Ted Panken: In noting the profusion of musical information available on just a walk down the block, you're also saying that the world is smaller. But not just in a virtual sense. It's that way in real time. The world of improvisation now comprises a constant series of feedback loops from numerous sources, intersecting at all sorts of odd points, and the dialectic has taken us in many unexpected directions. How has this process affected you in recent years?
Anthony Braxton: When I made the decision to embrace music as a life's work, I understood, first of all, that I was very lucky to be able to make that decision, and that there's always something new to learn. Forty years later, I don't know where I'm at, but I have had many more experiences, and I still find myself thinking there's everything to do. The work of the last forty years has parlayed into a new set of propositions that should be able to go for another century. A new generation of young people have come up, and they're pushing things forward.
Your question is hard to respond to because it contains so many different aspects. For instance, I feel that the African-American community and the African-American leadership are going through complexities that mirror what happened when trans-ethnic psychologies were used to partition off the music in a way, to block this ongoing flow of world culture in the third millennium, and to reclassify the generic experiences and make them the It. I think that has been the defining gambit of the last 20 or 30 years, and from my perspective, that has been the profound mistake of the African-American nationalists and the post-Abernathy Antebellumists.
Ted Panken: I assume by "post-Abernathy" you're referring to the civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, but how do you mean "Antebellumist"?
Anthony Braxton: "Antebellumist" in the sense that the Antebellum psychology says that you had better stay in your place. By staying in your place, with respect to our conversation, it's blues and swing.
Ted Panken: You've also referred to this as the "Southern Strategy," I believe.
Anthony Braxton: Yes. Southern Strategy in the sense that that's why Wynton Marsalis and the Neoclassic continuum is in power. They were put in power. This is a political decision that came about in the 1980s, when Dr. George Butler brought Wynton to New York. When the mature histories of this music are written, I hope that there will be a section on what I'll call the Great Purges of the 1980s. It involved kicking out anybody who had any originality or was unwilling to have the marketplace define their music, and bringing in a philosophical backdrop from Albert Murray consistent with what I'll call the "Christian gambit." That gambit states that Black people have this special rhythm, that the evolution of what we now call Jazz is just an African-American thing, that the proclivity spectra of African-Americans goes from hip-hop and blues and whatever, but not to a guy like me. Only a certain spectrum of black or of African-Americans can be accepted in this reseeded idea of blackness.
Ted Panken: But Mr. Braxton, you're a trained dialectician. It can't be that what happened in the '80s is merely because of a singular corporate or political decision. There have to have been factors in the zeitgeist that made it make sense for that to happen.
Anthony Braxton: My viewpoint is this. If the Lincoln Center, post-Murray, Neoclassic continuum had defined their right to do what they wanted to do, I would say great. But they said, "Jazz starts at Louis Armstrong; it stops in the middle '60s." That is very different. Defining it in that way is reductionist. When Stanley Crouch talks about Negro rhythms and what are the correct psychological and vibrational components to keep this Negro affinity in the position he wants it, he's really talking about something else. He's not talking about the African-American community as a composite spectra. He's talking of the African-American community as perceived through a Christian framework, as perceived through the Southern experiences, and how those experiences were defined among the intellectuals in the South. I love New Orleans, but I'm not from New Orleans. I'm glad I'm not from New Orleans. As far as I'm concerned, when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong came north, that's when Louis Armstrong discovered extended improvisation.
This idea of entertainment as the optimum state is another antebellum idea. And also, the idea that these people have established a perspective on the Atlantic slave experience that says they're the only people who have suffered. In America, when the railroads started expanding West, they brought in the Asian-Americans! Nobody has a monopoly on being a victim.
In my opinion, the dynamic implications of the exclusionary reverse racism that comes from the African-American community will put it in a much worse position in the next 10-20-30-40 years. I feel very sad about that. I think among the factors that have contributed to this are: (1) the purges of the 1980s; (2) a reductionist viewpoint of the Negro that corresponds with antebellum sentiments and with the trans-activist Christian agenda; and (3) the inability of the African-American community to accept the idea of total equality with all of our people. This racist exclusionary psychology is only possible because certain people were put in positions of power because they would espouse these viewpoints.
Ted Panken: I think it was a less passive process. I think that they positioned themselves to seize the moment, looked for their spots, and created an ideological climate where they would then be inserted into those spots.
Anthony Braxton: I disagree. By 1974, it was clear that, for instance, there were many groups of young people African-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans, men and women begging to come together to be involved in a new universal music to push things forward. This was not able to happen. Who do I blame? I don't blame the conservatives. I blame the liberals. I blame Black Power. I blame the feminist movement. I blame the Left. I'm talking about identity politics, and I'm also talking of politics as reflected through the decisions that would define the '70s and '80s, in terms of who would have support, who would be suppressed, "all the news that's fit to print." You buy the Sunday "New York Times," and wow, they have an article on some guy who just got out of prison who can say "motherfucker" in four different vibrations who is set to get millions of dollars, but there's not one serious article on Cecil Taylor or Bill Dixon! I came up in a generation of young men and women who wanted to change the world, who wanted to go out and fight and build up the world, to reconnect with composite humanity. We were all shot down, man! And we were shot down Š well, one, by the liberals; two, by putting certain African-Americans Š It's Booker T. Washington all over again.
I think we're at one of the most complex periods in our history. A lot of components are being realigned in this time period, and I don't mean simply to heap the problems of modernity on the Neoclassic explosion. But if the subject is percussion, I wonder how many young African-Americans know about the great work of Andrew Cyrille. I wonder if Andrew is still considered Black enough where his work would be respected and talked about. In many spaces, his work would no longer conform to what used to be called black music.