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Box set illuminates 1970s experimental jazz in Boston

The Mark Harvey Group circa 1971 (clockwise from top right): Mark Harvey, trumpet; Craig Ellis, clarinet; Michael Standish, toy sax; and Peter Bloom, bass sax.
The Mark Harvey Group circa 1971 (clockwise from top right): Mark Harvey, trumpet; Craig Ellis, clarinet; Michael Standish, toy sax; and Peter Bloom, bass sax.(Picasa)
Mark Harvey.
Mark Harvey.(Kate Matson)

When they named the events Jazz All Night, they weren’t kidding. Hundreds of adventurous listeners might filter through the church doors over the course of a long evening, some of them toting sleeping bags. In the morning, volunteers whipped up a pancake breakfast for the “survivors.”

Mark Harvey is one of the survivors of an intriguing slice of Boston’s creative past, a time during the 1970s when free-form music and a generation seeking a sense of community convened in an underground network of improvisational jazz performances. Key groups from that bygone scene have been collected in a new boxed set called “The Boston Creative Jazz Scene 1970-1983,” released last Friday by the local reissue label Cultures of Soul (www.culturesof
soul.com).

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The music, covering experimental jazz from spiritual opuses to funk fusion, represents a cultural moment when anything went. Harvey, sitting in the bustling lobby of a Kendall Square hotel near MIT, where he’s taught for 30 years, relates an anecdote about a New York City performance by one of the groups on the compilation, the Year of the Ear. The band was under the impression that a mysterious figure at the bar may have been the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins.

“After about a minute,” says the trumpeter Harvey with a laugh, “whoever that was left. I guess that proves we were way out.”

Aside from demonstrating the lengths the bands of the avant-garde would go to challenge listeners, the story hints at one of the Boston scene’s underlying tensions. As in so many other fields, the jazz community’s perceived “younger sibling” relationship with New York — generally considered the home of free jazz — was a constant source of consternation.

In fact, as Harvey points out in comprehensive liner notes published in book form, Boston can claim a jazz scene as heady as any across the country. From Berklee and the Jazz Workshop to homegrown talent including Roy Haynes and Tony Williams and George Wein’s establishment of the Newport Jazz Festival, the city’s jazz legacy is rich.

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But it was also a legacy that was ripe for overthrow by the ’70s. Harvey, who came to Boston from upstate New York to pursue a theological degree at Boston University, also studied musical theory with Jaki Byard and George Russell at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he followed in the footsteps of the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. A devoted fan of Duke Ellington, Harvey nevertheless caught the spirit of the free jazz era.

“In that time period, I was in the ‘throw-it-out’ camp,” he says. He and his colleagues were leaning toward a radical reevaluation of musical tradition: “We were looking for what’s around the next corner.”

That curiosity dovetailed neatly with the spiritual yearnings of a peer group dismayed by the war in Vietnam, turbulence over the civil rights movement, and other repercussions of the ’60s.

“We were unreconstructed idealists,” Harvey recalls, quoting a friend who has since passed on: “In those days, we really thought that music would change the world.”

The music on the “Creative Jazz” set showcases a wide variety of styles, from the Mark Harvey Group’s near-silences and tumultuous eruptions to the transcendent explorations of the Phill Musra Group, which worked in the sacred space carved out by late Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and other masters of questing free jazz.

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“It wasn’t just in jazz,” remembers Eric Jackson, the long-running Boston-area jazz disc jockey. “In general, musicians were dealing with more spiritual ideas. There was a connection between the idea of freedom, and of freedom in the music. They were moving away from mainstream structures.”

Typically, these musicians also fell far outside the mainstream music industry — often, but not always, by design. Most of the tracks on the box set appeared on limited-edition, private-press album releases. Harvey says he’s seen rare copies of his group’s records sell for hundreds of dollars apiece on the Internet.

Jackson, who played percussion on a few of Musra’s recordings, recalls with a laugh the X-rated cover the group pasted on one of its white-label releases.

“I called them up and said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’” he says. “They thought it would help the record sell.”

As an ordained Methodist minister, Harvey helped organize alternative venues in the basements of a series of progressive churches around town, including Emmanuel Church and the Church of the Covenant, both on Newbury Street. He points out that John Coltrane preferred to call his audiences “congregations.”

For Harvey, music remains a place for connection. This spring his long-running group, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, will premiere a new composition: a suite paying tribute to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. The big band features another notable “survivor” of the free-jazz scene, saxophonist Arni Cheatham, who also helps lead the Makanda Project, dedicated to the music of yet another Boston jazz dignitary, the late Makanda Ken McIntyre.

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“It’s actually remarkable how many of us are still kicking,” says Harvey. “I’m biased, but I think some of these guys are playing better than ever. These are survivors, continuing to thrive.” It is, he says, a testament to the power of the music.


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.