[JPL] A Ferment of World Jazz Yields a Trove of Tapes

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October 22, 2008
A Ferment of World Jazz Yields a Trove of Tapes

By BEN RATLIFF
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. ‹ The Creative Music Studio here remains underdocumented and
little understood. But a definitive history of jazz in the 1970s ‹ a book
yet to be written ‹ ought to give it central importance.

During the dawning years of jazz education the studio, run out of various
repurposed settings ‹ a barn, a Lutheran youth camp, a motel ‹ was the
unmusic school, roughly analogous to Black Mountain College, the progressive
school in North Carolina that brought together avant-garde writers, dancers
and painters in the 1930s, ¹40s and ¹50s.

The constant musical activity at the studio, in workshops and concerts,
yielded about 400 hours of tapes: startling performances by Don Cherry,
Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Lee Konitz, Frederic Rzewski, Jimmy Giuffre,
Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Lacy, Abdullah Ibrahim, Carla Bley, Ed Blackwell and
many others.

If the studio is to get its historical due, the tapes will lead the way.
Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso, the husband and wife who founded the school,
have recently started restoring and remastering the recordings, a task
expected to cost about $120,000. A benefit concert on Friday at Symphony
Space will raise money toward that end, gathering friends, supporters and
former associates of the school, including Mr. Braxton, John Zorn and Steven
Bernstein. (Information and tickets are at symphonyspace.org.)

When the tapes are fully digitized, Mr. Berger and Ms. Sertso plan to give
them back to the individual artists to use as they like. ³It¹s their
property,² Mr. Berger said during an interview at his home in Woodstock on
Monday. ³It¹s what they brought here. We only created the environment for
it.²

During the eight-week terms at the studio, students were not called
students; they were ³participants² who sometimes ran the classes. Mr. Berger
emphasized a rhythmic training exercise called gamala taki to connect jazz
to other musical languages around the world. There were meditative
group-singing exercises in the morning, and visiting teachers from around
the world sometimes played and danced with students around bonfires.

³In the history of contemporary improvised music it was a very, very big
thing,² the pianist Marilyn Crispell said of the studio, where she studied
and taught from 1977 to 1982. ³It was a totally unique place in the world,
totally nonbureaucratic ‹ a hands-on experience, free and creative.² Ms.
Crispell made many contacts there who helped guide her through the next
decades of her life, including Mr. Braxton, who met her there and brought
her into his quartet for a decade.

Its instructors were active performers and bandleaders, and they used the
school as laboratory and playground. Student groups gave concerts every
Friday night, and visiting teachers performed every Saturday. During most of
the school¹s existence ‹ from 1972 to 1984, when the decline of financial
support for the arts hastened its downfall ‹ the concerts were recorded, and
the Saturday-night tapes include performances by major jazz figures of the
time. The couple plan to release sampler CDs of selections from the material
as further fund-raising efforts, and will donate the entire Creative Music
Studio audio collection to the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia
University.

Mr. Berger explained that C.M.S., as the place is commonly called, was not
an ordinary school. ³It wasn¹t set up like a school,² he said. ³There was
one guiding artist for each week, and the idea was not about the
instruments. It wasn¹t, for example, about Dave Holland coming to teach
bass. It was about Dave coming to teach his own ensemble work. He¹d find 15
or 20 players here, create music for them, and play with them all day long,
five hours each day.²

The isolated-utopia feeling of Woodstock was crucial to the school¹s
identity. Mr. Berger and Ms. Sertso arrived there with two children and $700
at a point when jazz musicians had just started to settle in and around the
town, about a two-hour drive from New York City. Mr. Holland, who had played
bass with Miles Davis¹s group and with a quartet called Circle, settled
there; so did the drummer Jack DeJohnette, Ms. Bley and Mr. Braxton.

Certainly the discoveries of the students ‹ there were never more than 30 a
term ‹ were matched by the discoveries of the teachers. The studio did not
promote one style because its teachers were too stylistically diverse. But a
handful of important bands or records would not have happened without the
studio as a spur, where the players were introduced to one another and the
ideas were hatched. They include Mr. Holland¹s ³Conference of the Birds,²
from 1973; many of Mr. Braxton¹s albums from the ¹70s and ¹80s, including
³Creative Orchestra Music²; the String Trio of New York, founded in 1977;
the early-¹80s jazz-rock band Curlew; and Codona, the trio of the
multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott, the percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and
the trumpeter Don Cherry.

Cherry, who died in 1995, was as important to the school as anyone. In the
late 1950s and early ¹60s Mr. Berger, a vibraphonist and pianist with an
academic background in philosophy, and Ms. Sertso, a singer, were performing
in clubs in Germany, their native country. Part of their education came from
the presence of American jazz musicians stationed at a military base near
clubs where they performed in Heidelberg. These included the pianist Cedar
Walton and the drummer Lex Humphries, who mingled with the German musicians.
On a trip to Paris in 1965 Mr. Berger befriended Cherry, who hired him for
his quintet.

The quintet was an international band with no common tongue. But Cherry
thought across language lines anyway.

³Don was the first person I knew who actively used world-music material in
the 1960s,² Mr. Berger said. ³He had a shortwave radio on all day. Even in a
movie theater.²

Having relocated with Cherry¹s band to New York in 1966 ‹ to perform at the
Five Spot and to record Cherry¹s album ³Symphony for Improvisers² ‹ Mr.
Berger taught improvisation classes to sixth graders in public school. The
students, he said, taught him to see all musical forms as naturally
interconnected.

³Once, in Harlem, a girl sang a melody to me that didn¹t make any sense,² he
said. ³Melodically it was all over the place, like a 12-tone piece. I said
O.K. and played it on the vibraphone. She said no, no! Because she knew
every note she had been singing.²

He talks in similar ways about teacher-student exchanges at the studio, like
one when the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista arrived at the school as
a student. The first day he was encouraged to play a complicated odd-meter
rhythm, never having encountered such a thing before. ³It was the shock of
his life,² Mr. Berger said. ³He entered into a whole new world.²

³The kind of information that people got at C.M.S. really influenced both
their listening and playing habits from then on,² he added.

The Buddhist practice of calming the mind ‹ both for players and for
listeners ‹ is central to the Creative Music Studio experience. ³This is not
about technology that anybody needs to learn, but about going to a musical
place that¹s readily accessible,² Mr. Berger said. ³You¹ve got to stop the
chatter and just listen.²


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