.A. FREE MUSIC SOCIETY as well as the visual incontinence of bands like THE SCREAMERS and THE WEIRDOS and the stripped down minimalism of THE SMELL's house band NO AGE.

Ascension. Epoch-defining recording from saxophonist John Coltrane is considered the rosetta stone for the free jazz movement of the late-60s and beyond. (Reedman Dave Liebman once called it “the torch that lit free jazz.”) Recorded 6/28/65 at a studio on Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, during Year Zero of the Sixties counterculture, America’s involvement in Vietnam, and urban uprisings, it was Coltrane’s break with bebop and MODAL playing and and embracing of more distressing sounds and a relentless spiritual searching through a bigger band. Basically a single 40-minute group improv with a refreshingly egalitarian feel (Coltrane is listed among the horn section instead of as leader and doesn’t take any more solo time than the others), the album has had wide-ranging influence on future generations of noisemakers who wanted to challenge their audiences and annoy their neighbors. Besides Iggy and the Stooges, it’s rumored that THE GERMS listened to Ascension on a contant loop in their Hollywood punk squat. Wrote critic Douglas Wolk: "Over 35 years later, it still blows the roof off."

As Serious As Your Life. Bible of avant-garde jazz written by British photographer/Afrophile Valerie Wilmer. First published in 1977, book is considered one of the first salt-worthy overviews of the emergence of what she calls "The New Music" in the 1960s and 1970s—with incisive and fascinating profiles of ORNETTE COLEMAN, Sun Ra, ALBERT AYLER, CECIL TAYLOR among many others—and one of the ONLY books of the time to even mention the role of Los Angeles musicians like BOBBY BRADFORD and JOHN CARTER in more than just one sentence or a small-font footnote. The title is from a quote attributed to drummer McCoy Tyner.

Atwood-Ferguson, Miguel. Tall, curly-haired studio musician/bandleader and purveyor of a particularly aggressive style of punk-inflected jazz violin that hearkens back to the old Frank Zappa sidemen like Jean Luc-Ponty and Don “Sugarcane” Harris and joins him with Gen X/Y string recontextualizers like LILI HADYN and PETRA HADEN. Notably a journeyman between many different local musical métiers, particularly jazz and hip hop, Ferguson worked with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, MADLIB, BILLY HIGGINS, Dr. Dre, and the PAN AFRIKAN PEOPLES ARKESTRA offshoots THE GATHERING and BUILD AN ARK with producer/DJ CARLOS NINO. In 2009, orchestrated the music of late Detroit hip hop producer J. DILLA's for the memorable three-part Timeless: A Suite For Ma Dukes concert at the Luckman Auditorium. Cemented reputation as a shapeshifter by appearing on indie rapper FLYING LOTUS’ 2010 breakthrough album Cosmogramma.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (right) with Carlos Nino

Ayler, Albert. Ahead of his time (in the tragic as well as innovative sense) saxophonist from Cleveland often cited by music snerds when they want to let you know how “out” their eardrums can travel. Beloved by modern punks and avant-gardists alike because, as critic John Litweiler once wrote, "never before or since has there been such naked aggression in jazz.” Ayler mixed Salvation Army brass band messiness with R&B, blues (he backed harmonica legend Little Walter in the early 1950s) and gospel hymns and came up with a powerful multiphonic sound that was so radical and overwhelming it never found its sea legs in America but was better received in Europe. Known for his custom-tailored sharkskin suits, thatch of white hair in his black beard, and mysterious suicide-tinged death at age 34 in New York’s East River in 1970. Subject of superb if seemingly incomplete 2005 Swedish documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler and exhaustive 10-CD restropective Holy Ghost released in 2004 by Revenant Records. Spent at least three years in Los Angeles post-Army discharge, where he was summarily ignored a la one of his influences, ORNETTE COLEMAN.

Albert Ayler wails for John Coltrane, NYC, July 1967

Azz Izz. Druggy performance space located at the Venice Place complex at 1031 West Washington Boulevard (now the yuppified Abbot Kinney Boulevard) in Venice Beach from 1970 to 1978. Run by St. Louis-born ranconteur/musician Billie Harris, space was famous for closing before most music snerds even knew it existed. Official name was the Azz Izz Jazz Cultural Center and Teahouse. Acted as the Westside base for the PAN AFRIKAN PEOLE’S ARKESTRA and its attendant arts umbrella UGMAA. Harris scavenged old carpets, rolled in giant wooden cable spools to use as tables, soundproofed the place with egg boxes, pulled leaves off eucalyptus trees to make tea and fishing off the Venice Pier to make fillet sandwiches. Thought of as the progenitor to RICHARD FULTON’s FIFTH STREET DICK'S coffeehouse. Rotating house band consisted of Andre Burbage, RUFUS OLIVIER, Bobby West, ROBERTO MIGUEL MIRANDA, BILY CHILDS, George Cables, BILLY HIGGINS, Frank Morgan, ONAJE MURRAY, VINNY GOLIA, Walter Savage and JESSE SHARPS -- many of whom lived for a time at the club. Place shut down for a variety of reasons, including infiltration by the Venice chapter of the Crips, whom the musicans fought physically one night until Harris fired a shot from his gun into the ceiling. The fact that it was located across from the Westmister Elementary School might have played a role as well.

[*with apologies to David Kamp and Steve Daily, and many thanks to Henry Beard and Roy McKie]

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