Speech given by Vrij Nederland journalist Rudie Kagie at the occasion of Noah’s birthday on April 6
“I am a journalist from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and I write for the Dutch weekly magazine Vrij Nederland. What do you want to know more about me? I have blue eyes and I am 61 years old. I am a jazz lover since I was a teenager, I loved the avant garde back in the sixties, because I thought the New Thing was the voice of my generation. Not everybody would agree with that, but at that time Albert Ayler meant a lot more to me than The Rolling Stones or the Beatles. So, forty years ago I knew exactly who Noah Howard was. I bought his records and I went to his concerts. It took many years, until September 11 1997, until I met Howard for an interview for my paper. After that, I thought I knew the answers, but that was only because I hadn’t read Music In My Soul at that time.
Many books have been written about jazz and the icons of jazz and improvised music. Some musicians worked together with a writer, telling them the stories of their life, like Miles Davis did with Quincy Troupe. But a very personal, autobiographical book written by a jazz musician, is really rare. Charles Mingus did so in his famous Beneath the Underdog. And so did Noah Howard in this extremely interesting memoir Music In My Soul.
A few days before his death in September 2010, he completed this book that he unfortunately would never see in print. I think, it’s an honest and an important book, because we not only learn a lot about the author and his views on life, but especially about the roots of jazz, what the sources are of energy and creativity where it all comes from, the development of his music, the connections between music and what was going on in society. This is the story of an exceptional life of an American musician from New Orleans, the heartland of jazz; a man who moved to New York in the late sixties and became involved in the so called New Thing; then moved on to France, where he immediately felt he got the recognition that he did not get in his homeland; later on dividing his time between the US and Europe, living in Kenia for a period of time, moving to Belgian, to Brussels… Performing in India or the Arab world… Noah was a true citizen of the universe. This attitude was reflected in his music. The title of one of his last records says it all: Voyage. He was a traveler.
Like most heroes in jazz & improvised music, his melodies, his playing, the ways he expressed what came up in his mind were constantly evolving. For example, people who say they don’t like John Coltrane or they don’t like Miles Davis should be more specific. What period of Trane or Miles are they talking about? The music they played in the late fifties was very different from the music they played in the sixties or, in the case of Miles, late eighties. You can’t compare the sound and the impact of a romantic Coltrane ballad from 1958 with for example Interstellar Space from 1967. Very much the same is the case with Noah Howard. His playing on the alto saxophone can be heard on more than fifty records, but in his music he was as much always on the way as he was in his personal life. Like I said, he was a traveler! He started out as a pioneer in the avant garde, but he also explored more traditional jazz, blues, funk, world music or whatever. Listen to the result of his wonderful collaboration with Omar Al Faqir, a piano player and jazz composer who was the first jazz student from Jordan at Berklee College of Music. Noah described this record as “a representation of the magnificent brotherhood of musicians in our world”. You wonder if the Noah Howard you could hear at the album Desert Harmony is the very same Noah Howard who was recording with Archie Shepp or the European avant garde. I can assure you that he really was the same artist. He just did not want to repeat himself and was always looking for ways to expand his horizons.
Since we have the book now we can read where his fascination for the different kinds of music comes from. Howard played music from childhood in his church. In the gospel and the blues singers and pop stars like Fats Domino he found the inspiration to go deeper into music. At about six Noah first learned trumpet. In the book, he describes the big meaning of the trumpeter Dewey Johnson on his education as a musician. ‘Dewey was responsible for my real and full entry into the jazz world. We talked and practiced every day.’ They lived together in San Francisco under one roof with a crowd of young revolutionary musicians. The house was filled from 11 o’clock in the morning to late at night with a constantly fluctuating musician population, and Howard underwent the total musical experience. ‘I just became increasingly more engrossed in music’, he recalled. He was dissatisfied with the trumpet and began taking lessons on the alto saxophone. The more he played, the more difficult it became, the more he dug it. He became possessed by this metal thing, as he puts it. He discovered that the more he pursued the saxophone, the more was there to learn. For Howard, it was the first time he had not been bored with a new toy. Although he wanted to play the instrument, he didn’t want to play it the way that other saxophonists played it. In order to play the instrument, you become impressed by other saxophonists, but if you have something deep down inside the core of you, then eventually this thing starts coming out. It’s something inside a person that will make him play a series of notes one way rather than five or six ways that other people have played them.
In the beginning of the 60’s Noah got a call from his teacher Dewey, telling him he should leave San Francisco and come over to New York City, to play with the expressionistic free jazz drummer Rashied Ali who was putting a new band together. So he did. And actually that’s the moment that his musical career really started. Living in East Third Street at the Lower East Side of New York meant living in the middle of where it was all happening. The famous jazz club Slugs was just one block away. The great pianist Dave Burrell lived across the street, as did guitarist Sonny Sharock and his singing wife Linda, Archie Shepp, the poet Amiri Baraka, Sun Ra with the members of his Arkestra, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown among many others.
During his early days in New York, Noah met Albert Ayler, the legendary legend who would become, together with John Coltrane, the most influential power on his musical career. Albert and I were very close and he was like a brother and mentor to me, Noah writes. He sometimes called me at night when I was really down and encouraged me to not give up and just keep on believing in the music and things would go better. Ayler was already a star who made two highly acclaimed albums for the ESP-label at that time. As a result, Noah recorded his very first album in 1964 for ESP when he was just 21 years old. The second album was also on ESP, Live at the Judson Hall in New York; both LP’s were released in 1966. Great music, although they found little critical acclaim in the USA. I listened to that music recently again and I found it striking how fresh it still sounds today. Those albums could have been recorded yesterday, however his playing is so energetic, so powerful, like he is full with anger. In that respect, I quote what he told Valerie Wilmer, the British writer of the important book As Serious As Your Life, published in 1977 as ‘the story of the new jazz’. It’s not true to say that every musician involved in the new music was especially politicized, Noah pointed out there. He said: ‘Undoubtedly, living in America, I am influenced by what’s going on here. But I don’t stand up on stage, put my saxophone in my mouth and think about bullets and destroying the government.’
Sorry for being so detailed about Noah’s life, but I like all those stories in the book so much. Because I think they matter. A book like Music in my soul helps us to listen better, not only to Noah’s music, but to music in general. Because especially jazz and improvised music has a lot to do with attitude. The jazzman has something to say; in his music he expresses what he stands for, his thoughts about beauty and love, he wants to comfort you or to wake you up.
Nowadays it’s very common that a jazz musician releases his own music on his own label; it’s a way to keep control over the product. But in 1971, when Noah founded his label AltSax, is was not usual at all for a musician to have his own label. All the answers are in the book! It’s clear that the young Noah Howard was paid badly or was not paid at all for his work for labels like ESP or BYG. If things went that way, he much better off taking care of his own business.
What I liked from the beginning, when I was in my early twenties and started buying jazz records, was the kind of mystery that would make you read the liner notes and look for the credits. You had the Frank Wright Quartet that recorded One For John in 1969, with Frank Wright on tenorsax, Noah Howard on altsax, Bobby Few on piano, Muhammad Ali drums. One year later, in 1970, a beautiful record was released with Noah’s name big on the sleeve. Space Dimension was the name of that album. But the line up of the names was almost the same like the one at Frank Wright’s group: again Wright on tenor, Noah at alto, Muhammad Ali on drums, this time together with Art Taylor.
Like I said before, I’m not an expert on jazz. I am just a consumer and a collector. If I understand something about the art of improvisation, it’s because I used to listen to musicians like Noah Howard a lot. I already had his records, now we have the book. More than in any other art form, the documenting of improvisation is extremely important. It’s the art of never repeating yourself. It’s like a great other alto saxophonist once said, I mean Eric Dolphy, who said: “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.”