Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 8, 2021
Danielle A. Jackson and Simone Austin, eds. Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020. Online (9781935963226)
Thumbnail

(Click here to view the online multimedia publication.)

A bare stage; a single microphone. Concentrated applause, and then a young Anthony Braxton (blue cardigan, saxophone in hand) walks into the frame and takes center stage at the Walker Art Center’s 1980 New Music America Festival in Minneapolis. Leaning close to the mic, he opens his set with a circular motif, repeated and varied, varied and expanded, all the way to a first cadence marked by a slow, resonant vibrato. This twenty-seven-minute performance video, previously consigned to the back room of the Walker’s archive and library, is now available to anyone at any time on the Walker’s website. Scroll up to read a short essay by Danielle A. Jackson about Braxton and his involvement with the museum; scroll down for more than three hours of archival audio, photographs from later performances, ephemera ranging from brochures to press releases to reviews, and a small block of endnotes that point the reader-listener toward further research and resources. One could spend hours listening and relistening and discovering new sounds; I might resurface for dinner.

Braxton is one of nine musicians featured in the Walker Art Center’s Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archive (published July 2020), the latest volume of the online, media-rich Living Collections Catalogue. First conceived in 2009 in response to the Getty Foundation’s invitation to nine museums to reimagine the form and function of scholarly collection catalogs, the Walker’s Living Collections series models a sustainable, accessible, public-facing platform that brings together scholars, curators, and artists in an embrace of the museum’s mission to uphold a "global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. “Living,” then, refers both to the unearthing of Walker collection gems (still interesting, still relevant, still inspiring us to look at the world just a little bit differently) and to the affordances of the Catalogue’s experimental presentation. From the beginning, the Walker’s combined curatorial, publications, and new-media teams recognized the platform’s flexibility by making plans to update each volume with new content as appropriate and by continuously reassessing results in light of evolving best practices associated with digital publishing.

While all four volumes of the Living Collections Catalogue take advantage of the multimedia possibilities inherent in an online publication, Creative Black Music is the first to center sound. Editors Danielle A. Jackson (the Walker’s Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow in the Performing Arts, 2016–18) and Simone Austin (Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow in the Visual Arts, 2018–20) assembled a team of authors and interlocutors including musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle; musicians and artists Taja Cheek, Jace Clayton, Dave King, Michelle Kinney, Jason Moran, Fred Moten, and Greg Tate; and Walker curators and archivists Doug Benidt, Philip Bither, and Jill Vuchetich. “Jazz and the broader worlds of creative black music have been important parts of the Walker Art Center’s Performing Arts program since its inception,” the landing page reads. This volume “focuses on a select group of influential black artists who came to the fore in the ’60s and ’70s and appeared at the Walker multiple times, each having an indelible impact on US musical culture.” Centering previously closed-to-the-public archival material, Jackson and Austin profile the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Amiri Baraka, Anthony Braxton, Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman, Julius Eastman, Wadada Leo Smith, Cecil Taylor, and Henry Threadgill. Creative Black Music also includes a foreword by Bither, the McGuire Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts; a beautifully written introductory essay by Kernodle, professor of musicology at Miami University, that takes a historical and musicological perspective on the jazz avant-garde; and a lengthy (though admittedly not comprehensive) timeline of select performances of creative Black music at the Walker between 1963 and 2019, researched and assembled by Vuchetich, who is head of Archives and Library. While this framing material occasionally implies that the jazz avant-garde is more central to the larger performance history of the Walker than the evidence warrants, the volume as a whole makes a strong case for the museum’s role in bringing major jazz avant-gardists—largely (though not exclusively) men, as Bither notes in his foreword—to the upper Midwest and for its commitment to sustaining the resultant relationships over a span of years and even decades.

All of the essays that make up the catalog are accessible to scholars, students, and art enthusiasts alike, though not every essay reads evenly in terms of style or content. Some work intellectual angles that introduce the philosophy and aesthetics of these artists and their music, grounding all observations in citations that run the gamut from scholarship to popular reception. In a particularly compelling essay on Taylor, for example, Jackson notes that Taylor “understood the body as the locus of the improvisatory practice. His utterances or motor responses became as much a part of composition as his piano playing.” (Hit “Play” on the accompanying video featuring Taylor performing untitled improvisations with his trio at Ted Mann Concert Hall in 2000 and you will see—and hear—what Jackson means.) Other essays hew more closely to biographical facts and eschew endnotes entirely; these are informative but underlined by an undisguised “great artist/great works” narrative that brings to mind the museum world’s historical reluctance to engage with music—sounding art—with the same critical stance it takes toward art objects.   

True to the Walker’s vision of a media-rich future for collections catalogs, it is the supporting materials—audio and video, photographs, ephemera, and a handful of “artist responses” that link outside the Living Collections platform—that star in this show. More than thirteen hours of music from Walker-programmed events beginning in 1980 offer an untapped repository for study or pleasure. High-quality images of select programs, posters, and correspondence are similarly engrossing: I could spend all day poring over Eastman’s handwritten letters, and a 1997 fax in which Bither suggests a commission for Coleman to write and record “a very short piece of original music to serve as the aural introduction to the Walker web site” is archival gold.

The volume’s greatest strength, however, lies in the juxtaposition of its individual parts. In a panel at the Society for American Music’s 2020 conference, Jackson spoke about the editors’ goal to illuminate the relationships between Black avant-gardists—to highlight the networks of people providing inspiration, influence, or resources that allowed each musician to create and sustain art rooted in Black experimental traditions. These art worlds come across loud and clear in Creative Black Music. Austin and Jackson’s essay on the Art Ensemble of Chicago (Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors Maghostut, Roscoe Mitchell, and Famoudou Don Moye), for example, describes the group as an outgrowth of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), its members interested in the same concept of multi-instrumentalism as AACM-associated composers including Smith, Threadgill, and Braxton. The 1980 New Music America Festival places the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Braxton, and Eastman in direct conversation with each other—three musical minds and their sonic products converging on the same place at the same time. Later that year, Baraka stopped by the Walker to read a poem titled “I Love Music (for John Coltrane)” as part of a burgeoning literature series. Baraka’s book Blues People, in turn, is one of the sources Jackson used to construct her essay about kinetic energy and the importance of bodies in Taylor’s music. The connections are legion if you choose to uncover them, and the Walker serves as a central node for this particular mapping of the jazz avant-garde in the Midwest.

If Creative Black Music is rooted in the re-presentation of archival materials through an experimental, online format, it also engages with current and future social, artistic, and musicological discourses: medium and content resonate. Although the idea for this volume germinated years ago, the Walker staff are cognizant of the significance of releasing a celebration of Black musicians curated by a Minnesota museum during the summer of 2020, so soon after the murder of George Floyd. In the words of executive director Mary Ceruti: “We hope the publication, offered at this heightened moment in the fight for racial justice, may provide added insights into, and appreciation for, the critical role that radical Black innovation has played in the world of contemporary American artistic expression.” Many entries insist on the continued influence of the jazz avant-garde on current Walker collaborators, their music, projects, and advocacy work. Take, for example, Clayton’s essay “Reverence Is a Form of Forgetting,” treating the legacy of Eastman and the musician’s influence on Clayton’s ongoing project “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner.” Watch Smith perform with Vijay Iyer or respond to interview questions posed by Cheek. Moran and Bither’s wide-ranging conversation about Threadgill was added as supplemental material after the volume’s first release, making good on the Walker’s plan to engage with the possibilities of their online platform. Which contemporary musician will write an “artist response” to Carter for inclusion in the volume’s next update, next expansion, next installment? If this is one of the first major scholarly forays into the Walker’s past engagements with sound, what discoveries will future researchers make about Black musicking on their next visit to the archives? To quote Greg Tate on Coleman: “Coleman’s music is different because his answers always sound like questions too.” Creative Black Music is an answer, and a question, and a beginning.

Caitlin Schmid
Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, St. Olaf College