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Chapter 4 The Musicians and Their Audience The Cellar Café, a basement coffee house with a capacity of about 90 on New York’s West 91st Street, seems an unlikely venue for a jazz festival. Yet for four days beginning on the afternoon of October 1, 1964, it hosted more than twenty groups and soloists playing varieties of free improvisation to overflow crowds. Many listeners stayed around for late night panel discussions on the state of the industry featuring experimental musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Steve Lacy. Billing the event as ‘‘The October Revolution in Jazz,’’ producer Bill Dixon set out to demonstrate that ‘‘the music is not ahead of the people—all it needs is a chance to be heard.’’1 Although few participants made a living playing ‘‘outside’’—headliners included Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, and Sun Ra but most were virtually unknown—regular performances and a stable audience maintained the style’s visibility and forwarded its credentials as a vital creative expression. The listener profile mattered little at first. Yet cultural nationalists within the jazz business soon realized that their ability to cultivate an African American audience for ‘‘the new thing’’ would prove crucial in legitimating claims of black ownership. If they hoped to win critical and institutional control of black music from its traditionally white champions, Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, A. B. Spellman , and others had to link the revolutionary arts to an African American consciousness. They faced a challenging task. Critics and performers found it much easier to rally intellectual support for John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler as purveyors of a black aesthetic than to win the patronage of fans in sufficient numbers to sustain careers in music. This realization had profound implications for the fate of free improvisation in the jazz canon and the future of jazz in America ’s cultural hierarchy. By all accounts, including record sales, availability of work, and the reluctant testimony of musicians, jazz attracted a small, predominantly white, middle-class, and educated audience during the 1960s. West 91st Street was hardly on the New York City club circuit, however, and ‘‘The October Revolution’’ did not appeal to a commercial jazz crowd. Those in attendance ‘‘listened attentively and receptively,’’ according to Mar- The Musicians and Their Audience 123 tin Williams. The gathering consisted of ‘‘mostly youths, obviously attentive (in some cases nearly frighteningly so)’’ added Dan Morgenstern, who doubted many would pay downtown prices and stand for jazz club distractions such as chattering customers, persistent waiters, and noisy cash registers.2 Dixon’s hopes of creating an underground public for free improvisation rested on combining the intellectual and bohemian segment of the jazz audience with a community-rooted African American base. He had every reason to believe that African Americans aspired to and enjoyed higher levels of participation in jazz activities than whites, despite their numerical relation to the overall cadre of enthusiasts . A varied music scene persisted into the 1960s in many black neighborhoods , and experimental musicians often found a niche by combining their music with familiar or provocative trappings. Yet at a time of aesthetic innovation and exploration, deindustrialization and suburbanization precipitated the decline of performance venues in downtown entertainment districts and inner city communities. An October panel on ‘‘The Economics of Jazz’’ confronted the reality that as practitioners of the most demanding and perhaps obscure music, free improvisers felt the squeeze first and hardest. Another midnight discussion forum, ‘‘The Rise of Folk Music and the Decline of Jazz,’’ struck an equally ominous note. The availability of radical, accessible alternatives that spoke directly to the baby boomers’ anxieties and aspirations, including folk and especially soul and rock later in the decade, further reduced the listeners and venues for jazz recording and performance. During the mid-1960s, free improvisers adopted a number of strategies to counter or compensate for the music’s precarious existence and reconnect with jazz audiences, while remaining faithful to their aesthetic vision and heritage. Experimental musicians generally resisted the suggestion that their art held little appeal for the music-loving public. Instead, they maintained, inadequate publicity and promotion hampered their efforts to communicate with a wider audience. Although the history of jazz is replete with unilateral attempts by musicians to improve their position in the industry, the 1960s witnessed an unprecedented number of collective self-help efforts. Two endeavors pioneered by experimental musicians represent opposite approaches and very different outcomes. The Jazz Composers Guild, an interracial New York City cooperative established...


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