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The World's Most Dangerous Musicians 

L.A.’s post-jazz scene

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Clines, Rudolph & Golia by Debra DiPaolo

The most dangerous music is like a reverse pipe bomb: Instead of killing people, it makes them come alive. It exists because it has to; it’s an irrepressible gift. In return for giving it, the musician does not expect to generate capital, encourage groin service, move feet, promote product or vend religion.

Such a gift clearly threatens the American way of life.

All music is dangerous, but which most? Not pop; pop stars (and their fans) get destroyed. Not classical, which relegates greatness to the past. Not folk — aspirin for the oppressed. The most dangerous music includes "new" music, experimental music and the jazz fringe, all with a deep current of improv; its threats are liberation, innovation, community and spirituality.

Listen to: L.A. Jazz Real Audio Format non Credo Alex Cline Ensemble Nels Cline Trio Brad Dutz/John Holmes Igor Stavinsky Adam Rudolph Steuart Liebig William Parker Golia/Leo Smith/Turetzky Vinny Golia James Newton John Cage Alex Cline Ensemble Baron Mingus Richard Grossman Nels Cline/Thurston Moore Glen Gould

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Every burg contains dangerous musicians; Los Angeles conceals an especially amazing bunch, and they’re happy with their hiding place. One after another, they heap the same unexpected praise on this city: Its sprawl and its distance from acknowledged hubs of the avant-garde (New York, Berlin) allow its artists to develop without conforming. In spite of how long they’ve been plotting — most for 20 years or more — some of the current seditionists remain secret enough to need introduction. So here it is. ç

LOS ANGELES: MOTHER OF INVENTION

Los Angeles has long served as a hideout for revolutionaries. In the early 1930s, an Austrian-born Jew named Arnold Schoenberg smelled the coming Nazi horror and moved to our city. He had invented the 12-tone compositional method, which a contemporary Time magazine article described as "so complicated that only he and a couple other fellows understand what it is all about." It took a kid from L.A. to out-extreme the master: John Cage, who studied with Schoenberg at UCLA from 1935 to 1937, completely reconceived what music was, making even Igor Stravinsky (another L.A. resident for much of the ’40s and ’50s) seem conservative.

It’s amusing to imagine Schoenberg’s upsetter vibrations traveling the mere three miles from USC, where he taught soon after arriving here, to 1545 E. 52nd St., the first Los Angeles home of Charles Mingus. But the truth is that the great bassist-composer downloaded Schoenbergian modern harmonies by way of the neoclassical arrangements Billy Strayhorn constructed for Mingus’ idol, Duke Ellington.

The mid-’40s visits of beboppers ç Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie opened the ears of L.A. musicians — including those of Mingus and his friend Eric Dolphy, a wizardly wind player — to the possibility of incorporating any note, not just the ones everyone considered "musical," into their improvisations. And the post-Parker trend reached its furthest ex ploration when Fort Worth saxist Ornette Coleman hooked up with New Orleans’ Ed Blackwell, Iowa’s Charlie Haden, and L.A.’s Don Cherry and Billy Higgins in the City of the Angels to play Coleman’s "harmolodic" music, which did away with chord changes altogether.

When Coleman split town for good as the ’60s dawned, the torch was passed to those of his associates who remained here off and on, including bassist Haden, trumpeter Cherry, drummer Higgins, cornetist Bobby Bradford and clarinetist John Carter. The Dolphy line continued through flutist James Newton. A powerful influence on the next generation was Philadelphia import Richard Grossman, a former bebopper whose pulseless piano approach reflected his respect for Schoenberg and Cage. And it’d be hard to slight the impact of regional pop-fringe artists Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, who turned obsessions with Edgard Varèse and the blues, respectively, into unprecedented individualizations.

Of the aforementioned, only Coleman, Beefheart, Haden, Higgins, Bradford and Newton remain alive. Only the last four remain in Los Angeles. And of those four locals, only the last two still consistently walk the dangerous edge.

BLOWIN’

What does it mean that four of the next five guys teach at CalArts? It means the school isn’t afraid of the edge, having long mined the talents of electronic-music pioneer Morton Subotnick, among many others. Charlie Haden, one of this era’s most penetrating musical minds, also has a lot of influence there. All five listed here have found new ways to blow into old instruments.

James Newton is the pre-eminent living avant-garde flutist and a monster composer — for evidence, try his 1994 Suite for Frida Kahlo (Audioquest). Snapshot: Newton blowing holes in the wall at the Kool Jazz Festival in the late ’80s. This instrument is made out of metal, dammit.

Bobby Bradford. This Texan likes to toss hunks of funk, blues and whatever into a stew that’s always new, having founded his Mo’tet for that purpose. Never harsh, Bradford is one gentleman whose cornet can find the melody in the thorniest thicket.

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