The early 1980s were a period of transition for the avant-garde fringe in New York. The loft scene – the days in which Ornette Coleman's hom on Prince Street and Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea provided workshops for experimenters to develop their art –was drawing to a close, and the arrival of the Knitting Factory and its explosive impact on the Downtown scene was still a few years away, it fell to the artists themselves to create new opportunities.
As chronicled in Ebba Jahn's 1984 [sic – 1985, actually] documentary, Rising Tones Cross (just released on video), two such motivated visionaries were bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. The film centers around the Sound Unity Festival, a precursor to the couple's current Lower East Side bash, the now four-year-old Vision Festival.
It was German bassist Peter Kowald, on an extended sojourn in New York that included a hefty formative role in Sound Unity, who convinced Jahn to make a film about the upstart festival. "It was clear to me that I wanted to have a German protagonist and an American protagonist," Jahn says. Her friend Kowald was the German of choice, naturally, but America's representative had yet to be confirmed. "Originally, I had thought of Ornette Coleman. But on the day I arrived, first thing in the morning I met Charles Gayle, the most un-famous saxophonist at the time in New York City." That meeting, combined with a choice encounter with a cameraman who was working on Shirley Clark's Coleman documentary, Made in America, led Jahn to shift her focus "from the most famous avant-garde saxophonist to the most un-famous."
Instead of simply a compilation of festival footage – though performances by musicians like Jemeel Moondoc, Don Cherry, and Peter Brötzmann abound in the film – Rising Tones Cross was intended to be a tool for music education. "For many people who saw the film in Germany, it was the first time they ever heard this type of music," she says. "They said in the beginning they had difficulty. But after a while, they could, all of a sudden, hear it 'click' in their ears, and something opened up."
To help facilitate this reaction, Jahn put the most difficult music at the end of the film, easing the audience into it gradually. She also included a number of scenes intended to dispel common myths about free jazz. For example, when Brötzmann's strapping 11-piece ensemble – boasting a tenor phalanx comprised of the leader, Gayle, David S. Ware, and Frank Wright – seems to be blowing chaotically onstage, Jahn's camera pans across Brötzmann's diagrammatic score to reveal an extraordinary amount of careful detail, planning, and scripting – the architecture girding the maelstrom.
And having overcome an initial distrust and some reluctance to take part in the film, the enigmatic Gayle is revealed to be affable, erudite, and quite well-versed in jazz history, a far cry from his dark public persona and stage presence. "He was perceived as a philosopher in Germany," says Jahn.
Now that the film is available on video – through Jahn's Website (https://members.aol.com/FilmPals/store.htm) and through NorthCountry Distribution – Jahn looks forward to her film reaching new viewers. "I would like it to be in colleges," she says, "where people learn about jazz. I think it's a good tool for people wanting to learn a little bit about this music. Nobody else has made a film about this music. And at the end of the century, the time is probably right for it."
The Vision Festival, now in its 18th season, will be held June 12-16 at Roulette. Rising Tones Cross was issued on DVD by the FMP label in 2005; I have no idea whether it's still available, but you can watch the first 26 minutes of it here. Below, the Peter Brötzmann scene I described in the article, mistakenly labeled as the Vision Festival (which was launched in 1996).