This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
You’d think there was no possible universe in which a very white insurance executive and a very black musical renegade could find anything resembling common ground. And yet the inscrutable mysteries lurking beneath Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Man With the Blue Guitar” and the kind of anxious, ecstatic energy leaping from saxophonist Albert Ayler’s incantatory composition “Bells” converge at a single line in Stevens’s poem: “A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.”
Let’s pick up this conversation, arbitrarily, in a 1966 interview that Albert and his brother, trumpeter Donald Ayler, are having with Nat Hentoff, who asks how best to listen to the “free jazz” they’re playing. “One way not to,” Don says, “is to focus on the notes and stuff like that. Instead, try to move your imagination toward the sound. It’s a matter of following the sound.”
“You have to relate sound to sound inside the music,” Albert says. “I mean you have to try to listen to everything together.”
“Follow the sound,” Don repeats, “the pitches, the colors. You have to watch them move.”
“This music is good for the mind,” Albert continues. “It frees the mind. If you just listen, you find out more about yourself.”
Is Wallace Stevens nodding? Does he understand that these men with whom he might not otherwise have ever bothered to make eye contact on a street corner either in New York (where the Aylers blew their horns into infinite space) or in Hartford (where Stevens walked to work every day) are in tune with his blue-guitar player? I once dared to think such communion was possible, but I didn’t feel empowered to suggest it because political and cultural barriers wouldn’t let me. I dare to now. It’s a new century, after all.
Bear with me. Back when LPs ruled the earth, and I would play jazz music that was not in any way tethered to conventional rhythms or harmonies, there was always some older person—whether it was my father or one of his contemporaries—who, upon coming within earshot of an especially dissonant bar or two, would invoke variations of the following judgment: “Man, those cats sound… lost.”
For musicians to be deemed “lost,” their music didn’t necessarily have to be classified as “free jazz,” “avant-garde,” “far out” or simply “Outside.” In their collected correspondence, published in 2000 as Trading Twelves, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray thought that the relatively accessible modernism of Miles Davis and Horace Silver in the late 1950s had strayed so far beyond the verities of the blues and swing that Ellison and Murray had embraced in their 20s that they, too, declared them “lost” souls. History being what we imagine it to be, I believed that such withering dismissals of progressive music would be worn away with time, as there would be more people like me—whether younger or older—who’d become so accustomed to such nontraditional sounds as to render the appellations “far out” and “avant-garde” as quaint as “gear” and “fab.” It’s nice to dream.