I’d Wish John Zorn a Happy 60th Birthday (If I Could Catch Up With Him, That Is)

I’d Wish John Zorn a Happy 60th Birthday (If I Could Catch Up With Him, That Is)
American composer John Zorn
(© Scott Irvine)

An East Village walkup. The space was cramped but somehow serene and tightly organized: a wall of LPs, another of DVDs, shelf upon shelf of books, including one complete wall of titles relating to Judaica and another on visual arts. A blackboard hung with cryptic notes regarding a work-in-progress about mysticism and ritual. An episode of “Columbo” flickered, the mute button having rendered Peter Falk just a series of outsized gestures.

That’s how it was 15 years ago, when John Zorn invited me into his home for hours of conversation that led to a magazine cover story. At one point, he left me alone with a prized possession, one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes — a moment I’ll never forget because it felt precious and personal and yet opened vast worlds for me. And then slowly, over hours and then across years of conversation with John, through deep listening to music he created, played, produced, or just willed and cajoled into being — stuff that spilled across disciplines and erased categories — he has given me (us) unforgettable experience after unforgettable experience, special and private and also far-reaching in impact. Like Cornell’s boxes, these have mostly been offerings we couldn’t have asked for, didn’t know we wanted, hadn’t yet and wouldn’t ever have imagined. Here’s something he told me in that first meeting: “Composing is more than just imagining music — it’s knowing how to communicate it to musicians. And you don’t give an improviser music that’s completely written out, or ask a classical musician to improvise. I’m interested in speaking to musicians in their own languages, on their own terms, and in bringing out the best in what they do. To challenge them and excite them.” And to empower them in so many ways, both tangible — a music label and club; and less so — an open mind and a diligent and unfettered ethos.

Beyond his rightful place as a towering thinker and artist, John is modern music’s consummate doer. Here’s something else he told me way back: “I like to work with the materials that I have at hand. That’s something I learned from the New York avant-garde. I learned that from Jack Smith, who made art out of garbage, who made theater performances out of air. To make something out of nothing. That’s magic.” At 60, John Zorn’s alchemy is potent and resourceful and beautiful as ever, and ever more needed.

The paragraphs above were my humble entry into a 60th birthday tribute to Zorn published on the website of Walker Arts Center, in Minneapolis. Earlier this month, the Walker celebrated with Zorn by hosting a daylong marathon of his music — more than eight hours that moved from free improvisation to string quartet and ended with Zorn, who more typically plays alto saxophone, alone at a cathedral organ. Yet all that barely hinted at Zorn’s range. Zorn will mark his 60th year — his birthday is September 2 — with all sorts of festivals and events in cities around the world (you can find one good list here).

I’ve written from time to time during the past 20 years about Zorn’s music and his life, but never completely enough nor in sufficient depth. (Yet that would be a task dwarfing all others, given how prolific and wide-ranging are his activities.)

That cover story I referred to above, for Jazziz (of which I was then editor), led me to write this letter to the New York Times,

in response to an article that cherry-picked quotes from our long interview in the service of trivializing Zorn’s “Radical Jewish Culture” series without ever considering the music.

In that letter, I wrote:

When I asked John Zorn for an interview, the idea was a tough sell. Mr. Zorn said that every time he had opened the door to the press, his words had been used to hurt him. I suspected he was playing the victim. When I demanded that we discuss motivations, like his focus on Jewish identity, he told me that he was no sociologist or theologian and that again his words would come back to haunt him. I thought he was being defensive. Mr. Zorn was right: his words have circled back in oddly disturbing ways.

I bring this up not to dampen a joyous party, but for four reasons: it’s part of Zorn’s story; it helped steer me toward the type of criticism I aspired to do, and away from the kind I didn’t; it made me realize that culture is not just something to appreciate but also, sometimes, a thing to fight for or at least defend; and because, long ago and certainly by now, Zorn has left what used to be a stream of suspicion and naysaying surrounding his work in the dust of irrelevance, by sheer power of his art and positivity of his presence. Also, whatever Zorn found lacking in the literature about his and other music, he simply tried to fill in. In 2000, after the first volume of “Arcana,” a series of essay collections he edited, landed on my desk, I managed to get a couple hundred words on it into the Times Book Review.

Here’s some of that:

Nearly all of the 30 musicians whose writings are gathered in “Arcana” would be considered avant-garde — a catchall for nearly any experimental or nontraditional work — primarily because they don’t fit anywhere else. As a result, most feel marginalized and misunderstood. Meanwhile, listeners and critics have little ability to place this music within a thoughtful context — or to talk about it at all…. John Zorn, makes his agenda clear in his preface: “This book exists to correct an unfortunate injustice, the incredible lack of insightful critical writing about a significant generation of the best and most important work of the past two decades.”…. As a collection, they show that these avant-garde musicians share a rich legacy of common aesthetic attitude, and that each employs a personal approach that must be considered on its own terms.

Sometimes, Zorn’s music has been loud as a tortured scream. (Then again, his string quartets can be remarkably tender.) He has also gone about his business sometimes quietly, almost out of view, especially when working to enable the Downtown culture that nurtured him and that, in a gentrified Manhattan, often found itself without support. His Tzadik music label was ahead of the curve in DIY production and communal spirit and profit-sharing. When one Lower Manhattan club that favored edgy and improvised music was struggling, Zorn was among the first to lend behind-the-scene support. When it closed, he opened his own joint, The Stone, which remains a vital and singular venue.

I won’t share the full 4,000-word interview I did with Zorn for Jazziz (sadly, it’s not available online, but I can be cajoled into sending a PDF if asked). But I do want to excerpt a sampling of the outpouring, from fellow musicians, visual artists, directors, writers, and others gathered on the Walker’s site — dozens of them, offering candid comments, anecdotes, even poems — because they give some hint about why and how Zorn inspires others.

Pianist Geri Allen:

Through your important work at The Stone, you have successfully mobilized meaningful, lasting connections between like-minded and/or controversially minded views on what art and creativity in sympatico mean. You’ve built a grassroots safe space for creative artists, across genres, to explode their ideals from week to week, from collaboration to collaboration — a rich/shared experience for all to be had.

Musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson:

John taught me to improvise. I couldn’t imagine venturing out onto a stage with no clue about what the first sound might be. He taught me confidence and the skill of building a big live musical structure and then how to move it around, rotate it, dissolve it. John is fearless. Dismissive of pompous authority. Able to suffer and share suffering.

Flautist Claire Chase, who founded International Contemporary Ensemble:

John’s contributions to the world — and especially to the younger generation of experimental musicians in New York — go far, far beyond his unparalleled musical genius. At every turn, he offers opportunities for young people; he kindles communities of contemporary artists through new production and curatorial models, publications, and performances; he gives fearlessly and selflessly of himself and of his vision, catalyzing and nurturing much of the creative richness of the current New York scene.

Pianist and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Coleman:

Nobody honors their forebears more than John does. But, in the face of Masters or Masterpieces, he is never cowed. He never falls into the trap of that deadly word “respect.”

Composer and singer Jewlia Eisenberg:

Obviously, he’s an important composer and musician, but I also want to witness on what Radical Jewish Culture has meant for me. The diversity of people doing ambitious new music, coming from many countries and traditions, all engaging with Jewish content, be it folk songs, texts, historical moments, or something intangible that you can argue about for hours.

And the following from Richard Foreman — playwright, director, and founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, where a very young Zorn spent extended hours watching rehearsals, taking tickets, answering phones, and using the place as a rehearsal studio during off-hours. (When I interviewed Zorn for this 2009 Wall Street Journal piece on “Astronome: A Night at the Opera,” his collaboration with Foreman, Zorn told me that Foreman introduced him to “the idea of having a community that did not challenge my need to go my own way.”):

“Hi Richard, Richard! What are you up to?”

I told him I was directing an opera. “Why don’t you write me an opera, John?”

“Oh, but I can’t write to words; it could only be an opera without words, even if there was singing.”

Fine, I said, an opera without words.

“OK. I’ll do it!”

So a year passed, I didn’t hear from John, but I didn’t want to bug him. Suddenly, a call from John: “Richard, how are ya? I have your opera! It’s coming out on my record label.”

“Great, I’ll stage it. Sight unseen.”

So a year passed, I didn’t hear from John, but I didn’t want to bug him. Suddenly, a call from John: “Richard, how are ya? I have your opera! It’s coming out on my record label.”

“Great, I’ll stage it. Sight unseen.”

I’ve never done Zorn’s oeuvre proper justice in writing. But I’ll end with something drawn from my notes on his 2011 Masada Marathon at Lincoln Center, a long concert that illuminated one big and brilliant corner of his music-making and his search for identity:

By the time Mike Patton’s screams punctuated the high-voltage tremors of Zorn’s Electric Masada group at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, it was past 11 p.m. “Masada Marathon” had lasted more than three hours, with 12 bands representing an equal number of musical styles and ensemble configurations, everything from string trio to surf-rock sextet. But I felt exhilarated, not tired.

Despite its length, the concert featured just a small fraction of 316 compositions in “The Book of Angels,” which Zorn had created in a flurry of inspiration in 2004. That book marked the continuation of his Masada project, a growing body of tunes based on characteristically Jewish scales (instantly recognizable, mournful sounding minor scales) he started composing more than a decade ago. Masada itself is one piece of a larger exploration of Jewish musical identity — “radical Jewish culture,” Zorn calls it — that began nearly 20 years ago and has spanned many expressions by him and other musicians on his Tzadik music label. Even this expansive enterprise is just one of many streams within Zorn’s fast-flowing river of artistic output.

Once foolishly tagged a bad boy of the Downtown scene, Zorn — whose music has embraced with equal passion jazz improvisation, noise-rock, avant-garde composition, and chamber music — fits no easy geography, especially Manhattan’s. Downtown? It made perfect sense that New York City Opera was the host of this Marathon: Zorn had a new work being premiered in the opera’s season, and the organization’s director, George Steel, has long championed Zorn’s music. I remember Zorn’s 1999 String Quartets album; he’s long been a stirring composer of through-composed music for orchestral musicians. Much as Zorn is portrayed as child of New York’s Downtown avant-garde culture — and he is, having been inspired early on by the likes of experimental filmmaker Jack Smith, among others — he also grew up taking in all that the city has had to offer. At the Marathon, he paused before introducing one band: “I remember coming to this theater when I was 14, to watch Rudolph Nureyev dance.”

Bad boy? The Masada show radiated the warmth evident among the growing family of musicians attracted to Zorn’s music, whose own works have benefited from Zorn’s label and his East Village music space (both nonprofit ventures). Zorn has long engendered more good will in more directions than most artists. Casting aside the shallow and wrongheaded names thrown on Zorn through the years, maybe he should simply be considered modern music’s consummate “doer”: He simply gets an awful lot accomplished — all of it completely, much in exalted fashion. That there is no easy summing up of Zorn’s artistry has something to do with his refusal to heed aesthetic boundaries, yes, but its more just a function of how much work there is, and how consistently and exponentially it all evolves.

Zorn’s Masada project has flowered into something I suspect exceeds even his own original ambition. Beyond the hundreds of tunes, it has given rise to at least five distinct and impressive ensembles, all of which performed at the Marathon: The Masada quartet, which includes Zorn as alto saxophonist, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen, and drummer Joey Baron, and which must be considered among the most original and impressive small jazz ensembles of the past 20 years; Bar Kokhba, a sextet that blends violin, cello, and guitar for a singular sound; The Dreamers, whose surf-rock-inspired grooves blend guitar, vibes, and electric keyboard; a devastatingly charming String Trio; and the raucously unbound Electric Masada octet.

A decade ago, in a series of interviews I did with Zorn, he described how many factors — his father’s death; his encounters here and there with Anti-Semitism; and a bookshelf full of works on Jewish history, thought, and identity — had set him on a of secular but impassioned search for Jewish identity. His 1992 piece “Kristallnacht,” a suite of seven compositions reflecting the infamous 1938 “Night of Broken Glass,” where Jews were targets of violence and destruction in Germany and Austria, was the earliest overt expression.

“After that,” Zorn told me in 1999, “I wanted to do something that was not about the history of pain and suffering, but about the future and how bright and how beautiful it can be.” The result was the first Masada book. “This is my personal answer to what new Jewish music is,” he explained. “Also, I did it just as a musical challenge: I’d never written a book of tunes before. I’d written game pieces, movie soundtracks, classical symphonies, and variety of mixtures of improvisation and composition. But I’ve never written a book of tunes the way Irving Berlin had a book of tunes, the way Monk had a book of tunes.”

The music of Berlin and Monk has made for wide-ranging interpretations, most of which fail or succeed depending upon a musician’s grasp of both the form and spirit underlying the music. Same with Zorn’s Masada book. At the Marathon, the musicians were all intimately familiar with Zorn’s various methods for organizing music and his focus on Judaism. The range of music was stunning: pianist Uri Caine, playing solo, grounded a suite of Zorn’s themes with a left hand straight out of Jelly Roll Morton; Medeski, Martin & Dunn (with drummer Trevor Dunn subbing for the usual Chris Wood) spun out woolly organ-based grooves; the a capella quartet Mycale sang in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, French, and Arabic, with lyrics drawn from sources including Rumi’s poetry and the Old Testament, all to delicate and often haunting effect. Cellist Erik Friedlander, playing solo, took a differing approach in each of three pieces: first, bowing as if playing a Bach concerto; then, strumming and plucking in folk or blues style; and finally, employing extended techniques associated with free improvisation. The bands that Zorn has assembled showcase virtuosos — especially Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, and guitarist Marc Ribot, in the Bar Kokhba group. But more absorbing is the collective achievement of each group — the way, for instance, the string player’s lines seem to converse.

At the Koch Theater, I felt a real sense of ritual enacted, of something ancient and true conjured in new and original ways. When Zorn sat onstage directing (conducting isn’t quite the right word) the Masada String Trio, his hand movements fleetingly reminded me of my grandmother kindling Sabbath candles on Friday evenings. At some point it dawned on me that each half of the concert presented six bands playing three pieces each: That’s 18, a number that, in Jewish tradition, carries life-affirming mystical properties.

Near the Marathon’s end, Zorn said from the stage: “So what are these tunes? A book of 316 pieces that musicians have made beautiful. They take six lines of melody and turn it into magic.” Maybe he was simplifying the technical aspect — I’m told that some of the sheet music gets complex — but the magic is simple, and his.