The Rise of the Improvised Music Phenomena in the USA

The story behind the improvisor, 1980-2010, thirty years

LaDonna Smith

In the mid 1970’s, the golden age of hard rock and soul, was financed and controlled by a powerful music industry, where a few giant record companies were in the height of exploitation of artists for corporate profiteering. The business practice was to “discover” a talent or a band, signing musicians to exclusive record deals promising slick promotions, concert tours, and fan merchandise selling to a mass market dictated by music industry executives. The same industry also controlled the commercial radio stations, airplay, and promotion. Meanwhile, while many “superstars” were hyped-up and exploited for profit, many other “signed artists” were held hostage in the music industry bound by contracts that produced no opportunities, limiting their possibilities for success by the noose of ownership by corporate entities that promised success, but in fact did nothing to produce or promote the music of these “signed” talents, in effect silencing their creativity and futures. Overall, musicians found that the music business was proprietary and closed to most artists, while the industry was busy exploiting their hand-picked “stars,” serving the big record companies for huge corporate profits.

At that time, in Europe, some independent record labels began to appear. The concept of pressing individual L.P.’s in small runs of creative music independent of the big record companies began to catch on. New labels emerged, producing records of free jazz, avant-garde composers, free jazz, and early European improvised music , much of which was considered “unlistenable,” “unsellable”, non-commercial artistic ventures.  Small independent labels in Europe included FMP, Incus, Taklos, Leo, Bead and Ictus as early as the late 60’s and early 70’s. Some of these records found their way into remote places around the USA at the time, and there was developing the idea that musicians should produce their own music, sidestepping the music industry altogether. Rare, small limited editions of non-commercial recordings of the authentic work of pioneering artists and musicians began to infiltrate the market. Meanwhile this was also beginning to take hold in America, and young artists who could scrape together enough money would record and produce their first L.P. The process was expensive, requiring pricey equipment, recording techniques, mastering, artist layouts for packaging, pressing shipping, and then what? Musicians were recording on reel-to-reel tape machines, independently attempting to take hold of their own work, with all its risks & losses at the time.

As tech companies like Amex, Sony, and Panasonic introduced cheaper consumer products capable of recording & playback, the advent of the cassette release came into being. This opened recording up to many more young and emerging artists which began a major shift in music publishing accessibility by lesser known artists. However, distribution was practically null.

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Outside the world of common folk and commercial music, there were emerging a small number of artists in the U.S.A. with a pioneering interest in music improvisation as an art form in itself. From the cacophony of the free jazz blowers, the experimental music world of electronics, and experiments with unorthodox extended techniques, there was a language of free improvisation taking hold simultaneously by obscure individuals and collectives around the USA.   Improvising musicians began to discover each other through the proliferation and underground distribution of home-made recordings on cassette tape, as underground magazines reviewed independent releases rising from random parts of the country. Letters were written. Introductions were made as artists would travel to meet each other, and possibly play for friends, or even a small audience.

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During this time, the Raudelunas community in Tuscaloosa emerged as a group of young iconoclasts, who, out of a sense of rejection of the dullness of the public, exploited a need to slap society in the face of its complacency. It rose as a community of diverse artists with a sense of Dada influenced social anarchy through artistic exploits against the stupidity of the masses, who were dumbed down by television, commercial infatuation, religious piety and school allegiance. As an outlet to serve their rebellion, bizarre and unexplainable exhibitions were held. Impetuous music was made, raging noise and free blowing, surreal participation in parades, outlandish and arresting in every stretch of the imaginative repudiation of the norm. Thus, the Raudelunas Pataphysical Revue & Exhibition, the Alabama Homecoming Parade- disruption of the Marching Vegetable Band, and later the Booly Band. There were public displays of unmitigated sonic insanity coupled with the common usage of demented verbal non-sequitors in personal roasts, comic books and pamphlets such as T.R. Reed’s “Liquid Basketballs,” the ubiquitous distribution of anonymous Diplodocus tracts, the maniacal communal “blowing” and “beating” of musical instruments. Their continuous practice of unrelenting noise and communal improvisation was eventually documented in “The Blue Denim Deals without the Arms. (1977, Say Day-Bew Records).

As an offshoot of this, and as a musical exploration with the mission of creating an improvised music that would aspire to an artistic coherence of composed music, a sub-group was founded, which would practice free improvisational psychic automatism, as a form of research. The idea was that improvisation through subconscious means, was capable of being an art raised to the level of musical composition, in beauty, continuity, and interpretation . Regular serious rehearsals were held, several per week. Serious musical explorers within the Raudelunas community began rehearsing in smaller sub-groups, creating ensembles (Transcendprovisation ).   Davey Williams with LaDonna Smith formed their long-term musical duo (Trans), and their Trans studio hosted the group sessions. The first recordings were released primarily as “gifts” to other musicians on reel-to-reel tape. At the same time, Davey Williams was busy writing personal letters to anyone else he could find in the USA and Europe, in an effort to correspond with the music on home-made reel-to-reels, and finally on cassettes. Cassette tapes were cheaper, easier, and superceded reel-to-reel recording, and soon became the official medium in the rise of Independent Music production.

Due to the correspondence efforts made by Williams in the mid 70’s, Trans began to meet a few like-minded improvisers in the USA, and had opportunities to host some traveling mentors from Europe. We were able to host a concert in Tuscaloosa in 1977 of the great Evan Parker. Andrea Centazzo also came through, as did Eugene Chadbourne. In 1978, Trans Trio with Theodore Bowen, LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams went on a cross-country tour to California, driving two VW vans through the plains of Arkansas and Oklahoma, the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and the mountains of Colorado, finally arriving on the West Coast to meet Henry Kaiser, whom Davey had traded letters, postcards and tapes. On that trip, we were introduced to Dana Reason and Diamanda Galas in Los Angeles, Joee Conroy & David Steiling of Ut Gret in Santa Cruz, and finally Henry Kuntz, Loren Means, the Rova Saxophone Quartet among others in the San Francisco scene. It was eye-opening to meet these improvisers, and to begin long distance friendships with many other musicians who were improvisers.

Because of the sharing and exchange of cassette tapes, isolated improvisers began to get to know each other’s music and interests, and began to forge friendships and musical collaborations. Smith and Willians soon after went to NYC, from invitation of Eugene Chadbourne, where they met John Zorn, Leslie Dalaba, Polly Bradfield, and others. From hosting an obscure and under-attended concert for Andrea Centazzo and Evan Parker in Tuscaloosa, they eventually found themselves in Europe on tour with Andrea, and later with Evan, and met Peter Riley of Musics Magazine, John Russell, Tony Wren, Peter Cusack and Derek Bailey, having the opportunity provided by the postal exchanges of independent recordings with other musicians. Friendships and musical alliances were being made one musician and experience at a time across Europe.

Finally, in 1980, we were invited by trumpeter Leslie Dalaba to come again to NYC, to meet with her, Bob Ostertag, Chris Cochrane, Jack Wright, and ourselves to form an organization to help find, unite, and support independent improvising artists around the U.S. The organization was called the Improviser’s Network or I.N.   Davey Williams was charged to create a newsletter, announcing the intent for I.N. to serve as a database for connecting obscure individual improvisers around the country with each other, providing contact information for the free exchange of our self-produced cassettes and L.P.s, and to network each other as outposts for independently produced gigs and house-concerts. The 4 page newsletter included a simple a map with dots of all the known places where a known improviser lived in the U.S. It was pretty scarce at the time.

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Some of the artists that were involved in the free improvisation movement had Surrealist interests and tendencies, and some did not. Some came from academic backgrounds. Some did not. But even though there was diversity within the individual backgrounds and approaches to music making, it became apparent that music did not have to be dictated to an instrumentalist by an outside composer, but there existed the potential that anyone and everyone could participate as a human being, with the possibility and reality of making an authentic self-expression, an idea that we promoted and believed was necessary for a new musical revolution.

For us, this revolution was significant. To unleash the potential within every human being, that music could be free, that one did not have to have special training in order to make music, but that through free improvisation, anyone can develop a heightened sense of listening, awareness, and creative consciousness was our mantra. That to immerse oneself in the activity of improvised music making, providing access to the deep subconscious layers of the human mentality, could bring about a cultural transformation, informed through a heightened subconscious, artistic mindfulness needed and lacking in our materialistic and distracted Society.

Eventually, through I.N. and the evolution of the improviser, first as an independent xerox magazine, then as a published journal, “the international journal of free improvisation,” a mouthpiece was created to network practitioners, and to inform the consciousness of the free improviser. It was a collective endeavor. Articles and essays were sought, and contributed freely. Music was exchanged. The dialog defined a movement which espoused improvised music as an art form in its own right.

This was clearly at the heart of concerns when Trans set out to access the inner worlds of the imagination, by disassociation from rational thinking while exploring sound on an instrument, or sound in the environment, everyday found objects, explorations into the new (at the time) world of electronics, extended techniques, and social forays for the purpose of creating a new collective music.
Our efforts to create and maintain the improviser, the international journal of free improvisation, continued in print for 15 years, the last print edition was published in 1996, after which the improviser transitioned its content to the website built by Glenn Engstrand, continuing to accept articles, essays and music review through 2010, when the cyber-journal culminated active publication and celebrated the 30 year anniversary with the improviser festival occurring simultaneously in five cities across the United States. The improviser was actively published for thirty years (1980-2010).

With the current proliferation of many internet websites, social platforms and blogs now accessible for the dialog between active musicians, music philosophers and artists, the improviser, for now, remains on the web as an archive of the formative years of the free improvisation movement since 1974 in the United States.

As proponent of the quest for freedom, unorthodox means, the realization of the marvelous through musical revolution, the publication of the improviser was inspired by Surrealist provocation and inspiration. For the necessity of dissemination and practice of a free music, completely independence from corporate company backed popular music, the improviser existed for the purpose of identifying a network of creative musicians exploring the subconscious realm through aural forms. From the exchanges of those involved in the world Surrealist Movement of the 1990’s, we were able to forge intimate and significant musical collaborations and presentations with fellow Surrealist collaborators. Notable among them were Johannes Bergmark from the Swedish Surrealist Group. See his article, “For a Wild Music” (the improvisor X, 1993). Bergmark visited the Glass Veal Group in Birmingham on several occasions, and collaborated on “Rumors on the Beach” (The Radio Plays).   Anthony Redmond from Australia Surrealists collaborated on “The Picnic” (The Radio Plays). The Trans Museq /Black Swan release of “Song of Aeropterx,” was an aural & visual comic book collaboration with Hal Rammel of the Chicago Surrealist Group, LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams of Glass Veal. Connections were forged with of Surrealist play director, Yuri Zmorovitch, of Ukraine, Neil Feather of Philadelphia, Scott Bazaar of Florida and other Surrealist influenced artists have engaged, where the freedom of accessing the marvelous by psychic automatism lives on the aural plane through free improvisation and Surrealist invention.

“Long live the Living.”

Andre Breton