The box is big and nearly empty. That’s because its contents — hundreds of CDs, stacks of books and DVDs, and other promotional materials — are scattered about Keith Marks’ two-story Riverside home, both upstairs and down. Archiving the CDs is paramount for Marks as he prepares to donate the entire collection to the Jacksonville Public Library’s Main Branch in Downtown.
Making it clear to a general audience why this collection is significant is a crucial part of the uphill battle Marks has been fighting over the past several months. Most ’round these parts haven’t the slightest inkling who John Zorn is or what a Tzadik is. But here is Marks, combing through towers of CDs, organizing and notating, prepping the entire Radical Jewish Culture portion of Zorn’s expansive Tzadik record label (around 250 releases) for installation at the library. He’s also putting together a concert series to celebrate the Jacksonville Public Library’s recent acquisition and hopes to expand his Avant music series in the future, bringing in more music and musicians from Zorn’s massive stable of artists and from the vast and still-underground world of the avant-garde.
Marks is no stranger to this struggle. In his two decades in Jacksonville, he has put together and promoted a regional nonprofit events series (called PB&J), hosted a children’s puppet show, released a local-band compilation album, produced a sketch comedy show, and staged a haiku/art show featuring local artists and writers. Some ventures were more successful than others, and not one was easy to mount. Though Marks has many friends in the regional arts and music communities, here in the cultural backwater once known as Cowford, the masses are more interested in the Jaguars, Rascal Flatts and craft brews than they are experimental music.
But what Marks is attempting this time around is monumental, and incredibly important to a town that insists it’s an artistic, as well as a corporate, destination. John Zorn, the heaviest cat on the downtown New York City scene since the late ’70s, is a composer of worldwide repute, one who moves freely among the worlds of jazz, classical, hardcore punk and metal, noise, exotica and fusion. His personal output is daunting, having released or performed on more than 400 recordings. Through his record label Tzadik, Zorn has curated and released more than 1,000 more titles. His significance as a performer, composer and conductor is indisputable, yet mainstreamers seem to be in the dark about his work.
Couple this with the difficulty Marks had making inroads with Zorn in the first place — Zorn, who is notoriously possessive of his work and how it is presented, shut Marks down on a number of occasions — and any normal person would have thrown in the towel long ago.
But Marks is tenacious, both a devoted fan of Zorn’s work and a dedicated member of the Northeast Florida arts community. He doesn’t give up easily, and he pitches his ideas with passion and eloquence. Despite all the obstacles, the arts maven and frequent Folio Weekly Magazine contributor has managed to procure upwards of $8,000 in donations (so far) and a small group of volunteers to secure the Radical Jewish Culture collection, along with books and DVDs from the Tzadik storehouse, all of which is being donated to the JPL at a performance by pianist Uri Caine on Sunday, May 15 at Jacksonville’s Main Library.
Uri Caine is a badass.
He’d have to be to play for John Zorn. Caine’s countenance belies the depth of his musicianship; he looks something like a cross between Randy Newman and Eugene Levy. Here is a pianist capable of executing blazing, intricate lines then, in the same piece, battering his piano with closed fists and still making it all very musical. He can swing effortlessly from classical solo pieces in concert halls to ensemble keyboard funk at late-night haunts with his band Bedrock. Caine resides among an elite group handpicked by Zorn to play his music, including Zorn’s Masada compositions, a group of several hundred brief pieces Zorn used to get in touch with his Jewish roots. In doing so, he imposed on himself a number of strict compositional rules and, over a handful of years, ended up creating a catalog of profoundly gorgeous music that has been performed by rock and metal bands, string quartets, his legendary jazz quartet, and soloists like Caine. It’s an honor bestowed upon few, coveted by many.
Caine first met Zorn in the mid-’80s while recording with drummer Cornell Rochester and bassist Gerald Veasley, and the two became fast friends. Caine had been challenged by Zorn to play in various configurations, but the Masada pieces place him front and center as a soloist. (His Jacksonville show will include some of Zorn’s Masada compositions along with those of Mozart and Mahler and a few originals.)
The Masada songbook is lush, energetic and a bit “out there.” Zorn, a saxophonist at heart, has always been inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman. Indeed, his interpretation of Coleman’s work (Spy vs Spy, 1989) was met with harsh criticism. Placing the jazz composer’s music in a violent, hardcore setting, Zorn was paying tribute to his hero, but critics thought it blasphemous. Zorn responded to their reviews, as is his wont, with a stiff middle finger and a gob of spit. The album, like much of Zorn’s work, has since been regaled as a masterpiece.
The Masada songbook is an extension of a long career of breaking down similar walls. In his early years, Zorn was known for noise-oriented performances in New York City’s underground, often creating duck calls with his saxophone. He invented his own improvisational language with his game pieces, the most intense of which, “Cobra,” is now legendary. He spent time investigating the music of Ennio Morricone and Carl Stalling, the former a popular film and television composer, the latter a writer of cartoon music. Zorn also put together Naked City, a hardcore group that played short-burst jazz-punk miniatures. There is his avant-classical work, his mysticism and Japanese bondage explorations, his film works, his lounge and surf music. And, it bears mentioning, one of his favorite bands is Napalm Death. All of this is to say that the man, now 62, never stops working — and never stops bucking convention.
The Masada compositions underpin the Radical Jewish Culture portion of Zorn’s label; the label itself, Tzadik, is Yiddish for “righteous one.” Under that umbrella, Zorn brings in various musicians to record either songs written by important Jewish composers (Burt Bacharach, Serge Gainsbourg, Naftule Brandwein, even Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame) or to perform Zorn’s Masada pieces.
Zorn meant for the title, Radical Jewish Culture, to imply a new kind of Jewish music, to suggest to traditionalists that there were new artists making vital Jewish music, and those new ideas should be heard and honored. But, as Marks has experienced, the Jewish establishment can be, let’s say, unwilling to accept anything outside of orthodoxy. This reluctance stems from a deep connection to Jewish liturgy, says Jesse Holzer, who has been advising Marks throughout the process of acquiring the Zorn collection.
As hazzan, the cantor or minister of music at Jacksonville Jewish Community Center, Holzer oversees the musical aspects of worship services. He says the Jewish liturgy has remained so unchanged over the past few hundred years that any changes, additions or augmentations can often be met with resistance. This arises from a rigid framework of melodies that relate directly to prayer modes and high holidays. As Holzer explains it, if a cryogenically frozen person is brought back to life sometime in the future, and hears a piece of sacred music, that person can recognize from its melody what seasonal holiday is being celebrated.
In his role at the JCC, Holzer has brought modern Jewish artists to town in an effort to explore new directions in music. “We’ve actually brought out Frank London, who is on [Tzadik] and who has played with John Zorn. We had already worked on some things in our own community about, ‘What is Jewish music?’ So when [Marks] started working on this project, I said I’d be happy to, as sort of a main representative of the Jewish establishment and the music establishment in Jacksonville, help market it to [the Jewish] community.”
Holzer continues, “Radical is a word that anyone who is more traditional might fear. Some of these things are very traditional, whether it’s the instruments they use or some of the folk melodies you’re hearing, that can make something seem at home. I think when John Zorn used the word ‘radical,’ he wanted to create a little friction when he titled it Radical Jewish Culture.”
Would the Jewish establishment be willing to accept an avant-garde approach to Jewish music? Caine thinks it may be more a question of traditional values in general, as opposed to the Jewish orthodoxy specifically. But ultimately the music must be created and made available before one worries about acceptance.
“I think avant-garde music, by its definition, might mean that the music is not generally embraced by the larger listening public,” says Caine. “At this point, ‘classical’ music and ‘jazz’ might be considered niche music. But you never know what music or art a wider public will discover. As a musician, I think you care first about making the music and then hope for the best.”
Tzadik lablemate and guitarist Tim Sparks — who performs as part of the Avant series on Sunday, June 12 at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Springfield — sees our swiftly changing world as the perfect stage on which to introduce traditionalists to new musical ideas. Says Sparks, “I think the eclectic and musically free approach of Tzadik is in tune with the times we live in, when cultural barriers are breaking down and shifting rapidly.”
Sparks says Zorn has been the impetus for assembling a group of artists who normally wouldn’t have worked together in a commercial setting and challenging them with big, original ideas, and that Jewish music can only benefit from these wonderfully unusual connections. It is on Tzadik where these connections are made manifest.
“Tzadik is simply one of the hippest, fiercely independent record labels on the planet,” says Sparks. “And Zorn has used his Radical Jewish Culture Series to record an extraordinary group of improvisers, composers and performers, all exploring and interpreting in myriad ways the Jewish music tradition. I have met so many brilliant young musicians from Minnesota to Brazil to Paris to Israel who are inspired by Zorn and the spirit of Tzadik.”
“This is not a Jewish music series.”
Keith Marks is emphatic about this minor detail. “We are donating this catalog of music for American Jewish Heritage month, but it’s definitely more about music exploration than it is about identity politics.” Marks hopes that response to the Avant series will make future concerts and library acquisitions possible. He has his eye on Tzadik’s New Japan collection (a similar grouping of experimental Japanese artists) and his dream is to bring John Zorn to Jacksonville.
That would be a daunting undertaking. Zorn charges exorbitant fees and is in demand around the world; his presence here would likely mean a day (or days) of performances and lectures by him and his NYC friends and collaborators. It would also mean raising tens of thousands of dollars and would entail more work than anything Marks has ever attempted. It would require the participation of a large arts organization — possibly the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra or The Florida Theatre — but those types of institutions are notoriously fearful of truly experimental performers. Most important, it would rely on an investment from the community, which has been Marks’ intent all along: to nurture a community willing to put forth donations of time and money, and to take a big risk for the sake of new and adventurous art.
“I want each concert to bring a diverse audience,” says Marks, “which, when they walk out, wouldn’t know how to tell somebody what they just saw.”
Avant launch party with performance by Uri Caine, 3-4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15, Main Library, 303 N. Laura St.; free; register at eventbrite.com/e/uri-caine-live-tickets-24798271297.