Photo: Edu Hawkins
Anthony Braxton On The Radiance Of Standards, His Search For Charlie Parker & The Forces That Divide America
When an interviewer once asked Miles Davis about the nature of a standard, the trumpeter exploded conventional notions of the word before his ears. "You don't have to do like Wynton Marsalis and play 'Stardust' and that s**t," Davis told NME in 1985. "Why can't [Michael Jackson's] 'Human Nature' be a standard? It fits. A standard fits like a thoroughbred."
"My friends call me Anthony 'Simon and Garfunkel Boy' Braxton," he announces to GRAMMY.com over Zoom, sounding proud. "I have always loved their great music." On his new boxed set, Quartet (Standards) 2020, which arrives June 18, Braxton not only covers luminaries in the jazz sphere, like Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Dave Brubeck, but a handful of classics by the folk duo, like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)."
"We tend to put people in compartments about what they like or don't like," he continues. "It was wonderful to play that music."
Braxton's two new extended releases don't fit into any compartment. The first, 12 Comp (Zim) 2017, is an 11-hour marathon on Blu-Ray, featuring ensembles ranging from a septet to a nonet. The second, Quartet (Standards) 2020, spans 13 discs. At 76, the composer remains preoccupied with deconstructing categories—not only of genres and forms but of race and politics.
When discussing standards, Braxton's mind shifts to his love of the American songbook in all its forms. From there, he sets his gaze on what—or who—seems to be tearing asunder American unity in 2021. Where many see the modern movement christened "anti-racism" as a wholesale positive, this giant of Black American music sees it as a new, insidious form of separatism.
"The new woke academia is like everything else we see in this period," he asserts. "An inversion where far more people can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy."
Read on for an in-depth conversation with Braxton about his progress on an unimaginably ambitious opera system, why Charlie Parker is his North Star and why he feels those who sow disunity between racial groups deserve contempt.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How are you, Mr. Braxton?
I'm doing very well in the sense that I'm coming to the end of a project that has lasted for seven years. I think by the end of this week, I'll finally be finished with the opera Trillium L, which is a five-act opera—part of a system that, when completed, will be comprised of 36 acts that can go into many different orders. I'll talk to you about this more as we move along.
I look forward to hearing more about it!
Look, the way I see it—if you're going to be broke, you might as well do your best! From the beginning, it was always clear to me, when I was 15 or 16, that this is an area which will encompass everything I'm looking for. But it won't have anything to do with making money. I have since always tried to advise my students, as you evolve your music, to be sure to get a job or learn about some occupation where you can support yourself and your family.
Because if you're interested in the zone that I'm interested in, there is no way one can make a living from playing this kind of music. And in a strange kind of way, it protects the music. Because if you're interested in making money, it won't take you long to understand that this zone—the zone of creative music and creativity on the plane of creative music and creativity—is a triplane phenomenon.
It's a subject that won't involve making a lot of money, and if it's money you want, go into the zones where you can make money. I would love to make money! But it just so happens that I made a decision a long time ago. [Voice cracks with emotion.] Hooray! And so I'm going in the direction of the decision I made as a young man when I found myself listening to Warne Marsh and Charlie Parker and I thought [awed silence] "What is this? What is this?"
And so I'm blessed to still be alive and to be working toward whatever seems to be it, as it relates to the work that I've been doing for something like 60 years—maybe a little more or less. I'm very grateful that I would have the opportunity to be a professional student of music and that the Creator of the universe [voice cracks again] would allow me to outlive my father, my brothers, all except one.
And here I am, moving toward 76 years of being on this planet. I can't believe it! That's what I would say.
That central question: "What is this?" when you heard Bird and his contemporaries. Have you spent your whole life chasing that question?
Yes, yes, yes. For me, I was somewhat different than my brothers in the sense that I wasn't what you would call a social guy. I didn't go to parties. I didn't like that. I was the kind of guy who either hung out at the train-freight yards of the great New York Central Railroad or the Great Pennsylvania Railroad along with Howard Freeman and Michael Carter. We would check freight schedules and talk to engineers.
I wasn't what one could call a real hip guy, but I was fortunate to discover the kinds of things that would help me not just be alive, but want to be alive and to be grateful to have the opportunity to experience a spectrum of focuses. Life is really far out. I'm almost 76, and I must say, how miraculous it's been to have the opportunity to play music, meet people and learn about learning. The challenge of trying to learn about yourself.
As the Egyptian mystics would say, the concept of self-realization is the beginning of developing insight into yourself. Because that's one of the first challenges we all have to look at, which is ourselves, our lives, the experiences that we've had. To somehow bring this information together in a way where you can look at life and know how lucky you are to actually have an experience of consciousness. The wonder of manifestation. Life is really something.
Anthony Braxton in 1973. Photo: Ib Skovgaard/JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images
As far as I'm concerned, what we call being alive in this state is—I'll use the word "superior," but that's not really the right word. I'm thinking of the idea of heaven. The idea of hell. The idea of paradise. I'm saying, "Great, great, great." But for me, what I like is manifestation. A design from whatever perspective or non-perspective or vibration that a creator would declare manifestation in the first place.
So, it's like, "Wow, you know? This is really something!" And not only that, but the discipline we call music is intrinsically embedded in the concept of—I'll say actualization or manifestation, but what I'm really trying to say is that everything is music in various densities and intensities. From there, I would say, "Hooray for the Creator, who miraculously brought in manifestation with consciousness!" It doesn't get any better than that. I'll take it!
"Everything is music in various densities and intensities."
Along the lines of Quartet (Standards) 2020, I'm interested in the role of the standard in creative music. I think of Miles Davis saying "A standard fits like a thoroughbred."
Before answering your question—[raises voice astonishedly] You've heard Standards 2020? Wow! Wow! That means it's really coming! It'll be out soon! OK, let me go to your question.
For me, I'm just a country boy. [Voice cracks with emotion.] I'm a lucky guy to be born an American citizen. When I think about all the great music that's happening—especially the music that's come from Americans—again, I can only just bow to the Creator. Now, as far as I'm concerned, the work that I've dedicated my life to has never been opposed to the tradition. Rather, I see my work as an affirmation of the tradition.
What I've tried to do every decade is a project from the American Songbook. From the repertoire of the great American people, we take everything for granted. But, actually, in America, we have so much. We have options on so many different levels. There are so many different kinds of musics. We are so lucky, but of course, not everyone is able to recognize how fortunate we are, because it's all around us all the time.
We're so used to abundance, we have somehow come to take things for granted. We have the creativity. We have the men and women who are dedicated. Our complexity, in my opinion, is not whether or not we have the goods.
It's more like, there is a separation between real America and what is being reported about our great country. More and more, there is an effort to teach our young people that America has not been an agent of something positive, but rather, America has been an agent of something that is negative.
I respect everyone's viewpoint, but I would say this. In my opinion, the United States of America is one of the greatest countries that has ever happened to humanity. I think the men and women of America are some of the best people on this planet. But every day, I look at the internet—I gave up television and the radio years ago—and I'm reading about a perspective that is outrageous.
I'm a guy from Albert Ayler. From Dave Brubeck. From Hildegard von Bingen. I live in all their worlds. I'd better go to work and try to come up with something because one of the traditions that exist is the tradition of restructuralism and innovation and exploration. This is not always understood anymore. Of course, young people aren't being exposed to it. The music is not presented on television.
In fact, when I think about Sun Ra, I think he was on "Saturday Night Live." He had 10-minute sections; two of them were something where he was able to play. So, what am I talking about? I'm talking about a super-great visionary where, if the children could hear this person, they would have to come to a position on some intellectual, spiritual or vibrational level. But, no, we don't get that anymore.
Anthony Braxton with pianist Alexander Hawkins, bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis. Photo: Edu Hawkins
How are young people growing up going to learn about Charles Ives? How are they going to learn about Dinah Washington and her great work with Quincy Jones? The new generation of educators don't seem to know that information either. So, we watch the ascension of the great nation of China while, at the same time, our country is sinking because many of our young people are not being taught about what and who we really are as Americans.
I'm happy to be coming to an end with Trillium L, which is a five-act opera from 10 to 12 hours. Now—starting, say, in July—I can move to the next Trillium, which will be about change and change-state logics. In my opinion, [that idea] has real relevance because it seems that we are going through a period that's profound. Either we will rescue America or we will find ourselves dealing with change and change-state logics on a tri-centric level.
My hope is that America can hold together. But if no one respects holding together and what that means—and what it means to have a unified country—my viewpoint is that the breakdown after a civil war will be either three countries or four countries in our place.
America East, America South, America West—we might lose the West, but certainly Northwest—and there could be an insertion somewhere in Kansas, somewhere in the middle of the country. What am I describing? I'm describing the post-woke time parameter that's coming up. Unless change happens, we will have no way to avoid a cataclysmic experience. It's already starting to happen.
People beating up strangers walking down the street. What the hell is that? People jumping on someone they've never met and beating them up or bullying them. What the hell is that? If you think it happens to "them," maybe you need to go back and study history. Because you are the "them."
There's always room for improvement, but I'm not interested in utopia. No heaven, no paradise. Give me America! There are good people, so-called bad people, people on the left, people on the right.
Do you believe that the modern movement to combat racism might be contributing to a greater split than ever between communities?
There are complex forces in the air that are very separate from what one would have thought. The majority of the American people have been moving forward on the issue of slavery from the beginning. The whole concept of free states and slave states demonstrated immediately that there was opposition to slavery.
Not only that: The earliest genesis documentation of slavery was part of the menu that every ethnic group experienced. Blacks enslaving Blacks. Caucasians enslaving Caucasians. You name it, we enslaved it. In America, there's always been a movement to challenge those ideas. But you would not know that today!
What we have in this time period is the concept of critical race theory that is far out. I would say this: The American people have unified in such a beautiful way, in such a quick and short time period, when looking at the subject from, say, the last 3- or 4,000 years, that we have everything to be proud of. And yet, what has happened? I would say this: Certain sectors have been brought in to create separatism that didn't really exist in the same way that we are experiencing it now.
It's very fashionable to be racist against white Americans, especially white men. How far motherf**king out! But this could only have happened not only due to one or two deranged stuggy thug guys who decide they would be super-racist. You can always find individuals who are far out. What I'm saying is that someone made the decision to promote that vibration and put it in a different position.
For example, I could say [faux-screams] "Charlie Parker! Charlie Parker! Charlie Parker!" Would it be reported tonight or tomorrow? Who gives a f**k about a Black guy who likes Charlie Parker? If I would say, "Kill everybody, especially if they have a blue coat," then certainly, I'd be accepted. That's what I'm talking about! Someone is making the decision of who is going to succeed and who is not going to succeed.
What a time to be alive! If we lose America, [voice grows grave and slow] shame on us.
Anthony Braxton with bassist Neil Charles and drummer Stephen Davis. Photo: Edu Hawkins
There's some force that wants to keep us divided by racial lines.
I agree completely. In fact, there are several forces which are slicing and dicing our population. Someone is hated because they're from the South! Someone is hated because they're from the Midwest or something! We're being cut like some kind of chef who has all the knives and knows how to dice it up! They're separating us from one another, and they have been very successful.
But more and more, the American people will hopefully begin to look at this. We elected an African-American president and voted for this guy two times! Certainly, it looked as if things were coming together! And now we're at this place, and it's been solidified within 10 or 15 years. Even 15 years ago, it's been better than this! It's gotten really serious, and it's also become crazy.
In being crazy, we have flex-logic possibilities to start to challenge some of these ideas. How did white Americans get to be so evil? I don't [think that]! I think white Americans have been doing very well! Which is why I love white Americans! [livid voice] What the f**k is happening?
We're seeing young African-Americans say, "No, we want our dormitories to only be Black. We want to graduate in a different ceremony from non-African-Americans." Well, if that's the case, why did we waste 150 years of Reconstruction?
We're running out of time if our hope is to keep America together and moving forward. This, to me, is frightening and depressing. This is the new intellectualism: Critical race theory. The 1619 Project started out with a fundamental error in the whole foundation, accusing America of being racist, when in fact, the spectrum of historians has already looked into most of these questions.
But the new woke academia is like everything else we see in this period: An inversion where far more people can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy. This has become a problem.
I don't agree with racial essentialism and the notion that anyone is poisoned forever by virtue of their birth, always the oppressor, always the conquistador.
I'm going to say this: That perspective, in my opinion, is evil.
We're running long, but thank you for the catharsis about the ills of 2021.
It's good to talk to someone like yourself about what is actually happening in America.