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June 4th is Anthony Braxton’s 75th birthday, so in celebration I’ve posted this 47 year-old story told in his own words. A look back into the life of a fantastic musician. Happy Birthday Anthony…

You can’t change the past, only the future, and the only place you could change the future was in the present.
Kate Atkinson “Started Early, Took My Dog”.


For a whole week in June 1973
I had the opportunity of having Anthony Braxton as a house guest. From that visit came the following interview, an interview that I consider to be one of the most important documents that I have personally been responsible for. My questions have been edited out making Anthony the only voice.


Music was always around the house. I grew up with lots of music and I was listening very seriously until I was about 9. I was into rock and roll; The Flamingos, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, that record still arouses memories, that was the music happening in the 50’s, and I was a real rock and roll fan. Later I heard an Ahmad Jamal record — “At The Pershing” — and it kind of changed my whole scene. It was shortly after that when I was exposed to Brubeck with Paul Desmond, that was the only type of jazz music I was exposed to, I hadn’t heard any Charlie Parker, I think I might have heard one record by Charlie Parker that frightened me. Listening to jazz that was easily accessible was a natural entry, and it was the day I made the decision to play the saxophone, whereas before I wanted to be a trumpet player, with Miles Davis, but after I heard Desmond I knew I wanted to play saxophone.

But I didn’t get a chance to study until I was about eleven. I was playing clarinet in the high school band and started taking lessons in alto saxophone (I had started playing saxophone in 1959). Of course in high school I went through a period of playing bebop music, tunes, and that kind of thing, my chief inspirations being Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker. I had my own combos, and I worked with other people’s combos. I became a student of Jack Gell at Chicago School of Music and studied there from 1959 to 1966 – basic theory, theory of saxophone (I started with clarinet and alto). Of course even where I went to school — in Chicago School of Music — they would not normally make you aware of jazz. There was a dance band, that’s what they referred to as a jazz band. They played show tunes, that sort of thing, arrangements of old Woody Herman charts, old Basie tunes.

In 1966 when I got out of the Army, at that time I began to think I was insane or something; I was becoming very paranoid because for the most part I couldn’t find anyone that I could relate to musically in terms of what I wanted to do. I was becoming somewhat isolated. Not many people wanted me to play with them unless I played conventional, so when I ran into Roscoe Mitchell, who brought me to the A.A.C.M. [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians], the experimental band, I found a whole group of people – not only could I relate to them but they were all doing it, the whole community. I haven’t seen anything like it since. It was a very important part of my life.

I’m kind of far away from the A.A.C.M. now, I know that in the period when we were working, I don’t think I was concerned with worries any more, it was just work. The A.A.C.M. have created a separate school of thought, quite different from the jazz tradition of New York. Probably the biggest difference in the music between Chicago and New York is the environment. In Chicago there was time to research and study and refine some of the elements that constitute how the music would flow in Chicago. I think between ‘66 and ‘68, or maybe in ‘69, there was a lot of creativity happening; no one was so much concerned with labels, and because everybody came from different directions eventually they went and continued in their own directions. It was very interesting, nobody came out sounding alike. And yet at some point we embraced certain realities together. I don’t know if all the music could be called jazz. Actually I’m involved in contemporary classical music and to some degree with improvised music. So what I do is a logical extension of my interest in both areas, which is one of the reasons why I say I’m not a jazz musician.

When John Coltrane died, I began to re-examine process, because I found that I couldn’t continue playing modal music, for instance. Even John Coltrane himself talked about the fact that he loved to hear multi-rhythms in his music, and his music was at some point getting to be rhythmatical, and after he died I found myself looking at that concept, but I was not interested in the intensity, because I did not see how I could be more intense than John Coltrane. So what would be the result of having a sound environment which is free rhythmatically without the intensity? And I found that if you took away the drums and the bass you could open up the environment in the same way, and yet you wouldn’t have the intensity. I began to reject intensity as being just a common setting for the music. I found that at some point intensity can become a mass, for lack of invention. So in 1966 I formed a group with trumpet and violin with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins. We wrote in as many different settings as we could think of. Ninety percent of the stuff with the group was improvised. Of course, it depended on the composition, like the Kelvin series. I have a concept I work on repetition music it’s designated “Kelvin”. For that particular music it’s about dealing with the repetitions, although there’s much more room than say like the Lamont Young school which I found out about later. Repetition is the basis, the germ of that music, but it moves into it differently. So it depended on what elements we were working with, whether it was all improvised or not. But for the most part it was really like improvisation.

It was in the same period that composition wise I wrote my piece for a hundred tubas, and five tubas; I began to initiate (1) a new situation for the improviser and (2) new compositional situations, since I’ve always been interested in structuralism at some point. Also in 1966 I began to explore the possibilities for solo alto, because in that particular period I was breaking down everything, like I was getting Webern off of me and yet I think what I got most out of contemporary classical music is the fact that the composer has so many different mediums that he can work in and it keeps his activity up. You can see his activity from different colours, which is what mediums are at some point. I just began to conceptually break down certain things and decide which avenues were available to me and which avenues I was interested in, and at some point solo saxophone was the legitimate avenue which hadn’t really been explored (of course Coleman Hawkins had done some wonderful things, Eric Dolphy would do isolated spots) but it hadn’t been explored in the sense of Stockhausen’s or Schoenberg’s piano music where each piece would be really one more different element, or something like that. And in that particular period I was very deeply into piano music. I’ve always loved solo piano music, and I found myself thinking, why not use the alto saxophone for my piano (as far as my improvised music was concerned), and continue to write solo music for piano, which would have to be interpreted by an interpreter. And I found then as now that music for solo saxophone would have to be very different from solo piano music; in fact there are a lot of available areas on the alto which aren’t available on the piano and of course vice versa. So that’s really how I arrived at that process.

I approach my solo music using different systems. The piece for Bobby Fischer for example has to do with certain systems, ways of constructing and approaching several problems, and certain ways to resolve them, in terms of actual make-up of the piece. It’s dedicated to Bobby Fischer because he’s very important to me. There’s always a relationship of some sort with the one to whom the piece is dedicated (the pieces are almost always dedicated to someone), but it’s not always a relationship like I’m trying to duplicate a chess game, playing Bobby Fischer’s chess game with Spassky, not that comparable. The actual systems of the piece don’t really have anything to do with chess, but because it seemed like it would be suitable for Bobby Fischer, which is why I include that in my program of performance. It’s actually stage 5 of a whole series of pieces that I have for Bobby Fischer, all of them using certain systems which at some point make me think of Bobby Fischer. And that particular piece was in part just another emancipation of the area of this that‘s been touched; it’s just some of the inherent potential that’s in the instrument. Part of my thing has been that there are a lot of things happening with the saxophone which haven’t been done yet.

Why an alto and not a clarinet, a soprano or a tenor? Well, merely because I put the limitation on myself that I wanted to just do alto saxophone music, and I have a record out in Europe right now; “The Complete Braxton” — it wasn’t my name, but they changed it, called it “The Complete Braxton” anyway — and there’s a piece for solo contrabass clarinet and I intend whenever possible to do isolated solos on some of the other instruments. But I’ve always had a special feeling about the alto saxophone, so I decided to use that extensively for my experiments. The conceptual answers that I can come out with the alto saxophone could apply to my writing and for other things that I’m interested in. So I really just solo. I just give solo concerts on the alto saxophone, really because it’s my only consideration in terms of how I limit myself.

What happens now that I don’t play clubs — I never liked playing clubs and in fact I never played in them since “Circle” [AB, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul] — we usually rent a concert hall and present the music in a way where people can just come and hear the music and not buy drinks or anything like that. So whatever halls are available we could use that, but that’s not the problem, the problem is getting the money to get them. There are always places you can rent and put the music on. My understanding of what I’m doing is that I’m trying to be creative, and hopefully I’d like to put it in a situation where people could experience it, to be able to either like it or dislike it.

I’m a composer, and as a composer I’m just merely trying to be creative in different mediums. I feel that’s the function of music. I’m interested in parade music. My piece for a hundred tubas hasn’t been performed, but I would really like to get into parade music. Then I’d like to realize a few of my orchestral pieces and continue my electronic music. I’m in residence in Paris and there’s an electronic studio that I can go to every day now, and work on tapes. I’m able to realize projects that I couldn’t do in America. And so it keeps me in Europe. If I could do the projects in America I would do it. Not because it’s my home, but because it’s a valid part of the plan. It still exists, in spite of us. And there’s a lot of things to do. But you have to have some way of gaining facility, it’s usually a University or something like that, or you have to have enough money to be able to live on this. I couldn’t really make a living off my music in America, I’d have to do TV commercials or something like that, or play some sort of music I don’t want to play. And at this point in my life I don’t want to do that any more. I have an idea of what I want to pursue as far as the creative thing is concerned. I’m not as flexible as I used to be, I’m no longer interested in showing someone I can play bossa nova and so on.

If Eric Dolphy were alive right now we would really be able to relate to each other. I know he was interested in some of the same elements I am. He had different solutions, of course. I thought that at some point there is definitely a line running from Parker and Dolphy like a continuous system to the kind of music I do. I know Charlie Parker wanted to study with Edgar Varese; I mean he was very much aware of the fact that he couldn’t get all of his music through the alto saxophone. That’s only one medium, and that’s what I’m working with now. I’m working with as many different mediums as I can. The problem is to get into other mediums (for me, anyway) rather than just to present oneself in the bass-drums-piano situation. It gets to be quite boring.

One possibility to get the facility is the university. I think most universities have an orchestra, so at some point I would have the facility to use an orchestra, and the electronic studio if there is one, to get some of my written music performed. I wouldn’t mind teaching, as long as it’s not too much teaching. I’ve been teaching in Paris and lately I’ve been giving a lot of lectures, not just on my music but on progressions of modern music, usually starting from Schoenberg to Cage and Lamont Young, and from Charlie Parker to Albert Ayler, to give some real perspective on what the implications of that music are all about, and to teach it in a way that it can open people up, rather than close them and make them think in limited terms about the music. One of the problems with teachers is that they limit you in your understanding of creativity. It’s surprising how many people can’t really teach about improvised music in away which is enlightening. There are not very many good teachers. For that matter, there are not that many good teachers in contemporary classical music. I think the emphasis in teaching is definitely on something that’s not creative.

Another possibility, being a musician in residence for example, would be something that I would be interested in, as long as it’s not too long. For instance, in America you have 4,000,000 composers in every university and once or twice a year they perform their own music, and 5 or 6 composers in their area will come in and be at the concert because they know that if they don’t go to his concert, he won’t go to their concert. You know there’s a whole university composer’s thing happening in America, in fact happening in Europe too, and these are people who for the most part like to drive and go out to play their music and live what they’re supposed to be about (supposingly) as musicians and composers. The university’s a somewhat safe haven, kind of too safe. Usually it’s very dangerous, because 3/4 of the composers are idiot composers, so they expose people right off to very bad music. Your whole post-Webern period made some of the dullest music on this planet. As far as I’m concerned, all those people are indebted to Varese, so I don’t know. I think it has something to do with the inability to have structure initiate what you say you’re about. So there’s an advantage connected with the university in some part, like where you can make some money, and use the facility, and teach; but if you stay there too long, it can also become a disadvantage, not just to you but to the people around you.

The question then becomes how much of that can you take, does it impair what you’re doing and does it enhance it, or if it does both, is it worth it? Do you get more out of it than what you put into it? You’re dealing with a strange kind of balance in that situation. I imagine that if there’s a good balance then it could work. You can make a living plus still be creative. But you’re dealing with a lot of factors, you know. All the factors of course change, depending on what university you’re dealing with. Some give you more room than others. But to just be in America and not connected with some sort of institution and trying to play creative music — well, not trying to play creative music but trying to be creative, you’re put in a very strange position. So I could understand Marion Brown teaching for instance, and find some sort of meaning in that. For instance he has a family, and just because of that consideration alone he’s not able to be like me, running around the planet in heavy wins and losses, taking the loss myself because I don’t have to worry about a wife and kids. I imagine at some point he might really be able to dig it, but how much it takes away or adds to what he does as a performer, we’ll see of course in the future.

I know a person like Stockhausen has complete facilities in Germany; as soon as something is innovated in technology that could lend itself toward music, in terms of its creative potential, he gets it very quickly. Or he’s able to use it. I guess that’s the optimum situation. But I guess at some point even Stockhausen has gone out of it. It seems like the more facility he gets, the less creative he is; he hasn’t done anything decent in the past ten years, so I wonder what that means. It’s a strange balance happening. I don’t know, maybe the nicest thing that could happen is to do like Charles Ives, be creative as long as you can and say fuck it. He eventually gave up and just did insurance. But while he was creative, he was very creative. At some point we’re all going to burn ourselves out.

And that’s been the question around here. Is it really necessary to have this kind of struggle to be creative? And if it is, is it worth it? Because it seems like the less struggle you have, the less dynamic your work becomes, as far as its relationship to what you were doing in the beginning. And yet I would hate to advocate starvation, because it’s not really hip.

But to get out and try to perform your music, you enter the area of where you’re making a living doing it, so you then have to deal with the available mediums to get it out, whether it’s records or concerts or what have you; you then enter big business or business. And there are problems there, you know. The record companies don’t know who I am, and the ones who do know don’t seem to be interested. They’re only interested in recording you if at some point they can help you define what you‘re doing, in fact if they can have the ability to define 3/4s of what you’re doing. So there’s my problem. Like Ornette went through so many changes to get “Skies of America” performed, you wouldn’t believe it (we won’t go into that right now) but here is a man who is established now in terms of his creative ability, and he can barely get that project off; and it’s not even about money, it’s about something else — it’s about control. White people don’t mind giving black people money (of course we have black people with money) as long as they can define.

I think everybody knows the situation with jazz musicians, of course they’ll do whatever they can do to you. The record companies, especially in America, are not interested in paying you any money, where you can get good musicians, or where you can do a project and have it done in a right way, and on top of that they have the nerve to want to tell you what you’re doing, as if I don’t know what I’m doing all these years. Something like the A & R man syndrome. And so I have no records out on a major record label in America, and I don’t see that situation changing. Besides, I still get treated like a jazz musician rather than a concert musician – like when I got my piece for five tubas recorded, it was only because we had signed the contracts and everything before; I was supposed to come in with my bass, drums and trumpet, and I slipped in with five tubas, but it was too late – they were in the studio, and so he had to tolerate it. At the end he liked it, but I’ve never had a record date of any of my written music, and so I’m represented for the most part as a saxophone player or a woodwind player. But that’s a small part of what I do.

I have never had access to other media, like television or radio to any great extent in America, but in Europe I’ve performed on television in Germany, France, and Holland. I mean in America they’re just getting Miles Davis on television. That’s true. And that’s only because it’s a rock band. I think the whole situation is silly, I mean I don’t even see Muddy Waters on television. I saw him on television ten years ago, one time, at some festival, a pseudo-jazz festival, and he stole the show. I think it’s undebatable people could listen to my music if it was on television, and could see the process of the music being made. I could take advantage of the visual aspect of it too. So of course, that’s to your advantage. I think that’s why the popular musicians at some point are known so much. Television is a real medium. But I think we all know why the situation is like it is. I don’t think it’s going to change, not for a while.

For me I find that in this part of my life I would have more problems if I wasn’t trying to make a living playing music. I have less problems than for instance if I were working at a job and playing music at night, because then I wouldn’t have the energy to try and develop what I’m doing. It takes a lot of energy to do something you don’t want to do. I accept the situation that I have to exist in, even if I didn’t accept it, it wouldn’t make any difference. It’s not changing. But we’re talking about the situation now, which is that to be creative is at some point to be put into a very isolated position on the planet, where for the most part you ‘re not able to get the music out, and have people experience it on a real planet level.

The dichotomy between the people and the music gets wider and wider. Because for the most part people who define phenomena, whether it’s art or baking cookies or what have you, at some point they don’t even deal with the music. There‘s a concerted effort in America in the past 6 or 7 years to kind of not use the music, to in fact push the music to one side, to talk about some of the weaker elements in the music, and to negate and invalidate contemporary creativity. So music gets to be somewhat esoteric which is not the purpose of it. And yet there’s nothing we can do, there‘s no magazine in America for creative music, there are no outlets, aside from the people who already know about it. It gets to be really something. I don’t know if I could just relate it to the fact that I’m black, although in America the racial situation is manifested on every level of the culture so at some point of course my blackness is a barrier to me in terms of doing certain things and working at a certain level. But I don’t attribute the fact that my music isn’t available, or in a position where people can hear it, merely because of my blackness, I think the implications of creative music is what frightens most people. And I think it’s basically people’s misunderstanding about what creativity is in fact about in the first place that makes them repel any new effort. It would be much more comfortable if I would play jazz or if I would interpret Bach or something which is established, because of the reality aspect of the music.

But by the very nature of the system that we live in, once something creative is established, they find a way to turn it into a spectacle. It becomes established as something which other people will relate to, then they’ll have another value system they can talk about, this kind of relationship to Albert Ayler who becomes the norm then.

And here we‘re actually talking about flows and systems of art in Western civilization, because this whole situation is indigenous to our particular culture. In Africa you don’t see no cat running around trying to get a record date because he can play flute or something, because everybody can play flute just as good as him. It‘s not even about how good you play. The music has more than just a casual interest, it’s more than just a spectacle, it’s about something else. We live in a situation that because there’s no ritual, because this culture hasn’t advanced to a point where spiritually or metaphysically or whatever people have got higher levels of cognizance, music becomes reduced to a diversion sort of thing. Even the particular periods of music, if you look at them, can be talked of in terms of the structure and what have you; the game seems to be to develop a new structure, so that we can say this is new, but actually nothing is very new. But by developing it, we can focus some attention to what we do. And even in ten years if people should be listening to my music it would be for the wrong reasons or they’ll think Braxton is really great or whatever, when actually nobody’s doing anything else out of what they could do anyway. And all this trying to be creative is to realize the potential that is in us as human beings. It’s really very natural to try to be creative, in fact it’s not natural not to be creative. So we’re placed in a very alien situation, not as a white man or a black man, but as a human being. This is not really a human situation that we walk around in. In that situation, it becomes important to have alternatives, for people whose activity is available as an alternative; creative music becomes a necessary alternative again.

There’s our reason for playing together. But I think that the way the situation is defined right now, my music could not appeal to the masses of people. Because there would have to be a lot of homework that would have to be done, not because my music’s profound or anything, but because the nature of creativity has been distorted, to the degree where a person would have to be re-schooled. I’m not talking about the people who come up under certain systems who naturally progress toward activities like mine, but I’m saying for the most part, it’s a little bit different from the kind of music that’s played on the radio, which is the kind of music for the most part that people are conditioned to dealing with. Not that I would want people to be conditioned to listen to my music, I wouldn’t like people to be conditioned to listen to anything. And if at some point you’ve never been exposed to other alternatives, it can be somewhat difficult for people to experience it.

I don’t know if all those people there (a solo saxophone concert at the St. Clair Music Library, Toronto – June 16th, 1973) were into creative music or contemporary improvised music, they were able to relate to it. The notion blowing around that people if given a chance couldn’t really experience creative music is true to a degree, but at some point I find that a lot of people can relate to my music, in all of its different stages. I felt last night for instance the people were able to, even if they didn’t exactly know what was happening, be open to experience it. And it’s definitely true in Europe, and in France in particular since that’s where I play most of the time; there, the audiences are more susceptible to new ideas than American audiences. In ‘69, I believe it was, concerning the influx of musicians from Chicago and New York at some point the people became very aware of their music, mostly for the wrong reasons. But now I think I could say there’s a real audience. The radical elements of the music are no longer impressive, at any rate. Now people can really get down and listen to who’s playing the music. When John Coltrane died, in America, for the most part when the media would centre on so-called new music, they would talk about the inadequacies of the younger musicians technically or something like that. Now we realize that we had those musicians only to thank, because most of the “polished” musicians are really playing accepted ideas, or ideas which Charlie Parker had initiated, you know?

People have the wrong idea about what jazz music is supposed to be, but I’m tired of fighting it. Charlie Parker was playing what he was playing; they called it jazz – I don’t care if Louis Armstrong was the first to use that word or not, it’s playing creative improvised music. And yet because the music was so creative, most of the people after him have not been able to understand that they should find their own processes in terms of their own solutions, or what have you. For instance I think the biggest problem that black people have in America is their inability to understand that they can define an “is” in their own situations. It’s manifested in the music, I think that’s what you’re talking about. In fact jazz has been defined and pigeonholed to such a degree where in order for a person to pursue that type of music as a way of making his living, and being creative, he has to fall within the definitions of what that’s supposed to be about and act accordingly. Like I’m supposed to give you a bass, drums and rhythm section and work through tunes — “Melancholy Baby” or something, for the old folks — and I’m supposed to go out and play that, I become known as that, and it falls into T. S. Eliot’s “formulated phrase” (Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Lines 55-56: “And have known the eyes already, known them all; the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase… “) again, and that’s not only how jazz is labelled but all our music’s labelled. Like your contemporary classical musicians for the most part well, their connection with Europe is obvious, but you go to a concert and the explanations for each piece will be four hours long to not only validate the music but also give a historical perspective in terms of what’s gone down before it. I mean everybody’s locked in by (1) the historical framework and (2) the fact that they haven’t defined what they’re doing.

That’s why strong people are needed to hear what they themselves are doing and to have the integrity to stay with what they’re doing. People like Lamont Young, for instance. Lamont Young is a composer in New York. For the most part I don’t think the mass public knows his name, but he’s a most important cat because he’s been on the scene for 15 years (1) initiating his own concepts and (2) continuing to do what he‘s doing, and developing it. He becomes very important, it doesn’t even matter whether or not you like him. We need alternatives, more people like Lamont Young, people who have an idea or the desire to want to be creative and who through the test of time will feel that they will be able to stay there and do what they do and develop it. And for me, the only course I have is to continue doing what I’m doing, period. Till I burn out and work at the Post Office or something. I think I do what I do because of who I am, but I’m also outside the general framework, like my music’s not available for the most part on this planet, except say in Tokyo where I have music available. I can go and do a recording for the largest record company in Japan, with no vibration, with nobody running around and saying do this and do that, and with complete freedom with what I want to do, no question about it; and in Europe, but in America I don’t have any music out because I haven’t been O.K.’d. I don’t perform that much — I’ve never performed that much — record wise, Delmark Records was the only outlet I had in America, and there‘s no distribution for those.

And so jazz has become a fixed medium, where to be a jazz musician you have to play in a certain way or whatever, and if you do well they give you five stars in Down Beat or something; you become a hero. The situation for creative music hasn’t changed, either; although the situation for jazz has changed a little bit, I’m afraid that when you talk about creative music and when you talk about jazz you’re talking about two different things, for the most part. I’m not trying to invalidate some of the musicians who come up playing what they called bebop, who are really dealing with the reality of what their whole creative thing is all about, but when you’re talking about jazz now, you’re not talking about really creative music, you’re talking about fixed solutions and even the jazz musicians who are able to get their music to the public come through a lot of definitions, a lot of things are changed. I don’t know of anyone playing the music called jazz right now who’s doing anything, I mean take somebody like Ornette Coleman for instance; I think Ornette’s music has gone. He does what he does now, and he does it well, and it’s not new to the extent where it challenges any notions of creativity, or even more than that, he does what he’s done, or what he does. He‘s certainly still creative, it’s certainly not still the same as when he was younger. I don’t think it’s so much that he’s burned himself out as that he’s lost a lot of energy and what-have-you through the living and the struggle, plus he’s found a certain particular area that he wants to work in. And he does that. But for me, I’m not particularly interested in one particular aspect, my interest is that things keep moving along. And at some point I imagine that I’ll burn out, or not have the ability to initiate something new, and maybe even become known for something that I’ve done or something, and be expected to be able to duplicate that. And maybe I won’t even be able to do that. Which hopefully will be true. Leave it there and move on to something new.

One possibility is that I might remove myself from music entirely and devote myself to another love that I have, which is chess. I’ve been playing chess since I was in high school, I won my first trophy in high school, and it’s a very important part of my life. It’s just as lucrative as playing creative music, and I really love playing chess. I consider myself a good chess player, but I’ve never played it competitively on any kind of high level. I’m still studying for a mastership. I’d like to at least be a master. I have more work to do. I’m still studying more systems and I get a chance to play a lot in Paris, Yugoslavian players, and Egyptian players, so I’m re-learning all of the opening systems, and doing a lot of theory right now. I’m hoping to start entering tournaments. I actually hope that I could start sometime this year but my schedule has been such that I haven’t been able to study as much as I like, but when I can…

But getting back to what else can happen after you burn out — then what do you do? You become a legend, or you go teach in the university. But when the moment is happening, it’s unfortunate that it can’t be received. It sounds like I’m saying that if any cat comes up and says that he’s doing something different, that he should immediately be pushed out and people should be exposed to what he’s doing, of course that’s not really happening, for every person who’s legitimately coming up with something creative there are 400,000 charlatans too. Like most of the jazz music right now for example, We’re in a very interesting period in jazz. In the 60’s, a person like John Coltrane was an honestly spiritual person who initiated a certain type of music; now in the 70’s we see those intentions used — like everybody has a professional guru — and I find jazz very boring now, everybody talks about their religious beliefs, and has their little swami with them and for the most part the music is very dull, it’s sacrilegious, it does more to confuse people. I’d rather listen to some rock than listen to most of the jazz although when I say that I find myself thinking “did I really mean it”? And out of the contemporary classical concerts you might find two decent concerts out of a hundred, because most of the people have become so in love with process that they forget about music.

It’s quite possible that the energy source is going to shift from the United States to Europe for the further development of the music. There was a time when I would say no, it’s not that critical, but I find myself wondering about that. I’m hoping that at some time the whole planet will be equally “is”, in terms of the ability to initiate concepts. I doubt very seriously if America will become totally uncreative. But there are dangerous signs among the young musicians especially, that — I don’t know how to say it — I don’t hear that much creative improvised music, whether we want to call it jazz or not. Most of the gifted younger musicians, gifted technically, seem to be without the real understanding, the total perspective of what they’re doing. I know that sounds somewhat negative, even though I’m saying it, and yet I might as well just say whatever I’m thinking. For me, I’m just bored with technique, I mean with that kind of technique. This is why I have not become impressed with some of the schools now which teach “Jazz”. So called. I mean they teach you how to play “correctly”, and there’s nothing more boring than a “correct” player in my opinion. It’s all automatic, your situations are all pre-planned in terms of how you deal with certain harmonic situations, chord progressions and what have you. So there‘s not that much improvised music/ jazz, or whatever you want to call it, that I find interesting. So I don’t want anything to do with that. I left the jazz community a long time ago, and I think they were happy to see me go. I don’t even listen to jazz any more, with the exception of old pieces of music that I like.

The problem is that there are not that many musicians on the whole planet that I really want to play with. Lately I’ve been really interested in doing duets with Richard Teitelbaum, he plays synthesizer, you know, and one of the main problems that George Conley and I run into any place on the planet is to find out what musicians are at some point being creative, I mean the first name that comes to my mind as far as improvised music is concerned is Derek Bailey. I don’t know of any guitar player in America that could touch him. Bailey’s English, it’s indicative of some sort of change, I mean I think the idea that only black people could play jazz or be creative — everybody‘s looking at that now — is seeing that it is of course racist. Like half of the creativity that I hear that is supposedly new is a drag. You know, you can’t just embrace anything because it’s new. As a safeguard you not only have your critics but you just have the whole way things are set up, in terms of longevity and what have you. And parts of that are valid too. That’s all something you come up against, which is honest, but I don’t know. I find most critics to be especially dangerous, especially in jazz music. Like in Chicago, for instance, the critics really helped to destroy the A.A.C.M., by pushing out some figures and not talking about other figures, sort of separating them into who’s good and who’s not good, pitting the musicians against themselves. And they’re all doing this under the guise of they know what they’re talking about. They’re the professionals. People who really know. And yet I don’t know, I think the function of the critic is to make certain things available to people, and yet of course valid criticism is important too. I talk about critics and it’s a problem for me, because in the west I think it’s necessary to have critics. I mean our music isn’t really about music, it’s not about enhancing the general understanding we have about life, participating and that, because everyone has a different understanding about life. So the critic reviews things from the historical standpoint, and the process, the position in this point of time on the planet is a valid one. A lot of critics seem to abuse it, where they know more about what a man’s doing than what he knows, and usually they’re so late. I don’t think it would be better if critics were musicians, because every musician would write he was doing the most important thing in the world. Musicians are drags, although I think they should be able to define what they do. But as far as being a critic, if I was a critic I probably would “x” out 99 records out of 100 because of my own subjective understanding of what interests me . Musicians are very subjective, just because they’re dealing in the medium themselves. It’s like Aaron Copland writing a book about American music and spending one paragraph on jazz, dismissing it as bad-but-true that will soon go away or something. By his criteria the music wasn’t even valid, never has been. He raped jazz. Anyway, the music exists or it doesn’t, and it does.

There’s an interesting thing happening though in America; a lot of little creative groups are getting together, and people are just trying to be creative, manifested in the stuff you did with painting or music or what have you. In California people are going up into the mountains and hills to just do things to be creative, trying to get under condition, or reconditioned back to life. And it’s not like them trying to make a living off it, you get to think that maybe trying to make a living off being creative is not the answer. It seems to be almost impossible. The hassle of having to make money interferes with your process. Creativity isn’t a spectacle, it’s just something that people do, something that’s related to being alive in the fullest sense of the word. But it’s not salable. Actually, my music’s not very salable anyway. But especially when I’m able to do some of the other aspects of my music, no one would consider doing it.

But even more than that, If America continues in the course that she’s going, which is denying people the understanding of what creativity is all about, it’s quite possible that the axis is going to shift to Europe or something. But I think it will still be some time at this point. We’re moving to the decline of a whole civilization, we have to deal with that too, there’s not going to be any change. I don’t see any changes in the whole scene, the only thing to do at this point is to continue doing what you believe in. There’s no question that I’m going to be accepted or not accepted, because it’s not even about that, there’s nothing to be done. We could say “Bomb America” but that won’t even solve the problem, or go talk to the educated people of Down Beat Magazine, and that’s not going to change, because the misunderstandings are so deeply embedded in the culture not just about music but with dealing with existence, that I don’t think one or two people can change anything.

All that has to do with cliques and everything too. I mean Cecil Taylor finally got a Guggenheim, which I think is really wonderful, but Cecil Taylor is a man whose contribution to music is not even debatable at this point. People attribute atonal improvisation to Ornette Coleman, but as far as that particular period Cecil was doing the same thing, in the same period. You can’t say who was first or not. Now they’ve given him a Guggenheim, we’re supposed to be happy. So it’s the same thing, you still have to know somebody, or be around so long and have an output of music through a long time period where at some point they just have to deal with you, even if they don’t like you. I mean there are still people who can’t get into Cecil’s music, but I think at some point we all have to give the man credit for what he’s done. And he still doesn’t work — understand, now. Cecil still isn’t available for people who really want to hear him, he doesn’t perform that much, and it’s not because he charges too much money either. It’s just because the way the situation is, that there’s not the real need for Cecil Taylor because you could have Joey and the Flea-Bops or something; there’s no understanding about what the man is, what his music is.

Now take Miles Davis for instance, who’s supposed to be one of the richest black jazz musicians of America. He walks around talking about how great he is, and yet it seems to me that he could help some of the younger musicians. I’m not talking about me, since he probably couldn’t stand my music, but what about the music he likes? He could do something with it. In America, how many black millionaires are there supposed to be? There are more black people than you would expect who have money, who at some point would really help, not just black people but help the scene, to initiate something that would be positive. Nothing’s happening. They have that money but without the power of definition again, the power of being able to define. So that money’s nothing. There’s not any difference between the white and black bourgeoisie, except black bourgeoisie are imitating white bourgeoisie. The white one’s an original one, the other’s a copy. But in the final analysis, it’s the same result. They don’t feel any more relationship to me than any of the white millionaires, they feel even less, because they’re trying to reject something. They’re trying to push aside what they originally were and don’t want to be.

Maybe the only way to make the system work is that it should be destroyed. And actually that seems to be the only thing that we’ve come out with, and we’ve known that when we came in — transformation. The system, as things stand right now, doesn’t seem to lend itself toward some sort of real substantial change. In fact the way things are constructed, everything can be assimilated within the system and slightly altered — by “slightly altered” I mean “completely changed” — then become part of the system, whether it’s creativity or what have you. We could endure to continue doing what we profess to be about, the situation will change, I mean America’s changing. I think in the next ten or twenty years we won’t even be talking about America. Something’s happening, and I think it’s best for me to acknowledge it, so that I can learn from it. There’s a lot of creative music happening in the underground, which is a very hopeful kind of sign. The mere fact that there are certain people on the planet who have the integrity and have the ability to go out and continue to initiate things which could be called creative, they become very important people. That’s all. For as long as they’re able to do what they’re doing. But for the most part you don’t know these people. Like no one here knows about Richard Teitelbaum, the fact that they don’t know about him is criminal, especially when you consider all the bad electronic music that’s happening. They’re usually kind of outcasts. For the most part no one can relate to them. And it’s all over the planet; you go and look in the alleys and under the doorways, in the coal mines — they’re there, lurking in the shadows: a significant amount of people in different parts of the planet who are genuinely creative. And I associate and attach myself to that.


Usually when I go to any new place I try to find out from the musicians; they’ll usually say something like “this guy can’t play”, or “he’s crazy”, “he’s not doing anything”, “he’s a sick, warped, demented fool”, and immediately I try to find him. He’s probably one of us.


A year later Anthony returned to Toronto to record Trio & Duet.

End Notes:

All photographs by Bill Smith
Thanks to Dan Allen who transcribed and edited the original tape of this interview.

Anthony Braxton’s current activities can be found at https://tricentricfoundation.org/

Both of Anthony Braxton’s Sackville recordings are available from Delmark Records: https://delmark.com/
4121 N. Rockwell St., Chicago, IL 60618  • (773) 539-5001

Anthony Braxton – Trio & Duet:
Roscoe Mitchell Duets with Anthony Braxton:

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