Saturday, April 06, 2019

Book: Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams by Bill Shoemaker (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017)

This was a very interesting book, one that will particularly pique the interest fans of free jazz or free improvisation, because it looks at the music through that lens, eschewing mainstream jazz and fusion almost completely. Shoemaker breaks the book down by year, with an introduction giving a thumbnail history of jazz to that point, focusing on the innovations of the 1960's, and a coda at the end which deals with the repercussions of the retrenchment of neo-conservativism in the music and the fractious nature of mainstream vs. avant-garde in the 1980s. In between are ten chapters, one for each year of the decade; and each will be centered upon a particular artist or group. After stating his intention to focus on a musician, for instance Chris McGregor and the Brotherhood of Breath for the chapter on 1970, the author will tell the subjects story regardless of time frame. While the first concert by the Brotherhood of Breath may have occurred in 1970, McGregor's mixed race group The Blue Notes fled apartheid South Africa in 1965, and they would be a vital force in jazz for decades to come. Chapters will alternate between European and American music as the cleft between "free jazz" and "free improvisation" continues to deepen, and Europeans, particularly Britons like Derek Bailey develop the belief that only unprepared, in the moment free improvisation is the true music. Meanwhile, in the United States, musicians like Archie Shepp were turning to music like rhythm and blues and gospel to create strong statements of civil right and racial unity on the albums Attica Blues and The Cry of My People. Multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton became a critical darling and nearly developed a following with some well distributed records through the Arista / Freedom imprint. A couple of accessible small group albums set him in good stead before the oil crisis crashed the record business and Braxton insisted on release of some of his most difficult music for multiple orchestras and two pianos (neither played by Braxton) saw budgets being slashed and him eventually let go. Shoemaker's work on the loft scene and particularly Sam Rivers (one of my heroes) was very interesting, as he talks about how the DIY scene took shape and became a real competitor to the bloated mainstream jazz festivals. Overall this was an excellent book, and whether describing how the music is made and the nature of the improvisations being performed by the musicians he's covering, or looking at the societal implications of the music, Shoemaker is a fine writer, composing an excellent narrative that is valuable to the overall history of jazz and improvised music. Jazz in the 1970s: Diverging Streams

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