The Inexpressible

Austin's Underground, Avant-Garde Jazz Scene

Alex Coke and Tina Marsh (center, standing) at the Creative Opportunity Orchestra's inaugural show at the Paramount Theatre, 1980
Alex Coke and Tina Marsh (center, standing) at the Creative Opportunity Orchestra's inaugural show at the Paramount Theatre, 1980

Carl Smith has been banned from so many clubs, coffee houses, and restaurants in Austin that he moved to New York City. He doesn't get into drunken fistfights, smoke smelly cigars, sleep face down on the tables, or even pinch people in inappropriate places. Carl Smith is a saxophone player, and his music is the problem.

When jazz music is freed from the constraints of harmonic structure and tonal regulations, indeed liberated from melody and time, the music that ensues is raw and vital, living loudly in the moment and representing the truest, purest essence of the improvisational force that is at the heart of jazz. It's also brash and noisy, baffling and distracting, unintelligible to the point of aggravating cacophony. Not exactly the type of background music that encourages socializing over a few martinis.

For a free-jazz musician like Carl Smith who lives entirely for his music, it can be tough to make a living. And in a city like Austin, where there's a serious lack of venues devoted to serious jazz music and an all but complete absence of clubs or coffee houses willing to book avant-garde music on a consistent basis, it's nearly impossible. Relentless in his pursuit of the gig, Smith, usually under the name e.c.f.a., played out every chance he got in any venue that would have him. By the time he moved, the list of places that had asked him politely or otherwise to never return was as long as his sax. Rather than compromise the music and play what would get him paid, he left town.

"I didn't want to spend my whole life struggling just so I could live in Texas," says Smith. "I saw myself 25 years down the road in the Black Cat playing to nobody. Fuck that, and fuck getting banned from venues over and over again. I am not that stupid. If you get nothing back and still nothing back, then forget it."

Granted, for a large chunk of the music-seeking public, Smith's music is not the easiest to listen to. His sax skronks and squeals, bending and mashing notes into long strings of harsh emotion. It's aggressive and it demands attention, as if the musician is daring you to hold a conversation while he plays. But this is not true of all free jazz. A healthy measure of intellectual challenge is one constant in the music, but qualities like volume, tone, and speed vary widely. Unfortunately, another constant -- at least in Austin -- is that it remains tough for musicians to find a gig.

Of course, it hasn't always been this way. Over the course of more than two decades, the Creative Opportunity Orchestra (CO2) has become an Austin cultural institution, receiving city funding in pursuit of their fostering creative music. While they may not be able to assemble and work in town as consistently as the organization's head and founder Tina Marsh would like, CO2 manages at least a couple of big local performances every year and have recorded and toured successfully.

Irritating as the constant mourning for old Austin can be, once upon a time the Paramount Theatre sponsored the brand-new Creative Opportunity Orchestra for their inaugural concerts. More than 20 people filled the stage, and seemingly all of Austin turned out, filling the venue to capacity and signaling an eagerness for improvisatory music that buoyed CO2 on their mission of adding a new musical facet to the then-home of outlaw country.

One of the musicians onstage that night was Alex Coke, a saxophone player who spent eight years in Amsterdam playing with the world-renowned Willem Breuker Kollektief before recently returning to Austin. Since coming back, he's once again hooked up with CO2, as well as other collaborative projects, including the avant-leaning New Texas Swing Band, also with Marsh. It's a widely known fact that jazz musicians are treated almost like royalty in Europe, especially in contrast with the indifference or disdain they often receive here at home, and Coke affirms this from his own experience. Surprisingly enough, however, he's glad to be back in Texas. Even more notable, he sees the local scene as a strong one.

"I think it's probably better now for us than it was when I left eight years ago," says Coke. "There are lots of people who are really into more adventurous music these days, like Josh Ronsen, who puts out that Austinnitus newsletter e-mail []. That's a really valuable resource. There are exciting musicians here too, and we're getting some high-quality touring shows. The shows that PG [Moreno, of Epistrophy Arts] brings are incredible, world-class stuff."

Marsh concurs.

"Having Alex back is wonderful -- for me and for Austin," she enthuses. "He's an amazing player. I think that there are a lot of people in town playing great improvisatory music. Folks like Karl Seigfried, Graham [Reynolds, of Golden Arm Trio], Peter Stopschinski, the Blue Noise Band. A lot of that isn't really jazz. It's more a mix of classical and rock, I think, but there's still that spirit there.

"So there are plenty of people doing it, it's just not localized or centralized right now. [CO2] are going to get out there more, though, hopefully playing more club dates, more dates as smaller combos. I'm really eager to see what's going on out there."

What's going on out there right now is, by all descriptions, a mixed bag. In lieu of any regular space, alternative venues like warehouses and art galleries are the norm, and these change from show to show. PG Moreno, director of Epistrophy Arts, knows this all too well, having had to change venues from one show to the next.

"Unfortunately, there's not what you would call a strong, organized 'local scene' of musicians," he says. "We have a slew of very talented local performers, but they are seldom encouraged to play creatively and to take risks. The local jazz establishment doesn't seem to be too interested in what we are doing."

Having brought to town the cream of the contemporary free jazz community, artists like Peter Brötzmann, Marshall Allen, Evan Parker, Susie Ibarra, and many others, including European stars Mats Gustafsson and Paul Lovens this weekend (see Music Listings), Moreno keeps building on the enthusiastic reception his shows have received to further increase the exposure of Austin music fans to improvisatory music. He is, however, well aware of the problems keeping this music from gaining a strong foothold in the local scene.

"I would say there is definitely an audience for adventurous or 'difficult' music, be it jazz, world music, avant-rock, noise, experimental, or electronic music," he posits. "Commercial presenters these days rarely embrace the adventurous spirit, so that has left a huge opening for Epistrophy Arts."

While free and improvised jazz music is at its strongest and most convincing in the live arena, there's plenty to be found on radio and in record stores locally. KOOP programs such as Commercial Suicide (Sundays, 8-10pm) and Expressive Movements (Fridays, noon-2pm) offer thorough explorations in improvisation, while KUT's Jazz, Etc. on Wednesday nights often highlights some of this music as well. Both Sound Exchange and Thirty Three Degrees have shelves packed with more free, creative, and modern music than you could hope to wade through in many years' time.

What exactly is "creative" and "modern" music, or improvised jazz for that matter, and are they all the same thing? There are a myriad definitions for all three designations, but what most of them have in common is a sense of playing "outside," of skirting or smashing the barriers and rules that in more traditional forms keep the player under any kind of intellectual limitations. Craig Koon, longtime Sound Exchange manager, says definitions are less important that what the casual listener will find when they arrive at the music.

"Free jazz to a lot of people smacks of guys in a loft blowing as loudly and as long as they can through their horn, not having anything to say other than loud and angry noise," he explains. "For a while, that was somewhat true. But the music has evolved so much that free jazz can be anything, from that loud and angry noise to the softest, most thoughtful and beautiful music you've heard."

Moreno offers the following .

"My advice is to see it performed live," he states unequivocally. "Creative music, or for that matter jazz, reaches its fullest expressive potential in the live setting. It is important to listen! Close attention yields infinite rewards. When the music is performed well, the connection between the audience and artist is immediate. The connection is as palpable as any James Brown groove, as lyrical as a Bach prelude."

Contrary to the suggestion-by-avoidance of Ken Burns' PBS documentary Jazz, free improvisational music continues to evolve thanks to a vast arena of cultural influences. That's what makes the music vital today: cross-pollination. Arguably the music's liveliest bastion is Chicago, where musicians from the worlds of jazz, avant-garde, and underground indie rock play, record, and write together, urging constant evolution and frequent revolution in each genre. It's this spirit of cooperation that makes the music important, and Austin, with its veritable glut of music and musicians, would seem a likely place for that to happen.

"This music does exist here, but it's true that when Carl Smith left, that was really the end of it as an ongoing concern," says Sound Exchange's Koon. "Carl and the people he played with were pretty much the core of it around Austin. But it can happen.

"It would take a club owner taking a chance with a Sunday night or something, and it would take the musicians that are here -- and they are here -- getting off their asses and into the clubs and telling their friends to come watch them."

For his part, Smith remains hopeful, and offers advice for those who would brave the noise.

"Jazz is fast, fiercely independent, and sometimes downright arrogant," he says. "But that doesn't mean a musician has to compromise his very self so you can hear it. Just listen, and listen hard. Like John Cage liked to say, 'Some people take it too seriously, some people don't take it serious enough, and some people get it just right.'

"Don't go crazy. Take it slow and try to feel it. It can speak to you in a way that expresses the inexpressible if you let it." end story

Epistrophy Arts presents Mats Gustafsson and Paul Lovens at Ceremony Hall this Friday, June 15. Tickets are available at Thirty Three Degrees.

Leroy Jenkins, jazz violinist from Chicago, plays Saturday, June 23, as part of Epistrophy Arts' continuing jazz series. Venue TBA.

CO2 performs Friday, June 29, at Symphony Square, and will feature pianist/accordionist Glover Gill.

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