University of Oregon Vol. 2 No. 31 January 10 - 16, 2002THE LIBERATIONInside Out in the Open
What Happens when Jazz Jumps Out of its Skin?
by Julianne Shepherd
dir. Alan Roth
Thurs Jan 10, San Jan 12
"Kids who go to 'university' play free jazz," a friend dryly explained to me this morning, when I told him I'd just watched Inside Out in the Open, a documentary about free jazz, or "out music." He meant it as a funny, backdoor dis, and I agreed with him; everybody knows a pretentious liberal arts school guy who got into free jazz before he could play any instrument, subjecting his audience to noodles' worth of wanking. But if you don't check all preconceived notions at the start of this film, you will by the end; this documentary not only captures free jazz at its greatest and most vital, but reveals the exciting context in which it was born.
From the beginning of the film's interviews, we learn that free jazz has had this stigma since its beginnings in the '60s. But free jazz is inherently rooted in conflict--it was a direct response to the cultural upheaval of the '60s, the musical version of the concept of being free from structure. Everyone had their own way of speaking: the Black Panthers gave away free breakfasts to the kids in their communities, students rallied for peace in Vietnam, and Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman protested by throwing away their sheet music.
This rhetoric is put to live action with incredible performances. As if a clip of Sun Ra and his million-person Arkestra, all dressed up in glittering, sequined bravado, weren't enough to make the whole film, there are clips of Cooper-Moore, his hands twitching crazily into his piano, Matthew Shipp, Reggie Workman, and many more. The sight of Peter Brötzmann's mad saxophone playing is some hot shit, and enough to convert anybody to free jazz for life.
Ultimately, what the film wants us to understand about free jazz is that it's about shortening the distance from the heart to the audience. By shedding the trappings of day-to-day life and playing whatever comes to mind, the ultimate goal is to send the audience into the same trance the performer reaches. There's a lot of philosophical talk about deconstruction in Inside Out in the Open; Joseph Jarman, co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, says free jazz seeks to "eliminate reason." By doing so, these musicians make a passionate, life-affirming racket.
Director talks about his new film By SARAH LINN Barometer City Editor
Just months after filmmaker Ken Burns' ten-part series "Jazz" aired on public television stations across the nation comes a documentary about a little known facet of the American art form: free jazz.
Directed by newcomer Alan Roth, "Inside Out in the Open" explores the freely improvised, wildly creative world of free jazz, which emerged in the early 1960s under the leadership of musicians like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. With an expressionistic blend of artist interviews, performance footage and selected music, "Inside Out in the Open" draws attention to this often under-valued genre.
The film joins a score of music-related documentaries featured this weekend by the Northwest Film Center's Reel Music Festival in Portland.
"Inside Out" grew out of Roth's experience with jazz as a young man in Cleveland, Ohio. "I found myself drawn to things that were different, things that were avant-garde," Roth said, speaking by telephone from his New York City apartment.
Few forms of music were as avant-garde as free jazz, also known as the New Thing, the Jazz Revolution and free improvisation. Its founders, including Sun Ra, Alber Ayler, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, pushed the boundaries of rhythm, sound, harmonics and collective improvisation in the 1960s jazz scene.
"They (the musicians) began to move away from playing songs into a freer form of improvisation," Roth said. "It allowed the musicians a lot more freedom to play what they were feeling. It's a very, very difficult way to perform, because in a sense you're composing as you perform. You have to work as an ensemble to make music."
After moving to New York in 1995 to complete a master's degree in media studies, Roth found himself in the heart of the avant-garde music scene. "I was able to see it live in all these clubs, meet the musicians, all very informally," he said. "I had no idea when I came to New York that I would make something like this later."
Production on "Inside Out" began in 1997, as Roth pursued another hobby of his, video. He collected hours of footage of musicians like Marion Brown, Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai, Alan Silva, Burton Greene, Joseph Jarman and Baikida Carroll, and groups such as In Order to Survive, Other Dimensions in Music and Sun Ra and his Arkestra.
"I had to learn just as much about who these people were, and spend time with them," Roth said. "I had a number of questions, but I always let [the conversation] flow, wherever it would go ... It was a completely organic process."
The result was a non-linear, multi-layer documentary fueled by "the personalties and the humanity of musicians themselves," Roth said. "And not a single critic," he added with a laugh.
Now "Inside Out" is enjoying moderate success at various festivals in the United States, New Zealand and Belgium. "It's been well-received, and that's what makes me happy," Roth said.
Next on Roth's plate is a documentary about the New York Art Quartet, a free jazz group composed of Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai, Milford Graves and Reggie Goldman. The group existed for only one year -- 1964 to 1965, before disbanding. "Thirty five years later the group got back to perform again," Roth said. "The story's about what this music is like, what it's like for these four different people to live their lives."
He is also considering a non-musical project dealing with globalism, and perhaps an eventual return to his home city, Cleveland.
It's a considerable schedule for a man who had a career in the U.S. Postal Service before changing careers for film making. "It was a big decision to give up a totally secure lifetime job to go to a semi-secure, unstable job," Roth said. Still, he has few qualms about his decision to pursue documentary-making.
"You have to think [a film] will succeed -- otherwise, why bother?," Roth said. "It's still fun to watch. It's like a child finally walking and it sort of walks all over the place. I'm happy with that."
Roth hopes that "Inside Out in the Open" will encourage people to delve deeper into the history, sound and enjoyment of free jazz. "Here's an art form that really allows individuals to truly express their emotions and their ideas through their instruments," he said. "[People] need to pay respects to this music and give it a hearing."
"Inside Out in the Open" will be shown Saturday, Jan. 12 at the Guild Theatre, 829 S.W. Ninth Ave., Portland, as part of the Northwest Film Center's Reel Music Festival.
Sarah Linn is the city editor for The Daily Barometer. firstname.lastname@example.org
2001 © The Daily Barometer, Oregon State University