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Every art form has its acolytes, but none worship harder than the followers of free jazz. That branch of the jazz family tree veered off in the ’60s when experimenters like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor cast off time signatures and chord changes and never looked back. The small but avid group of fans heard worlds in the music: Liner notes of those discs are full of references to the Creator, universal explorations, and notes and tones plucked whole from the cosmos. The major cats, the ones who launch styles and movements, are like so many withdrawn eccentrics or, if you will, misunderstood saints playing on a whole ‘nother plane.
For D.C. jazz impresario Bill Warrell, the late free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry was one of those people. Warrell met Cherry in 1975, and he inspired Warrell to begin a life of service to out-there music. Fresh from art school, Warrell was already in awe of Cherry when he went to work on a film crew at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, N.Y. “It was like a summer camp for free-music heads,” recalls Warrell. “I met Don, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, Oliver Lake from the World Saxophone Quartet, Dave Holland, all in about three weeks.” Cherry’s indifference to worldly things impressed Warrell deeplyespecially his attitudes about race. “There was no pigeonholing by color with Don,” Warrell says. “Everyone was in the world of music.”
In college in Nova Scotia, Warrell, a Montgomery County native, started out in the world of painting. But the arts were changing as quickly as the media allowed. He got involved with television, recording, and theater, doing posters and set design. But, media aside, there were larger choices facing him and his contemporaries: “We grew up as artists,” he reminisces, “but people around you and market forces were all saying, ‘Unless you’re the best and the hippest, step back and serve the arts.’”
He brought his production chops back to Washington and opened the storied restaurant/art loft dc space with his mother, Susan Warrell Feldner, in 1977. The club, at 7th and E Streets NW, was famous as ground zero for the avant-garde of music and performance until it closed in 1991.
But dc space barely held 300 people; it was too small to put on big shows by outré performers in D.C. So in 1978, he formed District Curators Inc. to give the avant-garde a home here. Jazz was Warrell’s primary interest, but he also dug experimental music in other formsthe “beeps and groans”and wanted to develop a way to bring them all together. In its first 10 years, District Curators hosted, among others, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, the Residents, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, John Zorn, Meredith Monk, and Amiri Baraka. In the ’90s, the organization has shepherded such large-scale works as Julius Hemphill’s Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, avant harpist Anne LeBaron’s opera The E & O Line, the Don Pullen-Garth Fagan collaboration Earth Eagle First Circle, and Don Cherry’s Multi Kulti World Suite.
The bigger projects are long, arduous, and risky. Multi Kulti World Suite took four years to get to a stage. Cherry had spent much of the 1980s traveling across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, meeting and jamming with musicians, and asked Warrell to help bring them together. “[Cherry] would create what he calls ‘organic orchestras’ just from singing the various parts to players,” Warrell says. “So there was no need [for them] to be versed in written Western music.” Warrell agreed to take on the project: “I spent four years writing grants, finding an airline sponsor…to bring 22 musicians from all over the world.” The piece debuted on Freedom Plaza on July 4, 1991. “It was very poorly rehearsed, it was hodgepodge, but at least 40 out of those 60 minutes were an absolute wonder,” says Warrell.
“It’s crazy that Bill has to hunker down and plead for a stage to show cutting-edge performance while taxpayers subsidize Broadway shows at the Kennedy Center,” grouses Jed Wheeler, who manages Philip Glass, Diamanda Galas, Spalding Gray, and Robert Wilson. Alberto Gaitan, an electronic composer who co-presented shows with District Curators as music curator for the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), calls Warrell “an art slave.” “Being a nonprofit arts presenter is tough,” Gaitan says. “People do it out of an almost masochistic love. So much of your energy goes into making it happen and getting the funding; [it’s] like Nelson Mandela taking aid from Libya, saying, ‘Anyone who helps me is my friend.’”
Over the last 20 years, advertising has spilled into every inch of space and every second of time. Mobil’s genteel oozing on public TV is typical of the marriage between giant sponsors and the cultural institutions they deem worthy. Jazz is sold to corporate stiffs as high art, Warrell says, by emphasizing to their marketing people that “jazz people are picky; they’re aficionados.” Programs for District Curators events are dotted with tiny logos of, among others, Pepsi, GEICO, and the omnipresent Philip Morris. Warrell rationalizes doubts about taking money from the tobacco behemoth with seen-it-all insouciance. “People make their own choices….Besides, the philanthropic arm has its offices in New York, separate from the tobacco-making offices,” he explains.
The GEICO and Philip Morris money comes tantalizingly free of artistic strings, allowing Warrell to keep booking challenging acts. There are some concessions to the mainstream: He schedules at least one family program a yearin part because he has a 9-year-old daughterand he’s presenting museum versions of Duke Ellington suites by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra later this summer. Such shows are the exception, however, and Warrell says he still prefers what Laurie Anderson dubbed “difficult listening.” Sax player Andrew White, who played District Curators’ Freedom Plaza show in 1995, says, “He’s interested mostly in dissonance and edgy material. My more jazzy stuff he doesn’t like as much.”
Yet bringing the cutting edge to the middle class “will never make money,” concedes Warrell. “Anybody working with truly new ideas is in an ongoing [financial] crisis,” says Jed Wheeler from his New York office. District Curators is not immune; it has scaled back considerably in the 1990s. The year-round schedule became summer-only in 1995, and it focuses increasingly on jazz, with big multimedia projects growing fewer and farther between. These changes seem to reflect an exhaustion of personal resources as well as shifts in nationwide funding patterns. “Going out and looking at edgy stuff was trendy in the ’80s,” says Warrell. The money followed readily. “The Next Wave festival at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] grew out of that. So did District Curators, WPA, P.S. 122, the Kitchenall the nonprofits that support artists who aren’t going after commercial success.”
The early ’90s brought a renewed interest in jazz, especially among patrons, Warrell says. “A bunch of us who could not find a dime for jazz in the ’80s were getting money,” mainly from young, hip benefactors. But most grants rarely cover the cost of a project, let alone salaries for Warrell or other District Curators staff. To stretch the art dollar, District Curators frequently co-presents with the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Corcoran/
WPA, the National Park Service (for Carter Barron shows), the Kennedy Center, and radio station WPFW. Those partners share space on a flier or a stage, or a plug on the radio. Others offer an ear to the ground: District Curators is also hooked in with D.C.’s tiny Transparent Productions, which brings jazz acts, mostly from New York, to smaller rooms like Crush, the Kaffa House, Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, and the Black Cat. Transparent is co-presenting two shows in District Curators’ summerlong Jazz Arts ’98 lineup, the Sonny Simmons-Sunny Murray show (a few weeks ago) and Steve Coleman’s July 11 gig at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
The demographics for jazz shows are shifting toward a younger audiencepeople in their 20s and even teenagers, observes Transparent Productions’ Bobby Hill, a WPFW music programmer and former District Curators board member. At bassist William Parker’s packed Kaffa House show last year, says Hill, “the audience was not the old dc space crowd, but a whole crew of young kids.”
The “kids” are arriving at free jazz via German industrial and Japanese noise bands; rock-based eclecticists
like Thurston Moore, Bill Laswell,
and Henry Rollins; Knitting Factory radicals like John Zorn and Fred Frith; and even fusion guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. “The definition of jazz has expanded,” Warrell remarks. “Now it’s anything that has jazz elements….Some people say Charlie Hunter and Medeski, Martin, and Wood are jazz. Or the Lounge Lizards.” Some observers assert that the only constant in jazz is eclecticism, the postmodern collaging of elements. In a recent online interview, sampling renaissance man DJ Spooky calls his music “jazz,” a term he applies to
any overflows in media and culture. Gaitan offers a similarly loose definition: “Jazz is passion over form. It’s about mixing promiscuously.”
Jazz must indeed be promiscuous to be making time with both the college radio crowd and the sugar daddies at the NEA. Plus, commercial sponsors like beer and bottled water companies want to see thousands of people attending an event, says Warrell. “You can’t have a track record of drawing 50 to 200 people to precious art happenings.” District Curators boosts unknowns every Fourth of July at its Freedom Plaza show by billing them with bigger names. Ironically, this time Warrell finds himself championing Olu Dara, who already had a break earlier this year when he opened for Cassandra Wilson. “This is the year [Dara] belongs out on Freedom Plaza in front of 20,000 people,” to convert the uninitiated, Warrell says. “Where are you gonna find Olu Dara on the radio?”
Twenty years of hunting down establishment dollars for anti-establishment art has taken a toll on Warrell. He looks tired, older than his 45 years. Resentment creeps into his voice more than once. “It’s funny how some of my early friends and early board members have this notion that I’m still doing this because it’s easy,” he complains, “like I’m dabbling in the arts rather than taking on the burden of being an artist myself….People don’t understand that the hardest part is finding the resources.”
Warrell says he often thinks about stopping, but instead, he’s testing out new ways of “reaching the next generation” with worthy new material. He recently completed a course in television production and is pitching Performance Portraits, an hourlong show with segments on four artists, to cable channels Bravo, Ovation, BET, and the Discovery Channel.
Warrell refuses to approach public television with his idea. “The public television demographics is an aging group, mostly white, mostly women. Not that I have anything against those people, but it’s not where the young audiences are. Cable television has become the way to move artists, living and not, to more people,” Warrell declares. He says he’d like his show to get those young viewers off the couch and out to the clubs and concert halls, but he also has archival goals for Performance Portraits. “It’s too easy to forget Sun Ra, John Cage, and Don Cherry,” he says. “When history is written, it’s just too easy to forget the fringe.” CP