Interview with poet/musician Elliott Levin - the sound of the emotion of motion, and the motion of emotion

"I think the strains of social and political activism, along with the esthetics of the modern art world which developed into the space and atomic age, is what connects these roots to the futuristic expressions of spirit and soul."

Elliott Levin: Peace, Poetry & Music

Elliott Levin is a Philadelphia born and based poet and musician. He studied musical and literary composition at the University of Oregon. He has done further studies with Michael Guerra of the Phila. Orchestra; Cecil Taylor, pianist, composer, poet; Claire Polin, flutist composer; and Odean Pope, saxophonist, composer. Elliott has performed throughout the world with such groups as the Cecil Taylor Ensemble, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, New Ghost, Interplay, Talking Free Be-Bop, Odean Pope's Saxophone Choir, Don Preston's Akashic Ensemble, Cee-Knowledge & The Cosmic Funk Orchestra, Alan Silva's Sound Vision Orchestra. He has collaborated in performance with many poets including Miguel Algarin, Bob Holman, Gloria Tropp, Reg. E. Gaines, John Sinclair, Butch Morris' CHORUS OF POETS, Wil Perkins, Frank Messina and David Amram. His original music and poetry can be found on the recordings: OLDUVAI MUSIC ("Or-Om-You'll-Us" 1978), and ILTAR ("Ewe-Doh-Noh-What-Fo'-Kiss" 1979), on TIWA Records. He was the associate producer, composer, and performer for the compilations: POETRY IN PHILADELPHIA (1989), and MUSIC FROM PHILADELPHIA (1990). As producer, composer, performer, in 1990 and 1992, he created two internationally broadcast features for New American Radio.

In 1993 "Whose Myth...?" was used as the title and as the featured work in a multi-disciplinary event sponsored by The Watts Towers Cultural Center in LA. "Huan" is a poetic/musical duet performed and recorded at The Berlin Total Music Meeting with Cecil Taylor in 1996. "A Bleak, Stark Beauty", and "Northern Liberties" were performed and recorded for The Fire In The Valley Festival in Amherst, Mass. with The Jackson Krall Quintet (1996). THE MOTION OF EMOTION CD was released by the Elliott Levin Quartet in 1998 on CIMP, followed by A FINE INTENSITY, SOUL-ETUDE, ON IN ONONDAGA (Opportunities and Advantages). NEW GHOST: LIVE UPSTAIRS AT NICK'S was released by ESP-Disk in 2006. His first book of poetry, "does it swing?" was published in 1996 by Heat Press of LA. Elliott Levin's musical and poetic inspirations are drawn form the roots of American forms of jazz and blues (along with many other international, cultural, folk, and classical forms) to grow into the more expansive techniques of the extended compositional and improvisational directions of modern innovators such as Cecil Taylor, Sun RA, Frank Zappa, and Don Van Vliet, to cite a few sources of inspiration. For the past 25 years, he has been intimately involved in the integral interplay of the language of music, and the music of language.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Elliott Levin's Archive / All Rights Reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the POETRY and what does the JAZZ mean to you?

1) My poetry has taught me about the spontaneous way words and ideas can flow, that I can be a channel for Divine energy, and filter it through my verbal experience and understanding.

2) Improvising music is what helped me understand how to perform/express the verbal ideas in a rhythmic and dynamic manner.

JAZZ is an interesting word. From my understanding, it came from American slang, meaning "to have sex/fuck"... as it was music played in and around the bordellos and speakeasy's, especially in New Orleans in the 19th & 20th Century. Because of this connotation, many more enlightened musicians (particularly Afro-American musicians) did not feel comfortable using this term. But growing up in America (Phila., Pa.) in the 50's & 60's, it had an exotic and exciting  (not to mention "attractive") connotation, which I was drawn to, and I've seen it become more accepted. Specifically being drawn to what was called "free jazz" in the 60's, that was even more controversial...because as Sun Ra was often known to say...to have " true freedom", we must have strict "discipline"!

How do you describe Elliott Levin sound and poetry? What characterize your philosophy?

I very much like a quote from a Russian novelist (M. Ageyev, who wrote a fascinating novel called, "Novel With Cocaine"- about the bohemian art scene in Odessa- where some of my ancestors come from- in the early 20th Century) where he described music as, "...the spontaneous representation in sound of the emotion of motion, and the motion of emotion...".

I entitled my first CD on CIMP (with Denis Charles, Akira Ando, and Dominic Duval, "The Motion of Emotion". This represents a lot of how I approach my composition and improvisation- both musically and verbally. I very much see the intertwining of my words and music- complementary vibrations expressing essential spiritual and psychic energy.

What were the reasons that you start the social, spiritual and counterculture researches and experiments?

Again, I grew up in Phila. in the 60's. A very powerful social revolution was happening throughout the world. Being in Phila., there was a potent and creative musical/cultural scene. I was exposed to a lot of great music, even before I considered composing & performing seriously. The Vietnam War, civil rights, etc. were very much in my conciousness. I was interested in folk/protest music- such as Richard & Mimi Farina, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, etc. The great progressive rock artists like Frank Zappa, Capt. Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee were being exposed to me. I was hearing a lot of African music- like Olatunji and Saka Aquaye. Other "world musicians" like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were very influential. Middle Eastern music, Sephardic music, Caribbean and Brazilian music. There was a small, but strong Latin music scene, and reggae as well that I was discovering.

Then of course being exposed to the great jazz legacy from Phila (Coltrane, Sun Ra, Odean Pope, so many of the artists on that scene were all around me). I was interested in psychology, biology, politics, and always reading and writing- prose, plays, poetry...but more and more, the only thing that kept me fulfilled was through playing music, and eventually combining my words with the music, in composition and performance.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

There are many. In high school I had a few close friends- Mike Urbanek (a guitarist who recently passed away- we formed the band ILTAR - on TIWA records); Richard Preston- a musician/psychology student (gave me my first flute- on condition I learn to play it); Bob Woods (guitarist/bassist- an original member of the rock band The Hooters)- these are the guys who started me playing music.

I had an English teacher in high school - Central HS in Phila.- Dr. Hamm. He appreciated my spontaneous and absurdist perspective on writing. He introduced me to Herman Melville, James Joyce, and other great writers, and always encouraged me to write.

After a brief stay in college (U. of Oregon) I returned to Phila and studied sax with the great Michael Guerra (from Phila Orch.- also taught Coltrane); also later with flutist Claire Polin (protege of William Kincaid). Around this time I met a wonderful reed player- George Bishop (now deceased), who was very much into multi phonics, and free improvisation... also electronic music. Through him, I met guitarist Rick Iannacone- who I have been collaborating with to this day- (INTERPLAY, which features 3 of the great fore-runners of Afro-Futurist percussion in Phila: Ed Watkins, Ron Howerton, & Keno Speller) - Porter Records; NEW GHOST (with Rick's twin-brother cousins/rhythm section- John & Steve Testa- ESP disk). George was living in Glassboro NJ at the time, and invited me out there to play one day. It happened to be the same day that Cecil Taylor started a yearlong residency at Glassboro College (now called Rowan U.). We were introduced to Cecil through mutual friends, and I started a lifelong relationship with Cecil that continues to this day as well (this was the fall of 1973).

"I look for love...peace...poetry...music every day in my life. The ability to practice and perform and survive comfortably and creatively is the reality I strive for."

Are there any memories from Cecil Taylor, Don Preston, and David Amram which you’d like to share with us?

This could be a book in itself. Cecil is such a phenomenal wealth of knowledge and inspiration. He brought me into his NYC large ensemble in 1974- I was 20 years old, never played much professionally, and I performed with him at Carnegie Hall along with many of my earliest influences and inspirations- such as Sunny Murray, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille, Sirone, Charles Tyler, etc... I stood in a tenor section with David S. Ware, Craig Purpura, and Hassan Stan Barber, (sometimes also Frank Lowe). It was quite an education.

We did many performances scattered over the years in various collaborations of groupings from this NYC based circle of players... A great experience was in Berlin-at the FMP Festival, 3 days, sharing the bill with the Steve Lacy, and Judith Molina(from The Living Theater) ensembles. 2 CDs resulted from this - "The Light of Corona", and "Almeda"- on FMP.

Right before I left for Berlin, a close friend of mine- poet/actor/activist- Kathy Chang(e) immolated herself (in the style of the Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War) in front of a Peace Sign sculpture on the U. of Penn campus- it happened on the eve of my birthday (Oct. 22nd). I was deeply effected by this of course. I wrote a poem, and told Cecil about this. When we got to Berlin, to open one of the sets of the Festival, he asked me to begin the set reciting the poem, while he danced, and eventually played to accompany me.

We also went to Europe- on a later birthday- to perform at the Skopje Jazz Fest. It was just at the point of a cease fire in their civil war. The audience was packed- there was a truce- possibly because of the festival. We went on stage at midnight of my birthday-Oct. 23...what an amazing gift!

Don Preston was a long time influence, I met him in Cal. years ago through a bass player/friend- Ken Filiano. We have played together many times since- we recorded a trio with great trumpeter, Bobby Bradford...also did a later album with them on Porter records- hopefully to be released someday (the engineer has never finished mixing this, we are waiting for this to still happen). I one time did a short trip with Don & reed man Buck Gardner- also from the Mothers...and we did a great trio as well. It was wonderful to experience the anecdotes and memories of these 2 musicians who were a part of a musical scene that very much influenced me in my youth.

I Know David Amram through poet Frank Messina- who had a band Spoken Motion, with whom I toured and performed. David was a frequent guest, we once did a live recording with violinist Billy Bang. David is quite a character- a wealth of info about the history of poetry & jazz- the "beat" scene of the 50's/60's. He played with Monk & Mingus, brought Cecil into his first recording session, plus working with so many poets (Kerouac, Ginsburg, etc.).

What do you miss most nowadays from the music/poetry of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Mainly the interaction and helping of a "musical/poetic community"... but to be honest, it was never easy. But now with all the social media, there is an even greater isolationism than ever before I believe. I specifically miss the number of venues and opportunities to perform live. When I was young, almost every neighborhood bar had a band on the weekends at least- even though a lot of it was more commercial music. Still I could gig- if not jazz- at least with R & B bands pretty much every week. This doesn't exist so much anymore. This is how the great musicians of the past were able to develop and practice their art...it is not easy to do this in the modern world.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz, Avant-garde and Blues music with the Beat movement?

The blues certainly seems to be the root of much of the strain of modern American culture.

Transforming the spiritual & psychic energy of severely suppressed people and culture into a creative force of power & beauty is a very high form of healing and magic.

My connection and history with all of this is what I try to express in my work. I think the strains of social and political activism, along with the esthetics of the modern art world which developed into the space and atomic age, is what connects these roots to the futuristic expressions of spirit and soul.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

There is a free improve festival coming up - The NOWHERE Festival (once again the weekend of my birthday- Oct. 23-25). They are creating different ensembles each day from a collective pool of musicians and dancers. I have been invited to participate, and also to speak on my take of the improvised music scene in Phila., and beyond, from my perspective.

I was also recently invited to participate in The OUTSIDERS Festival organized by bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. His music, coming of course from Ornette- represents the best elements of modern fusion...or "Harmolodic" music...which was also innovated and presented  by Cecil- the concept of "harmonizing" "melodies" and "groups of sound" rather than just single tones...moving in changing, often "non-metric", but organic, rhythms.

I am honored and moved by such recognition of course.

"The blues certainly seems to be the root of much of the strain of modern American culture. Transforming the spiritual & psychic energy of severely suppressed people and culture into a creative force of power & beauty is a very high form of healing and magic."

What is the impact of Jazz on the literary tradition, and to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

The spontaneity, improvisation, and striving for disciplined growth of love and freedom. The acceptance and utilization of many varieties and levels of thoughts and concepts, and lifestyles- in an all-inclusive environment.

Bob Kaufman and Ishmael Reed are prime examples of writers in the "jazz" form- connecting to socio-cultural situations we are discussing. Also Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans. Earlier writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman began such connections... there are many ...again, this is a whole book in itself.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

This is not an easy question... I look for love...peace...poetry...music every day in my life. The ability to practice and perform and survive comfortably and creatively is the reality I strive for.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Well in reality, all time -past, present, future- exists all the time...

But as the maestro Charles Parker so poignantly stated, "Now's The Time!"

Elliott Levin - Official website

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