No Passport Necessary:
From Every Direction, Anthony Braxton Embraces Music as His Life’s Work
Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn on a Sunday morning is like an iPod on crack, stuck in oscillating shuffle mode. Dozens of food stalls crowd the sidewalks, sending up smoke from barbecue grills like votive offerings laced with the pungent tang of allspice and scotch bonnet peppers – the magic ingredients that give jerk chicken its Caribbean fire. Bass frequencies rumble from a random array of boomboxes, accumulating into a communal throb that even drowns out the traffic whooshing by on adjacent Flatbush Avenue. But as you walk through the crowd towards the corner of Third Street, it’s Hank Williams you hear, yodeling above the skank and the stank. A hillbilly band has taken over a makeshift stage in front of Hank’s Saloon, one of the last dive bars standing in this gentrified, high-rent ’hood. Barely 11 a.m. on the Lord’s Day, and the taps are flowing. As a doghouse bass plonks a 1-2. 1-2, the singer works up an appetite. “Jam-a-balaya, a-crawfish pie…” or curried goat?
Anthony Braxton’s having an egg biscuit. And while the sound of his orchestra is safely contained within the freshly renovated concert hall that serves as the new home of Roulette, one of New York’s enduring avant-garde performance spaces, the discordant ruckus of strings and brass, voices and percussion tuning up would be perfectly in sync with the profusion of musical tongues flapping in the autumn breeze outside. As the players and singers warmed up at a rehearsal, soprano trills and reedy squawks resonating off the theater’s high ceiling, Braxton traced the long path that brought him to his unique place among American composers.
“I’m a post-Abner Jay kind of guy mixed with Roger Corman and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers,” he says with a broad grin as our conversation unfolds, picking right up on my recollections of watching him perform on the same stage with Jay. The fabled Georgia music figure proclaimed himself the last of the old-time minstrels and, between rockin’ a bad-ass jawbone and various other one-man-band pursuits, once encouraged the Hampton Grease Band to take the stage with the aid of a handgun. Nothing quite like that went down that long-ago evening in Chattanooga, where they both headlined a Shaking Ray Levi Society-produced edition of Derek Bailey’s Company Week. But the seemingly radical juxtaposition of a folk musician trained as a medicine show vagabond and the MacArthur genius grant-winning avant-garde tone scientist was actually a brilliant move. In fact, nothing could have been more copasetic.
“I identify with him,” says Braxton, who laughed when I reminded him of how many of Abner’s homemade cassette tapes he snapped up at the merch table that afternoon. “His experience – and how at a certain point even the African-American community backed away from his work. I felt very close to him because I had similar experiences where my work would be rejected because it didn’t conform to the political dynamics of the time period. What constitutes the correct position for an African-American person? I rejected this way of thinking in the 1960s. It was in that time period that I came to understand my differences with the left and the right. Learning his music was rejected meant a lot to me. This was a guy who never gave up his vision.”
That’s true, as well, for Braxton. One of the most recorded musicians in history – his discography could be the musical equivalent of a David Foster Wallace novel – Braxton also is one of the most tenacious. His perseverance was celebrated a few months ago with four nights of concerts at the Roulette, where, on the occasion of his 66th birthday, he led various ensembles in a sampler of concert sets and a rotating cast from his 70-piece Tri-Centric Orchestra in a premiere of a new opera, Trillium J – a highly imaginative work that stretches from prehistoric times to futuristic science-fiction landscapes, like a conceptual hologram through which all of Braxton’s utopian philosophies can be encountered, if not always fully deciphered.
Braxton never forgot writing and producing his first opera. “I failed,” he says. “My marriage broke. I had a heart attack. I went into massive debt.” And all this after winning one of the most coveted honors in American cultural life. In 1994, he received a MacArthur “genius” grant, which he used to fund an ambitious series of recordings that included Trillium R: Composition 162 – An Opera in Four Acts/Shala Fears for the Poor, the first in a projected 36-piece opus that he hopes to complete by 2020.
“After that, I went into debt for eight years with the IRS,” he says. “I was on a first-name basis. They treat you like a dog. Unlike Lehman Brothers or Goldman Sachs. The Wall Street people can get away with that. But when Braxton does an opera and misses a payment, everyone goes crazy.”
Of course, he’s no stranger to the crazy. A professorial character – for indeed, he is a professor – given to Cosby-like cardigans, round-framed spectacles and a pipe, his gray much shorter and more orderly than in the mutton-chop and Afro-flaunting days of his youth, Braxton has a certain steampunk vibe: He’s like a free-improvising, mystical number system-assembling version of Doctor Who, who often speaks in formal flourishes not seemingly far removed from a 19th century novel. And he continues:
“As a young man if someone told me I’d be interested in opera I would have laughed at them,” he says. Then Braxton turned 40, and had a life-changing encounter with Alban Berg’s operas Woyzeck and Lulu. Soon, he was obsessed. “Little did I know that the person I hated the most would become my hero and that was Richard Wagner. I was running all over Liepzig trying to get every score and every CD I can by the great master. I have something in my genes that deeply connects to the great Germanic tradition. What I discovered is that music is such an incredible gift and there’s something from every direction that pushes my button, where I can see me in it.”
That non-dogmatic attitude has often caused Braxton to be misunderstood in the jazz world. An Army veteran who served in South Korea after the Korean War, he emerged out of the 1960s Chicago scene boosted by the activist collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Braxton made important albums focused on solo saxophone improvisation and sonic experiments with every reed instrument available, from sopranino to the contrabass saxophone. He played alongside more mainstream figures, like Dave Holland and Chick Corea, and enjoyed a brief flourish of major label support with a string of Arista recordings in the 1970s, which included the classic Creative Orchestra Music, a glorious rumpus of a John Philip Sousa tribute.
“I never met a march that I couldn’t find something in it that I liked,” he says. “Why should I deny that in my own music? I’m not a jazz musician. I’m not a classical musician. I’m just a guy who likes music and embraces it as my life work. Stockhausen was very important to me but so was Sun Ra. I’m a Warne Marsh kind of guy, and please mention Sal Mosca, Sal Mosca, Sal Mosca! He’s my secret weapon,” he says, referring to the pianist who came to light playing with saxophonists Marsh and Lee Konitz in the 1950s. Indeed, a conversation with Braxton unleashes a bounty of enthusiasm for scores of musicians he eagerly namechecks, from the unsung pianist Connie Crothers to the venerable Mr. Jay, a self-made virtuoso and myth on two feet.
His charismatic embrace of the music extends, as well, to the musicians in his orbit. “Anthony was a huge part of an amazing creative musical turn-around for me,” says Jessica Pavone, a Brooklyn-based viola player who has played in various Braxton ensembles since 2005. “It’s not just his influence as a creative artist, but the community that has developed around him as a result of his energy.”
The Tri-Centric Orchestra was relaunched two years ago after a decade-long hiatus. Along with a new website (tricentricfoundation.org) and record label (New Braxton House), it’s part of an evolving agenda set by the non-profit Tri-Centric Foundation, which focuses not only on realizing Braxton’s concepts, but those of its musician membership. “It’s really about giving agency to the individual to explore their own projects and ideas,” says Taylor Ho Bynum, a New Haven, Conn.-based trumpeter and orchestra co-conductor who is president of the foundation. “It’s like we’re all together on this extraordinary journey.”
Hearing Braxton describe his vision for the performances, a listener has to wonder what kind of passport might be necessary for that trip. His mind races from the I Ching as a creative model (a favorite of John Cage) to a section of the work set inside a vampire-infested haunted mansion. “Like the one in House of Wax,” he says, also dropping allusions to everything from the boardgame Clue to the works of John Carpenter, the horror maestro whose oeuvre might easily figure as prominently in Braxton’s cosmos as, say, Ornette Coleman, Enrico Fermi or the seers of ancient Egypt. “Poetic decisions for the libretto involve looking for the greatest spectrum. I want to have some gladiator stories. I want to talk about the great Atlantic slave experience.”
Like a Borgesian aleph, this is an aesthetic that contains everything. And it’s too late to stop now. “The old dog is back,” Braxton promises, tilting his shoulders in mock-swagger as he offers an exhortation to his musicians. “We’re going to roll the dice and have some fun and kick it about in the way of the old school!”
Photo by Carolyn Vachnicki.