Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz

Jazz performer, composer, and writer Mike Heffley is also a freshly-minted professor of Ethnomusicology, and his book, Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe’s Reinvention of Jazz, argues that some of the most interesting music being made under the heading of J-A-Z-Z hasn’t been in its birthplace in the United States.

Heffley’s argument runs something like this: With the arrival of free jazz, under the influence of innovative American players such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor, and with the maturation of a second generation of European jazz players – those coming after Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli – European players seized upon free jazz and made it something their own. Back in the United States, the author writes, free jazz players like Coleman and Taylor, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Albert Ayler, Pharoh Sanders, and Lester Bowie were eclipsed by the more commercial fusion music of the 1970s, and then, in the 1980s, by the neo-conservative “classical” repertory jazz of the Young Lions, led, if you will, by Wynton Marsalis.

Both both fusion music and repertory jazz are less about art and more about making money, suggests the author, and free jazz, both in America and Europe, is where the music has continued to evolve. Filthy lucre is the problem, and, apparently, in Europe, says the author, where the arts receive more support, musicians can concern themselves less with what sells to in the market and more with what appears to their imaginations.

In addition to discussing the importance of American free jazz and avant-garde players, Mike Heffley presents those US musicians in their proper stature and influence in the various musical cultures of the nations of Europe. Nation by nation, the author traces the development of each country’s particular style of music, its prominent musicians, and its relation to the larger phenomenon of free jazz on the Continent. Often overlooked European players such as Albert Mangelsdorff, Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Peter Kowald are all featured prominently as key figures in the distinctive development of Europe’s music.

Keep in mind that author Heffley is an ethnomusicologist, and that his book, I would guess, is probably some version of his doctoral dissertation. As much, it may be a little too technical or esoteric for some tastes. Frankly, I didn’t understand some of the theoretical passages. But Heffley does a very fine job in his narrative sections, and his research is impeccable. As a work that explores new territory and brings to light scores of musicians and the musical heritage of a dozen nations, this book is invaluable. Anyone interested in free jazz or the avant garde will want to take a look.

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