Brute Blows for Garner: Improvising Agency and Celebrating 20 Years of Change at the Vision Festival

Monday, July 6th, 2015, marked the six-day anniversary of my third move to New York City. By then I had had enough time to rest up after the busy move, stock my fridge from the neighborhood Fairway, and hit up a few of those “only in NYC” spots that I’d missed so much. I spent the 4th on Coney Island, ate a Nathan’s hot dog, and watched the fireworks from the stands of the Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium. So excited to be back home—in the City, man!—and had spent the first few days back (again) getting in touch with some quintessential aspects of New York life that feed the nostalgia of those who have left the City behind and allow its current residents to look past those other trials unique to NYC life like alternate-side street parking and the cost-of living “adjustments” required for bar tabs, drop-off laundry, and gas stations whose prices average 50 cents more per gallon.

On day three, though, I had another welcome back to the City. I was walking in the neighborhood along 125th Street, and I saw someone walking towards me in one of those now-iconic “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. And I instantly remembered some of the changes since I had last been a resident: One World Trade Center opened, de Blasio took Bloomberg’s place, and Eric Garner was choked of his life in only one episode of a continued litany of violent crimes and injustices perpetrated against African Americans across the country. Garner’s death has been echoed more recently in Charleston, South Carolina, and throughout the South, as African American churches continue to burn, making the political messages and historical significance of tunes like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” hauntingly and absurdly relevant in our present moment. “I Can’t Breathe” was another important welcome-back to NYC for me, one that reminded me of another reason why I’d been eager to get back to the City: this is the place where my lifelong commitment to social justice through art was born, nurtured, and first realized.

Questions about art in post-Eric Garner NYC resurfaced on July 6th—my third 6th day in the City—at a conference at Columbia University titled “Improvising Agency for Change,” which commemorated the advocacy work of musicians and organizers during the 20-year history of the Vision Festival and also brought that work into the present moment, emphasizing the need for renewed action amid new waves of the kind of racial inequality and violence jazz musicians have fought against throughout the music’s history. The conference, organized by Michael Heller (University of Pittsburgh), Scott Currie (University of Minnesota), and Brent Hayes Edwards (Columbia University), featured presentations of historical research, new scholarship in critical improvisation studies, a panel discussion with musicians and festival organizers, and a keynote address by poet, activist, and educator Nathaniel Mackey. Free and open to the public, the conference was co-sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies, with Edwards serving as the moderator for all the day’s activities.


Morning presentations on the history of the Vision Festival and the “downtown” scene by Currie and Bernard Gendron respectively were followed by talks that brought the activist elements of the Festival—and of art’s potential for critical action more generally—into sharper focus. In her presentation “Negotiated Moments: Free Improvisation, Agency, and Constraint,” flautist, scholar, and professor at Memorial University, Ellen Waterman presented an overview of an upcoming Duke University Press publication on improvisation, embodiment, and agency. One of the coordinators of the International Institute of Critical Studies in Improvisation, Waterman outlined compelling examples of how improvisation provides a model for collaborative activism for social change through cultivation of empathy and deep listening in which we see and hear others’ and Other bodies as subjects, not objects. Inasmuch as she views improvisation as a means through which marginalized people can achieve “hard won” personal agencies that undermine and resist normative structures of power & identity formation, Waterman insists that there’s “nothing inherently good about improvisation. It offers us a set of tools that at its best can be transformative.”

These thoughts were echoed in the subsequent presentation by pianist and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer who cautioned against a utopian vision of improvisation, wondering amid recent attacks against the African American community what work, if any, improvised music-making could accomplish to confront the complicity surrounding ongoing violence against black people. Citing the Vision festival as a clear counterexample, Iyer charged that art can’t be emancipatory if it’s caught up in and funded by organizations and corporations that commodify, repress, and marginalize artists. Iyer referenced his own experiences as a performer to criticize arts programmers who bypass black music and musicians by focusing on the exoticist portrayals of international artists and those who draw on musical traditions born outside the United States. Adding that academics have to keep pushing the boundaries “even with the knowledge that their praxis will never be enough,” Iyer issued a charge to those in the room and to the scholarly field of jazz studies more generally to “listen more widely,” particularly to the power structures in which those in the field may be implicated. He closed by praising the Festival’s organizers for their commitments to cultural and sonic dissonance, providing twenty years of opportunities to listen more widely, and inviting us to hear activism as music from where the emancipatory potential of improvisation can “spill forth in the testimonies of artists.”

For me the highlight of the conference was the keynote address by poet, activist, and educator Nathaniel Mackey. Mackey has always been inspirational, providing a model for incisive, artful, and impactful writing that not only pays equal attention to the aesthetic and political dimensions of his work, but insists that the two are inextricably linked. Delivering a compelling and beautiful talk entitled “Breath and Precarity,” Mackey at once celebrated breath as a symbol of life and highlighted how “tactical manipulation of breath in black music reflects the precarity of life.” For Mackey, breath is essential to self-determination but the most elusive aspect of representation to capture, suggesting that it lies “at the limits of an expressed thought.” Echoing Iyer’s earlier charge for self-awareness, Mackey describes the artist’s exploration of their own breath as a going down “to the depths of his own throat to the place where from breath comes.” According to Mackey, this personal connection to breath—and the audible presentation of it—lies at the heart of African American expressive identity: it is the “sound of a record of struggle.” He demonstrated this through a recording of Sonny Rollins performing “Green Dolphin Street,” whose willful interruption of phrasing and breath recalls and reclaims times when breath is taken away forcibly. This radical pneumaticism, as Mackey called it, also includes a foregrounding of the sound of breath, as he showed with this recording of Ben Webster—also known as “The Brute”—playing “Tenderly”:

In an answer to Iyer’s earlier question of “what should we as artists and scholars do to combat violence?”, Mackey shows how these and other African American artists blew their horns and foregrounded their breath because in “black music…belabored breath matters and [because] maybe, at least in that moment, we could breathe….We blow because we hope that we will breathe.” To me, there is no better statement of the importance of improvisation (and art in general), the connections between aesthetics and politics, and the value of art to social change. When we feel as though our work is neutralized amid the continued violence and injustice which it has not yet undone, Mackey (like Iyer) suggests we forge ahead, with hope. For the emergent societal change that we desire, Mackey suggests that we continue to focus on music and poetry because of its insistence on asking the question “if such a beginning hasn’t yet begun, when will it?”. Mackey’s talk was a simple, powerful, artfully concise and incisive monologue on the societal imperatives of improvisation and its performance in word, note, and act.

Though he focused primarily on saxophonists, Mackey did not relegate this radical pneumaticism uniquely to wind players, as when he referenced the work of the great bassist Henry Grimes, who was in attendance for the afternoon presentations. As a pianist myself, Oscar Peterson immediately comes to mind when I think of an improvising musician whose voice enters into the sonic mix, suggesting a connection between the performer’s breath and phrasing of non-wind instruments:

Peterson’s voice isn’t as audible in this clip as in the studio recording of “C Jam Blues” from two years earlier with the same band (Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen), but we can clearly see Peterson singing along and working his blues out. Notice too how Thigpen and Brown accompany Peterson’s improvised blues soliloquy with just their hands—it obviously caught the camera crew’s attention—recalling both Mackey’s and Ellen Waterman’s focus on connecting improvised music-making with the body (as well as Iyer’s previous scholarship on embodied practice).

In addition to OP, Mackey’s talk left me wondering about other musicians we could hear this way: artists whose practice reflected this radical pneumaticism without their breath. Surely because Mackey drew explicit connections between Ben Webster’s and Sonny Rollins’s manipulation of their breath with the violent asphyxiation of Eric Garner, I thought of the pianist Errol Garner. And I’m wondering whether Garner’s characteristic, repetitive right-hand punctuations could be heard similarly. Especially in contrast to the rhapsodic introductions that often preceded his performance of standard melodies, Garner’s substitution of percussive hiccups in lieu of a long, sustained melodic tone chokes up its normal(ized) flow, while injecting a new rhythmic energy that is at once particular to Garner’s piano style and a necessary adjustment for a pianist who desires the same kind of manipulation of breath, tone, and phrasing that wind players like Webster can more easily achieve through embouchure, tonguing, and airflow:

In his comments at the conference, Mackey referenced Langston Hughes’s etymological justification for the term “bebop,” the sound that police billy clubs make. Perhaps we can hear Errol Garner’s piano jabs as a reclaiming of that act, redirected and repurposed for peaceable and artful aims. Listening more widely and for its radical pneumaticism, Garner’s overly repetitious performance of the melody—”they can’t take that away from me”—could be heard as insistent self-determination. As Guthrie Ramsey has recently shown us with his work on Bud Powell, Mackey’s radical pneumaticism can most certainly unfold at the piano keyboard.

The concerts for the Vision Festival began Tuesday, but I was elsewhere—at a show uptown—introducing an out-of-town friend to another of my personal NYC favorites: organ night with the Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet at Smoke on 106th Street. LeDonne’s band, which is releasing an album this month, featured Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Carl Allen on drums, and Mark Whitfield on guitar. I could not help but notice Whitfield’s performance style, particularly during his improvisations: his voice accompanied his guitar lines but with a stark difference of timbre and only at certain times. Whitfield was working it out; and only at certain points did his gutteral and labored singing fall in with his guitar, as if he were compelling the notes out of his instrument through the force of his body. This impression was amplified by his vexed facial expressions, contorted body postures, and swinging limbs that echoed back to the conference’s focus and insistent attention to the embodied performance of improvised music.

Photo Credit: Wiktor Bąkiewicz

Photo Credit: Wiktor Bąkiewicz

During the show, LeDonne advertised the upcoming Disability Pride Parade, sponsored and hosted by an organization LeDonne founded to promote education and inclusion initiatives for the disabled. (LeDonne’s daughter, Mary, is the inspiration behind the organization’s founding and served as one of the grand marshals in the inaugural parade.) LeDonne and I spoke between sets and he expressed his amazement at the huge scope of the Parade in its first year: this is exactly the kind of “hard won” agency that Waterman was discussing during the “Improvising Agency” conference. Once again, jazz music and musicians are at the forefront of social change, buttressing their musical voices with action.

That speech LeDonne gave about the Disability Pride Parade preceded a musical ode to his daughter Mary—”Put on a Happy Face” from the musical Annie. And this alternation of music and action for the purposes of social change also recalls Terrence Blanchard’s new album Breathless and recent developments in South Carolina where artist and activist Bree Newsome reclaimed public space—and agency—for the unheard and unaddressed by removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds in Columbia when the air spent in legislative chambers up to that point hadn’t produced the necessary redress. That critical trespassing—a literal climb to the altissimo registers of physical space and the state’s governmental power—presaged the action taken by the South Carolina legislature to permanently remove the flag. From a multiply precarious position, her improvised tactics—a most direct address to this issue at hand—choked up the political rhetoric that had been flowing all too normally and obscuring an obvious path to resolution. As I reflect on the most essential adjustments I should be making for my third residency in the City—working out my own path at the intersections of art, politics, and social justice—I’m grateful for these choruses of voices (Waterman, Iyer, Mackey, LeDonne, Newsome, the Brute, and the Garners) that in my first days back have made such compelling calls. Here’s hoping my and our responses continue to work towards that beginning that has not yet begun.

Photo Credit: Adam Anderson

Photo Credit: Adam Anderson

One comment

  1. […] and inclusion of panel discussions, two additions that resonate deeply with my work as teacher, writer, and soon—in a new collaborative […]

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