On the evening of Thursday, February 21, as a prelude to an upcoming concert series, J. Michael Harrison, host of the long-running multi-genre program “The Bridge” on radio station WRTI-FM, taped a rich and provocative discussion of the innovative contributions of jazz icons Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra. These three key figures in the history of jazz generated new music, controversy, and concepts that are still impacting the music a half-century after their inception. The discussion will be aired as a segment of The Bridge on Friday (2/28), beginning around 10:30pm on WRTI (90.1 FM) and live stream at wrti.org.
The discussants included saxophonist, composer, and band leader Bobby Zankel, pianist-composer Dave Burrell, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and journalist-author Francis Davis, all of whom have been following the avant-garde and free jazz movements since their beginning. Zankel is the curator of the musical celebration, consisting of three “birthday” concerts to be held at the Painted Bride Arts Center in Philadelphia on Saturday, March 8 (Cecil Taylor), Friday, March 21 (Ornette Coleman), April 18 (“Still the New Thing:” Sun Ra, Taylor, and Coleman), all starting at 8pm (tickets available at paintedbride.org.). Burrell, Tacuma, and Zankel are among the featured artists. On March 8, Zankel, Burrell, bassists Henry Grimes and William Parker, and drummer Andrew Cyrille will perform. Tacuma, as well as Ornette’s son, drummer Denardo Coleman, will lead their ensembles at the March 21st concert. On April 18 two stellar big bands will take the stage: The Sun Ra Arkestra and Zankel’s own Warriors of the Wonderful Sound.
The panelists shared personal memories, ideas, and reflections about the three jazz giants, their respective contributions, and the atmosphere and musical context surrounding their life and work. Taylor and Coleman encountered liberal amounts of both love and hate in response to their innovations that liberated jazz from traditional forms and approaches and opened up a broad highway for the development of modern jazz, as well as music and the arts in general. Tacuma pointed to the abuse suffered by Coleman in his early days, and Burrell spoke about his contacts and exchanges with Taylor and Sun Ra (aka Sunny Blount prior to his spiritual and musical transformation), expressing gratitude to both for the way they inspired his own career. Davis expressed his concern about the phrase “the new thing,” which he feels sensationalizes and distorts their work and removes it from the mainstream. Zankel recalled the excitement and fecundity of his early involvement in Taylor’s groups and his later mentoring by Coleman. There was a discussion of Coleman’s concept of “harmolodics,” a term that has confounded musicians and critics alike, and Taylor’s incorporation of poetry and theater into his performances. A small but eager audience responded to the panelist’s views with interesting questions and observations.
The panel and the triad of concerts are well worth the attention of all jazz aficionados. Tune into WRTI-FM Feb 28 at 10:30pm and check out the Painted Bride website for full concert information.