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Bookshelf 2: John Tchicai

John Tchicai arrived in New York from his native Denmark in December 1962. Over the next three and a half years the sound of his saxophone became one of the most distinctive elements in jazz’s turbulent New Wave. He was a member of two foundational combos, the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet, and took part in New York’s celebrated October Revolution in Jazz in 1964. He appeared with John Coltrane on Ascension, with Archie Shepp on Four for Trane, with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry on New York Eye and Ear Control, and on the first album by the Jazz Composers Orchestra. Then he went home, with other work to do.

Home turned out not to be just Copenhagen, where he founded the group Cadentia Nova Danica. In the years to come he would live in an artists’ colony in Switzerland; in Northern California, where he taught at Davis University; and, from 2001 until his death in 2012, a small village near Perpignan, on the French side of the Pyrenees. His extensive travels also included visits to India, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan, Sierra Leone and Mexico.

The bands he played in and the recordings he made were many. But of equal importance were the lessons and workshops he gave, sharing with young musicians the philosophy developed during the years in which a man born in 1936 to a Danish mother and a Congolese father absorbed musical ideas from around the world.

It was at a workshop in Rotterdam in 1989 that he met Margriet Naber, a young Dutch musician who became his fourth wife and his collaborator for 20 years. She was with him in California — where they had a band called the Archetypes — and France, and although they split up in 2009 and eventually divorced, they continued to live in the same village and she was with him when he died in a nursing home following a stroke. It is from their conversations, her very clear memories and the material he left behind that she has assembled a book which answers the description of a biography in conventional terms but is also, thanks to the close personal and artistic relationship between the author and her subject, something more.

Tchicai’s stories of growing up as a mixed-race boy in a white world are fascinating. His much older half-brother, Kaj Timmermann, formed a popular band called the Harlem Kiddies in 1940, and in 1953 John saw the Stan Kenton Orchestra in Copenhagen. It was hearing Lee Konitz with Kenton that inspired him to take up the alto saxophone, leaving an influence on the lighter, purer sound that made Tchicai’s own alto stand out amid the maelstrom of 1960s free jazz.

Although his many adventures and countless collaborations are part of the narrative, this is not the place to look for a deep analysis of his music. Instead Naber gives us insights into his thoughts and his teaching methods. Like John Stevens (with whom he played at a famous Cambridge concert with Yoko Ono and John Lennon in 1969), Tchicai favoured an open and practical approach that encouraged musicians of all levels of ability to express themselves though improvisation, illustrated by the score of a piece which gives the book its title: “A Chaos with Some Kind of Order”. From another example, his instructions are very similar to those Stevens used to give: “…try to anticipate and play some of the same tones in the same moment as other players would do them…”

Poetry was important to Tchicai. He wrote it — a few of his poems are included — and he recited it in his beautifully modulated voice. Naber tells us that he only consented to record with John Coxon and Ashley Wales (of Spring Heel Jack) in 2005 if they agreed to let him read Steve Dalachinsky’s “These Pink Roses”, which appeared as a kind of epilogue to the wonderful album called John Tchicai with Strings. Naber uses appendices to give us his advice on improvising and on building a set list, lead sheets of a handful of his tunes, and an outline discography.

Tchicai also looked after himself, through yoga and other practices. Naber describes his routine: “He got up around 6am and sat down for a meditation of around an hour. Then he would make some tea and a piece of rye bread for breakfast before doing more exercises, for instance pranayama (yoga/breathing exercises). That could also take an hour. After that, he’d eat some more and tend to work. Sometimes this would be musical work, working with notes, with an instrument, a piece of paper, his keyboard or sequencer. Sometimes it would be business work, like writing letters. When he was done with that, often it was lunchtime and John liked to have a hot meal for lunch. We took turns cooking meals. In the afternoon he’d go out to get some air and do chores like going to the post office or to the copyshop to make photocopies of charts and send them to musicians he played with. Or he’d go into nature. In the evening he went to hear music, watched a movie on television, or turned back to music to continue working. He didn’t go to bed late, didn’t smoke and didn’t drink much alcohol. This was John’s rhythm. When he was on tour he also tried to maintain it as much as possible, at least by doing a meditation in the morning. He was always busy, and often it was work-related, but it was always in a relaxed way. He played his musical rhythms in a relaxed way and he did the same with his life-rhythm. It was a nice rhythm to live next to…”

Remembering all the pleasure John’s music gave me on record since the early ’60s and in live performance from the first encounter in Berlin in 1969 to the last at Cafe Oto in 2009, I was delighted to respond to Naber’s request to read and comment on her manuscript before publication. I was able to give a little help, but she had it all there. It’s her great feeling for what he represented, as well as her diligence and persistence, that courses through this intimate and valuable account of his life and work.

* John Tchicai: A Chaos with Some Kind of Order by Margriet Naber is published by Ear Heart Mind Media and is available from John Tchicai with Strings is on the Treader label. The drawing of Tchicai is by the Dutch artist Marte Röling and is from the cover of Mohawk, a 1965 album by the New York Art Quartet, originally released on Fontana.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bob Bowden #


    I saw JT with John Stevens and ? On bass at little local Bristol pub, the Bathurst Inn, in 1976. One of the most memorable gigs of my life. And had both the NYAQ albums. Superb stuff ! What a unique tone!

    June 21, 2021
  2. Michael #

    Excellent article about Tchicai. One little detail: John Tchicai taught for several years at UC Davis, near the Bay Area, not Davis University. During that time, I lived in San Francisco and had the great pleasure of hearing him play many times, usually in small venues and with younger players. The music was wonderful of course, but I also loved to see how he stood on stage, with ease and dignity. Like a yogi who played great horn. I got a chance to talk with him after a gig a few times, and he always impressed me with his openness and willingness to talk about the music.

    June 21, 2021
  3. Newk #

    I also got to see John Tchicai quite a bit when I lived in the SF bay area, the first time with the poet Ted Joans. I took along the sleeve for the Mohawk album for him to sign, something I never do, and I remember his surprise at my even having it. I loved the band he had with Francis Wong, who I feel to be a very underappreciated musician. There was also a night Tchicai sat in with Sonny Simmons, and when it was ’round midnight, someone in the audience requested that Monk masterpiece, and they actually went into it, and it was beautiful, and turned a situation that might make eyes roll into something special. Everything Michael said above resonates with me, especially that very last comment. I definitely have to order the book, and despite not playing an instrument nor even being able to read music, I’ve always wanted to read his Advice for Improvisers, just for the sensibility he’d bring to such a thing.

    PS: Whatever happened to that New York Art Quartet documentary? Did it ever make it to DVD?

    June 22, 2021
  4. Paul Crowe #

    Thank you, Richard, for a concise and thoughtful introduction to me of a man of whom I had not heard before but am now inspired to read that book.

    June 23, 2021
  5. Roger Skerman #

    I always enjoyed John Tchicai’s playing.I saw him play in Bristol twice at a small pub called the Bathurst Tavern with John Stevens & Jeff Clyne and in a Saxophone Quartet also in London and Amsterdam.Afew years later I played at the same Bristol pub with an improv group .I designed a poster using the image from the New York Art Quartet LP ‘Mohawk’.

    June 23, 2021
  6. Merete von Eyben #

    I have loved John’s music since I started listening to him at the jam sessions at Vingaarden in Copenhagen in the early 1960s. My ex-husband and very dear friend, Finn von Eyben, was John’s bass player on his European tour with The New York Art Quartet in 1965. When they were playing at the famous Jazzhouse Montmartre in Copenhagen, I was there every evening. After I, too, moved to California and settled in Los Angeles, I did manage to get together with John, Margriet and (then) little Yolo in, of all places, Glendale. And I still remember the last time I heard him play at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 2001. I regularly watch the videos on YouTube with him and think about the many times I heard him live. He is arguably Denmark’s greatest jazz musician. Now I can’t wait for Margriet’s book about him.

    June 26, 2021

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