Four Wave Second Line
Collective improvisation — a method of ensemble playing where musicians are allotted a degree of freedom and autonomy in the creation of melody and countermelody — was foundational and paramount in the improvised music practice now commonly known as jazz in its earliest years. In the decades after the New Orleanian native Louis Armstrong achieved commercial stardom (the mid-1920s), emphasis shifted from more collectivized textures to ones that showcased various soloists, with some instruments (like the tuba–which was replaced by the upright bass–and drums) relegated to supportive, accompanist roles. Ornette Coleman’s 1960 recording Free Jazz was an ambitious, experimental attempt at cultivating collective improvisation; experimental because Coleman used a pianoless double quartet (consisting of two reed instruments, two brass instruments, two basses, and two drumsets), heterophony, free meter, and minimal structural parameters for the 37-min. performance. Heterophonic collective improvisation was utilized thereafter by other experimentalist and creative improvisers of the decade and beyond, but after the reactionary “neoclassical” turn in the 1980s and the academic institutionalization of jazz in 1990s, the practice can be quite rare in contemporary performance.
This concert will be a collective improvisation between three typical New Orleanian Second Line instruments — tuba, snare drum, and bass drum (with cymbal mounted) — and piano with electronics. It evokes history by blending a segment of the traditional brass band with the “modern” sound of amplified and altered piano, synthesizer, and other electronics. We will create music spontaneously, interpolating conventional Second Line repertory and other pre-existing pieces into an exploratory and imaginative session. The significance here is in presenting a quintessential New Orleanian brass band sound in an experimental context and with an instrument — piano — that would otherwise never appear in the texture, finding common ground through a shared musical and cultural legacy to create something new.
The idea for this kind of musical experiment came to me on a research trip to New Orleans that I took in December 2021 where I met the drummer Harry Cook, who is one of the ensemble leaders of the celebrated Hot 8 Brass Band. The Hot 8 have a powerful sound and group dynamic, and they reflect a younger generation’s approach to the traditional brass band. This performance will also serve as a bridge between the contemporary New York-based improvised music sensibilities and the New Orleans tradition, with the collectively improvised texture stimulating a uniquely immediate and dialogic kind of music making.
The panel title “Four Wave Second Line” is a combination of the four waveforms of audio synthesis — used in analog and digital synthesizers alike — and the New Orleanian Second Line ensemble configuration.
Kwami Coleman is an assistant professor of music at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. His research is focused on improvised and experimental music, aesthetics, and identity in postwar American music history. His book in progress, Change: Modern Jazz and the “New Thing,” is a study of the creativity and context of experimentalist improvisers in the United States during a historical moment marked by jazz’s institutionalization, a changing commercial music industry, American cultural hegemony, and civil rights struggle: the 1960s. Coleman is a pianist, composer, and electronic musician; his first recording as an ensemble leader, Local Music, was released in 2017, and he performs regularly in New York City.
Harry Cook is a drummer and one of the founding members of New Orleans’s celebrated Hot 8 Brass Band. The Hot 8 has, for over 20 years, been one of the most popular and visible funk-style brass bands in community parades and funerals. They began in 1996 when sousaphone player Bennie Pete merged two former Fortier High School student groups, the High Steppers and the Looney Tunes Brass Bands, and those players–many of whom grew up together–have since maintained strong, family-like bonds and regular membership. The Hot 8 played a pivotal role in the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina; they’ve been featured in in two Spike Lee documentaries, When the Levees Broke (2006) and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010), recorded their autobiographical album Life and Times of the Hot 8 in 2012, and have released several recordings and toured internationally since.