There is a part of me that is proud to say that the first Anthony Braxton recording I acquired was his Three Compositions of New Jazz. The recording featured himself, Wadada Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, and Muhal Richard Abrams. I will never forget the remark made by Carter, the man who ran the record store I frequented. As I approached him with this compact disc in my hands and prepared to pay him for it, he said to me “Oh, man. Anthony Braxton. Denton, my man. That album separates the believers from the nonbelievers.”
I have since interpreted Carter’s words as being a commentary on the nature of jazz music, freely improvised music and the evolution of jazz music as being that of a continuum headed in the direction towards the complete emancipation of the role of the jazz musician in society; from that initial role of entertainer, minstrel, or vaudeville performer; to the penultimate role of high priest, sage, intellectual, and prophet. Jazz music was the product of a time before black musicians and black artists were not permitted to openly speak their minds in public, to speak their thoughts in the realm of the social or in the realm of the political. Braxton's music came at a time when Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, after Malcolm X had been assassinated. I will always contend that jazz music was the artistic product of the muted voice of the black prophetic experience and hip-hop music was the proclamation of the post-Civil Rights Era black prophetic experience. I use the word prophet in the sense that these individuals from jazz music and hip-hop music were inspired teachers and true progressives. For example, Duke Ellington had one of the first truly integrated touring bands; in fact, his pianist and orchestrator, Billy Strayhorn was openly homosexual-a personal reality that was often not acknowledged in mainstream America as homosexuals and jazz musicians were often stigmatized in the 1940s and 1950s and placed in the same social stratum as violent criminals and drug addicts.
Braxton's music was completely prophetic and visionary in terms of freeing up the role of the black musician in American culture. The opening atonal choral, sung as if the group were participating in a solfège of something by Webern, eventually leads into a group improvisation in which Braxton, Jenkins, and Smith performed on saxophone, trumpet, and violin; but also an assortment of cymbals, found percussion, recorder, harmonica, kazoo, bagpipes, slide whistle, accordion, and other instruments. The disc also contained a composition by Leo Smith entitled “The Bell” and another Braxton piece, “Composition 6D”.
For myself, this recording will always be classic and highly influential, not just for its audaciousness in the handling of modern classical and free jazz, but for its lasting influence on a number of other musicians who added to the development of new music. People like John Zorn, Steve Lacy, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore have openly acknowledged the influence that Anthony Braxton had on their music. Braxton has gone on to collaborate with Wolf Eyes, Archie Shepp, Philly Jo Jones, David Holland, Chick Corea, Richard Teitelbaum, Max Roach, Paul Smoker, Marianne Schroeder, Gyorgy Zsabados, Gino Robair, Marilyn Crispell, Andrew Voigt, Frederick Longberg Holm, Peter Brötzmann, and so many more. Anthony Braxton has even been sampled by Venetian Snares!!
I leave you with a playlist of my favorite Anthony Braxton recordings.