Image: Arthur Blythe at a Concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival 1989 with “The Leaders” by Alephalpha (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Arthur Blythe died this spring.
He was a saxophonist who easily jumped between more traditional jazz and the avant-garde. His recording Lenox Avenue Breakdown is considered a near classic, but he was no superstar. He was best as part of the collective.
I was introduced to jazz through the neo-classicism of Wynton Marsalis, so when I stumbled into the stacks of LPs at my college radio station, I gravitated towards the classics of swing and bebop. That changed in 1990 when I heard Metamorphosis.
Arthur Blythe released the world music-inspired album as part of the World Saxophone Quartet, It was a critical disappointment, but it opened my ears to a style of music grounded in collective improvisation. It was music not exactly with no rules, but with new rules. A year later, Don Cherry released Multikulti which eventually led me back to his work with new jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, and my worldview officially changed.
Like so many American boys, I had been steeped in the culture of the hero, the exceptional individual, the lone genius. Despite it’s roots as an ensemble music, jazz had not challenged that view. It’s supreme soloists and tortured geniuses have largely overshadowed the story of jazz as the most collaborative of musical genres. The story of jazz is based in the belief that the community is more important than the individual, even the individual genius.
Metamorphosis revealed that to me. Along with Milman Parry’s oral-formulaic composition theory of epic poetry, it planted the seed in my mind that would grow into my interest in human networks, cooperation and collaboration.
The music of Arthur Blythe, Don Cherry, and Ornette Coleman is the music of flocking birds. In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other.”
I’m not sure there is a better description of collective jazz improvisation or of collective action networks.