Photo by Peter Gannushkin, courtesy of the artist.
Over the next couple of weeks, composer and cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum will develop a new body of music working with a nine-piece ensemble of some of his closest collaborators. Titled “The Ambiguity Manifesto,” the music is designed to blur the lines between composition and improvisation, between solo and ensemble, between different genres, timbres, and instrumentations. In a cultural moment when so much is left or right, right or wrong, in or out, “The Ambiguity Manifesto” celebrates the beauty and necessity of the unknown and the indefinable, the enigmatic and the subversive, the boundary-crossing Trickster spirit.
Bynum and company will kick off this new project at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday and Thursday this week. We caught up with Bynum to talk with the impetus behind the new music, and his many hats as a composer-performer-writer-teacher-organizer.
The Jazz Gallery: From your moving tribute to Muhal Richard Abrams in the New Yorker to your stewardship of Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation, it is apparent that your life is marked by a engagement with the creative music of the AACM. How did you come to be acquainted with them and their work?
Taylor Ho Bynum: I first became aware of the AACM back in high school. One of my very first mentors is the trombonist and tuba player Bill Lowe, who does the honor of playing in my ensemble still, and will be with us at the Gallery. I met him when I was 15 or 16 years old, and he had worked with Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill. He wasn’t an AACM member, but he worked closely with several of those musicians—so that’s the first exposure I got to that creative music practice. And then of course I went to Wesleyan as an undergraduate, where I came under Anthony Braxton’s extraordinary influence. And so, that then was a life-changer for me, and I’ve been working with him ever since. My understanding of that history and that collective came out of some very personal relationships, and my embrace of both that musical aesthetic and the organizational aesthetic, and the self determination, and the various messages of that organization that go up above and beyond musical practice.
TJG:How do see you the role of non-profit organizations, much like that one, in the music world that we’re living in today? As it seems to be in the midst of a lack of funding and, as you made reference to some of your liner notes, a flux in the way that we deal with recorded music and how we value it.
THB: I think I’ve been lucky to have mentors, like those gentlemen—Bill, Anthony—who’ve always been very aware of the need to apply the music lessons of non-hierarchical leadership and individual initiative being not at odds, but actually in concert with collective development and ensemble understanding. And I think those things need to be applied past the music itself, and really, past even the art field but especially the arts field. We need to organize ourselves as creatively as we play music [laughs]. You know what I mean?
I think the music presents lessons on how to do that that we too rarely look to, and I think we take for granted that we work as collaborators and dedicate ourselves to working with the people we love, and innovating and experimenting. We take for granted that we’re going to do that in our music but we really need to do that in our survival practice as a whole.
And so for me, I see the two as very related. I think that in an ideal world, I would love to not have to organizing [laughs] and have, you know, really wonderful competent people partnering with to do that. It’s sad that we haven’t lived in that ideal world. So I think having some skills and inclinations towards that, I’ve found myself really wearing those multiple hats and finding that to make possible the things that I want to have happening as an artist, I have to also step up sometimes as a presenter, or a producer, or an organizer, to make those things happen. But again, I think that’s always been a part of the tradition of this music.
TJG: The advocacy?
THB: The advocacy and the self-determination. You know, Duke Ellington didn’t make enough money to support his orchestra from the orchestra gigs. That was a choice he made because he had income coming from pop songs. One has to navigate within the industry in such a way as to support our creative practice and that’s always going to be a balance, and that’s always going to be a related but different identity that we need to keep fighting for. We need more good people as partners engaged in that. I would urge anyone who’s interested to consider that – it’s not necessarily the most [laughs] financially rewarding task but I think it really is vital when it’s done in partnership with artists, and artists definitely value that.
I think it’s also good for me as an artist, having done those others kinds of jobs and run an organizations and having produced festivals and having done all that—it really helps me learn how to converse with and partner with people coming from that field. I think too often, it’s easy in a field where, as you said, everything is so under-resourced, there end up being, even, antagonistic relationships between people who really naturally should be allies, y’know? In terms of artists and presenters, or in terms of artists and each other, or in terms of presenters and each other. We really all should be fighting together in this, but it’s easy, in a capitalist economy with limited resources, to have it become a competitive thing when in fact, there are ways in which we really could be helping each other out across the board. And that’s something that I think the music demonstrates at its best, and we have to learn how to translate out of the musical world into the practical one.