Avant garde's intrepid lighthouse turns 75

Saxophonist John Tchicai has left his mark on Danish rhythmic music.


April 27, 2011

It must have been around the beginning of 1962.

And it was certainly at Vingaarden (the Vineyard), the inn in the middle of Copenhagen, then one of the pillars of the Danish jazz scene.

A bunch of musicians, including the young John Tchicai, sat listening to the latest LP of the American saxophonist, John Coltrane. “Live At The Village Vanguard” it was called, and the flip side was one long number of just over 16 minutes.

And unlike traditional bebop numbers, where all the instruments take their solos in turn, there was only one musician playing a solo: John Coltrane. From beginning to end.

The number was called “Chasin the Trane” – an ambiguous title that played on the phonetic similarity between the English word train and Coltrane’s nickname, “Trane”. Tchicai and his colleagues were flattened by Coltranes performance. And pretty shook.

A 16-minute tour de force! It was the first time they’d heard a jazz musician playing a solo so long and so freely, his imagination liberated by the piece’s rhythmic and tonal foundation.

John Tchicai was sold.

A new genre is born

“It hit so hard to hear it. In the sense that it really was intense, gripping and impressive,” he recalls the experience half a century later.
“We had a clear sense that now there was a landslide. Then came a new kind of music.

Avant-garde jazz, or free jazz, the new genre was dubbed.

Shortly after John Tchicai first heard “Chasin’ the Trane”, he traveled to the U.S., there to play with a string of the new music’s leading figures, along with Coltrane himself, and among others, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler and Don Cherry.

In 1966 he returned to Denmark and formed the band Cadentia Nova Danica, which became the local playground for musicians with a desire to improvise and challenge common perceptions of how music should sound.

“John is a lifetime gone its own way”

Easily accessible it was not. And the discussion about whether avant-garde jazz is noise or music raged then – and still does. But John Tchicai was, and is, indifferent to that.

“I followed my own nose and went to places where I could get permission to play as I thought it should sound,” he says.

And thanks for that, says Tchicai’s younger instrumental colleague, Benjamin Koppel.

“Johns is a lifetime gone its own way. If he went to a concert where he wanted to sing instead of playing the saxophone, he’s done that, regardless of what the audience expected. He is perhaps not a great musician in the technical sense, but that’s not what counts. The important thing for him was to create an artistic expression that was his own. And he truly succeeded.”

Although it may be more mainstream than avant-garde today, the genre has important personalities, such as John Tchicai, says Koppel.

“I really think it’s cool that there is music you can’t immediately understand. We all need some polishing of our wings; we can take mirroring afterward – whether we like the music or not.”

Out of bebop’s straitjacket

John Tchicai, whose father was Congolese and mother Danish, was born in Copenhagen, but grew up in Aarhus.

He began playing saxophone as a 16-year-old and was educated at the music conservatory in his hometown.

His great model was the very young Charlie Bird Parker, an alto saxophonist who, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, are considered the fathers of bebop.

The two, up through the 1940s and first half of the 1950s, had developed a style of music compared to the swing and blues-based and danceable jazz, was much more complicated and intellectual, and far less physical.

Where chords shifted with furious haste, and where, especially Charlie Parker on his solos, fired off so many shades so quickly that even a young Miles Davis could barely keep up.

Nor could John Tchicai. No matter how much he admired Parker, he had to admit that his own technique was simply not up to playing like Bird.

“It wasnt because I was lazy. In those days you would really study it and practice,” he says.

When you hear a great hardcore bebop tune from the ’50s and ’60s, you sometimes suspect that the musicians have competed over who could play the most notes in the shortest time?

“Yes, that’s right. It isn’t Charlie Parker’s fault.”

John Tchicai erupts into laughter. This tall, slender man often does.

Tighten your butt and do your best

“Playing early enough also comes from the American Spirit: You must be first, and you have to be best. There is always competition in America.”

And it rubbed off on bebop?

“I think it certainly did. Maybe extra on the colored musicians. They had to cope with the pressure of racism, and they did – they really tightened their butts and tried to do their very best.”

When you first heard Coltrane and the other avant-garde rockers, didn’t you think it sounded weird?

“Naw. I felt – without bragging – released. I had the idea that I wanted to be somewhere where there was more freedom, more open terrain.”

Away from the competitive and disciplined bebop?

“Yes, out of the tight reins. It may well be that, technically, it would have been good for me if I had kept on playing bebop. But it could also be that I’d get stuck in it, so I couldn’t express myself as freely as I do. It’s hard to say.”

Rhythm in the blood

And yet there’s still a limit as to how far John Tchicai will chase after musical freedom. Some avant-garde musicians leave all structures and go into total disintegration. But that stops the game for Tchicai – the music must be rhythmic.

“As it was, it bored me. For me, music is a breeze, and if the game is to be fun, there must be some damn rhythm, a good pulse. It has almost become fashionable to have music sound ugly.”

What do you mean ugly?

“That it’s noisy and doesn’t feel nice. That the instruments never fall in sync with each other, that they’re always divided, and that the music is not harmonious. I cant stand that.”

Today a new album was released by the Danish group, Elektro, which John Tchicai listened to.

Electro-acoustic, improvised music mixes jazz with electronics, and with his now 75 years, Tchicai could comfortably be the grandfather of the group’s youngest member, the 25-year-old guitarist Tobias Winberg, who also works as a hip-hop producer.

Tchicai describes their music as “modern”, but “tonality-wise really not very avant-garde.”

“Guitar, bass and drums provide a solid background in music which is very rhythmic. And the music swings and has a groove, is a kind of stepping stone to a wider audience.”

The European heritage

Besides being a pioneer in the field, avant-garde jazz’s John Tchicai played a very active role on the stage of what we call, for lack of a better term, World Music.

Maybe your need for rhythm is actually a legacy of your Congolese father?

“I think so. The body needs the music, it’s not enough that the intellect alone runs at full steam. I’ve just done a workshop at Skurup Folkhögskola, in Sweden, which was filled with young talented musicians. I gave them a few rules and asked them to choose a standard theme they had to improvise on. Next I asked those who listened to the improvisations whether they were more melodic or rhythmic. And they all agreed they like it melodic. Up here in the North, melodic improvisations are almost always preferred to the rhythmic.


“European heritage in music, European songs, are distinctly melodic. The rhythmic comes first in earnest with Stravinsky, who says that now we have add some fucking coal. And with Bartok, who borrows from North African music.”

The Danish song and hymn tradition …

“… is distinctly melodic. We have to go all the way up to the Faroe Islands before we encounter the trance-like rhythmic ring dances which go on and on until you fall into ecstasy.”

And you have that in your blood?

“I think so. Maybe that’s something that I imagine myself in, but I’m certainly going to go on insisting that the rhythmic element must be there.”

Have you played with Armstrong?

In 1991, John Tchicai settled in California. But when George W. Bush came to power, according to Tchicai, racism began to rear its ugly head, and in 2002 he moved with his Dutch wife – also a musician – and their then infant son, to southern France, near Perpignan.

After the couple divorced, although they still live near each other, Tchicai is usually with their now 12-year-old son on weekends – when the man isn’t working somewhere abroad.

As he often is.

“I get jobs all the time. Which of course is good. But my son complains that I’m away too often, so I try to limit trips.”

This summer Tchicai will appear in Denmark only at the Roskilde Festival – with Elektro – and then at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

And in May he’ll play at a festival in Chicago, and later at the prestigious Vision Festival of avant-garde art in New York.

All in all, there are often calls for Tchicai from the U.S., and even though nearly ten years have passed since he moved out of that country, he has been able to keep his U.S. work permit, called the green card. As long as it lasts.

For it happens more and more often, Tchicai admits, that he is pulled aside and interrogated about why he spends so much time in France.

“Latest was in Boston, where I was questioned by a young man. But then there was an older man sitting beside him who said, “This guy is famous.” And addressing me: “Have you played with Armstrong?” No, I replied, but with Coltrane. “Whaddaya know?” he said. “So you are famous.” And then I got my passport stamped.

John Tchicai broke into hoarse laughter.

“Uplifting, that there was someone there who knew who Coltrane was. So the world can sink that low!”