Friday, February 25, 2011

"GREG GINN, MEET MICHAEL SESSION...": A Conversation with Charles Sharp

This is a first for the Beast. We’ve reviewed books and interviewed authors but we’ve never reviewed a Ph.D. Thesis. But the subject of Charles M. Sharp’s 2008 dissertation, titled Improvisation, Identity and Tradition: Experimental Music Communities in Los Angeles, is something quite close to the Beast’s heart. And something we have been waiting to read for a long time.

It's a mammoth piece of work, clocking in at almost 500 pages. Sharp was kind enough to lend us a copy for informal perusal and we quickly found out why: despite the academic tone one expects in a Ph.D. disseration, it is the first text we've seen to weave together -- in a sort of crazy-quilt fashion -- the unruly and often confusing 40-year history of L.A.'s various experimental music scenes. There are chapters on Ornette Coleman, Horace Tapscott and UGMAA, Bobby Bradford, Nels and Alex Cline, Vinny Golia and Nine Winds Records. Perhaps the paper's centerpiece is a long and fascinating account of the late clarinetist John Carter's Roots and Folkore series, which Sharp rightly calls "one of the most important pieces of experimental jazz during the 1980s." There are individual case studies of working L.A. musicians like saxophonists Lynn Johnston and Michael Session and tubaist William Roper, and revelatory portraits of lesser-known figures like Lee Kaplan and Titus Levi, whose behind-the-scenes support for L.A.'s nascent improvised music scene proved invaluable in keeping it alive.

But Sharp has gone farther into areas that have either been neglected or passed over in any single history and connected them to a much wider and richer tapestry, particularly in the fascinating parallels between experimental jazz and punk rock in Los Angeles: The Masque, The Deadbeats, SST Records, The Minutemen, Al's Bar and The Weirdos (among many others) are all brought to the fore as spiritual inheritors of L.A.'s free jazz past. Sharp's vitae as both a musician and an educator (he teaches at Cal State-Fullerton) allows him to straight-facedly parallel the music of both Ornette Coleman and Black Flag and make it riveting rather than ridiculous.

If you have nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday (i.e. tomorrow), Sharp will moderate a panel titled The Cost of Free Jazz with guests Jeff Schwartz, Jeff Kaiser and Vinny Golia at the EMP Pop Conference at UCLA. (It's free BTW.) We recently sat down with the newly minted "Dr. Sharp" at the Royal/T Cafe for a brief chat about how he managed to pull all this off; rather than some salt and pepper-haired academic, we found a guy who, refreshingly, looks like this:

THE BEAST: I couldn’t bring the whole thesis today, sorry.
SHARP: Well, it’s quite a monster.

How long did it take to complete?
Ten years from the time I started grad school to the time I finished. It was during the same period that Steve Isoardi was doing The Dark Tree, so we were almost chasing each other doing interviews…it was kind of weird. He was at the UCLA Oral History Department and I knew he had done Central Avenue Sounds and was starting to do the Beyond Central interview project with people like Bobby Bradford…I did one of my first interviews with Nels just a week before Steve did an interview with him.

How do you even begin to approach a project like this? How do you make sense of such diffuse material? Do you simply look for connections and go from there?
Well yeah, it’s a history and to go chronologically that makes it a lot easier.

But a lot of it hasn’t even been linked up together.
Well yeah, that’s true. That’s why it took such a long time. It was originally going to be going over some of the same stuff that was in The Dark Tree – I played with a lot of those people, I was very interested in that scene – but I was also playing with guys like Lynn [Johnston] and there was no historical connection between any of this. I didn’t see at first why that was, but then I realized, ‘Well, that’s what this is all really about.’ This music is about freedom but that freedom is defined very differently by different groups of people. So, for example, even though [SST Records founder] Greg Ginn listens to John Coltrane, his understanding of Coltrane is completely different from Michael Session’s understanding of Coltrane…I realized that they could talk to each other, they should talk to each other, and not just because I think it would be interesting. Those two guys have so little in common and yet so much in common, so how do I make those connections? How do I draw those threads out ? Once I figured that out, it was a matter of looking at all these different narratives and trying to weave them together at a different level.

Ornette Coleman

Were there any “eureka!” moments when you were doing your research?
Yes, almost everything was like that. [laughter] I started out with jazz and then it grew to the free-jazz guys and then the punk jazz and the free improvisers and the classical music players like Kraig Grady and David Ocker – that whole Independent Composers' Association thing was a real revelation, especially how similar it was to a social organization like COMA [California Outsider Music Association]. Both were happening at the same time but either they weren’t aware of each other or just weren’t able or interested in fusing those things. Then you had the top-down version of the L.A. Festival coming at the same time, so being able to lay those out brought the social issues to the fore, which is what really interested me…The music is diffuse and strange and capitalizes on the ability for anybody to interpret any way you want. This is music that doesn’t tell you what to think. It poses questions. This is true of all of it, whether its punk rock or improvised music…What amazes me is the degree of separation between Black Flag and John Coltrane and how can I listen to both of these...and I can appreciate all those things because I can find something that makes sense to me, that’s home to me, that I understand, that I can appropriate. Of course, ‘appropriate’ is a bit of a dangerous word when you’re talking about people doing stuff cross-culturally, but the very definition of the word is “making it your own”; if you understand something and you absorb it and it becomes part of your history or tradition.

Horace Tapscott's Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra

That reminds me of what Tapscott used to say to his audiences: “Here’s another one that you wrote.”
Yeah, although he was speaking in terms of the wider community. I mean just on an individual level, you listen and interpret and make it your own, so Greg Ginn "owns" Coltrane, not in the monetary or copyright sense, but it’s his own music even though his relationship coming into it was entirely different than Michael Session, who was sitting in the park trying to practice. Both have every right to that. We’re not yet into issues of buying and selling and who does it. When Horace said ‘This is one you wrote’ or ‘This is your music’ or 'This is your band,’ he wasn’t just talking to people in his immediate neighborhood, otherwise he would’ve just played in his neighborhood, and he didn’t, and that’s really important.

I remember a few years ago there was that multi-part series on KCRW called ‘The United States of Los Angeles’ where each chapter was dedicated to a different neighborhood and treated them all separately. But you chose not to deal with L.A. as separate communities. What was behind that?
I wanted to show how people were using music to break outside of those neighborhoods. So many of the communities in Los Angeles were the result of redlining and politics, and it was really hard for people battle out of that. This is why the community for Horace Tapscott stayed here and the community for Greg Ginn was there and they were like two miles apart but never met, which is amazing to me.

[The hideous shriek of an espresso machine drowns out most of what he says here]

Michael Session

…by listening to the Minutemen and Tapscott, you’re thinking in a little bit different way than someone who just listens to one of those things…You have some kind of fusion of those things together, so there’s some moments of overlap that creates this thought about aesthetics: ‘How does it pose questions to you that gives you an orientation to the world?’ That’s the link to all of them. The other link was that all this music was experimental and that’s never going to appeal to a huge audience…All of these people I interviewed had the intention of gravitating towards music whose meaning wasn’t always immediately clear to them right away, music that really tests and pushes the connection between the work and the world. Ethnomusicology is sort of premised on this idea that music can almost be understood as culture itself. It encodes how you think about the world in some way…One of the great beauties of music is that it’s always shrouded in some sort of mystery; experimental music capitalizes on that mystery and works those edges harder than anything else, questioning whether this is music at all…by thinking about that, you’re thinking about how people make that leap from the work of the imagination to the work of being in the world.

Older, Wiser?: Greg Ginn

Especially in Los Angeles, which is not shy about displaying its complete indifference to these types of music. Do you think this music functions better under threat?
On one end, no. Nothing works good under threat. We might want to have some romantic myth about that, but there would be more musicians playing it and more money for everybody if we just threw more money at it. If I had a million bucks I could say: ‘Let’s book a gig every night a week in this place right now! What’s it going to take? Ten thousand dollars a night? Fine, let’s do it!’ Is that going to make the scene better or worse? It’s going to make it infinitely better! Nothing gets helped by having no gigs, no record labels, no options for the music to get out there…

Black Flag

Still, in the late 70s and early 80s, you write about the similarities between the burgeoning L.A. punk scene and this burgeoning improvised music scene, especially since both groups were using the same D.I.Y. tactics: starting labels, fanzines, putting up their flyers of telephone poles, booking gigs in basements, fencing schools, wineries, churches…
Yeah, every single one of those instances is because of individuals who are going to lose money every single time, every single one of them. Now does being under pressure make people more cunning? I doubt it. If [Angel City Jazz Festival Organizers] Rocco Somazzi and Jeff Gauthier got a huge N.E.A. grant, do you think they’d squander it on Dom Perignon? Or would they book more shows?

Depends on what kind of a mood they’re in…
Granted you get more autonomy – if you can play in a fencing school you can play whatever you want as opposed to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion…If the Dorothy Chandler started booking Vinny Golia every week, do you think his music would suddenly blow up? No, not at all. If anything they would say to Vinny, ‘Can you tame it down a bit?’ I mean, they wouldn’t even invite him in to begin with, not because they don’t like the music but there those invisible perceptions over who should be doing what and why and what’s more valuable or worthwhile to the community…Then you’ve got the elite maintaining these really rigid mini-structures. I mean, how to we crack that open and reverse engineer that?

From Left: Lynn Johnston, Charles Sharp, Vinny Golia

You spoke earlier of the L.A. Festival. Your section on the one in 1990 curated by Peter Sellars is quite fascinating in regards to that “top-down” approach to multiculturalism you mentioned.
The first one Sellars curated was really diverse, even though it was really criticized by a lot postmodern cultural critics like Mike Davis…as being sort of a ‘bad’ example of multiculturalism...For the most part, they didn’t like the idea of any multiculturalism at all, that those things should remain separate. My point was: 'Who defines what makes these different in the first place?' From the bottom up, those difference are infinitely mutable. Like I went to a Gamelan concert and knew nothing about it at the time and it was awesome. It blew my mind. Now did I understand it the same way as the Balinese guy sitting next to me? Not at all. Will I ever? No. Does it mean I didn’t understand it? No. so if we go back to this idea that classical music is for the old white people, jazz is for the black people, this ‘free’ music is for the younger white hipsters – it destroys all the magic that the music does…Maybe there’s a few people who think, ‘I’m going to make music only for the immediate people around me' and you realize the people around you aren’t the people who are geographically stuck there but who are around you, who feel you, and that transcends geography, easy…I think that’s one of the trends in Ethnomusicology now in that it’s increasingly focused on ‘place.’ I kind of avoiding talking about a lot of that theory, especially geography, because it tends to ground everything back down to ‘regionalism’ and I’m trying to figure out, 'How do we break out if that?' In Los Angeles and anywhere you have to deal with the real civic urban rules, like the ridiculous zoning laws here that make it almost impossible to open up any kind of little performance space…That has a huge effect on the music.


Why do you think hardcore punk was so well aligned with improvised music? You’ve got Vinny Golia playing with Patti Smith at the Roxy, The Minutemen sharing a bill with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra at McCabe’s, Jonathan Gold leading an ensemble that played Terry Riley’s “In C” at the Anticlub – a lot of exciting cross-pollination!
Yeah there was. I was surprised I didn’t find more connections between the No Wave scene in New York and the L.A. punk scene. There was some eye opening moments talking to some of the people in the punk scene who were really into jazz back then, like Scott Guerin. His dad was a jazz musician, he grew up listening to jazz – actually very similar to my own story. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he was making this really tweaked-out punk music that actually would have been way more in place in the No Wave scene. No question if he had moved to New York he would’ve been on that Eno No Wave compilation; instead, he’s in L.A. and he has no fans and he plays gigs for no one and there’s like five people on the scene who even likes jazz. [laughter] Some of them were really important people, like Brendan Mullen, but it’s this tiny subculture within a subculture. The early Masque scene was way more diverse than I ever expected…with bands like The Weirdos and The Screamers – that stuff is totally weird. They would’ve easily fit into No Wave, and they were before No Wave. The preceded it by far! That’s amazing to me. They were playing the Masque with all off these dirt teen metal bands who can’t even play and then you have this freaky-arty other component…If nothing else, the only thing that’s bringing them together is their opposition to the mainstream-trapped-in-a-box-commercial- made-for-mass-appeal. Anything that didn’t appeal to the masses was going to fit there – that doesn’t surprise me at all. What surprises me is how it got quickly reversed into a million hardcore imitators of Black Flag. All that diversity disappears and becomes associated with the exact opposite of diversity. I mean, what a flip flop! That original scene actually wanted diversity. They sought it out! It’s not surprising that a lot of that original scene was into hip hop, because hip hop was emerging at the time, and Brendan Mullen and some of those guys were into early rap. One of the first guys on the Masque scene – I can’t remember his name – started one of L.A.’s first hip hop clubs. There’s also connections between the electroclash and funk scenes, the mobile DJs, bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Untouchables and Fishbone were getting gigs at some of the first hip hop clubs in town and they’d switch off between punk rock to the early N.W.A. stuff.

Nice young boys!: The Minutemen

You have a lot of the usual suspects in this paper, but also so many fascinating characters who don’t get as much ink and are sort of in the shadows. Like Lee Kaplan, who started the Sunday concert series at the Century City Playhouse and seems to be some sort of weird fulcrum for the entire improvised music scene.
Oh yeah, he’s such an interesting guy. He was invaluable to this scene by being brave and maybe foolish or unaware that that sort of thing should work [laughter], which is great. And Lee never made a dime off any of those shows. He was willing to take risks and lose money, and in a sense making money was his goal, consciously or not. When I was interviewing him, he’d be talking about the series in business-model terms – 'We wanted to guarantee this many people'; then he’d pause and say, ‘But then again, it was the Art Ensemble playing – just for me!’ and that right away negates everything about losing money. [laughter] He was ready and willing to just lose it all!

Nels and Alex Cline

The question is that would have he been able to do that if he didn’t know guys like Nels or Alex from high school and I would guess no. But would Nels and Alex and Vinny have been able to do what they did without him? I don’t think so. How did he get contacts with all of those different musicians? From working at Rhino Records…That music was barely his taste to begin with when he started booking the series, which was just a monumental connection to every other improvised scene in the United States and between all those different scenes in L.A. Some of John Zorn’s first shows were at the Century City Playhouse, when he was playing with Eugene Chadborne. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zorn, when he came out to L.A., heard some of those early punk bands, because it’s after he plays here that he goes back to New York that’s when all of his cut-and-mix stuff starts happening…I think there’s some influence between New York and L.A. that’s gone unnoticed, from somebody coming out play at the CCP, seeing a punk show that’s totally wild and weird and bringing that mix back to New York, but nobody in New York realizes the connection is here in L.A. – that’s my conspiracy theory anyway.

Another fascinating “facilitator” – and I many ways my favorite character in your whole narrative – was Titus Levi, who started the California Outside Music Association (COMA) and was involved in the early days of Option magazine.
He’s a great guy. I’ve known him forever. I met him when I worked at Kinko’s and he came in with a flyer for a show: “50 copies in solar yellow!” I noticed the show: “Some guy playing microtuned accordion? Hmmm.” He invited me to the show and introduced me to Lynn Johnston. He’s definitely a unique guy. He has a Ph.D. in Economics and teaches at a school in China right now. He was another who was willing to risk it all. What was really great about him was that when he founded COMA, he was already heavily involved in curating the L.A. Festival and public-sector arts programming. I find it hard to believe he started COMA in his twenties! I questioned him a lot about what he thought are the boundaries between what’s “outside” and what’s “inside” and it wasn’t always easy for him to express.

Titus Levi (red shirt) confers with Charles Sharp et al

"I know it when I hear it"?
Yeah, and he was brilliant at it, too. He always curated interesting shows. He was like Lee Kaplan in that he rarely booked himself and his own bands; he played cello but I think he never felt satisfied with his own music to pursue it more. Titus really worked hard to encourage this kind of circulation between all these micro-scenes in L.A. Another good comparison is someone like Nels, who did play every night when he did the New Music Mondays. Nels I’m sure was really influenced by COMA and played in some of those shows.

On the musician side of things, there’s someone like William Roper, who seems to be in a universe by himself: an African-American tuba player who improvises as well as plays in punk bands.
Yeah. Bill played in a jazz band in high school because he said he didn’t want to get jumped by thugs on his way home. [laughter] His training is in classical music. He never considered himself a jazz player; he didn’t start improvising until he got involved in this weird performance-art scene…He was a chef at Gorky’s downtown. Gorky’s had a stage, and all those artists were living down there before the rezoning forced all of them out, and Bill’s at home practicing Bach on his tuba, and he sees someone at Gorky’s playing the vacuum cleaner: “Hey, wanna join my chamber ensemble?” “Sure!” [laughter]…Bill is inclined to experimentation. He has no interest in being average and ordinary. He’s willing not to fit in. And he enjoys that, I think.

William Roper

What outsider artist doesn’t love his or her outsider status to a certain extent?
Yeah, but the interesting thing about Roper is that he felt like an outsider even when he was playing with Horace Tapscott’s band, not to mention the really straight-ahead jazz bands he plays with. There’s not that many African-Americans in classical music and there’s not that many tuba players in classical music to begin with, so he’s got the “outsider” thing going on every level.

Maybe that means less competition, the further out you go.
Could be. That’s another part of what I was thinking about when I was writing this: All these scenes are on the outside, and on the outside everything is closer together in its relation to the inside. Not everything out there is going to be equally related. The fringes are closer together than they are to the center.

That makes my head hurt.

UPDATE (2/27/11):
Identity and Tradition 
has found a publisher in Duke University Press!
You may now kiss the bride.

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