On Friday, July 10, as tenor saxophonist David Murray reached the last of several emotional peaks during a blissful yet intense version of “Flowers For Albert,” audience members both young and old whooped and raised hands as if they were at a church revival.
Here was the annual Vision Festival in full swing, asserting its spiritual heft, sounding echoes of deep legacies and a displaying its power as in-the-moment entertainment of an exalted sort.
In fact, this was a church: After two decades of shifting venues, owing to the vagaries of New York City real estate, this year’s event, marking the event’s 20th anniversary, was held from July 7-12 at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village.
Murray first recorded “Flowers for Albert” nearly 40 years ago, in dedication to the pioneering saxophonist Albert Ayler, who is one of this community’s dear departed masters. At Judson Church, Murray performed it with his “Class Struggle” band, which includes his son, Mingus Murray, whose electric guitar solos leaned forward stylistically while also honoring his father’s personal history.
The Vision Festival has long stood as this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians—yet that description is neither entirely accurate nor complete. First off, the festival involves dancers, poets and visual artists. Also, even the sloppy signifier “avant garde” fails to sum up even a single night of the event. Any given five hours at the Judson Church—each night presented a half-dozen or more performances—ranged wildly in sound and texture.
“The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define,” said William Parker, the bassist and composer who is a Vision fest founder and leading light, during an interview for a Wall Street Journal piece I wrote a few years back. “Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”
“This is an artist-run, people-sponsored festival,” he explained. “The artists make the decisions, and it’s supported by the people that come through the door or who make donations.”
One highlight of each Vision Festival is Parker’s own presentation, usually a large-ensemble work. Immediately following Murray’s set, Parker performed his “Martin Luther King Project: Part 5,” with an all-star group that included saxophonists Kidd Jordan and Jemeel Moondoc, and multi-instrumentalist Cooper Moore, and a bevy of first-rate singers.
This year’s four-night event celebrated not just Vision’s 20-year history but also the legacy of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (The AACM is a clear model for the Vision Festival, and for its umbrella nonprofit, Arts for Art, in terms of self-determination and a larger social and political consciousness that surrounds the music.)
This year, several Vision Festival sets related to the AACM, the best of which was a Tuesday night performance, during which saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell led two different trios, and then combined all the musicians in a quintet.
The Vision Festival has always focused on a sense of community that spans styles, generations and geography (this is now a global scene; besides, this crowd has mostly been priced out of its former Lower Manhattan environs).
Those facts are well reflected through a brilliant 3-CD set from William Parker, “For Those Who Are, Still,” due August 21 on Aum Fidelity. The recordings were made in Brooklyn and Paris, and the program includes four long-form works, each of a distinct character and instrumentation, and including a symphony orchestra. (I’ll write more on this recording soon.)
The Vision fest’s 20th anniversary highlights questions: What binds this culture? Does all that talk of social justice have an impact beyond the stage? Twenty years on, has the impulse and audience and meaning changed?
We got answers, of sorts, as well as other questions to consider, through a related symposium, “Improvising Agency for Change: Celebrating 20 Years of the Vision Festival,” held July 6, and co-presented by Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies and its Division of Arts & Sciences.
To begin the daylong event, Michael Heller (University of Pittsburgh) spoke of the Vision Festival in terms of a long tradition of self-determination in jazz” and an expression of “collaborative resistance.” What has propelled the festival even through tough times, he said, was “an unwavering belief in principles.”
Scott Currie (University of Minnesota) took issue with the perception, promoted, he argued by much of the press generated by the event in its earliest years, as “and anachronism” or an “atavistic throwback.” He talked about a more general “erasure of jazz’s avant-garde from mainstream history.” He cited an interview he did with pianist Matthew Shipp, a leading light of the Vision fest scene, in which Shipp reacted to the idea that the Vision fest crowd was “a bunch of hippies from the Sixties”: “Every aspect of society,” Currie recalled Shipp as saying, “is geared toward making sure the Sixties never happens again.”
Pianist Vijay Iyer (Harvard University) celebrated the Vision fest’s achievements but also used the symposium as a challenge to his colleagues. He brought up the litany of incidents that have highlighted racial divides in this country. “Stories of transformation through improvisation,” he said, provide “convenient narratives for the project of jazz studies.”
“The desire to focus on a microtopia of racial harmony might feel ineffective or even inappropriate or even unethical in face of a stupefying pattern of violence against blacks…. As we study, are we fantasizing about the melting away of difference?”
In a panel discussion among Vision Festival principal figures, dancer and choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker, the festival’s primary organizer these days and William Parker’s wife, recalled how today’s festival grew organically from a need.
“We had nowhere to gather and play,” she said. “There was no place for it in New York City. There had been many places when I was younger. We knew many people. All this great energy, and then there was… nothing.”
“We were still on the self-reliance program,” William Parker said of the festival’s earliest days. “We had to do a lot of things for ourselves. The whole world knew the AACM. But no one knew who we were and what we did. We wanted people to hear our music and to understand our values.”
Matthew Shipp pointed out that among the scores of festivals listed each year in Down Beat and other magazines, “Not many artists from this community are at any of them. There are no other American festivals centered around this area of music.”
Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee recalled the power of experiencing the very first Vision Fest—“not as a performer, but just sitting in the audience and taking it in. (He has since played riveting sets at Vision fests through the years.) And McPhee referred to the Vision fest’s independence from outside programming pressures. “When you sell your should to the devil,” he said, “the price drops.”
Bradford K. Smith, who is president of The Foundation Center and is a former member of the Vision Festival’s board, offered a telling anecdote:
“The board had been thinking about how to get more funding. We thought that we needed to get more young people involved. “William [Parker] looked at me with a slight frown: ‘You want us to be something we’re not?’ he said. These artists are protagonists, not commodities.”
Twenty years on, the Vision Festival represents a community that can no longer be called “downtown” (if that name ever fit): The physical downtown no longer exists—it’s all condos, coops, and brand-name establishments. The community it binds is international anyway. The festival is gloriously unbought and unsold. Yet it accepts and deserves financial support without strings attached.
It is a sound and a purpose and a feeling that may reflect on past struggles and triumphs but is not stuck in the past nor trying to seed a future out of vague aspiration or market manipulation. Twenty years on, the Vision Festival lives in the present. Its invigorating presence may well be a statement against triviality and complacency and narrow-mindedness and conformity.
Or maybe it’s simply a demonstration of what’s really going on.