Tonight’s film is an exceedingly rare one. Rising Tones Cross is a German documentary from 1985 about the New York avant-garde jazz scene. Directed by Ebba Jahn, it features some amazing performances and three long interviews that frame them. One is with the German bassist Peter Kowald, who died too young. The second is with the astounding bassist William Parker and his wife, the dancer Patricia Nicholson. The third and most important is with the saxophonist (or pianist or bassist or whatever he feels like playing on a given day) Charles Gayle. This is the single best film I’ve ever seen on free jazz. That’s because it’s not just a discussion of a single act or one of the weird Sun Ra films or some documentary looking back. It’s a vision of the scene at the time it was happening.
Moreover, the mid-80s are an interesting time in this scene. A lot of the original free jazz guys had fallen on hard times. The scenes around both Coltrane and electric Miles had mostly collapsed into either cheesy fusion or a return to acoustic stuff mid-60s these guys could do in their sleep. There’s a few old timers holding down the fort who appear in this film’s performances–Don Cherry and Rashied Ali. But a lot of that scene in the 80s was younger people inspired by that earlier generation who were remaking it for themselves while living in what was far from the greatest time in New York City. Of course, the ability to live cheaply or squat allowed these people to actually create that scene. Gayle himself is perhaps most famous for being intentionally homeless for 20 years, walking the streets of New York blowing his sax. He talks about this here. You’d think he was some really weird far-out dude based on that, but no, he’s incredibly cogent and intelligent and reasonably normal in these conversations. That’s why he’s the centerpiece of the film.
The Parker interview is great in part because he’s become the center of the New York jazz world but that was very much not the case in the mid-80s. He’s in this talking about putting together festivals and trying to create some organization around the scene that could lift all boats. Years later, this became the Vision Festival, which still happens today and which I desperately want to attend one of these days.
Then the Kowald interview is fascinating because he brings that German outsider perspective. One of the things he notes is how much harder it is for the Black musicians to get a fair shake and how that is obvious even for an outsider like him. He also talks about the quite white scene that was happening alongside the more Black scene around people such as Gayle and Parker. He notes that a lot of this music has no real soul and gets old very fast–and then the film immediately moves to a John Zorn thing where he is blowing different reeds into a bowl of water. It was a total burn on Zorn, who is a great musician, but who has mostly surrounded himself with white musicians through his career such as Mark Feldman, Sylvie Courvoisier, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Mark Dresser, etc. They are all great, but this is notable. Anyway, it was a funny juxtaposition.
Now, I had never even heard of this film before. But this month, Criterion Channel has a whole series of free jazz movies!!!!!! It’s worth the $10 just to watch this film. Among the other performers you will see in the live performances include David S. Ware, Roy Campbell, Peter Brotzmann, Wayne Horvitz, Billy Bang, Bobby Previte, Marilyn Crispell, Jemeel Moondoc, and Irène Schewizer. Great stuff.
Alas, none of it is on YouTube except for this audio recording of about six minutes of Gayle’s talks during the film.