John Tchicai (1936-2012)
By approaching jazz from a wide perspective, Afro-Danish-American John Tchicai was continuously progressive throughout his life. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1936, of a Danish mother and a Congolese father, and growing up in healthy surroundings, John Martin Tchicai became a leading exponent of the jazz avant-garde in New York in the '60s, and a father-figure for the European avant-garde after that. Based in Claira, France; due to a single-mindedness of purpose and action, his work still reflects what he always did, which was to innovate and inspire other people, in a most refreshing way. The Danish Ministry of Culture recognized his work by awarding him a lifetime grant.
John first began to play the violin as a child, and switched to the alto saxophone and clarinet at age 16. He studied with private teachers and attended the Conservatory of Music in Aarhus, Denmark, for two years. During the late '60s and early '70s, John began to play bamboo flutes, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone and percussion, and when he discovered the tenor saxophone in the early '80s, he put the alto aside in favour of this, which then became his main instrument. John also used keyboards and sequencers as tools for composing.
In the late '50s and early '60s, John explored the Danish and Northern European jazz-scene. He moved to New York City in '62. In the following four years, he recorded 11 albums (a.o. "Mohawk", "Ascension" with John Coltrane, "New York Eye and Ear Control" with Albert Ayler), co-founded two ensembles ("New York Contemporary Five" and "New York Art Quartet", which was a harbinger of collective musical approaches and philosophies that leading avant-groups of the '70s would develop) with which he toured Europe, and was a member of "The Jazz Composers Guild". He moved back to Denmark in '66 where he co-founded "Cadentia Nova Danica", at one time a 30-piece ensemble which recorded Afrodisiaca. In the '70s, John discovered hatha yoga and meditation which became lifelong focus-points in his spiritual development. He performed less often in this period, but taught in elementary schools, composed, and led workshops. By the '80s, he had picked up touring and recording internationally again, travelling through Europe, to India, Japan and Africa, performing as a sideman as well as leading his own groups. In 1991 John moved to California. Here he founded "John Tchicai and the Archetypes" (a 7-piece band that fused afro-jazz with blues-rock), taught workshops in schools and in prisons, composed and worked on new projects. He continued to compose and tour internationally, though from 2001 mostly from the South of France where he also still practised yoga, pranayama and meditation.
In 1966, Downbeat stated that John "stands out among the jazz avant-garde, musically and personally". Official recognition grew steadily for him: in '77, he was the first jazz musician to receive a three year composition stipend from the Danish Ministry of Culture, and in '90, he received a lifetime grant from the same Ministry. In the U.S., he was a California Artist-in-Residence in '96-'97, and was awarded a fellowship for composition by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997.
John's compositional activity always had a high priority in his work, as he strove to reach a balance between composition and improvisation. The music of other cultures (African, Oriental, etc.) was a continuous inspiration, and John's work has a highly rhythmic and poetic melodic-lyrical quality. He composed for his own ensembles, but also on commissions for other jazz and/or classically trained ensembles: a.o. for wind orchestra, for three cellos + jazz quartet, for strings and winds double quintet, for percussion ensemble, and for symphony orchestra.
John worked with and was a peer to the greats in the field of "jazz" music. To name but a few, he played with John Coltrane, Don Cherry, John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Johnny Dyani, Roswell Rudd, Albert Ayler, Dollar Brand, Makaya Ntshoko, Carla and Paul Bley, Misha Mengelberg, Lee Konitz, and Cecil Taylor. He performed at festivals, conservatories, in churches, schools and concert halls from Bombay and Kyoto in the East to Vancouver and Seattle in the West; from Conacry, Guinea, Africa in the South, to Reykjavik, Iceland, in the North. Poetry and audience participation were often part of a Tchicai performance.
Not only did John record more than 30 albums as a leader (with "New York Contemporary Five", "New York Art Quartet", "Cadentia Nova Danica", "John Tchicai Trio", "J.T. Group", "John Tchicai & the Archetypes", and so forth), and many more as a sideman (e.g. with John Coltrane on "Ascension", "Pierre Dorge & the New Jungle Orchestra", South African bassist Johnny Dyani, Faroe Islands pianist Kristian Blak, Dutch saxophone sextet "The Six Winds", and with Cecil Taylor on "Winged Serpent"), but he also took part in collaborations with artists of disciplines other than music (with poets Amiri Baraka, John Stewart, David Gitin, as well as with painters, actors and dancers). He composed for film, theater and video projects.
John utilised available resources in a patient, positive way, whether it concerned improvisational or compositional material, instruments, time, space, energy or people. His vast teaching experience was accumulated through working in elementary schools as a music teacher, teaching private lessons and international workshops for musicians of jazz, classical and other backgrounds, workshops in prisons, and masterclasses at conservatories. His book for music students, "Advice to Improvisers", which includes compositions and exercices for all instruments, was published in '87 by Edition Wilhelm Hansen.
See "Fire Music", a bibliography of New Jazz by John Gray, ref. #31, Greenwood Press.