With a perceived age gap, free jazz’s Vision persists

The Vision Festival is now in its 16th edition and remains New York’s preeminent grass-roots annual free jazz convocation. But it never had a youth of its own. At birth in 1996, it was already a middle-aged expression of 1960s fiery jazz and radical politics. People on its stages and in its audiences were, on average, past 40. As years progressed, murmurs were heard that Vision’s eyesight might have grown weak, its scope narrowed.

Those murmurs may have been from young players who wanted a gig under Vision’s self-stitched banner, but the festival organizers—the nonprofit Arts for Art organization, run by dancer/choreographer Patricia Nicholson in consultation with bassist and musical community hub William Parker—are unapologetic in adherence to their mission. They see themselves supporting a revolutionary music that emerged with Black Power and protest movements—music that has, in fact, grown older. Removed from the immediacy of those movements, has this style become irrelevant? The questions are often whispered by fans, if not musicians: Is free jazz still vital? Has it been co-opted and devalued? Is jazz itself dead? Is music worth living for, or now just stuff for hit videos and movie soundtracks?

Campus Youth at Vision Festival

Campus Youth at Vision Festival. Photo by Andy Newcombe.

Arts for Art has been edging toward answers, opening itself up in the process. Yes, the festival’s driving purpose has been unabashed support of music originating in the ’60s “New Thing,” its heroes the aesthetic descendants of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor. But several years back the festival began offering matinee performances by younger musicians, players who were often more focused on composition and structure than spontaneous improvisation.

And so many in New York’s hardcore jazz audience were introduced to the likes of guitarist Mary Halvorson, violist Jessica Pavone and drummer/pianist Tyshawn Sorey, players who have since received critical acclaim and come to represent a new generation of New York jazz. While this new generation is hardly taking over the reins, it is a growing influence in the festival’s programming.

This year’s festival takes place on the Lower East Side from June 5–11, and musicians who in past years might have played the matinee—out of college but still in early stages of their careers—are integrated throughout the schedule, and there’s an “emerging artist” night, June 6. That the bill includes indefatigable Downtown singer Fay Victor with vocalists Kyoko Kitamura, Jean Carla Rodea and Jen Shyu as Vocal Flight; resourceful drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s band the Hook Up; and the piano trio Dawn of Midi, whose debut album, First, was a highlight of the 2010 fest and who are on my list as not to be missed.

Consequently, the Vision fest’s matinee bookings are skewing even younger. Four middle school, high school and college bands play on the afternoon of June 11, which will end with them all together under the baton of Vision’s founding father, William Parker. (Patricia Nicholson, to whom he’s married, is its founding mother. Arts for Art is its operational base. Parker is actively recording and performing, frequently on tour overseas. Nicholson, a dancer/choreographer, directs Arts for Art’s and Vision’s business).

“There is a big insurgence of young players,” Nicholson says of the scene evolving all around her. “They’re very hungry and very good and really going for it. I try to be as responsive to what’s going on today as I can be and still keep the soul of the festival intact.”

Renewed interest in jazz composition doesn’t hamper that. Take for example, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s With/Between, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s Sicilian Defense, Shyu’s Raging Water, Red Sand ensemble, Fujiwara’s Hook Up, the group Paradoxical Frog, Josh Roseman’s Water Surgeons and Gerald Cleaver and Campos Youth, who all work compositionally, if not necessarily with notes on paper.

They still incorporate improvisation into their work—it is, after all, the soul of jazz. But they’re more likely to be working from complicated road maps than are post-Trane free blowers such as Peter Brötzmann, Kidd Jordan, Sabir Mateen, David S. Ware, Evan Parker with Matthew Shipp, Connie Crothers’ Quartet or Sonny Simmons—all past and present Vision stars.

“There’s this whole [conflicting] discussion now of ‘What is improv’ and ‘What is composition?’” Nicholson notes. “Those who do a lot of improvisation wouldn’t see such a difference.”

Nicholson thinks that “improvisation is just a kind of composition; it’s the most responsive form of composition.” Although she does agree: “There is a difference, but it’s not night and day.”

Another way Vision is widening its reach in 2011 is with its first organizational collaboration. Formerly all booking decisions were made by an Arts for Art panel, the membership of which is a closely guarded secret. Now the Festival of New Trumpet Music, a separate entity entirely, is curating a night.

FONT and Vision have always kept close contact to avoid competing on dates or bookings, but this year they decided to work together. “FONT@Vision” will feature the bands of trumpeters ElSaffar, Finlayson and Polish Tomasz Stanko, plus Ted Daniel paying tribute to King Oliver. A documentary by Robert O’Haire about trumpeter Bill Dixon, a stalwart of late ’60s jazz expression—who died last summer at age 84—will also be screened.

In fact, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, FONT’s vice president, was among the first to address Vision’s perceived age gap. He had attended the festival since he was in his early twenties; his sextet performed in the 2008 edition when he was 32. He, too, sees Vision’s vision refocusing with the times.

“It’s a reflection of different movements within the New York music field,” Bynum maintains. “The Vision fest organizers have a right to do whatever they want. To their credit, they wanted to broaden the aesthetic of what they want to do.”

If Vision is indeed expanding its range, it’s not abandoned its mission. The festival’s heart is still in presenting and remembering the good ol’ avant-garde. Alto saxophonist John Tchicai, 76, mounts a tribute to John Coltrane, on whose landmark 1965 album Ascension he appeared. Tenor saxist Kidd Jordan, a New Orleans eminence, has just turned 76, too. Alto saxist Simmons is 77. Soprano saxophonist Evan Parker is 66. German sax dynamo Peter Brötzmann leads three bands to mark his “Lifetime of Achievement” with a belated 70th birthday party. Bassist Henry Grimes, 75, duets with guitarist Marc Ribot, 56. And the Vision fest’s finale includes a memorial performance for violinist Billy Bang, another Vision perennial, who died April 11 at age 63.

Ultimately, it’s not that everything old is new again. Jazz changes with each generation. If there’s been age discrimination in Vision’s past, it’s been, at least, refreshingly reverse. What’s free about this jazz is that it disregards conventions, boundaries and expectations, too. So yes: The veterans maintain their sharp vision, ears to the ground for what’s happening, sure now of what they’re doing, passing the torch to followers keeping the faith.